I finally managed to watch Victoria no. 203 (1972), a rip-roaring comic crime caper. The roots of so many films of modern times could be traced back to this gem. It began with a museum display of diamonds, a thief who knows the sewage system runs under the museum, and he will exit from a manhole a block away after stealing the diamonds! Dhoom 2 anyone? The diamonds are stolen but have to be stashed away in a hurry as a double cross scheme goes awry. The rocks find their way into a Victoria (yes, the ghoda-gadi) standing nearby as the thief is stabbed. After this, the story rapidly gets layer upon layer of intrigue that involves a railway station locker, a scrap of paper with the number of the Victoria, and a key hidden under a toupee! There is a chocolate boy hero (Navin Nischol) who mostly just dallies with various girls while he waits for the real thing. There is a leading lady (Saira Banu) with so much oomph then no item girl is needed in the film.
In fact the leading lady dons a towel after a rain drenching, while the item girl of the time (Helen) merely walks by in a scene, fully dressed! But the real fun starts when Raja (Ashok Kumar) and Rana (Pran), two petty thieves come out of jail, are “gifted” a car they think they are stealing, and chance upon the toupeed gentleman, now dead, and the KEY! The duo are in fine form as they rampage through Mumbai looking for the taala to go with the chabhi! The 60+ year-old Ashok Kumar mostly skirt chases women of all shapes, sizes and ages (Sexy Sam of the 70s!), and drinks desi tharra like a fish imbibes water. The villainous villain Anwar Hussain has numerous henchman, who fall like flies as they try to double cross him at every turn. In the end there is a climax in a warehouse with ropes and barrels and a coal fire pit, and tricks with fake diamonds and real diamonds! Mr. Santoshi was taking careful notes at this point in the film – watch this and then Andaz Apna Apna to see what inspired the climax of that one!
The story and screenplay are attributed to KA Narayan. Upon checking his filmography you find story credits for Jewel Thief, Johnny Mera Naam. Victoria no. 203 certainly matches those others in the quality of the story and screenplay. The plot never sags at any point, and the twists and turns in the story keep coming at a fast pace. The comic genius of Ashok Kumar and Pran carries the entire film. There is a point in the climax when Ashok Kumar asks for a dying wish – can he pray? And then queries the baddies “Bhai Sahab Farrukhabad kis taraf hai?” Pran reacts in horror and says “Mathura, Raja, Mathura”. Sheer genius!
Films like this one make you long for those days when comedies were smart, heartwarming, but never tacky, and involved men impersonating sadhus (here three people try it), girls dressed as boys (and Saira made a rather weasel faced one), were shot on locale in Bombay with NIRODH ads in the background (hum do hamare do), and crimes involved fisticuffs, knifes, lathis, and as a last resort guns with 6 bullets.
There are very few truly funny and high quality comedies in Hindi cinema. My list of these classics includes Chalti Ka Naam Gadi, Angoor, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Chashme Buddoor, Gol Maal, Chupke Chupke and Victoria no. 203.