Sometimes, when I finally get around to watching a film that has been sitting on my shelf for months and months, I kick myself for waiting so long. That happened recently with the delightful Chalti ka naam gaadi, and it happened again with Parvarish ("Upbringing"), Manmohan Desai's hysterical, nutty fugue on the question of nature versus nurture.
DSP Shamsher Singh (Shammi Kapoor) has captured the notorious bandit Mangal Singh (Amjad Khan) just as Mangal's wife is about to give birth. She dies, but not before extracting from the DSP his promise to take care of her son. DSP Singh raises the boy alongside his own. Ironically, DSP Singh's natural son Kishen has a wicked streak, while Mangal's son, Amit, is endowed with an honest, sweet nature. After a misunderstanding, Kishen comes to believe he is actually Mangal's son and falls under the bandit's influence, though he continues to live in the inspector's home.
Fast forward 20 years. Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) is a police inspector himself, while Kishen (Vinod Khanna) runs a school for the blind - but only as a front for his real business, running smuggled goods for Mangal's gang. Amit and Kishen encounter a plucky pair of orphaned sisters who make their living as pickpockets. The thieving sisters - the eponymous Neetu and Shabu (Neetu Singh and Shabana Azmi) - are smitten with the guys and half-heartedly resolve to go straight in order to win them over. But the girls have their own debt to settle with Mangal Singh as well. And when Amit starts to suspect his brother is not the upstanding guy he appears to be, family loyalties are pushed to the breaking point.
Parvarish is not as grand in scope as Manmohan Desai's blockbuster classic Amar Akbar Anthony (released the same year), which sounded the resonant theme of religious and cultural unity for the protection of Mother India, over a continuo on the notes of family, loyalty, and justice. But there are ways in which Parvarish is even more fun. Its bad guys are completely over the top, explicitly invoking and amplifying the decadence of James Bond villains and the complete freakishness of Batman's nemeses. Mangal Singh's lair features a sunken pit of quicksand with spiked walls that close menacingly inward toward anyone unfortunate enough to find himself stranded on the tiny platform at its center; all of this is set before a backdrop of colored panels behind which silhouetted women dance provocatively and, apparently, tirelessly. As if that weren't insane enough, Mangal and Kishen's uber-boss (Kader Khan) is named Supremo and lives on a submarine. All this criminal excess juxtaposed against the earnest resourcefulness of Neetu and Shabu's small-time cons make for a very enjoyable ride.
Parvarish's songs, too, are among the cleverer I've seen in the genre. Shabu and Neetu introduce themselves via a communist screed, in which they justify their livelihood by declaring of the loot they steal, "sab janta ka hai" - everything belongs to the people. In another side-splitting song, Shabu and Neetu threaten suicide if the guys refuse to marry them, while the guys, for their part, follow them around cheerfully offering the would-be instruments of their demise, wishing them well on their journey. There is a truly bizarre qawwali-with-firearms in which our heroines stomp out a hearty mujra while pointing revolvers at themselves, at one another, and eventually at their audience. And Neetu has a cheeky number in a naughty maid's uniform, in which a disguised Amit chases her around a hotel room.
Finally, Parvarish holds the surefire key to my heart: Shabana Azmi. Even after twenty of her films I wasn't fully prepared for the full-court masala press of her role in this film. It's not that she was exceptionally good at it - she was adequate only, and if I were not already in love with her, this is not the film that would change my mind. Indeed, without the weight of the rest of her career, I might not even notice her as a masala heroine in the shadow of her zestier contemporaries like Zeenat Aman and Hema Malini. And yet for every moment she was on the screen - running, climbing, pouting, conning, scheming, and dancing - I just beamed in delight. While I knew intellectually that she played many roles like this one, I suppose I imagined they were all along the lines of Amar Akbar Anthony - a third-string heroine with next to no screen time and only a tiny fraction of one song. I had no idea.