indian cinema heritage foundation

Salim-Javed’s Inferno: Najayaz Baaps and Unforgiving Sons

03 Mar, 2020 | Long Features by Cinemaazi Team Member Nildeep Paul
A poster of Deewar (1975) from the Cinemaazi archives

Tum mere najayaz baap ho, declared the hero at his father, and a nation woke up to a new world of anger, violence and reprisal, one where the old world withered in front of the smouldering gaze of the ‘angry young man’. This iconic line, from Yash Chopra’s 1978 multi-starrer blockbuster Trishul, was the exclamation point of a sentiment running through Hindi cinema for quite some time. Disillusionment with the older generation’s idealism and a bleak socio-economic environment led to the awareness that the well of post-Independence optimism had finally run dry. Tectonic shifts were in motion and a new kind of cinema was needed to portray them. For many, the words “Written by Salim-Javed” came to signify precisely that kind of cinema.

The legend of the Salim-Javed films, enhanced by the supernova that was Amitabh Bachchan’s stardom, is such that their films hardly need any introduction. Mere mention of the name brings to mind the images of the chilling Gabbar Singh in the desolate valley of Ramgarh in Sholay (Ramesh Sippy, 1975), Vijay’s eruption of rage at Sher Khan in Zanjeer (Prakash Mehra, 1973) and who can forget the Mere paas maa hai moment from Deewar (Yash Chopra, 1975). Much has been written of the range of influences on their work, from the spaghetti westerns (especially Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West) to films like Mother India (Mehboob Khan, 1957) and Gunga Jumna (Nitin Bose, 1961), the colourful pulp fiction of James Hadley Chase and Ibn-e-Safi to the brooding heroes of films like Pyaasa (Guru Dutt, 1957). Their work has been praised for memorable dialogues and riveting plots, but also derided for being too derivative and unoriginal. To their credit, Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar openly wore their inspirations on their sleeves and re-invented the oft-used tropes of Hindi cinema for an audience growing tired with the conventional social film. 

In most of these films the central conflict is between idealism and cynicism, in which the ideal image of the nation is at odds with its fractured reality

The central conflicts in Khan and Akhtar’s cinema have always been crystal clear, often channelled through existing narrative paradigms. Birju from Mother India transformed into the more urbanised Vijay of Deewar, the popular legends of dacoits from Chambal (Salim Khan’s father being a police officer) and their many iterations in cinema (Mera Gaon Mera Desh, Khote Sikkay) are given new form in Gabbar Singh, the trope of siblings lost and found is used in Seeta Aur Geeta (Ramesh Sippy, 1972), Yaadon Ki Baaraat (Nasir Hussain, 1973) and Haath Ki Safai (Prakash Mehra, 1974). In most of these films the primary conflict is between idealism and cynicism, in which the ideal image of the nation is at odds with its fractured reality. The most popular vessel of representing such conflicts in Hindi cinema has always been the family, between the normativity of the older generation and the modernity of the new. The father usually stands in for either rigid conformity or failed masculinity, while the mother is sometimes the eternally suffering victim, sometimes the balancing force but always a repository of ‘Indian’ virtues. Salim-Javed deftly appropriated these tropes in their unique fashion, but most notably through a complex relationship between father and son in many of their acclaimed films. 

To begin from the beginning, we need to look at the genesis of the ‘angry young man’ phenomenon. This character became Salim-Javed’s calling card, paving the way for their brand of action drama to dominate the 1970s like no other films could. It is well known that Mehboob Khan’s seminal Mother India left a deep imprint on a young Javed Akhtar, particularly the character of Birju, the rebellious son who turns to the dark side to avenge his mother’s exploitation. A prototype angry young man, we will see shades of the character in many later films, namely in Phool Aur Patthar (O.P Ralhan, 1966), Satyakam (Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1969) and Namak Haraam (Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1973). The proper manifestation of the character, with all the tropes that will come to define it for a decade, comes in Zanjeer. Salim-Javed famously had to petition hard for a still unproven Amitabh Bachchan to be cast for the role and it is a credit to Bachchan’s performance that no one else can be imagined in the role now. Still in its nascent stages, Zanjeer established certain aspects that become essential for the character going forward – some form of childhood trauma, a brooding cynicism and the awareness that justice is not always possible through sticking to the law. 
 
A poster of Zanjeer (1973) from the Cinemaazi archives
 
Zanjeer established certain aspects that become essential for the character going forward – some form of childhood trauma, a brooding cynicism and the awareness that justice is not always possible through by sticking to the law
In the film, Amitabh Bachchan plays Vijay, an upstanding police officer with a penchant for violence who lost his parents at a young age. His father was a criminal engaged in the illegal manufacture of doctored medicine, who got silenced for his desire to quit the business and go straight. The man who pulled the trigger wore a bracelet with a white horse on it – an image that would plague Vijay’s dreams for years. Unknown to him the same man is the present kingpin of crime in the city, Teja (Ajit). Vijay ultimately turns into a vigilante figure who with the help of fellow outlaw Sher Khan (Pran in one of his most iconic roles) brings an end to Teja’s operations. In the process, he also enacts a violent resolution of his childhood trauma. 
Who really is the father in this film? Is it the proxy father figure of the police officer who adopts Vijay (Satyen Kappu) and by extension the law he represents? Is the father present in the form of a recurring phantasm of his childhood trauma, the source of his barely repressed anger?
Who really is the father in this film? Is it the proxy father figure of the police officer who adopts Vijay (Satyen Kappu) and by extension the law he represents? Is the father present in the form of a recurring phantasm of his childhood trauma, the source of his barely repressed anger? Vijay has a contentious relation with the law throughout the film, repeatedly rebuked for his extreme ways. His final acts are committed as an outlaw, after he has been dismissed from the police force. If the absence of the father means the absence of a strong grounding presence, Vijay finds the same through the many allies he picks up along the way. The knife-sharpener Mala (Jaya Bhaduri, convinced by Salim-Javed to accept a quite minuscule role), the erstwhile criminal Sher Khan and the grieving father Da Silva (Om Prakash) form the unique team aiding Vijay. This is especially significant, as Madhav Prasad has pointed out, since this signifies the hero forging an interclass and communal alliance to form a new secular consensus. This tension is quite evident in all of Salim-Javed’s films – the desperate effort to hold together a society coming apart at the seams but through an extremely masculine form of violence. This alliance also represents Vijay’s desire for normalcy, of leading the kind of life he was denied by an act of murder. But to enjoy that life, he must extinguish all remaining traces of evil. Thus despite the absence of the ‘real’ father, Vijay is ‘fathered’ by an idealistic vision of India which is represented in his career as a policeman, and he is born once again in the embers of the real India through the path his life takes, as the angry vigilante Vijay. 
Deewar is, by far, the most famous of Salim-Javed’s work. A monumental portrait of working class angst, moulded from the character of Birju from Mother India.

Perhaps the most Oedipal of Salim-Javed’s work, are the three films – Deewar, Trishul (Yash Chopra, 1978) and Shakti (Ramesh Sippy, 1982). In between we also get the underrated Kala Patthar (Yash Chopra, 1979). Deewar is, by far, the most famous of Salim-Javed’s work. A monumental portrait of working class angst, moulded from the character of Birju from Mother India. Despite the ultimate death of Vijay, it is evidently clear where the sympathies of the writers lay. Yash Chopra, suffering from a crisis of confidence after the failure of Joshila (1973), borrows liberally from the grammar of spaghtetti westerns to frame Vijay, giving him an ambiguous presence. He becomes someone who is nominally the errant son, yet clearly the figure who is most identified with. In the film, his father is a committed union leader (Satyen Kappu) who is blackmailed by the factory owners to betray the cause of the workers. Unable to come to terms with this, he abandons his family condemning them to a life of poverty and deprivation. If the Vijay of Zanjeer carried his trauma in his dreams, here the trauma is literally inscribed on Vijay’s body – when the child Vijay is tattooed with the words ‘Mera baap chor hai’ by a group of workers who felt betrayed by his father. These words later become a catalyst for the life of crime he embarks on, his goal becoming to remedy the wrongs done by an absent father. It is clear that his cynicism is born of the failed idealism of his father. He clearly believes that his mother who underwent the same gruelling poverty he did will understand but is shocked when she sides with his policeman brother Ravi (Shashi Kapoor). The lingering presence of his father’s ideological commitment, represented in his mother, troubles him and ultimately convinces him to go straight. But as is often the case with gangster stories, it is far too late. 
 
Trishul (1978). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi.
 
The fault is placed decidedly at the feet of the generation past, who have bestowed a heritage of inequality and injustice on the youth.
If both Zanjeer and Deewar present the father as someone deeply flawed yet fundamentally good, Trishul complicates the picture considerably. Sanjeev Kumar’s R.K Gupta abandons his pregnant lover Shanti (Waheeda Rehman) to marry into a wealthy family. Shanti’s son Vijay grows up harbouring a desire for revenge against his father, which he ultimately enacts with cold precision. This is the ‘angry young man’ with a dash of The Count of Monte Cristo thrown in. The najayaz baap line is a reversal of the popular adage of the illegitimate child. In this case it is the father’s ambition and corporate principles which are unwanted. The fault is placed decidedly at the feet of the generation past, who have bestowed a heritage of inequality and injustice on the youth. Vijay says, ‘Zindagi mein kuch baatein faide aur nuksan ke upar hoti hain, lekin ye har koi nahin janta’ – a line directed at his father, but curiously at himself as well. Despite Vijay’s cold dedication to vengeance, he learns to love and to forgive along the way as well. There is a resolution at the end, when R.K. Gupta sacrifices himself to save his ‘illegitimate’ son Vijay. The family is reunited, with Vijay learning that revenge is not all that matters.
It is only when Vijay has literally descended to hell (in this case, a perilously flooded mine where many workers have been trapped) and returned, that he can find the courage to face his father
Bachchan once again plays the son struggling to live up to the image of the father, in both Kala Patthar and Shakti. In Kala Patthar, he plays a disgraced naval officer spending his days as a mine worker as a form of penance. It is only when Vijay has literally descended to hell (in this case, a perilously flooded mine where many workers have been trapped) and returned, that he can find the courage to face his father. His relationship with his father is hardly commented upon in the film, but remains as an ever-present undercurrent. Vijay’s trauma and the metaphoric underworld of the mines form powerful images in the film, a hellish interlude on his path to redemption. 
Vijay expecting his mother’s support is stunned when she says ‘Main abhi itni kamzor nahi hoon ke apni pati ke imaandari ka bojh na utha saku’.
Shakti, like Trishul, gives the Oedipal drama centre stage. A grand production pitting arguably the two biggest heroes of Hindi cinema, Bachchan and Dilip Kumar, against each other, the film certainly pulled no punches in delivering the father-son drama. Bachchan once again suffers from abandonment complex, only this time it is the law which comes between him and the love he expects from his father. In the film, Bachchan as a child (once again Vijay) is kidnapped by a criminal who wants to use him as leverage against his principled police officer father Ashwini Kumar (Dilip Kumar). But Ashwini Kumar refuses to choose his family over his duty which is unfortunately heard by the young Vijay. As is the case with Salim-Javed films, this leads straight to a career in crime. Nafrat hai mujhe duniya ke har woh kanoon se jise mera baap manta hai, declares Vijay. At one point he even calls the law his step-brother, the one who is loved more by his father. The mother (Rakhee, transitioning from playing Bachchan’s love interest in both Trishul and Kala Patthar to playing his mother) once again plays the conduit in between. Vijay expecting his mother’s support is stunned when she says ‘Main abhi itni kamzor nahi hoon ke apni pati ke imaandari ka bojh na utha saku’. The film delivers a tragic resolution when the father is forced to shoot his son (the spectre of Mother India visits once again). Only at this final moment is Vijay able to confess his love for his father, and through that his desire to live up to his expectations. The father who had been buried behind the police uniform, is also able to articulate his love for his son.
 
Amitabh Bachchana nd Dilip Kumar in Shakti (1982). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi. 
 
The attraction of the angry young man persona lies in the lines that he is able to cross, translating vigilante fantasies into action.
A lot of these issues can be attributed to both Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar’s own troubled relationships with their fathers, but what appears in art usually exceeds our personal traumas. The attraction of the angry young man persona lies in the lines that he is able to cross, translating vigilante fantasies into action. But the lines he crosses the most are the ones between the political and personal. It is when these two get blurred that the father in both Zanjeer and Deewar falter. It is the line that Ashwini Kumar in Shakti strictly adheres to. But Vijay obsessively and repeatedly crosses them, his Oedipal rage also translating into his political commentary. He cannot rest easy in domestic bliss in Zanjeer, cannot separate the policeman and the father in Shakti, and cannot face his father in Kala Patthar until bringing his politics to fruition. It is this crucial distinction between the politics of the old and the emergent politics that Salim-Javed strive to fit into their re-imagining of tropes. Their efforts bear uneven results, but their work remains the most significant intervention in popular cinema of the 1970s. 
 

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