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Monday, October 25, 2021

When Prakash Mehra met Amitabh Bachchan

Our movies have moved on,but the ‘angry young man’ defined two decades of Hindi cinema

Written by Shubhra Gupta |
May 22, 2009 1:51:59 am

In hindsight,it’s always easy to play the ‘What If’ game. What if Dev Anand had said yes to Prakash Mehra? Dapper Dev would have turned Zanjeer into a series of tilted angles and bouffant moments. What if Shashi Kapoor or Feroz Khan,the two heroes Mehra had worked with before,had done the film? The Kapoor charm and the Khan machismo in a film which foregrounds a conflicted cop,out to get the killers of his parents? Close your eyes and send up a prayer.

The man who gave us Zanjeer the way it was meant to be,passed away last week. Prakash Mehra didn’t know it then,but when he released the film on May 11,1973,he was instrumental in irretrievably altering the course of Hindi cinema. It is fitting,perhaps,that his end came in the same month,just a few days after that historical marker: Zanjeer smashed every single box office record and created a towering star. Till then,Amitabh Bachchan had lurked,like every other star aspirant,on the periphery of success; post Zanjeer,he was both the unstoppable force and the immovable object that kept every other potential star at bay for two full decades.

The coming together of Prakash and Amitabh was ordained. The former,who started out as a production assistant in the early 50s,had tasted directorial success with a couple of early films. He made Haseena Maan Jayegi in 1968 with Shashi Kapoor,and gave the crooked-toothed charmer one of his best remembered hits. In 1971,he got Feroz and Sanjay Khan together for Mela,which also made money. There was also a Dharmendra starrer called Samadhi,which was an average earner. These kept him in the reckoning,but he was waiting for the big one which would make him the ‘sikandar’ of his ‘muqaddar’.

He then got busy hawking his new script,which required the hero to be permanently angry,an auburn-haired Pathan to be perennially blustery and hearty,and an after-thought of a heroine who sharpened knives for a living. After Dev Anand nixed it,Mehra turned to the tall,lanky newcomer,who had just finished an indifferent year with such releases as Sanjog,and Bandhe Haath,both of whose leading ladies,Mala Sinha and Mumtaz,were much bigger stars.

Mehra’s pinning his hopes on,his words,that ‘patla sa ladka’ didn’t enthuse too many people. Pran,who played the pivotal Pathan role in the film,couldn’t get his own friend who ran his (Pran’s) distribution office in New Delhi at the time,to release the film. The people who did,found themselves with a gold seam which ran,unchecked,for more than 15 years. Every time it returned to theatres,and those days there was no other avenue for repeat screenings,it scored silver jubilee runs.

Mehra’s golden period began,and all the films he made with Amitabh after Zanjeer — Khoon Pasina,Hera Pheri,Muqaddar Ka Sikandar,Lawaris,Namak Halal,Sharabi — were blockbusters. He stopped being director-for-hire,and produced,directed and distributed all his future projects. Industry vets remember him as a ‘zindadil insaan’ with a great ‘shayarana andaaz’,who was as generous in success as he was in failure. His last film with his lucky mascot,Jaadugar,was his first and only flop with Amitabh; there was a falling out,and there were no more collaborations between the two.

Prakash Mehra,like arch-rival Manmohan Desai who also made films only with Amitabh (also colossal hits),was a man of his time : he gave Amitabh films which played to his strengths,keeping all the other elements subservient to his star,who did everything; he even played triple roles where he was Good,Bad and Ugly. His other directors took the cue. Villains were made into ineffectual buffoons. Comedians were rendered hopelessly redundant. Leading ladies were strictly glamorous spare wheels,coming and going when and where Amitabh wanted them to. Only Hrishikesh Mukherjee,who made several of his best films with the star,stuck to his guns,and kept his stories well-rounded ; Hrishida was the only one he made an exception for.

Between Prakash Mehra,Manmohan Desai,Yash Chopra and Ramesh Sippy,Amitabh became invincible. He stayed,all the way till the 80s,the ‘One and Only Superstar’. His only real challenger would arrive in 1992,by the name of Shah Rukh Khan. By then,Prakash Mehra had wound down. An era was over.

shubhragupta@expressindia.com

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