2 November 2006 | nmainkar
Comment on earlier comment
Younger audiences (and especially newcomers) introduced to Hindi cinema by the stars of the 1990s must often secretly wonder why Amitabh Bachchan is such a big deal. He has never had the bulging biceps and ripped body of a Hrithik Roshan. Even in his early films, he couldn't dance nearly as well as Shahrukh. Few of his movies offered elaborate song and dance numbers like those favored today. Sure, he might have turned in some first-rate performances most recently, in films like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham and Baghban but nothing about him seems to *quite* justify his status as superstar-of-the-millennium. Right? If you muse upon these questions but are afraid to address them to your esteemed elders (Bachchan groupies all), then I have the answer for you:
Go rent Deewaar.
Every once in several decades comes a movie that breaks all the norms and still manages to become not only a runaway success but also an established classic. Deewaar is one such movie. Thirty years after its release, Deewaar remains one of the most famous movies Bollywood has ever produced. Those who love Hindi cinema for its extravagant song and dance routines, its mix of romance, comedy, action and melodrama, and its over-the-top emoting may be surprised to learn that this 1975 explosion-of-a-movie is conspicuously devoid of such characteristic elements. Yet Deewaar is certainly a mainstream Bollywood film. It just happens to be a phenomenal one.
Deewaar begins with a terrible choice: in order to save his family's lives, Anand Verma (Satyen Kappu), the union leader of the local mine workers, betrays his constituency, surrendering to the mine-owners' extortionate demands. In return, he is humiliated and ostracized by his community. Unable to bear the shame, Anand absconds, leaving his wife, Sumitra Devi (Nirupa Roy), and his two sons, Vijay (Master Alankar, Amitabh Bachchan) and Ravi (Master Raju, Shashi Kapoor), to fend for themselves.
Ravi, the youngest child, largely escapes the backlash, sheltered from the community by his mother and brother. Vijay, on the other hand, bears the brunt of the trauma; he becomes the target of brutal public humiliation. The consequences of Vijay and Ravi's very different experiences only intensify as the brothers grow up. In a desperate bid to give his mother the material comforts he thinks are her due, Vijay takes to a life of crime. In contrast, Ravi, disgusted by repeated rejections in a job market powered by nepotism, decides to enroll in the police force. Inevitably, the siblings' differing ideologies lead to an epic moral clash that creates a "deewaar," or wall, between them. This wall becomes insurmountable when Vijay's mother refuses to accept his ill-gotten riches, and forsakes him to live with Ravi. Ultimately, Vijay's misery compels him to seek redemption, but his attempt to obliterate the wall dividing his family will exact an unthinkable price.
Deewaar is, in one word, taut. From start to end, the movie is unrelentingly tense, tight, somber and serious but the seriousness of the film works for two vital reasons: the absolutely amazing, scorching and explosive under-acting by Amitabh Bachchan; and the screenplay and dialogs by Salim-Javed.
To say that Amitabh has acted really well in Deewaar is like saying Niagara Falls is a really big waterfall: it misses the enormity of the fact by several million gallons. To lovers of true cinematic acting (and yes, there are some such fans even in Bollywood), Deewaar offers a true, unadulterated, powerhouse performance unparalleled in Hindi cinema. There is no living (or dead, for that matter) actor who could have performed some of Deewaar's most muted and yet powerfully moving scenes -- scenes in which Vijay's silent anguish abruptly transmutes to violent eruptions, literally burning up the screen with intensity, anger, brutality, vulnerability and gritty resolve. To the small but fiercely loyal group of Amitabh fans, Deewaar is and will always be his best performance. To some of us, it defines the gold standard in Hindi film acting. It is Amitabh and only Amitabh who turned this movie from a typical over-the-top melodrama with great dialogs but no good songs into a gripping three-hour experience that leaves the audience mesmerized (and in an overwhelming majority of cases, crying uncontrollably as the end credits roll).
As for Salim-Javed...apart from developing what is arguably the tightest script ever written for Hindi film, the pair should have gotten an award for the sheer number of quotable lines in Deewaar. Salim-Javed's script was also daring detour from the mainstream in more ways than one. Consider the oddities. The leading man has no songs in the movie. There is absolutely no comedy - no Johnny Lever or Asrani anywhere in sight. Meanwhile, the leading lady (played convincingly by Parveen Babi) is a hooker, who -- as the narrative explicitly insists -- has sexual relations with the hero. True, both characters' occupations entailed a set of moral values that are less-than-perfect by Indian middle-class standards, but the screenwriters still took an enormous risk by depicting some pretty bold scenes . Yet the power of the script was such that in the end, audiences were rooting for both characters with great sympathy and support. Finally, the leading man is an atheist (albeit superstitious). Not only that, one of the now-famous temple scenes has Amitabh clearly defiant and contemptuous towards God. Quite an audacious step, considering modern heroes are always shown to be terribly pious and god-fearing.
Finally, the most significant evidence of Deewaar's superiority is the fact that unlike other hit movies like Sholay and more recent ones like DDLJ, no one has ever dared to copy it. It is the one film whose magic other film-makers realized could not be duplicated. The confluence of extraordinary acting and a uniquely brilliant script cannot be converted into a formula and regenerated ad nauseum. In the end, that may be the biggest tribute Hindi cinema can pay to this all-time, genuinely inimitable classic.