Jewel Thief is a wonderful classic film that I can’t get enough of. This stylish 1967 suspense film is thoroughly mod – from set design to costumes, from the brilliant soundtrack to its bold, sexually forward women.
Dev Anand stars as Vijay, who has loved gems all his life and secures his dream job as an appraiser for a jeweler. The jeweler’s daughter (played with adorable and sexy energy by Tanuja, who went on to be the mother of contemporary superstar Kajol) takes a shining to Vijay, but he is smitten with the lonely and heartbroken Shalini (Vyjayanthimala). Shalini is one of many people who mistakes Vijay for the mysterious “Amar,” who, it appears, is responsible for a series of high-profile jewel burglaries. Having convinced all and sundry that he is not Amar, Vijay goes undercover, slipping into Amar’s life in an attempt to track down the slippery thief – he visits high-tone nightclubs, gets seduced by several women, and travels to the exotic eastern province of Sikkim, nestled in the Himalayas.
Above all else, Jewel Thief is a whole lot of fun. It is chock full of explicit homages to early James Bond films, from Amar's extravagant, high-tech lair to his slinky, sexy women. Dev Anand saunters through his adventure with a perpetual wink, and there's not a moment in which the screen isn't washed in lively color and fantastic style, complemented perfectly by the crisp, sparkling S.D. Burman score. One of Amar's women, Helen (played by Helen, of course) wears elbow-length gloves with a pearl bracelet - the look is a direct reference to Breakfast at Tiffany's, another feast of mod style. The universe of Jewel Thief is one in which dancers in jewel-encrusted bodysuits shake their moneymakers in nightclubs festooned with colorful flashing lights. It's one in which homes are decorated with amber and purple mood lighting and shelves in the shape of martini glasses, and women wear saris studded with tufts of rabbit fur. And it's a universe in which beautiful women, extravagant parties, and vast adventures await around every corner. It's 200 minutes of stylish, escapist bliss.
But there's more to Jewel Thief than its superficial fun - there are a number of interesting aspects that set it apart among Bollywood films. This interesting page sets forth the thesis that Jewel Thief exemplifies an Indian strain of fetishization of the exotic West, a contemporaneous and mirror-image view of Hollywood's fascination with elements from the exotic east. The super-modern style of the characters and the interiors, the James Bond-esque aspects of the Jewel Thief's life and lair, the sexual emancipation of many of the film's female characters are all aspects of this. In the thoroughly delightful “Raat akeli hai,” Tanuja's sexy-yet-innocent attempt at seducing Vijay, the symbols of the west are double-loaded; Tanuja interrupts her song to pour drinks for herself an Vijay and the drink she serves is Coca-Cola. What more powerful symbol of the West could there be? But the Cokes also serve to highlight the character's extreme youth. It's one of many subtle touches in a film that, superficially, seems to have nothing subtle about it.
I can’t say enough good things about this delightful film, a favorite even among my favorite films, Bollywood or otherwise. The stylish mod designs can’t be more over-the-top and the songs can't be more fun. In addition to Tanuja's turn in "Raat akeli hai," the soundtrack also includes Vyjayantimala’s extravagant classical performance in “Honton mein aisi baat,” and “Baithe hain kya,” a wild bar-top dance number by Helen; Bollywood's queen of over-the-top item numbers does not disappoint here, clad in sequins and ostrich feathers.
NOTE: the comments to this post contain SIGNIFICANT spoilers for the film's main plot twists.