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Teesri Manzil: The Best 'Whodunit' Hindi Film

A woman jumps off the third floor of a popular hotel in Mussoorie. She is believed to have committed suicide, but her sister, Sunita, suspects foul play. She goes to the scenic hill station to unravel the circumstances leading to her sister’s death, strongly believing that a musician named Rocky is to blame for her family’s misfortune. However, as Sunita tries to nail Rocky, she falls in love with a man named Anil Kumar ‘Sona’, but who is actually Rocky. What follows next is a riveting musical thriller that leaves the viewer with an edge-of-the-seat experience as Sunita’s sister’s real killer is revealed and Rocky exonerates himself from all suspicion.

 Teesri Manzil (1966) is perhaps the best ‘whodunit’ mystery in the history of Hindi cinema. With a soundtrack that proved to be a milestone in Hindi film music, as also a big win in young R.D. Burman’s fledgling career, the film packed a punch on almost every front with delectable performances by Shammi Kapoor, Asha Parekh, Prem Nath, Helen, Prem Chopra and Iftekhar. Even the smaller roles played by character artistes Rashid Khan and K.N. Singh made a sizeable impact in the minimal screen time their characters were given.

 A Nasir Husain production, Teesri Manzil was directed by Vijay Anand. There are a couple of interesting versions as to how Husain passed on the directorial reins of his own production (the first time Husain was doing so) to Dev Anand’s younger sibling. The popular version is that Husain had offered Teesri Manzil to Dev Anand and Vijay Anand was brought on board to direct his brother. But some time into the shooting, Dev Anand and Husain had a showdown and Husain ousted Dev Anand from the film. Vijay Anand continued in his role and directed the film.

 The other version is that Husain had brought Vijay Anand on initially to direct Baharon Ke Sapne, the small budget film that followed Teesri Manzil in 1967. Meanwhile, Husain was supposed to direct Dev Anand himself in Teesri Manzil. Dev Anand, though, wasn’t happy with Husain giving his brother the black-and-white Baharon Ke Sapne, starring a relative newbie by name Rajesh Khanna. Dev Anand’s criticism didn’t go down too well with Husain and the two had a confrontation after which Husain replaced Dev Anand with Shammi Kapoor. And to make an even bigger point to Dev Anand, Husain handed over the directorial reins to Vijay Anand and decided to direct the smaller Baharon Ke Sapne himself.   

 Teesri Manzil works so well precisely because of the collaboration between two fine creative minds that were Vijay Anand and Nasir Husain. Both men had an inclination to make crime dramas and Teesri Manzil was the right meeting point for them. Anand put his stamp on the film through his long takes, his innovative camera techniques such as his fondness for frames within frames. Husain, on the other hand, brought in an element of humour and comedy with his dialogues, but also stayed true to the original premise of the film by always foregrounding the murder element even in the comic episodes.  Take for instance, the comic sequence early in the film where Shammi leads Asha Parekh to believe that she has killed the ‘fat man’ travelling with them in their train compartment. This is an inversion of Teesri Manzil’s storyline where Rocky is believed to have killed Sunita’s sister and the people around Rocky are looking to exploit his vulnerable position on the matter to their advantage.

 And Teesri Manzil would not have become the film it did had it not been for Shammi Kapoor. The actor, who replaced Dev Anand, brought in the right energy, the correct histrionics and zing to play the drummer Rocky. Together with Asha Parekh, who plays Sunita, the two light up the silver screen with their terrific chemistry especially in R.D.’s sizzling composition ‘Aaja aaja main hoon pyaar tera’. Upto that point, Hindi cinema seldom had the heroine dressing up in Western clothes and going to a club to participate in a rock-n-roll song because our filmmakers frowned upon such elements of Western culture. In Teesri Manzil, though, the Shammi-Asha dance number conjured sheer magic.

 Majrooh Sultanpuri, the film’s songwriter, was also at the top of his game, writing terrific lyrics for each song be it ‘O mere sona re’ or  ‘Tumne mujhe dekha’. Yet, Majrooh’s genius lay in the fact that not only did he embellish each song with the right words, but that he, too, like Husain, brought the film’s crime angle into sharp focus, using words like ‘qatl’ and ‘qaatil’ in songs like ‘O haseena zulfon waali’ and ‘Deewaana mujhsa nahin’. 

 Ultimately, though, Teesri Manzil is the jewel in R.D. Burman’s musical crown. As biographers Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal note in their National Award-winning book, R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music, “So even as Vijay Anand was conjuring up the thrills, Pancham was designing his personal blend of rock, jazz, Latino and twist to create a sound, the likes of which was unheard in the then thirty-five-year history of Hindi films [music].”   

 Teesri Manzil was supposedly inspired from some of noted filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock’s filmssuch as Strangers on a Train and To Catch a Thief. But with the many great technicians and actors working on it, the result is a film that has an identity of its own. And this is how Teesri Manzil ought to be remembered, that it was cinema at its collaborative best. The many great minds and talented artistes imbued the film with just the right creative juice that made the film a classic that lived beyond its time.

 Tune in to Teesri Manzil as part of the Nasir Hussain Film Festival this Sunday, 21st January at 12 Noon only on Zee Classic.