Pirates of The Malabar

This week’s release Thugs Of Hindostan may have tried to replicate the Pirates Of The Caribbean films, but there is a hat-tip there for Guru Dutt’s 1953 pirate adventure Baaz.

It was his third film as director and first as leading man, a costume drama set in the sixteenth century around the Malabar Coast, where the Portuguese were making inroads. General Barbosa (the inimitable KN Singh) signs a treaty with a queen (Sulochana) of a small kingdom, under which he offers protection in return for the right to trade (just like the British did further north).  Barbosa gets on to his side, the queen’s sneaky nephew Jaswant (Ram Singh), promising to make him king, when the true heir to the throne is Prince Ravi (Guru Dutt).

The outsiders want to wrest power and do everything to oppress the local people; pockets of resistance start forming against the excesses of the Portuguese soldiers. Nisha (Geeta Bali) chucks fruit at the soldiers rampaging through the marketplace, and is saved from her pursuers by a stranger on horseback, who, she does not know, is actually Prince Ravi.

The soldiers are looking for the rebel leader Ramzan Ali (Jankidass), and threaten to arrest any accomplice. The rebels they catch are mercilessly whipped. Nisha and her father Narayan Das (MA Lateef) give shelter to Ramzan and both men are arrested.

Barbosa suggests that Ravi go to Portugal before his coronation, like his father did before him, so, the prince, along with a pretty Portuguese woman Rosita (Kuldeep Kaur) set sail to Portugal. Rosita tries to charm the prince with little success,

Nisha and her friend Kirni (Yashidhara Katju) who try to rescue the prisoners are also caught and imprisoned. Later, Barbosa sells the rebels including Nisha, her father, Kirni and Ramzan to a slave trader.

Nisha sings a rousing song exhorting the prisoners to get up and fight, which they do, and take over the ship. Once the ship is under the control of the mutineers, she becomes the leader of the pirate ship—a baaz (hawk) settles on her shoulder and that’s what she comes to be known as on the high seas, as their ship loots and sinks enemy vessels. They come across the ship Ravi is on and capture it after a proper sword fight; he is spared, however, as thanks for saving Nisha’s life earlier. On the advice of the astrologer, the prince hides his true identity, and spends a lot of time flirting with Nisha, till they inevitably fall in love.

The captain of the captured ship, who was released by Nisha, reaches land and informs Barbosa that the prince is dead, which gives Jaswant a chance to make his move to grab the throne. But Rosita, who manages to escape and heads back to the kingdom, knows the truth.

When he steps on land, Ravi is arrested and sentenced to death; it is up to Nisha to rescue him a defeat Barbosa. The film -- admittedly not one of Guru Dutt’s best-- had swashbuckling action, romance, patriotism and some memorable OP Nayyar songs like-- Zara Saamne Aa, Manjhi Albele, Ae Dil Ae Deewane, Taare Chandni Afsane, Watan ke Naujawaan Jaag, Mujhko Dekho Hasrat ki Tasveer Hoon.

A fiery Geeta Bali not only had the title role, but also plenty of action sequences and got to rescue the leading man, which is not too common in Indian films. Even though the plot has no link with reality, some effort was made to have authentic period costumes of the region; and VK Murthy’s black and white cinematography was magnificent. It was a flop back then, but seen today, there is much to admire in Baaz.