Sharmilee ("Shy") appears on the surface to be a jaunty masala film with many of the usual elements: a soft-focus heroine (here in a dual role), a handsome, upstanding soldier (who also happens to be an orphan raised by a priest), a passel of shady hipster bad guys, wistful romance, mistaken identity, and a generous helping of dishoom-dishoom. As is often the case in films of its era, though, Sharmilee is is something of a morality play, an allegory projected through a masala lens.
Captain Ajit (Shashi Kapoor), stationed in Kashmir, is instantly smitten when he meets the spunky, aggressive Kamini (Rakhee). Kamini disappears after one dazzling evening of poetry, though, and Ajit despairs of ever seeing her again. Then Ajit's adoptive father, the kind-hearted Father Joseph (Nazir Hussein), unaware that Ajit has fallen for Kamini, seeks to arrange Ajit's marriage to Kamini's excruciatingly bashful twin sister, Kanchan (Rakhee, the other half of her dual role). Ajit is briefly confused, but all seems set straight soon enough, and Ajit is set to marry his sprightly Kamini; Kanchan is depressed but resigned to her wallflower status. When a shady gunda from Kamini's past surfaces, however, things take a turn for the weird, and a whirlwind of mistake, confusion, and deception follows, with an aerial climax worthy of the most over-the-top masala imaginable.
Sharmilee's allegory reflects an ambivalence in Indian culture toward modernization and westernization. The duality - traditional versus modern, east against west - is embodied in the twin sisters. Kamini, brash and modern, attracts all the attention; suitors come to the family to consider marriage to the modest, retiring Kanchan and end up enchanted with the flashy, outspoken Kamini. She even wins the heart of Ajit, the ideal Indian man, a loyal and heroic soldier, obedient and deferential to his elders. But the film punishes Kamini, and in the end it is the traditional Kanchan who is exalted and glorified. Though she puts on a modern persona to please Ajit, Kanchan's heart is always demure. Bollywood501 offers the excellent observation that unlike Kamini, Kanchan can successfully adopt western trappings only because she remains at the core a traditional Indian girl. Thus, Sharmilee's ultimate moral is that without a traditional grounding, westernization is shallow, unmoored, and even dangerous.
As a film, Sharmilee is reasonably entertaining, though some of its twists are whiplash-inducing. Its driving force is the passion of the beautiful Shashi Kapoor; he radiates masala charm and charisma, but as Ajit wheels from tenderness to anger to despair, Shashi's pure, abundant acting talent is also quite evident. Ajit is an Indian renaissance man - a brave soldier, a good son, a passionate lover, a sensitive poet, and the interplay of these shades is the most compelling aspect of the film. Rakhee is passable in her double role; she shows much more life and spark as the brassy Kamini, though, leaving the film's real heroine, the sad, innocent Kanchan, dull and flat in comparison. The film falters where the masala-action elements take over; these are contrived, and undermine the film's strengths, which lie in the close interactions between Shashi and Rakhee's two avatars.
Finally, Sharmilee's soundtrack is a gem by SD Burman; its standout song is the lyrical "Khilte hain gul yahaan," wistfully sung by Kishore Kumar and picturized on Shashi, who is as pretty as the song; Kanchan's domestic fantasy "Aaj madhosh huaa" is sweet; and the rest of the soundtrack is lovely as well.
(Sharmilee is available for download from Jaman.)