50 Years of Jewel Thief: A Masterclass in Crime Capers

Pop Culture

50 Years of Jewel Thief: A Masterclass in Crime Capers

Illustration: Shruti Yatam/Arré

Fifty years ago, Dev Anand, that Gregory Peck-esque heartthrob of yore — who might have made the cut as an international man of mystery, should a brown man be in the running to play James Bond — starred in the epic crime caper, Jewel Thief.

Jewel Thief is, at its core, a classic whodunit, with a twist at the end that would put a creepy smile on M Night Shyamalan’s face while sending Agatha Christie, God bless her soul, into multiple raptures. If red herrings (the cinematic equivalent of “chutiya banaya, bada maza aaya”) are the game in any good whodunit, Jewel Thief is like a smoke house, packed to the rafters with enough red herrings to keep you in fish all year long. It gets to a point where you think you’ve deduced who the thief really is, but then the plot twists prove to you how terribly stupid you are.

Jewel Thief and a handful of Bollywood heist films such as Heera Panna and Shalimar, set the benchmark for intelligent crime, committed with minimal collateral damage. (Rohit Shetty must already be scratching his head on this one. Surely crime needs a car that flips and blows up in mid-air, no?) The debonair gentleman thief engages in a battle of wits with an antagonist, usually a defender of the law, determined to bring him to book at any cost. It’s as simple as that, but unfortunately heist films went balls up when Dhoom entered the scene and thieves relied more on bikes, abs, and the audiences’ rapidly falling intellect to commit crimes.

What gets me every time I watch Jewel Thief, is the sheer simplicity of it. In one of its early scenes, an unidentified man passes a bejewelled mannequin and he moves away to reveal the mannequin’s now bare neck. In 1967, this probably made the audience react with awe. Enter the early 2000s. If this were a scene from Dhoom, you’d probably see the necklace vanish, hear the words “Dhoom Dhoom” before a jump cut showed you John Abraham’s face contorted in a sly smile. The aunty munching popcorn loudly behind you would probably say, “Yeh chor hai”, and the movie would eventually lead to her vapid conclusion, without adding any layer whatsoever. The Dhoom capers forget that a good chor movie is, at its heart the compelling story of a chor.

The chor, in the days of yore, was effortlessly suave and understated like Dev Anand’s Prince Amar in Jewel Thief.

The chor, in the days of yore, was effortlessly suave, understated, and relied more on his criminal mind and instinct to commit robbery just like Dev Anand’s Prince Amar in Jewel Thief. His biggest quality, was that he could blend in — not stick out like John Abraham’s forearms. Today, the hero-thief has devolved into a buff gym bro, who’d much rather plough through a security detail, hack, smash, and fuck shit up in general, spouting a few mediocre one-liners while working his way toward his score. “Devi Prasad hi devil hai bhenchod,” the audience says, as if we’ve cracked the Da Vinci code and the suspense comes to a grinding halt a few minutes short of interval.

Jewel Thief

The chor, in the days of yore, was effortlessly suave, understated, and relied more on his criminal mind and instinct to commit robbery just like Dev Anand’s Prince Amar in Jewel Thief.

More than the suave chor, a quintessential crime caper had an equally arresting police man too. Jewel Thief has Nazir Hussain play the police commissioner who offers to resign, if the titular jewel thief isn’t apprehended. Hussain plays the part of the harassed, sleep-deprived cop with utter conviction. The despair in his voice tells you that he is resigned to fact that the thief may win the battle when it comes to wits, but his dogged determination will eventually mean the thief slips up and loses the battle. At the other end of the khaki spectrum from Hussain, you have Abhishek Bachchan and Yash Chopra, trying to apprehend the bad guys on foreign soil, armed with only explosions, bikes (but no helmets), and the heroine’s cleavage in their faces. All they’ve got is questionable deductive powers, some protein powder, and quips worse than the guy they’re after. These aren’t cops, they’re caricatures of cops, trying hard to come across as men who’re going to make all this right.

I think the mistake that producers are making in creating crime films for our generation is thinking that casting Abhishek Bachchan is key to creating a great crime movie. He is, in my humble opinion, the key to making any crime movie suck – as the audiences that have sat through Bluffmaster!, the Dhoom trilogy, Bunty aur Babli, and Players will agree. But jokes aside, this one is on us: We may have lost the patience of sitting through movies like Jewel Thief with their twisting plots and subplots when there are so many great memes to be created. And we are the ones poorer for it.

Do yourself a favour and buy Jewel Thief for fifty bucks on YouTube tonight and overlook its student-film-project production values. Grab a glass of VAT 69 and mull over the slowly decaying world of crime capers. And for fuck’s sake stop humming, “Dhoom Machale.”