“Mother India and Gunga Jumna were our favourite films. But as we developed Deewaar’s script, it ceased to be either of these films. Deewaar had resembled Mother India and Gunga Jumna in plot, but Deewaar’s sensibility was totally different,” Javed Akhtar, who along with Salim Khan wrote the classic that helped define Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man persona, says in the book Talking Films. Today is Akhtar’s 75th birthday, and Deewaar was released in 1975. What better way to celebrate the renowned writer-lyricist’s big personal milestone than to revisit one of his finest cinematic achievements? No less than Amitabh Bachchan has called Deewaar “the most perfect script.”
Directed by Yash Chopra from a Salim-Javed script, Deewaar remains a career-high for everyone involved including megastar Amitabh Bachchan, who fronts the proceedings as the intense Vijay (a character loosely inspired by don Haji Mastan) with Shashi Kapoor playing his younger brother Ravi. Despite his varied body of work, Big B was saddled with the ‘angry young man’ image in the 1970s. And if Hindi cinema’s disillusioned Vijay needs to have a face, it would be from Deewaar — with its poster boy striking a defiant pose, eyes burning with rage and a visceral cynicism beneath which once perhaps thrived an idealist. Deewaar’s poster could be a poster for any of Bachchan’s angry young men. Pop culture turned his shirt into a fiery red from a blazing blue and they don’t show the rope and a 786 badge strapped onto his sturdy arms as a good-luck charm. The gun-toting Shashi Kapoor, a good cop and good son, is painted as an afterthought. Yet, like any full-bodied masterpiece, Deewaar belongs to all. Take away even the minor characters (Iftikhar, Madan Puri, Yunus Parvez, AK Hangal or Satyen Kappu), and the film starts to fall apart like a house of cards.
Some might call the plot cliche. But it’s a classic brother-against-brother lost in a morass of morality and good-versus-evil with many of its themes still powerful and relevant, especially economic anxieties, poverty, crime, unemployment, youth unrest and dissent. Bachchan’s Vijay maybe its heart but Ravi (Shashi Kapoor) is its soul, the one whose uncompromising goodness in the face of adversity gives the film its much-needed ideological tension.
The Great Wall of Deewaar
That the brothers would go their separate ways is captured presciently in an early scene which shows Ravi and Vijay accompanying their mother (Nirupa Roy as the Mother of all mothers) to the temple. On one level, the sequence establishes Vijay’s indifference towards God and religion, but on another level, director Yash Chopra is providing a key visual information in the way the two brothers’ path diverges. From here on, the duo will chart their own course, much as Nirupa Roy, the Mother, will remain torn between her two sons. But she’s no helpless bystander and has a mind and voice of her own. The film is as much a sustained battle between the two brothers as it is between her and Vijay. She has seen Vijay face hardships and hurdles and Vijay has internalised her humiliations and sufferings while raising them as a single mother. She is proud of Ravi, who works hard to become a cop but she’s sympathetic towards Vijay. He could have been something, too. Why did he have to opt for the life of crime? Vijay rises through the ranks to become a smuggler, but his mother would have none of his ill-begotten wealth. “Vijay,” she says, defying him, “you are a big businessman, but still not rich enough to buy your mother.” She’s sneering not at her beloved son, but at his newfound fortunes. A hurt Vijay has spent his entire life with the disgrace of ‘Mera baap chor hai’ forcefully tattooed on his hand. For her, no shame is greater than her own son allowing the despicable baggage of ‘Uska beta ek chor hai’ on her forehead and sullying her good name. Rejecting Vijay’s riches, she moves out with Ravi in tow. Ravi is as honourable as they come. In the eyes of a duty-bound police officer, his elder brother is just another ordinary criminal. This truth, Ravi explains, will continue to haunt them and unless the wall collapses, they can never reunite.
Deewaar is one of Bollywood’s most quotable movies and the credit for it must go to Salim-Javed’s memorable dialogue and volcanic scenes. Many of these iconic sequences involve the lead trio. For example, Vijay and Ravi’s confrontation leads to Shashi Kapoor’s famous comeback line, ‘Mere paas maa hai.’ That scene alone is enough to illustrate that this is a film much in awe of the ‘mother figure.’ Vijay’s material success is remarkable but Ravi still has the mother’s endorsement and Vijay’s dramatic shock to hear those lines from Ravi lends the scene a poignancy that can still numb you. Among the film’s more popular scenes is Bachchan reluctantly entering the temple to beg for his mother’s life. Those who think Vijay was an atheist, like its creator, Javed Akhtar offered Hindustan Times this explanation, “Vijay wasn’t an atheist, but he was upset with God. He wasn’t on talking terms with God.”
Bachchan’s other famous lines include “Main aaj bhi phenke hue paise nahin uthata,” which serves as a link to his difficult childhood. It forces kingpin Davar (Iftekhar) to pick up the wad and hand it respectfully over to the promising young man, but it also vindicates him in a way, for it was Davar who had predicted that dark horse Vijay, once a boot polish boy, will someday gallop like a long-distance runner and give others a run for their money. Though the film also stars Neetu Singh and Parveen Babi (the women characters are unconventional in their own right, and despite their brief appearances they make a mark) Deewaar is, at heart, a love triangle between Shashi Kapoor, Bachchan and Nirupa Roy. (No spoilers ahead, since nearly every Hindi cine-goer is familiar with the iconic showdown). While Deewaar may have ended with Vijay dying in his mother’s arms, shot at by his own trigger-happy brother a la Mother India and Gunga Jumna. Bachchan and Kapoor get to enjoy a happy ending a few years down the line in Chopra’s Trishul. Since Bachchan’s collaboration with Salim-Javed has flipped over into an exalted status, critics and academics have come up with their own versions vis-à-vis Vijay’s motivations. Some, for example, have read Freudian symbolisms into Deewaar and Trishul. In the words of author Priya Joshi (‘Bollywood’s India: A Public Fantasy’), “If the predominant conflict in Deewaar is the Kunti conflict in which Maa authorises the murder of her firstborn, in Trishul, it is a more conventional Oedipal conflict in which the son avenges his mother by killing the father.”
Vijay, a social force
Salim-Javed, in turn, have taken pains to avoid over-intellectualisation of their own scripts. They have denied that the angry young man was an indictment of the 1970s’ political mood. Was it Indira Gandhi’s Emergency that gave fuel to Vijay’s mythical fire? Does Vijay stand as an embodiment of the struggles and disparities of the youth of his time? Was his anger against the system justified? In interviews, Akhtar has conceded that Vijay was a vigilante and a rebel who saw capitalists as his enemy, but he has also maintained over the decades that as writers, Salim-Javed were not consciously reflecting a wider social reality when they originally conceived that cult character. “It appealed to us, we wrote it,” Akhtar says matter-of-factly in one old interview clip available on YouTube. Yet, Vijay’s success lies in the fact that he did become Bollywood’s face for political expression of the 1970s India. “Art should entertain,” Akhtar explained his credo in a 2017 TEDx Talks. “But there’s a difference between art and circus. Circus only entertains. Art has many more things to do.” The ‘angry young man’ had originated earlier in Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer (1973), but it was in Deewaar that he first came into his own. Why did Vijay strike a chord with Hindi audiences? “A grey character is admired a lot,” Bachchan told Hindustan Times in 2017. “The character has been subjected to so much oppression yet is fighting against it. His fight was legitimate, even if his methods were not always right.”
In Deewaar, as elsewhere, Bachchan carries the weight of Vijay with stoic resistance and broody charm. There’s a storm raging inside him but he is also by turns vulnerable and desperate. Kapoor, on the other hand, anchors his performance in quiet optimism and admirable honesty. Watch the scene where he shoots a petty thief for stealing food and goes to meet his family only to return with a moral lesson. In the teacher played by AK Hangal, he meets his own idealogical doppelgänger, one who’d rather sacrifice his child than validate his desperation. You can’t justify wrong with another wrong. You can’t wash away your own offences by counting other people’s crimes. These moral thoughts resonate through the characters of Hangal and Nirupa Roy. Better known as Bachchan’s screen mother, Nirupa Roy, too, rises to the occasion. In Deewaar, she’s not simply a mother. She’s a matriarch and she makes her character count. So unmatchable is this pairing that we forget that superstar Rajesh Khanna was the original choice for Deewaar’s Vijay. But Salim-Javed, who believed in Amitabh Bachchan’s talent, pushed for him. At the time, Yash Chopra was believed to have joked, “Does Amitabh pay you a commission that you want him in all your films?” Rajesh Khanna, in fact, was responsible for giving Salim-Javed their first break. The duo’s initial hits, like Andaz and Haathi Mere Saathi, starred the God of Romance. But later they switched over to Bachchan and in the process, helped make his career. Or as Akhtar puts it, it was a “mutually beneficial” relationship.
Ultimately, Salim-Javed split after which Salim Khan went on to mentor son Salman Khan, an emerging star back in early ’90s while Javed Akhtar, born into a family of poets, could not keep his passion for poetry untapped for too long. A decade after Salim-Javed’s success, Akhtar made his debut as a lyricist in Yash Chopra’s poetic Silsila (1981). Initially disinclined, Akhtar was convinced by his filmmaker friend to take the plunge with a little plodding from Lata Mangeshkar. Until then, ‘Jadoo’ — Akhtar’s family nickname — wrote poetry only for himself. Nearly forty years after he first wrote “Dekha ek khwaab”, Akhtar remains one of Bollywood’s most seasoned lyricists today. Not just that, the audiences also recognise him as music savant, an impassioned political activist, former Parliamentarian and proud father to filmmakers Farhan and Zoya Akhtar. But it is his legacy of dozens of acclaimed scripts and hundreds of film songs that make him one of Hindi cinema’s tallest stalwarts. As Salim-Javed, his short but stellar credits read not merely Deewaar, but Zanjeer, Sholay, Don, Kaala Patthar and Shakti among others. No other writers, save for Kader Khan, have had more influence over the 1970s’ Bollywood landscape. Javed Akhtar doesn’t write scripts anymore, but for those interested in knowing more about the artiste, there are his songs. Here’s wishing the wordsmith a happy 75th and many more to come.
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