There will be blood. And trial by fire. Never slow down and never stop the march to the righteous path. So proclaims Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s stirring poem that gives Agneepath its title. It is more than fitting that the great Hindi poet’s son would step in to honour that oath but instead of walking on the right road, he takes the blood-addled one that diverges and leads him straight to his “maut ke saath appointment.” The first thing that hits you on rewatching Agneepath (1990) on its 30th anniversary today is Amitabh Bachchan’s stylish swagger and how director Mukul S Anand — one of the unsung potboiler laureates who, in many ways, was the only true successor to 1970s’ masters like Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra and Ramesh Sippy — fills the film with homage to the Bachchan mythology and all the tropes that have gone into the making of Big B’s superstar persona riding on the success of his 1970s cinematic touchstones.
The story takes place against a backdrop of ‘revenge’, the most formulaic hangover from 1970s Bollywood but once again, Agneepath proves that if done right, cliché can be more than just guilty pleasure. The film plays like an AB retrospective. Pushing 50 then, Agneepath is the fading star’s last hurray and an apt culmination of the key motifs from the scintillating Seventies and its ubiquitous angry young man. This time, he’s the angriest — popped loose and prowling for prey. You can spot creases on the Agneepath star’s face suggesting age and presaging the bearded old dandy the audiences would come to know only a decade later, but the bloodshot eyes are still powerful enough to express anguish and anger. The first tribute lies in the lucky name, only it has been extended to include his lineage and home address.
Bachchan made his name in the 1970s playing the angry young man Vijay, but Agneepath’s Vijay Dinanath Chavan is by far the most wounded of tigers. (Hum, anyone?) Start counting the real and reel life references. The hospital scene when Vijay recovers and walks out triumphantly recalls the megastar’s infamous Coolie (1983) accident while there’s a hint of Namak Halaal’s (1982) ‘I can talk English, walk English’ in ‘Maut ke saath appointment’ moment. Then, there’s the mother figure, stretching back to Deewaar (1975). Rohini Hattangadi is no Nirupa Roy, but she’s a worthy heir to Deewaar’s morally upright mother. Early on, a young Vijay is shown working in the city as a boot polish boy, another timely token from Deewaar and much like that previous classic, Vijay’s rise within the ranks from modest roots to mafia kingpin is vintage Bachchan. So is him dying in his mother’s lap in the bloody climax.
There’s a backstory to why this happens. Vijay’s father Masterji (Alok Nath, in his most Sanskari Bauji avatar yet, offering gems that can ensure social media trolls a lifetime’s supply of jokes and memes) lives a respectable life with his family in Mandwa, an island off Bombay. But when he runs afoul of the dreaded Kancha Cheena (Danny Denzongpa), interfering with the don’s plan of running illegal actives from the relatively safe Mandwa (“it doesn’t exist on the map,” as Kancha says, explaining why its prized strategic geography makes it a safe haven for his crime syndicate) Kancha swears to punish the upstanding teacher. Kancha orchestrates Masterji’s fall from grace followed by his violent death, turning Vijay’s family into pariah overnight. In one of the most harrowing scenes from the film, a young Vijay has to bear his father’s corpse as the villagers watch in fear. After being forced to migrate to Bombay, Vijay Dinanath Chavan turns to crime. Hindi film fans know well that crime doesn’t pay on screen. Narrating the ill-fated story of a bandit, his mother (Hattangadi) somewhat raises the alarm. Will her son have the same ominous ending as the bandit? “Wash your hands,” she warns him. At first, the symbolism is lost on Vijay who is a don with a social conscience and even thinks of himself as Robin Hood, but eventually it hits him.
On the way, Vijay — and the audience —meets some fascinating characters. Chief among them is Krishnan Iyer MA, the coconut seller who saves Vijay’s life twice and is rewarded with protecting Vijay’s younger sister (Neelam). The lungi-clad Mithun Chakraborty provides the laughs, proving that he could be a great comic sidekick when called upon to do so. In creating the evil incarnate that is Kancha Cheena, director Mukul S Anand and writers Kader Khan and Santosh Saroj give a worthy opponent to Bachchan. Both dapper and seasoned, Danny Denzongpa was the right fit, who tosses out Kaderisms with wicked delight.
In a film like Agneepath, you half expect Kader Khan to walk in any minute playing one of the cigar-chewing, suited villains or a Pathan in the den striking conciliatory handshakes between rival factions. But he doesn’t — staying doggedly behind the scene. Yet, Khan, who along with Salim-Javed, Prakash Mehra, Yash Chopra and Manmohan Desai, was widely credited for being one of the architects of Big B’s ’70s aesthetics, makes his presence felt with all the bombastic dialogue. Khan knew how to play to the gallery, and nobody could nail the tapori-speak the way the late writer did. Typical Bombaiya slangs like ‘apun’, ‘locha’, ‘ja fut’, ‘tapka daal’, ‘ludkane ka’ and ‘halkat’ bear the late scriptwriter-actor’s distinctive touch. But because it’s Kader Khan the more high-minded terms like ‘paap’, ‘sharafat’, ‘taleem’, ‘imaan’, ‘tawaif’ and ‘insaniyat’ also abound. Remarkably, Bachchan’s ‘maloom’ at the end of every sentence became a popular takiya qalam. Dialogues from the film are still highly quoted. For example, Bachchan’s introductory ‘Poora naam, Vijay Dinanath Chavan, baap ka naam, Dinanath Chavan, maa ka naam, Suhasini Chavan, gaon Mandwa…’ draws a round of applause from audiences even today. Masterji’s line to his misled pupils at the brothel is riveting and totally meme-friendly: “Maine tumhe maa ke qadmon ke neeche swarg dhundne ka path padhaya tha aur tum tawaif ke qadmon ke neeche narg dhundne chale aaye ho.” As the villain, Danny Denzongpa gets some of the best quips, including “Dushman se agar fayda ho toh usse dost bana lo.” Bachchan, who’s still so prominently around, delivers one of his career’s most intense performances. The most interesting thing about the act was his gruff voice, one that audiences had never heard before from their favourite star. Imagine for a second what Mukul S Anand’s sales pitch must have sounded like — “Amitji, we want you to make some changes to your voice.” Changes to that famous booming baritone that Indians can recognise in their sleep? Blasphemy! But it worked. Bachchan’s voice was a caricature (to be fair, so was Al Pacino’s in Scarface, a strange mix of Cuban and Italian) but it is to the great star’s credit that he turns it to his advance, a la Al Pacino or Brando in The Godfather. It is in this raspy and rough voice that Bachchan hands out one mouthful after another, making punchlines like ‘Galat cheez banaya yeh telephone…’, ‘Waqt pe pahunchne ka purana aadat hai’ or ‘Yeh chhe foot ka body ludkane ke liye chaar inch ka goli kam padh gaya, maloom’ billboard-worthy immortal over the decades.
Miami to Mandwa
Thirty years later today, Agneepath has grown in stature winning countless admirers. Initially, while it did have the masses’ affection, a faction of the audiences viewed the film disparagingly for being a lousy Scarface copy. Undoubtedly, in the 1990s, Bollywood copycats were actively pilfering from Hollywood classics. This being the pre-globalisation era, the so-called inspired remakes went largely undetected. Agneepath was no different. It borrowed heavily from Brian De Palma’s much-acclaimed Scarface that came out in 1983, especially the rags-to-riches and retribution plot set against a mob canvas (the original was based in Miami and NYC) and the famous sister angle (the Neelam-Bachchan track). In fact, Agneepath even shamelessly steals Tony Montana’s iconic ‘the bad guy’ restaurant scene. Bachchan’s over-the-top gangsta strut is pure Tony Montana. Yet, Bachchan does all the heavy lifting with aplomb.
When the movie released on February 16 in 1990, it received a drubbing from the audiences. But as years passed on, it overcame the initial poor box-office receipts and Scarface accusations to acquire a cult status. To recall, 1990 was the year of romantic and action top grossers like Dil, Aashiqui and Ghayal and even Bachchan’s own Aaj Ka Arjun did better business than Agneepath. The movie’s failure broke its producer Yash Johar’s heart, according to son Karan Johar who, knowing it was his father’s favourite Dharma film, decided to reboot it in 2012 in the hope that the new film’s success might vindicate the late Johar. 2012’s Agneepath starred Hrithik Roshan filling in Bachchan’s extra-large shoes, Sanjay Dutt going bald to deviate from the original Kancha Cheena and Om Puri as a replacement for the straight-arrow commissioner Gaitonde, essayed by the legendary Vikram Gokhale. The Mithun Chakraborty angle was dropped altogether. While Bachchan had toned up the antics, Hrithik Roshan dialled down. His Vijay lacked Bachchan’s style and aura and deliberately so. Commenting on his role, Roshan had said at the time, “Director Karan Malhotra did not want a hero, he wanted me to play a common man, a normal man. A child who grows up to be a man and wants revenge and nothing else.” The ‘adapted Agneepath,’ as the cast and crew liked to describe it, was no match to the original, but by becoming one of 2012’s highest grossing hits, it succeeded as a moment of personal triumph for producer Karan Johar. As Vijay would say, ‘Picture chal gaya, maloom.’