Friday Classics: Zanjeer, the First and Most Romantic Amitabh Film

I know this is the film that invented the Angry Young Man.  I know it is a Big Story about power and the state and so on and so forth.  And that’s why I enjoy it and respect it the same way I enjoy any of the other Amitabh classics, Sholay or Deewar or Trishul or Agneepath.  But the reason I love it just for me, is because Jaya and Amitabh are SO IN LOVE.  Like, so in love that it is blinding.  It’s not a surprise they got married as soon as they finished filming, it would have been a surprise if the DIDN’T get married.

I watched Zanjeer the first time about 8 years ago, and then I was desperate to share it with someone else.  But it isn’t exactly a good movie night movie, not to watch with my friends.  There was no sexy scene they could hoot over, or boring bit we could ignore while we fought over cupcakes (I went through a whole cupcake period when I realized they were easier to make then cookies.  Cookies came after I discovered they were easier than homemade pizza.  And then I discovered delivery pizza was easiest of all!  Which is where I am now in my hosting).  So I waited until I had a movie night with only one or two people who could really focus.  And the first one that happened, it was one friend and a friend of the friend.  So we talked and debated and they agreed to watch Zanjeer.  Only my friend had to leave early, so it ended up being just me and the friend of a friend.  Who I had never met before.  And who was going through a messy break up from her boyfriend and sleeping on people’s couches and just generally seemed lonely.

(Well, there’s this, but I’ve seen sexier)

Anyway, you know how I have mentioned that I have a hard time making other people unhappy?  And generally speaking up for myself?  It’s not normal for a total stranger to come to your movie night, talk through the film, and then keep talking for SIX HOURS, until it is 5am, right?  I finally managed to suggest that maybe she should leave when it got to the point that I had to start thinking about going to work.  And then I arranged it for her to never come to a movie night ever again or in any way make me aware of her existence in the world.

So part of watching Zanjeer, for me, is having a bit of a PTSD flashback to “guest that will not leave and I am so tired I feel sick”.  Which works well with getting me in the mindset of our tormented hero!  But not so much our spunky heroine who would have just stuck a knife in that woman around about 2:30am.

Speaking of our spunky heroine, that’s part of what makes this film so special.  This is not a heroine like we get today, or even that much back then.  Until about halfway through the film, so far as the narrative is concerned, she is treated the same way a male character would be treated.  She is a local of the neighborhood where our hero cop has just been assigned.  She is “good”, but not used to abiding by laws.  They have run ins over her pulling a knife on a guy.  Later, she is the only witness to a traffic accident,  Amitabh wins her over to testifying (despite threats from the local gang boss) not with “love”, but by showing her the hard done by the criminals.  It is only after aaaaaallllllllllllll of this that they start to fall in love.

(Love her.  Also, if you watch this, can you confirm whether or not she is checking Amitabh out from behind when he gets back in his jeep?  I kind of think she is.  1970s police pants were apparently very very tight)

It’s a great love story, but more than that, it’s important for understanding our hero.  Because this is an Amitabh movie (arguably the first true Amitabh film, rather than just a film he is in), so everything revolves around the hero and understanding him.  And that’s okay, it’s not “PATRIARCHY!” or something, that’s how this film is designed, Jaya is secondary to him, but so is Pran and everyone else onscreen, it’s his journey.

This is a guy who seems fine on the outside, but on the inside has crazed anger and nightmares and all kinds of things.  He can’t have a normal romance with a normal woman, he isn’t someone who will go to parties and flirt (we see him at a party with poor Bindu dancing all around him, and he doesn’t even look at her), but if it comes up sidewise, if it is this person that he sees as more of a neighborhood person under his protection/hostile witness, then he can let her into his life without thinking about it.  Especially if she feels the same way, if she is also someone who doesn’t know how to relate to people the normal way, who doesn’t feel like she is “supposed” to feel.

These are two lonely people, who suddenly realize they could come together and have the life that everyone else seems to be having.  Thus, Jaya’s transformation.  After she spends the night at his house, and they share a moment in the morning, he takes her over to his brother and sister-in-law’s house.  With the unspoken understanding that his sister-in-law will teach her how to be a good middle-class housewife so that she and Amitabh can marry and have a good middle-class life.  This isn’t just Jaya’s transformation, this is Amitabh’s as well.  He wants to be that guy, the guy who comes home and teases his wife every night, who is nice and “normal”.

But he can’t be that guy.  And Jaya has to follow his lead (because this is an Amitabh film, so everyone follows his lead).  His life falls apart, he lands in jail, he gets out, and Jaya tries to keep up the plan they were following.  To talk to him about curtains and house colors.  And it doesn’t work, for either of them.  They aren’t those people, not really, they are something else.  At least, right now they are something else.  Which is why the final fight scene isn’t just Amitabh fighting, it’s Jaya too, still in a sari having claimed her feminine identity, but also still able to throw a knife like she learned when she was living on the streets.

At the end of the film, after the bad guy is defeated and so on, Amitabh picks up the titular chain, the bracelet he remembered from his childhood and seeing his parents murdered which has tormented him in dreams since then, and throws it away.  But he doesn’t stop there, he walks over to Jaya, who is still holding a throwing knife from the fight, takes it from her, and tosses it aside as well.  They are both done now, he needed her strength and anger too in order to win, but it is over and they can reclaim a happy life again.

Even if it weren’t Jaya and Amitabh, this would be a good romance, two damaged odd people coming at each other sidewise.  But because it is Jaya and Amitabh, and Jaya and Amitabh at the peak of their love affair just before marriage, the screen practically glows when they are together.  Someone in the comments when talking about this movie (or some other similar movie, I can’t remember) said that she has a hard time watching because it feels like you are looking in their bedroom window.  They are so in love, in real life, that it spills over into their film love scenes in a way that is a bit too intimate to be entirely comfortable for the audience.  But is also rare and beautiful.

(Just watch the first few seconds of this, you will see what I mean.  And not be surprised that their daughter Shweta Bachchan was born slightly less than a year after this film came out)

This really isn’t a love story movie, despite all that stuff I just said.  The love story is a big part of it, because it is a big part of Amitabh’s character’s journey, but it is truly a movie about Amitabh and no one else.  It wasn’t even necessarily supposed to be that way.  He gets the back story at the opening and all of that.  But if you look at the final fight scene, it is Jaya and Pran and Amitabh fighting together.  It could have been the regular sort of film where the hero is 40% of what’s happening, and the heroine and hero’s friend/ally split the remaining 60%.

But something happened in this film, something undefinable, that made Amitabh into a figure so larger than life (no pun intended) that everything else recedes around him.  There are things you can point to, the unique psychological thriller idea of the script which draws the audience into his psyche through seeing his nightmares, the brilliance of his first few scenes, where he snaps from calm to anger in seconds, just the pure look of him, a role that takes advantage of his great height and uses it instead of trying to minimize it.  But beyond all of that, there is something else that just sort of clicked into place inside of him during filming and somehow made him into a totally different screen presence not just from what every other actor in India was, but from what he himself had been in previous films.

In later years, directors would come to count on Amitabh, just Amitabh, to carry the movie.  And he can do that, sure, I mean he can do that to this day, if you put him in the right role (Sarkar, for instance), he can make your whole film.  But in the early years, and even later with the better directors and scripts (Pink, for instance), they didn’t count on him to carry everything.  This film is all Amitabh, but it also has Pran, it has Jaya, it has Ajit, it has Iftakhar (playing a police inspector of course), and it has Om Prakash.  And each of these people have their own motivations and backstories and human struggles.  This isn’t a world created just from Amitabh’s pain, this is a world in which his pain is added to by all the pains of others.

Here’s one brilliant thing the script does.  Amitabh doesn’t realize, until the very end, that Ajit is the man who killed his parents.  And, at the very beginning, we see that his parents are not entirely blameless.  Mostly blameless, but they aren’t innocent witnesses to a crime (like the parents in Yaadon Ki Baarat), his father is a criminal considering changing sides and working with the police.  Amitabh’s pain is real, and so is his anger, but that isn’t why he is justified in going after Ajit.  The pain and anger lead him to be a dedicated police officer, to try to save everyone else in the world from feeling the same way.  But this isn’t a straight “revenge” film.  He goes after Ajit because Ajit is bad, because he is still harming other families the way Amitabh’s was harmed.  His realization of his past at the end of the film resolves his own internal conflicts, but it changes nothing about his external actions.  That’s brilliant!  To combine the two ideas, the noble police officer and his responsibility to society, with the internal pain, but keep them separate in the narrative, that is amazing.

And for contrast, along with Jaya sharing his journey from anger to middle-class peace, we have Pran, representing his out of control emotions.  Pran who respects force and power and bravery, who falls in love with Amitabh in a moment and remains loyal to the end asking nothing in return, and who DOES give in to revenge in the final fight, defeating the man who tried to harm his friend in the same way he was harmed.  And we have Om Prakash, representing his inner pain, the pain he tries to ignore.  And Iftakhar, representing control and law.

(Pran’s love song also gets the end credits tag, so the film really is supposed to be about the two of them.  But the Jaya-Amitabh chemistry was so rich, it overtook the Pran-Amitabh chemistry)

But, and here’s where that sneaky Salim-Javed get their anti-state licks in, Iftakhar is ultimately powerless.  Just like Thakur Sahib had no arms in Sholay, and Shashi needed his big brother to rescue him in Deewar.  The script may pay lip service to The State, say that in an ideal world all would obey and serve the law, but what we are seeing onscreen is a powerless state.  Iftakhar blind to the realities of the world, ultimately captured by Ajit and needing to be rescued by our lawless 3, Jaya and Pran and no-longer-a-cop Amitabh.


8 thoughts on “Friday Classics: Zanjeer, the First and Most Romantic Amitabh Film

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