On the occasion of Amitabh Bachchan's 71st birthday, an admirer revisits his angry young man image and the movie that gave him that avatar.

What happens when a film you consider among the very best you have seen — and has been part of your cinematic memory since your very early years — gets remade? The most obvious thought that arises in the mind is: “How dare they remake it?” “In no way can such a film be remade.” or “I swear I will not watch it even if someone agrees to sponsor a paid preview premiere.”

However, I have found that such remakes only add to the value you attach in your mind to the original. You tend to watch it more closely, dissect the nuances, even put its story in perspective, better. This happened in my case with Don, Sholay and Agneepath.

This is also what happened when I heard about the Zanjeer remake — I started attaching a greater, bordering-on-the-religious, liking to it. I had and have no intention of watching the new one. However, its release did make me reach out for my old Zanjeer CD.

It was after many years that I even thought of inserting the CD into the drive. In the first few scenes, the moment I saw an orphaned child getting dark knight in his dreams, my excitement level shot up. it started climbing further as the credits moved, reaching their acme when the “story-screenplay-dialogue by Salim-Javed” part appeared. The serotonin secreted on watching their name was worth the price of the CD!

If Rajesh Khanna could be called the first superstar of Hindi cinema, Salim-Javed could be called the first superstar writers — their names used to appear in the credits after even that of the music director, just before those of the producer and the director! Having made mostly commercial potboilers till then — andaz; seeta aur geeta; haathi mere saathi; haath ki safaai — they moved slightly away from the mainstream with this film.

The lead character was to have no songs. The romance between the hero and the heroine was to be minimalistic. And most importantly, the hero was to have shades of grey, though the moral compass was to be more towards the positive end.

Phantasms and nightmares

It is a diwali night. A 8-9 year old Vijay, playing hide and seek with his parents, hides in a cupboard when they get killed; the sound of bullets gets lost in the sound of crackers outside. Not having seen the killer, Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan)’s memory registers only the bracelet worn by him, replete with a horse trinket. It is this bracelet that magnifies into phantasmagoria, playing havoc with his mind, haunting him night after night. He needs to overcome this before it consumes him.

Salim-Javed attempted something similar with kaala paththar later, when Captain Vijay (again Amitabh), having abandoned his ship, is disgraced, humiliated and dismissed from navy. A sense of being a kaayar (coward) haunts him, the incident getting replayed incessantly in his dreams, though more as a nightmare than as surreal imagery.

In both cases, perhaps naming him Vijay was intentional? So that he is shown conquering his inner demons, his angst, his impulsivity?

Magnification of that one diwali night in Zanjeer would have surely reduced it to a vendetta tale. Why did the traumatised child grow up to be an inspector? Surely, his foster father being a policeman could not have been the only reason?

Vijay's character does not become an angry young man just by that one scene. His child ego in has also experienced the pain of his sister’s death due to adulterated medicine, something common in those days when India was not yet the pharmacy of the world. His father is one of the culprits, being involved in making those illicit medicines and liquor. This sense of being wronged - not by any one person but by a system - what makes him the impulsive angry young man, makihg him take each incident, each case personally. This makes him go to the extent of trying to reform an unrepentant crook (Keshto Mukherjee in a rare negative role).

While the first half gives the impression of Vijay trying to do a saviour-act by bringing about reform to the system, the second half indicates how his own personal need for vengeance is intertwined with his professional quest for justice. As his first confrontation scene with Sher Khan (Pran) shows, his vardi-kursi (uniform and chair - the power that comes with being a policeman) does not just empower him, it also enchains him. His police job uses him more than he uses it. In the second half, he forced to get rid of both vardi and kursi.

He would achieve his sense of closure only when he gets those demons in his dreams out. This would first require him to identify the person who put those in his psyche in the first place, the killer of his parents.

Just when he has almost given up his fight against the system, he gets confronted by the villain’s henchmen and is almost killed. When he is recovering, images of henchmen beating him up mix up with the phantasm of the horse trampling him. This is the first instance we get of his need for revenge getting mixed with desire for justice.

This gets reinforced when he assures his informant De Silva (Om Prakash) — someone as wronged by the system as him — that he will help him. Here, the background music, in which the tolls of church mix with the diwali motif, make this clear for the viewer. However, Vijay himself realises it only when he discovers the original bracelet, when the phantasm in his mind gets minimised to its original self. The system which once conspired to create those inner demons, conspires once again, this time to eliminate it.

If this movie popularised Amitabh’s image as the angry young man, deewaar, trishul and kaala paththar immortalised it. Perhaps it was appropriate for someone relatively unknown to do Vijay’s role in Zanjeer. In case of others who were offered the role — Dev Anand, Dharmendra and Raajkumar — it would surely have involved making compromises.

Salim-Javed didn’t have to make any with Amitabh, unknown as he was then. Apart from the character not having the main role in any of the songs, his existentialist angst required him to desist from doing many song-and-dance sequences. For a major part of the film, he is seething with angst, the gritting of his teeth making his jaw visible, giving him a totally morose demeanor. Even when Mona (Bindu), Teja’s companion, tries her best to act as a seductress, Vijay is not just unmoved, he is totally indifferent - hardly giving even a smile!

From aap meri company mein bore ho jaayengi, in Zanjeer (1973) to romantic baatein mujhe bahut bore kartee hain Sonia, in Don (1973), the angry young man had travelled a long way. However, the Salim-Javed touch of indifference-to-the-seductress was still present. This makes its presence as much in diljalon ka dil jalaake, kya milega dilruba as in ye mera dil pyaar ka deewana.

These magic moments apart, Zanjeer reminds me instantly of two scenes. The first one is the Sher Khan-Vijay confrontation one, which I had admired earlier. It is Sher Khan, rather than the impulsive Vijay, who comes across as the hero here. Vijay’s unprovoked fury matches Khan’s sagacity. Khan allows Vijay to give the first blow before he returns it.

Toward the end, Sher Khan knocks down Vijay first before getting knocked down and he is the one who extends hand of friendship. This was to be expected, considering that a brash inspector confronting a lion-hearted pathan was likely to result in a show of magnanimity on the part of the latter more than a show of bravura on the part of the former.

Undercurrents of angst... even in romance

The second scene, one of my favourite romantic scenes when it comes to any Amitabh movie, is the one in which Vijay finally concedes that he loves Mala. When the deewane hain deewanon ko na ghar chaahiye song plays in the background, we get a sense that this is going to happen. In another scene, when Mala tests her English on Vijay and he laughs — for the first time in the film — we feel it’ll happen the next time they talk or meet.

It almost happens. In one of the rare moments where Vijay is in a lighter mood, after he promises to give up his desire for revenge, we think it is certain to happen, but a phone call introduces sense of uncertainty. Mala has asked him to eschew violence though she doesn't know that this amounts to nothing more than window dressing the gangrene hidden in him. He gets deluded then by his false sense of recovery. She does not know that by trying to strip him of his vengeance before he gets closure, she is peeling off a layer of his personality, amputating him.

Only when she comes to truly understand him - that only once he gets rid of the angst through revenge would he be able to come to his normal self — are we given that matter-of-fact moment. He, with his usual intensity in tact looks at her, his characteristic gritting of teeth continuing here and... “yon to kai logon ne kai baar kahan hai, lekin main tumse pahli baar kah raha hoon… I love you.”

Sher Khan’s rambunctiousness provides the perfect moderating influence to Vijay’s weltschmerz. A lion-hearted pathan, his pride and his reputation precedes him. The avuncularity in his character only gets reinforced in the best song of the film, yaari hai eemaan meraa yaar meree zindagi. The only song on a lead character in the film picturised on the second lead was a refreshing precedent. This was also the best song in the film, as I mentioned in my Pran piece.

I am sure Pran sa’ab would have had some kind of a contribution to make while deciding on Sher Khan's mannerisms - a strand of his hair coming forward when he makes a dramatic gesture; regular squint of one eye; and most importantly, the catchphrase Khabeez ki aulad (son of a devil!)

Vijay here achieves the justice he needs toward the end and hence conquers his inner demons. However, in the later angry young man films — deewwar; kaala paththar; trishul and shakti — he would be shown getting consumed by his angst. Amitabh would go on to explore other aspects of his acting prowess in his future films and by the 80s, angry young man had become history. Amitabh’s larger-than-life image ensured that he couldn’t take up many such roles.

Though it made intermittent appearances — though not in Salim-Javed scripts or Amitabh films — through films like aakrosh and ardh satya, even zaraa si zindagi (varumayin niram sivappu) its relevance had been lost by mid-80s and by the 90s it was irrelevant. Javed Akhtar has himself said that it would be considered anachronistic in the present milieu.