I’m just going to say it, Deewar is the best written film in the history of Hindi cinema. I did a mini-review of it related to the release of Raees, I am going to expand on that mini-review and try to give it the detailed discussion it deserves.
First, a story: I have only met one Desi in my life who has not seen Sholay. When this came up, my reaction was of course “YOU HAVEN’T SEEN SHOLAY????????” Apparently this was the first time he considered this as strange, so then he started thinking about it, and eventually traced it back. You see, his family didn’t really watch Hindi films. Although his parents had when they were young. And there was one Hindi movie that they did watch over and over. And finally he realized what happened after putting together all the family stories. His mother in 1973 went to see Deewar in theaters and never felt the need to watch another Hindi movie after that. Because there was no point in any other film after you’ve seen Deewar. Better to just re-watch it for the rest of your life.
Sholay is the “perfect” movie, visuals and pacing and comedy mixed with love story and all of that is just the best in every way. But Deewar is Sholay with all the fancy trimmings removed, the speed racer to Sholay‘s Rolls Royce, as it were (does that metaphor make sense? I don’t know cars). Deewar is just the story, and that’s it. The story, and Amitabh.
(The relative size of Amitabh versus all the other actors, and even the title of the film, on this poster, is a pretty accurate representation of what it feels like watching the film)
Deewar is probably Amitabh’s greatest role. No one else in the world could have played that part. Not just played it, embodied it. Amitabh isn’t just acting here, he is becoming this character, with all the force and power and anger and everything else inside of it.
Amitabh is what gives meaning to Deewar, how he is and what he is and how he plays the role. Deewar is like Shakespeare, the meaning of each line and every scene can shift depending on how it is said and how it is played. And because if is Amitabh saying it and (a little bit) because of how Yashji chose to direct, there is a different meaning to Deewar than what we see in the bare outlines of the plot.
If you were on the censor board, you would look at Deewar and see the story of a “good” and “bad” brother. The “good” brother triumphs, along with his virginal bride and his saintly mother. The “bad” brother ends up redeemed in death. Nice, tidy, nothing controversial or alarming.
(Does anyone even really remember the love story in this film? The one that gets all the songs and sweetness and the “happy ending”?)
But if you are in the audience for Deewar, released during The Emergency (Indira Gandhi’s 21 month period of suspension of civil liberties. Which of course the audience didn’t know would only be 21 months at the time), after decades of the “License Raj” which picked away at the common man’s ability to progress in society or find any small sense of happiness, after years of the wealthy buying their way out of any problem, moving to cities because your lands have dried up thanks to government Dams, or become toxic from factory waste overlooked by the officials who are supposed to protect you. Living on the streets while you try to build some kind of better future for your children. Well, then, when Amitabh finally breaks loose and stops standing silently by enduring injustice and instead fights back for the first time, or when he tells a rich man “I will not pick money up off the ground”, or cries out in anger to God at the end, when the troubles of his life have finally driven him to the temple, “ARE YOU HAPPY NOW????”, then the audience knew exactly what Salim-Javed was trying to say.
But it’s more than just Salim-Javed. Yes, it’s their words and their story, but more than that it’s Amitabh. Somehow, in some magical way, in this film he became the embodiment of an entire country of unhappy disenfranchised lost people. Their suffering, their endurance, their pride, and most of all their Anger, at the wealthy, at injustice, at God himself, it was all somehow part of him. And his fight was their fight too, when you saw him onscreen taking on a dozen men by himself, it felt like somehow he was trying to make life better for everyone against the impossible odds that were stacked against them.
No one remembers this, because Amitabh is so phenomenal in the role, but it is actually Shashi Kapoor that gets the best lines of the film. He has “Mere pass Ma Hai”. But he also has my favorite line (one that doesn’t get referenced a lot):
“In my veins flows not just my father’s blood and my mother’s milk but my brother’s sweat”.
I love that line, and it also summarizes what this film is saying about India today. Shashi, the bright clean future of the country, only got to where he is thanks to the sustenance given him by the suffering working women, the blood giving him by the men who sacrificed before. But more than that, and the part that Salim-Javed made this whole movie to remind us, he got there thanks to the labor of the working man, the abused working man who is forgotten by God and society at the same time that he is fighting the world and sacrificing his life on their behalf.
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This is a very simple plot when you write it out, but not simple-stupid, instead it is simple-classic. Amitabh and Shashi are brothers. Amitabh becomes a criminal, Shashi a cop. After much angst, Shashi decides he has to arrest his brother. Meanwhile, Amitabh is under attack by rivals in his gang. He is killed before Shashi can capture him. Shashi wins a medal for bravery, and in his speech gives credit to his brother.
It’s not about the basic older brother criminal-younger brother cop plot concept, it’s about all the little poetic touches of how it happens. The reason the older criminal-younger cop dynamic is so common is because the older sibling is more likely to carry the weight of responsibility in a broken home, is more likely to be forced to grow up too fast and too young so that the younger can thrive and enjoy their childhood. And any damage that the parents do is more likely to hit the older child than the younger. This film makes that explicit, with two drunken angry men grabbing young Amitabh from the street and tattooing “my father is a thief” on his arm. Shashi is home, Shashi is young and kept away from the world, Amitabh is forced to carry the family shame.
Nirupa Roy, their mother, doesn’t help. I read one interesting article arguing for a strongly Oedipal reading of the film. And yes, that works. Nirupa elevates her oldest son to “husband” status while leaving her youngest still a child. Nirupa and Amitabh talk about money worries, Amitabh feels the need to protect her when she is yelled at by an angry boss, Amitabh no longer sees them as parent and child but as equal partners, and Nirupa does nothing to change that. And again, this is realistic, and extreme version of what often happens in families, it is easy to make the oldest child into a partner, to forget that they are also children.
One small theme in the film is how family can be our weakness, that you must break that connection or it will drown you. In the beginning, we see Amitabh’s father, Nirupa Roy’s husband, a strong union organizer. He is carrying the hopes of the whole community with him and goes in to talk to the managers. And then is shown a photo of his wife and sons, held hostage, and breaks down and gives in to their demands. He saves their lives, but he destroys their lives, he himself loses all self-respect and abandons his family after this, his oldest son is permanently tattooed, and his wife is left to struggle alone. At the end of the film, we see Nirupa and Shashi each choose the greater good over family. Nirupa walks away from Amitabh when she learns he is a criminal. And Shashi, eventually, agrees to hunt him down and arrest him. Amitabh even, he first begins to change his life when he chooses fighting for the greater good over protecting his own job, confronting the gangsters that run the docks on behalf of all the workers and eventually taking over and running the docks himself.
I used to think that this film suffered from self-censorship, that Amitabh dies because the gangster always has to die, and boring Shashi was made the hero because the cop has to be the hero. But the more I think about it, the less I think that is true. It’s a reflection of the realities of the world, and there are no simple answers.
Amitabh works hard for his family, going out in the world even as a little boy to struggle and try. But Nirupa shouldn’t have let him do that, especially for the sake of her other child. It wasn’t “right” or “wrong”, not fully, it was just what they had to do to survive. Just as his father’s choice to pick his family over his fellow workers, and then to leave his family because he did not want to bring his shame on them, was neither right nor wrong, just a hard situation.
Amitabh fights off the racketeers who run the docks, that is good, they are taking hard earned money from those who need it. And then he takes over their job, taking money and running the docks himself. Yes, he does it more kindly than they did, but is that right? Is it right for him to join a smuggling gang, to become rich without following the rules and without giving anything back to society? On the other hand, is it right that an honest man can struggle all his life and never have a shot? Is it right that the laws of the country and the habits of the country are so restrictive that a talented intelligent man like Amitabh can only find advancement in crime?
There’s a little bit of Shashi’s story that questions this as well. He becomes a cop eventually, but before that he graduates with honors and starts looking for a job. And he can’t get one anywhere, either there is already a son of someone who was promised the position, or there is someone else who needs it more and Shashi gives it up. The private sector of India is broken, promising prospects can’t find work. Meanwhile, Amitabh is noticed and immediately offered a position based on merit in the criminal world. Something is broken here beyond just this family.
Something is broken for women too. Parveen Babi is luminous in this role, a call girl who becomes a girl friend. She is the one Amitabh can confide in, can become close to, because she is the one who experienced the same journey he did. Both of them with no other options were left to sell their bodies, Amitabh as a worker on the docks and Parveen as a call girl. They turned to criminal enterprises because it was the only way to advance, and now the world only sees them as criminals, Parveen as a fallen woman and Amitabh as an evil gangster. One of the loveliest moments of the film is when Amitabh stumbles across a wedding sari in Parveen’s closet. She doesn’t ask for pity, just says honestly that it is a dream she knows will never happen. And she is right. Amitabh tries to make it happen, wants to marry her, but his enemies find her and kill her first. It’s not a coincidence, a woman like her, living on the outskirts of society, will always be in danger. There is no going back, no finding a respectable safe married life, not for her. That’s not the way the world works, and it’s not fair and it’s not her fault, but it is what is.
The most famous line of the film is “Mere pass Ma Hai” (I have mother”). It captures this whole debate. You can succeed in this unfair world only by leaving behind all that matters. Or you can fail to succeed but hold on to something bigger. Or, is it bigger? This family was starving in the streets and no one did anything to help them, is it worth it to hold on to “Ma”, to some faded version of honor, if it means never living in a fair world?
There’s two other lines that stick with me. “Mere Baap Chor Hai” (my father is a thief). Children are forced to pay for the sins of their parents, Amitabh’s early death was sealed in that moment, whether it was from overwork at manual labor or gang wars. The world isn’t fair and you have to acknowledge and carry the burdens of your parents.
And then Amitabh’s great burst of “Aaj aap Khush Hua????” (are you happy now?) yelled at a statue of God. That is the moment he finally lays down his burdens. Years of holding his family together, holding society together, letting his anger burn within him, until he lets it lose and demands answers, acknowledges a power greater than his own. And finds peace.
This was Amitabh’s “Angry Young Man” movie, and also the world’s “angry young man” movie. You can’t watch it without feeling frustrated, unhappy and angry, confused and disappointed. The movie doesn’t give you simple answers, there is no one way forward, the best it can say is to forgive, to remember that no one has simple answers, no one has an easy life, and in the end, all you can do is accept that and let go.