This is a big beautiful serious film that magically captures in a bubble all these actors from different film places. And yet, it doesn’t have an evil villain’s lair with an alligator pit, so I can’t love it as much as Shaan. I respect it, but I don’t love it.
This is just the most amazing film for how it weaves together all the lines of Hindi film history. I don’t know if the script or the casting came first, or if they just mutually influenced each other, but the end result is a movie that in story and cast brings the full weight of everything that is finest in Hindi cinema.
I can’t talk about script without getting into spoilers, but I can talk about cast. Dilip Kumar is Dilip Sahib, a film legend. As a young man in Bombay, looking for work, a friend of the family suggested he meet with the people at the Bombay Talkies studio. Bombay Talkies was always on the look out for handsome young men who could speak classical Urdu. Dilip entered the Bombay Talkies training program where he was quickly taken under the wing of Ashok Kumar, their leading star. Ashok was a Bengali who came to Bombay to assist his cameraman brother-in-law and, through a unexpected series of events, ended up a movie star. He adopted Dilip into his group of friends, helped him learn to take film acting seriously and respect it as an art, and to learn all he could about every aspect of filmmaking because it was the only way to really make it as a star.
Dilip went on to be a legend in his own right. And he always took his job as actor very very very seriously. One story that is consistently told is of people finding him in his dressing room before a shot reciting the dialogue in Arabic, Urdu, English, whatever. He liked to prepare for a performance by trying the meaning of the lines in every language he knew. While other actors didn’t even rehearse once, he rehearsed 4 different times in 4 different languages, just to be sure.
And then there’s Amitabh. Raised by a poet, and the first Cambridge PhD in English literature from India, he knows language and poetry and everything on a deep deep level. And he took his acting very very seriously as well, patiently worked through years of flops until he started to hit, and remained serious and professional and modest on set straight through. Dilip and Amitabh didn’t become close friends on this film (they did later in life), they had little in common beyond their profession, but decades later Dilip remembered Amitabh for his courtesy and professionalism. Dilip was past his years of matinee idol fame, and Amitabh was at his peak. But when they were trying to complete the difficult emotional airport confrontation, Amitabh noticed the noise and crowd were interfering with Dilip’s ability to give a performance and asked them all to please be quiet. And then patiently waited and reacted to Dilip’s lines (when another actor would have asked for a stand-in) until Dilip felt he had given his speech in the best possible way.
It’s interesting to watch Ashok and Dilip’s few scenes together, to see that similarity in their performing style, and contrast it with the way Amitabh and Dilip feel so abrasive together onscreen. Amitabh is all power and punch, while Dilip is class and grace and calm. It’s just who they are, and it is perfect casting. We don’t need the script to tell us that Dilip is closer to his superior in the police (Ashok) than to his own son, we can see it in their behavior straight through.
And the female side is no less! Well, there’s no real Ashok Kumar equivalent. But Raakhee versus Smita Patil is fascinating! Raakhee is only 8 years older than Smita, but began acting in a whole different world. When Raakhee started in 1967, popular Hindi film was a mixture of social dramas, love stories, crime stories, and action films. She played a whole variety of fascinating heroines, sang her songs, wore pretty clothes, danced, was romanced. And then as the 70s went on, those kinds of roles, the interesting unusual heroine, became less and less. Raakhee was too interesting an actress to fit into the new sexy heroine parts, and so graduated to interesting mother roles. “Mothers” but, like in this film, more than that as well. Conflicted, brave, funny, strong, interesting, not just there to wipe the hero’s tears and go away.
And then there’s Smita. She entered into a brand new film world, the “paralel” cinema. By the late 70s it was apparent that mainstream Hindi film no longer had the space it used to have for experimentation. From romance, social dramas, and so on and so forth, the world of Hindi cinema had narrowed to action films. Some of them very high quality action films, but still limited to that one genre. So a new group began, the “parelal” artists, who made films intended to fall between the government sponsored documentaries and classical art films and the mainstream Masala cinema. Smita was their Queen, her face somehow magnetic on camera, her smooth elegant gestures hypnotic to watch, able to turn the most average and downtrodden of characters into someone you loved to watch.
So we have Ashok playing Dilip’s mentor, Dilip and Amitabh feuding across the generation gap, Raakhee as the elegant older woman who can’t quite understand or approve of Smita, and Smita as the honest straight forward “real” person dropped into all of this drama.
The casting of this film was such a striking thing, I am afraid it overshadowed the film a bit. It even overshadowed it for me, I struggled to think of Dilip and Amitabh as their characters instead of who they were and then once Ashok showed up, I just gave up utterly. I wonder how the film would be received by someone who didn’t know who they were, just saw them as actors? I think it might be even less in that case, phenomenal performances all around of course, but without knowing Dilip versus Amitabh and that whole backstory, would you find their scenes together quite as powerful?
The script is the same as the casting. A good story on its own, but when I am able to follow and understand how Salim-Javed played with established stories from the two eras of film, Awara for Dilip and Deewar for Amitabh, I find it even more fascinating. It’s one film that somehow encompasses the first 30 years of Hindi cinema in one go.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Simple story in the classic Salim-Javed way. An honest police officer must arrest his own son. Alternatively, looked at the other way, a little boy turns against his father when his father chooses justice over him. That’s the brilliance of this story, both sides are in the right. Amitabh and Dilip each get their own versions of the central question and they are different versions.
Another way to look at it is to consider what would happen if Deewar had gone another way. In the opening of Deewar, lil’ Amitabh’s honest union leader father gives in when his family is threatened. He is broken by the guilt and shame and walks away from his family. They are forever branded (literally in the case of Amitabh) with his weakness. Amitabh is left with a burning hatred for the world and it’s unfairness which drives him to respect no rules but his own. In this film, once again lil’ Amitabh is kidnapped. But this time his father puts what is right over his love for his son. Once again, Amitabh is left with a burning pain, the knowledge that his father does not truly love him, and this drives him to question all his father’s values.
The answer is that there is no answer. The child is broken once he is used as a pawn in a game against his father. Anything after that will lead to the same end.
Which brings me to Awara. In that case it is not fate that treats the child as a pawn, but a planned attack. K. N. Singh is a bandit who hates the judge Prithviraj who threw him in jail. He finds Prithviraj’s son Raj Kapoor on the street and mentors him and turns him into a criminal as a way to attack Prithviraj. Of course, Prithviraj had laid himself open for this already by putting social opinion over his heart and throwing his wife out on the street. Awara leaves open to interpretation how much blame to place on Prithviraj for his actions, but makes clear that K. N. Singh has no real care for anyone.
This movie takes Awara, the idea of the morally perfect father who becomes so perfect he turns into a failure, and adds in a layer of doubt to the criminal mentor, in this case Kulbushan Kharbanda. When Lil’ Amitabh was kidnapped as a child, it was KK who let him escape. Years later, Amitabh recognizes him when he is hired at his hotel and remembers him. KK and Amitabh do not have a father-son bond exactly, or even necessarily a friendship, but there is a trust and loyalty there that Amitabh does not have with his father. And the film never suggests that KK is merely using Amitabh, or would betray him. KK may not have found love and happiness with his criminal superior, but he has found a sort of safety in that relationship that is not there with his own father.
This is a good movie to watch and consider how the simple character definitions do not fit the characters, and why that might be. Dilip is a Noble Cop, he loves the law more than his own son, he should be a Hero. But we see how his actions hurt his innocent little boy, and his wife Raakhee, and he does not seem to hesitate or question his choices in response to that hurt. More damning, at the end of the film he goes hard to arrest Amitabh not because Amitabh is a terrible threat to the safety of the public, but because the papers claim he is dishonest and won’t arrest his own son. Dilip may claim to be just and honorable, but there is a lot of pride there as well. And the film shows that, I love how Sippy chose to do it, a double-exposure with Dilip’s face shouting orders into a phone and looming above as we see the police raid and beat and drag away struggling workers while looking for Amitabh. Dilip is sending fear and pain out to harmless folks in a maddened attempt to save his own pride.
The film builds and builds so that we see how both father and son are right and wrong. Amitabh first goes awry from his father when he sees a stranger on a train being attacked by muggers and defends her. The police arrest him, and his father blames him and will not listen to anything. Amitabh can’t find a job anywhere, finally gets one at KK’s hotel and Dilip blames him for choosing to work somewhere that might not be sparklingly clean and honest. Amitabh becomes a criminal, helping with the smuggling going on at the hotel, and becoming rich. Yet he hesitates at violence, and does not progress to deeper crimes.
Meanwhile, Dilip is a man who loves his son but tries for fairness. He struggles with the pain of his son’s constant rejections, and patiently accepts them as his due. He keeps his personal and public life separate and will forgive anything, endure anything, in his personal life. He loves his son straight through and cares for him as a father, at the same time he is trying to arrest him as a police officer. His pain is enormous but, unlike his son, he never lashes out and tries to hurt those who hurt him, he just swallows and keeps going.
In the end it is a story of a generation gap. When Dilip was young, the world was black and white, you could get honest work easily, you could find a nice woman and marry her, everything was clear. He doesn’t understand how Amitabh struggles for honest work, how his “dishonest” work isn’t quite the black-black that it was in olden times, how you need to adjust in this new world. And Amitabh doesn’t understand that a man who seems so strong and sure and perfect can still be hurt, that his wild angry emotions aren’t falling on deaf ears, Dilip is accepting them all and keeping them in his heart.
Smita’s character is fascinating for that greyness. On paper, she is a “bad” woman. She sings in a hotel, she lives alone, when Amitabh leaves home he moves in with her, they have sex and she gets pregnant before marriage. But she sings classical Indian songs in the hotel, dressed in modest saris. Amitabh moves in with her and she takes rent from him and gives him his own room. They have sex because they are in love, not because it is what she would do with any man. And when they get pregnant, they get married. While Dilip is struggling to accept Amitabh’s smuggler-but-not-bad status, Raakhee is struggling with Smita’s hotel-singer-but-not-bad status. It would have been easy for Salim-Javed to make Smita, only the “love interest” after all, into the usual hotel singer type. But they wrote her differently, a dignified modest independent woman who doesn’t fit with the old-fashioned definitions.
And then there is Raakhee. The Noble Wife and Mother. She loves her husband and her son, and she quietly wastes away when they divide her between them. And finally, she dies, shot by the gangster enemy of both husband and son while riding in a car with her husband to visit her son. On the one hand, she is the Saintly Mother. But on the other hand, she seems unable to function effectively. She struggles to bring her son back home and unhappily accepts the reality when he refuses. She struggles to get her husband to soften on her son and finally gives up. She ends up in bed, slowly wasting away, unable to bring either side to do what she wishes. Even unto death, they unite briefly in grief, and then divide in alternate routes towards justice for her death. Another film, like Deewar or Agneepath, would show her as firmly choosing one side over the other. Instead she drifts, unable to reject either one. With Raakhee as the moral center of the film, the film itself is not choosing either, both sides have their right and wrong and there is no way to make them meet.
And so this film heads for a tragic ending. The father must kill the son. Just as in Mother India, yet another classic film reference, while the audience understands and sympathizes with the child, the parent cannot afford sympathy and must punish them. Dilip will win, because the state always wins, and the parent always wins, while the child is left to twist and suffer. This is not a pretty death scene, a sweet drifting away, this is angry and pained straight to the end, a man suffering and never stopping even as he feels death approach.
But then we have the framing device. It opens and closes with the 3rd generation (4th if we count Ashok as the first one), Anil Kapoor, Smita and Amitabh’s son who is returning home to talk with his grandfather before making a career decision. Anil is cheerful, clean, fresh, unbroken. And he chooses a life in the police. It’s a nice tidy ending, but it doesn’t feel right with the rest of the film.
The funny thing is, if we look at this movie in terms of the generations of Hindi film heroics, then Anil doesn’t join the police. Amitabh’s legacy (in film in general and his character here in particular) was in his love. This film even brings us there, while Dilip puts public duty over personal pain, Amitabh does the opposite. And so of course his son will choice to focus on love and people and personal joy rather than on crime or police or anything like that. Dilip’s generation was social dramas of perfect poetic heroes, Amitabh’s was angry passionate young men, and the next will take Amitabh’s love and passion and remove the public entirely, turn it into love stories. Anil himself shows that, his big hit break out role would be in Tezaab, as a passionate lover who fights only for love, not greater anything. And Ramesh Sippy’s next film as well, Saagar, a 100% romance.
But a slightly awkward ending on a brilliant complex film that is the only time three giants of Hindi film were in the same movie? That’s like blaming the sunset for having one little cloud.