The persona of the angry young man, a role that Amitabh Bachchan would earmark as his very own, is commonly thought to have emerged in Hindi cinema in the first half of the 1970s, in films such as Zanjeer (1973) and Deewaar (1975). The 1970s were certainly turbulent times: early in the decade India and Pakistan went to war, and not long after India would attempt to have itself partly admitted into the club of nuclear states with a ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’. Whatever Indira Gandhi may have gained with these spectacular displays of her will to triumph, she is commonly thought to have squandered these victories with the imposition of the emergency, the stifling of dissent, and social policies calculated to arouse the opposition of the poor. However, the malaise that afflicted the country was much deeper: industrial production had slowed down, the labouring classes were in a militant mood, shortages of essential commodities were palpable, and unemployment was rampant. Azaadi had wrought little; the dream had soured.
There is every reason, then, to think of the 1970s as preeminently the decade when the genre of the ‘angry young man’ planted itself in Hindi cinema, a theme taken up with considerable gusto in Tamil films of the 1980s. But Bachchan’s films of the 1970s demand attention for another compelling trope, namely the idea of the city. The migrations from the countryside to the city, which might be constituted into one epic narrative of the history of India after independence, continued unabated –– and we should recall that Vijay, in Deewaar, flees with his mother and brother Ravi to Bombay from the hinterland. Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray are commonly thought of, particularly by film aficionados, as two filmmakers who were heavily invested in the nexus of the city and the film. Sen has described Calcutta as his El-Dorado, his muse: the city features prominently in his work, perhaps nowhere more so than in his films of the early 1970s when young men floundered about in search of jobs. Ray’s ‘Calcutta Trilogy’ –– Pratidwandi (1971), Seemabaddha (1971), and Jana Aranya (1974) –– likewise captures with extraordinary subtlety the anomie of city life, the dislocations the city creates in social relations, even the transformations in emotions under city life.
Many of Bachchan’s films of the 1970s are also eminently city films. Signs of the urban landscape are unmistakably present in Zanjeer, even if the city is somewhat undeveloped as a character in its own right. The city must have its dens of vice, where Sher Khan rules supreme before an encounter with Inspector Vijay Khanna (Bachchan) sets him on the path to reform. Mala, the street performer, lives in Dongri Chawl; at the other extreme, the underworld don Teja lounges relaxes by the side of a luxurious swimming pool. Four years later, in Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), the city would have even greater visibility: many of Bombay’s landmarks and public institutions –– Nanavati Hospital, Victoria Terminus, Haji Ali Dargah –– feature prominently in the film.
It is Deewaar, however, which carved out the space of the urban in a wholly distinct manner. As Vijay, Ravi, and their mother arrive in the city, they leave behind a social order that is simultaneously more intimate and more unforgiving: one cannot escape one’s social markers so readily in the village or the small town. There is also a tacit assumption that as the breadwinner of her family, Sumitra Devi’s prospects are better in the metropolis. Vijay’s adolescent years are captured in a few, albeit critical, scenes in the film; and then a match cut transports us to the angry young man, now a worker at the docks. As he takes on the mafia, one senses the explosion of urban India; the ‘angry young man’, a new hero emerging from the bowels of the city, represents the anger of a generation whose dreams lie shattered.
As Vijay wrests control of the docks from Samant’s men, we are tempted into thinking that he is increasingly embracing the urban world as his own, refusing to be beaten into submission by the unruliness and hurly-burly ways of the city. The docks are among the many signs of the urban. The city is everywhere in Deewaar and the film skillfully signposts urban spaces. Newly arrived into the city, Vijay’s mother finds works at a large construction site. Sumitra and her two sons make their home under the bridge: it is not the overhead traffic over the bridge that makes the city, but the tens of thousands indeed millions sheltered under it who, yet again, give birth to the unintended city. The great migrations into the city gave rise to the slums, with their population of labourers, tradesmen, prostitutes, and petty criminals, and it is from the housing tenements, some under the bridge, that one gets what Ashis Nandy has described as the ‘slum’s eye view of Indian politics’. From their modest home under the bridge, the young Ravi arrives at the gate of the nearby school.
Slowly but surely, the plot of Deewaar drifts into other ineluctable spaces of the urban landscape: high-rise buildings, five-star hotels, night-clubs, indeed the city streets themselves through which Ravi gives furious pursuit to Vijay. But the singularity of Deewaar resides in something quite different, namely that it is the first film in Hindi cinema which establishes a dialectic between the footpath and the skyscraper, the two preeminent signs of the film’s urban landscape. The ubiquity of the footpath as home to the homeless, migrant labourers, and myriad others living at the margins of society is self-evident. One can think of it more imaginatively as a school where life’s lessons are imbibed: while Ravi goes to school, Vijay takes up shining shoes on the footpath. Soon enough, Vijay gravitates from the footpath to the skyscraper: he even attempts to gift his mother one. No sooner has he gained possession of the skyscraper than his fall commences, as if the footpath were beckoning him to return to his roots and plant his feet on the ground. The fact that his claim on this skyscraper is ephemeral, and ultimately undeserving, is underscored by the fact that the viewer’s sight of the building is barred throughout the negotiations. The skyscraper holds no intrinsic interest for Vijay, indeed its very existence is refracted through the footpath. The footpath is literally that: the path where the foot trod, where every footfall becomes a trace of memory. At every turn of his confrontation with Ravi, Vijay seeks, unsuccessfully, to remind him of their shared histories on the footpath: ‘Ravi, tume yaad hain bachpan mein kitni raaten footpath pe khaali pet guzarin?’
One could go on in this vein; but, in conclusion, I would point to one of the dialogues on the footpath that have now become part of India’s cultural memory. The young Vijay, refusing to pick up money thrown at him as a shoeshine boy, says with dignity, ‘I polish shoes and do not beg for money. Pick up the money and place it in my hands.’ Davar, the mafia don, tells his henchman: ‘Yeh umar bhar boot polish nahi karega. Jis din zindagi ki race mein isne speed pakdi, yeh sab ko peeche chorh jayega. Meri baat ka khayal rakhna. Ek din yeh ladka kuch banega’. Looking back at the life of Amitabh Bachchan, one has the feeling that much in it was prefigured in the figure of Vijay. More than anyone else in India’s film industry, Bachchan has proven to be the lambi race ka ghoda.
(Also published in Times of India, Crest Edition, 6 October 2012, p. 10, as “How Vijay Was Born”)