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Inspired by French amateur detective fiction writer Louis C Thomas's Les Mauvaises Fréquentations (although the story is credited to Shelly Shailender) Tandon's whodunit begins on a playful note with the usual ribbing, ragging and recreation associated with campus capers.
Ajay (Rishi Kapoor) is the wide-eyed newbie in college who's led to believe Dev (Rakesh Roshan) is the class teacher even as the latter jests, 'Naya kyun aaye ho? Purana aana tha.' The bluff is followed by another round of banter in the canteen, resulting in a minor scuffle until a friendly compromise is reached.
Neetu Singh's sprightly Nisha is part of this happy-go-lucky, occasionally insolent gang that derives pleasure from picking on/betting on fumbling targets. Aaj kal baap se aage beta nikal jaata hai. Dilip Kumar ka baap kya hero tha?, remarks Dev in dialogue writer Kader Khan's words.
Her individual dynamics with Ajay come into play for the first time when a classmate fails to show up for the annual day function and our gullible hero is asked to sing in his place.
Stage fright and bandhgala makes way for a hip silk shirt, and striped, floor-length scarf as he strums the guitar to croon in Shailendra Singh's peppy voice -- Humne tumko dekha. With his show-stealing transition from scapegoat to salvager, he wins the crowd, the audience and a fan-following for a lifetime.
But it's Ajay's impressive game at a hockey match -- boosted by RD's trippy background score -- that makes Nisha realise Yeh toh hona hi tha creating a perfect situation for the two to indulge in a midnight romp against P L Raj's spunky moves to the catchy classic, Ek Main Aur Ek Tu. (Tandon launched his son, Rajiv in a 1986 film of the same name.)
There's an inexhaustible charm to the effortless chemistry that seeps through this quintessential Chintu-Neetu melody. And the sheer abandon with which they engage in public display of drunk affection in Khullam khulla pyaar karenge is unrivalled.
In an interview to Rajeev Masand while promoting Do Dooni Chaar, Kapoor reveals how the (then dating) couple consumed a little cognac while filming the number to cope with the freezing weather of Pahalgam in Kashmir.
Though the other RD creation, Aaye lo pyaar ke din, didn't quite attain the popularity of Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle's zingy delivery in Khullam khulla, the sight on screen -- snow covered mountains, trees, lanes, lamp-posts, houses, roofs, side walks, bushes and Rishi-Neetu's animated frolic amidst ongoing snow fall -- is winter wonderland at its pristine best.
Nominated by Filmfare awards for Best Music, RD lost to Rajesh Roshan's Julie.
As did Asha Bhosle's Best Playback Singer (Female) to Sulakshana Pandit's Tu hi sagar hai, Sankalp.
Meanwhile, Sachin Bhowmick's taut screenplay and Waman Bhosle, Gurudutt's snappy editing combined with M R Vasudev's genre-adhering camerawork ensures Khel Khel Mein, at its 2 hours 20 minutes running time, doesn't waste any time in needless distractions.
Though every supporting member of the cast gets a scene to underscore their presence to produce humour or suspicion, Tandon reserves the focus mainly on these three.
Once an upbeat air of bonhomie is established, it dives straight to the point -- the bet responsible for all the trouble to follow. The troika target a stingy, ill-tempered jeweller (Jankidas) to test what's more dear to him -- life or money baiting him with a threatening contents of a typed letter signed in the name of a fabricated gang, Black Cobra.
Their seemingly innocuous prank slowly gets out of hand when the jeweller is discovered dead in his store.
While Dev adopts a calm, opportunist approach towards the shocking turn of events, the clearly conscientious Ajay along with Nisha go through the rigmarole of fear, guilt and redemption.
Despite their best efforts, their situation shows no sign of improvement with key characters getting bumped off before they can prove themselves innocent.
Somewhere in the middle, Tandon finds just the right amount of space to squeeze in Aruna Irani's misty-eyed albeit super sultry expression of heartbreak in the exquisite Sapna mera toot gaya bearing a whiff of a resemblance to Ennio Morricone's Story of a Soldier.
If Asha Bhosle breathes life in its melancholy with her trademark touch, RD lends it whim with his high-pitched contribution.
The concluding bits of Khel Khel Mein could've delved deeper into Rakesh Roshan's reckless conduct but Tandon seems content to keep the realisations at a superficial level.
Even then, a few observations emerge through dialogue if not imagery about the possible reason for his indiscretions.
Roshan, as the sly second lead, keeps his Ajay wild and mysterious through and through.
A little more subtext would have have been nice. Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh as his partners in crime appear suitably naive.
Considering they both cling on to each other all through the film, as clueless teens are likely to, there's not much to contribute in terms of histrionics.
But they look completely believable when nervous and frightened as highlighted in that tension-packed scene involving a snake passing over one's shoulder.
The big reveal might not seem so stark in today's scenario but it certainly doesn't disappoint. Especially cool is how RD's hockey theme and Ajay-Nisha's support returns in swaggering style to render a fun, fun climax.
Years later, successfully remade by director duo Abbas Mustan as Khiladi with Akshay Kumar, Ayesha Jhulka and Deepak Tijori, Khel Khel Mein has an official remake in the works after actor/producer Sanjay Kapoor bought its rights.
I could dedicate a column on just how gorgeous Rishi Kapoor looks in his trendy wardrobe accessorised in woollen cap with pompons and long mufflers. (Understandably, Tandon's daughter and popular actress Raveena, harboured a giant crush on the hero of her father's movie.)
Having said that, Khel Khel Mein is easily one of the most fashionable movies from the 1970s.
Whether it's Roshan's oversized belts and turtleneck tees, RK's colourful corduroys, scarves, pointed collars and bellbottom or Neetu Singh's mini dresses/skirts in psychedelic prints teamed with chic coats and knee high boots sporting black nail polish, thin eyebrows, smoky eye shadow, Ravi Tandon's musical mystery is one stylish affair.
It's a pity the media-shy and courteous Tandon doesn't find enough mention in the celebration of cinema despite memorable films like Majboor, Khuddar, Zindagi, Jawab and Anhonee with actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjeev Kumar, Parveen Babi, Raj Babbar and Smita Patil.
The same team -- Tandon, Burman, Kapoor, Singh, Roshan reunited for Jhootha Kahin Ka but couldn't quite match the breeziness of their first collaboration. There can be only ek main aur ek tu after all.