I can never say that title without the big yelling-it-out-into-the-world defiance, AG-NEE-PATH!!!! Anyhoo, I think it’s Hrithik’s greatest performance, and the greatest movie he has been in (well, except for Bang Bang, my heart’s choice). And what makes it really impressive is that he (and the filmmakers) were actually able to improve on an Amitabh movie, one of the Amitabhiest of them.
Since Agneepath is such a classic, I’m not going to bother talking about it without SPOILERS, I’m just going to assume that you all know the plot. So, SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
The first Agneepath in 1994 was arguably the last great film of the early era of Amitabh Bachchan’s career. It summarizes and provides meaning for his entire career to that point. Even the title is personal to Amitabh.
The title comes from the poem “Agneepath” (Path of Fire) written by Amitabh’s father, Harivanshri Rai Bachchan. Harivanshri was one of India’s great modern poets. Like this film, Amitabh’s name was also a creation of his father. “Bachchan”, meaning “childhood” or “childlike” or “children”, was taken by Harivanshri as his pen name. Amitabh means “Light That Will Never Die”. His name was originally “Inquilab” (Revolution), but was changed a few days after his birth, after the new name came to one of his father’s friends and fellow poets in a dream. Both names are shockingly appropriate for the greatest movie star of all time, the man who within himself contains the past 50 years of Indian film and, in many ways, all of India’s modern history. Amitabh was born the revolution, he was changed to be the light that will never die, and through it all he shepherded India as a child among nations.
Amitabh Bachchan began his career in the 70s, a dark time in Indian history. This was 20 years after Independence, and none of the great dreams and ambitions it promised had come to pass. In the middle of the decade, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a “State of Emergency,” briefly turning India into a dictatorship. Amitabh, within himself, was somehow able to contain and represent all of the common man’s anger and disappointment. He inspired Indian film to come of age and brought his collaborators to greater heights than they ever experienced without him. He was the voice of post-colonialism not just for India, but for countries around the world. Kenya to Egypt to Jamaica, everyone needed Amitabh.
In India, Amitabh has been on the edge of every social change for the past 40 years. When Indira Gandhi died, Amitabh was there when her son, his childhood friend Rajiv Gandhi, decided to take control of the nation. After his Rajiv’s fall from grace and assassination, Amitabh removed himself from the political realm-his endorsement is often sought, but never given-just as the power in India began to shift from the political to the private sector. Amitabh founded India’s first film and entertainment corporation, and in recent years has focused on human rights campaigns, curing Polio in India through a series of public service announcements calling on the people to allow their children to be vaccinated and, after succeeding in that endeavor, moving on to become a spokesperson for early treatment of tuberculosis and various campaigns to improve the lives of girl children. He also invigorated Indian television by agreeing to host the game show Kaun Banega Crorepati, leading to a new golden age of TV. He still acts, always raising the level of a film with his mere appearance in it. And, of course, there are his weekly appearances every Sunday afternoon to bless the crowd gathered outside his house.
When Amitabh appeared in the original Agneepath, the film was about Amitabh, his childhood, his history, his past characters, more than anything else. His character is named Vijay, the name of his most famous characters which he had used in dozens of previous films. Vijay means “Victory”, but Amitabh’s Vijays were never allowed victory in the traditional sense. In film after film, his characters with this name did not get the girl, they did not win fame and fortune, often they were not even alive by the end. But they were victors in a larger sense, victors over their circumstances, over their fear, over the evil and small tyrants who oppressed their world. The plot is no different in Agneepath, this Vijay spends 25 years slowly building a criminal empire so that he can defeat the man who killed his father and destroyed his childhood. He must become everything he hates and lose the love of the only people who cared for him. His victory in the end is to die on his mother’s lap, reciting his father’s poem, and knowing that his child will live in a better world.
The message of this film, and of his numerous previous films, is that explained in his father’s poem from which it takes its title; the noble thing to do is to keep trying, to keep going, your only reward being the knowledge that you have done right. The philosophy comes from his father’s poem which is recited at the opening and closing of the film:
Even if there are mighty trees all around you,
Let them be shady, let them be huge,
But, even for the shade of a single leaf,
Beg not, beg never, ask never!
The path of fire you shall tread! The path of fire! Yes, That Path of Fire!
You shall never tire,
You shall never slow down,
You shall never turn back,
This oath you will take today!
This oath you will fulfill in your life!
Take this oath!
And walk the Path of Fire, every single day!
The oath of fire! Yes, That Path of Fire!
What greater spectacle,
Than to see such a man walk,
Who in tears, sweat and blood,
Is soaked, covered and coated;
And still walks on in the Path of fire!
Walks the path of fire! Yes, That Path of Fire!
And here’s Amitabh reciting it at a public appearance, as he has countless times of the years:
In Agneepath, Amitabh’s Vijay has grown old, is coming to the end of that “path of fire”. The film covers 25 years in his life, beginning with a child who burns with anger, growing into a man filled with power, and finally a mature leader who re-discovers his anger and uses it to fuel a new attack on his enemies. This character path mirrors where Amitabh was in his career in the 90s. He was coming out of the 80s, the decade when he had easily dominated the industry, so easily that he had lost his fire and the passion that first gave him his stardom. Now, in a final attempt to return to his glory years, he was once again playing Vijay, a tired Vijay whose anger was still there, but hidden under age. The Vijay of Zanjeer (Amitabh’s first film using that name, and the film that made him a superstar) was angry and impulsive. When he became violent, he exploded into it. He would go from calmly walking a witness through a line-up, to beating a man half to death in the space of seconds. The Vijay of Agneepath has repressed his anger so deeply, he can barely reach it. Almost killed by his associates, he bides his time until his wounds are healed, sneaks out of the hospital, finds them in their jail cells, and calmly shoots them.
Agneepath is meaningless, pointless, without the coloring of Amitabh Bachchan and all he means washing over everything. Without him, it is simply a revenge drama with interesting dialogue and a twisted plot. With him, it becomes a statement on India today, where it has been and where it is going, and what the point of it all might be, through the lens of this one aging man who has carried the whole country on his back for the past 20 years.
When they remade Agneepath in 2012, they did not seek to remove Amitabh, because that would be impossible; instead they left him as the unacknowledged influence of 15 years of Indian history shown in the film. It is the first popular Indian film to acknowledge the “emergency” by name, 37 years after it ended, in the very opening sequence. The emergency birthed Amitabh, as it birthed a new India, less trusting and more powerful than before. But more important is the actual moment of birth for our protagonist. Throughout the opening sequence, as our boy hero recites poems with his father and plays with local boys, he is referred to as “Vijju”, a childish diminutive of “Vijay”. Only in the moment he comes of age, as he struggles to hold up his father’s body so the noose will not break his neck, does his father call him “Vijay.” The signifier of a coming of age for this new hero is a name that is inextricably tied with Amitabh’s greatest roles and therefore means doom, sorrow, and great responsibility.
While methods such as this allow the film to have historic weight, even without using Amitabh who was history embodied, there was still the issue of providing a proper amount of stardom to power it. Faced with an empty center where Amitabh formally held the plot, the producer of the new Agneepath (son of the original producer), found weight by deepening the meaning of the off-center stories. He selected fallen stars to play these roles, rather than character actors, ones whose personal lives and personalities could add strength to the backstories of their particular characters in this film.
Vijay’s mentor in this new version is played by Rishi Kapoor, an actor known as a charming personality on screen and a terrifying one off-screen. He was the king of teen romance in the 70s, and made his screen stories real when he married his frequent co-star, Neetu, when she was barely 21. In Agneepath, Rishi plays a seemingly loving father and mentor, a charming rogue with thousands of loving followers, but he is darker, more twisted, and more violent than his followers know. He publically indulges and privately abuses his mentally retarded son, and he forces 12 year old Vijay to become his spy and enforcer. It’s not an exact parallel with his real life story (familiar to most of the audience), but it is similar, the idea of the publically charming and loving man who is privately violent and terrifying.
The true villain, Kancha Cheena, is played by Sanjay Dutt. Sanjay was convicted of terrorism in 1994 (the same year the original Agneepath released). After years of appeals and maneuvering, he finally was sentenced to 6 years in jail shortly after the new Agneepath released. The public and his fans have sometimes defensed him by arguing that, feeling isolated after the death of his mother and never having felt close to his respected politician father, he turned to drugs and bad companions. Eventually, not knowing fully what he was doing and fearing for his life, he agreed to participate in a scheme related to the 1993 Bombay bomb blasts which killed over 300 people riding commuter trains on their way to work. Sanjay’s character in Agneepath, Kancha Cheena, felt unloved by his powerful father, which lead to him traveling far from his home where he met with unhealthy associates and returned damaged, angry, and vengeful to destroy his father and his father’s village. He is the ultimate evil, driven by his own insecurities to ally himself with the worst of society and unrepentantly bringing death and destruction on innocents.
Finally, the new hero, Hrithik Roshan, has his own way of bringing meaning to his role. Although it’s not a meaning he liked to talk about. Hilariously, his interviews promoting the film and how he related to this dark character focused on his terrible brush with “obesity”. Hrithik described how after his back injury, unable to exersize, he ballooned up to a 36 inch waist! So disgusting! He couldn’t even look at himself in the mirror. But, he dug deep inside and overcame this tragedy through perseverance and patience. He doesn’t directly say “and that’s why you should relate to me playing this character in Agneepath!” but it is implied. What’s crazy is that there is a much more obvious connection the audience should be drawing, but it is one that Hrithik doesn’t like to acknowledge.
Although it is almost never mentioned in interviews, public appearances, or even biographical sketches, it is well known that in 2001, his father was shot by the Bombay mob. Hrithik’s father was a well-known producer who was also actively directing his young son’s career, part of which was trying to keep him free of mob ties. The Bombay mafia was, and is, heavily involved with the film industry. Hrithik’s father almost died protecting his son from their machinations. Eleven years later, Hrithik plays a character whose father dies protecting him from criminal forces who seek to control his life and the life of all those around them. But, you know, don’t think about that while watching the movie, think about his great struggle with obesity instead.
While the original Agneepath was about Vijay who is Amitabh who is India itself, the new Agneepath is about multiple voices, the old India who dies with the end of the Emergency, the new India who is born out of it with the cry of “Vijay”; the damaged and forgotten elements who became the powerful criminal class; the charming liars who secretly sew destruction and misery; and caught between them the new India whose father died to protect it and who must now die in turn if he will ever be able to truly defeat the forces who threaten his home.
Amitabh was uniquely able to create an entire universe containing only himself. This was his downfall, that eventually there became no space for anything but himself and creativity died. But in Agneepath, his last great role, he showed the amazing ability of creating meaning out of nothingness. Hrithik, unable to build a universe on himself, instead looked to his co-stars, to assist him in creating a world.
You can see that if you contrast the difference between the pivotal scene of the original and the sequel. The most famous dialogue of Agneepath the film is not the poem from which it takes its name, but rather Amitabh’s introduction line: “Vijay Deenanath Chauhan. Poora Naam. Baap ka naam, Deenanath Chauhan. Maa ka naam, Suhasini Chauhan. Gaon, Mandwa.” (Vijay Deenanath Chauhan, full name. Father’s name, Deenanath Chauhan. Mother’s name, Suhasini Chauhan. Hometown, Mandwa.”)
In the original, this is really Amitabh’s introduction, the first shot we have of him as an adult character, lounging in a chair in the police station (the same kind of lounging he yelled at Pran for in Zanjeer when Pran was the villain and Amitabh was the cop!). He is reciting his name and ID for the record. It’s only memorable because it is Amitabh saying it, in a way he has never spoken or acted before. The Kohl lined eyes, the rougher voice, this is an entirely new kind of “Vijay” who carries with him all the pain and tragedy of the past as described in his brief summary of his identity.
But in the remake, they wait a looooooooooooooooooong time before these lines are spoken. They are the culmination of years of suffering and planning on the part of Hrithik’s character, multiple interactions with multiple characters representing other stresses and strains in his life, until, finally, he feels he can reveal himself in all his anger and power and vengeance, to fully accept his history and what it has made him into.