Another story! This time not his personal life, but his screen life, and that one unique moment on screen that summed up so much about his appeal.
Onscreen, Amitabh does not fight for himself. Other heroes are heroes because they fight the best, because they are innately stronger and better and braver than everyone else. Amitabh is the hero because he fights the hardest, and will never stop. There is never a moment of cockiness in his performance, of joyful pride in his abilities, of ambition even. He plays his heroes as bearing the weight of the world on their shoulders and just trying to keep holding it up. They may become rich, they may become powerful, they may get the woman they love, but it does not bring them abiding joy. They want something more than that.
Amitabh onscreen was created by three movies, Zanjeer and Deewar and Sholay. In each film, the conflict is between Amitabh’s love for an individual (his family, his heroine, himself) and humanity as a whole. If he could leave humanity behind, his life would be easy and happy. But of course, he can’t. He is pulled to it as surely as Majnu to Laila, with equally disastrous results.
The context of these films, the rise of Indira Gandhi’s total power within India, cannot be removed. Amitabh himself was tied to the Gandhi’s through bonds of love and friendship, but those he was working with were not necessarily so loyal, especially once Indira called for The Emergency and suspended civil liberties. Amitabh’s films of the mid-70s are about the pull between greater general good and the individual, usually landing on the true heroism being the individual who sacrifices himself to serve the public.
Zanjeer started it all, and the main themes are already there. Amitabh is an honest and devoted police officer. He falls in love with a hardworking knife sharpener who lives alone on the streets. Their romance is a charming gentle dance as she tries to learn how to fit into his world as a rising young inspector. He has a loving brother and sister-in-law, some small amount of family wealth, and a good education. He even has friends, his devoted follower Pran, who brings him joy. But underneath it all is the PTSD of the half-forgotten murder of his parents he witnessed before being adopted, and this misery is what drives him, what makes him unable to enjoy pure happiness. So long as there is injustice in the world, so long as there is crime, he cannot simply be happy. There is a moment towards the end of the film when Jaya is happily talking about curtains for their future home, and stops herself, and gently tells him to be free, she can see he will never really be happy with their life together, he is pulled away from her.
Deewar took that theme, the individual versus the common good, and expanded it to such depth that this script may never be equaled in quality in Hindi film. Partly because it does not give a simple version of greater good versus individual. Zanjeer is at heart a police film, the idea of the dedicated police officer following justice over personal happiness is a familiar one. Deewar complicates that, instead suggests that perhaps the person who truly gives up their personal happiness is the one who does not even have the public honor of being in the police, has nothing about them to make people think of them as “good”, but simply DOES good. In this movie, Amitabh stops school at 8 and begins working on the docks, goes from dock worker to criminal, and finally dies in a shoot out. No one will honor him, no one will mourn him. That is the point of the film, it begins with his little brother receiving a medal and explaining he doesn’t deserve it, the person who deserves the medal is one that would never be given it.
Deewar has many famous moments, many famous lines, but the most important moment is the one that has no words, Amitabh’s first fight scene. It takes it’s time getting there. We have the lengthy childhood flashback explaining how Amitabh ended up choosing to be a manual laborer, giving up his future so that his little brother could have one. We see Amitabh going through the motions of life without caring, paying off the enforcers at the docks without complaint, lifting boxes with barely a wince, just existing. And then one day at work the enforcers come and a young laborer refuses to pay them. Amitabh tells him to just do it, it’s meaningless, but he wants to fight. He is beaten, and killed.
And this sets off the most important segment of Deewar. First, the enforcers come back, ask Amitabh for money, and he flat out slaps them and walks away. No words, no heroics, just doing what he feels he has to do. The gang goes after him, looking through the docks, and his older friend warns him they are coming and he should hide. He is reluctant, but goes, casually jogging out of the room to hide in a warehouse. We think he is scared, we think he doesn’t want to fight. We see the gang in that warehouse, looking for him, and are worried he will be hurt. And then a voice comes saying “Peter, all your men were there looking for me, and I was here waiting for you”. (Peter tum log mujhe doondh rahe ho aur main tumhara yahaan intezaar kar raha huun). He is leaning back, at ease in a chair, smoking a cigarette.
The fight follows, he beats up all the gangsters (of course), but that’s not the important part. The important part is his decision, not in hot blood but with coolness, to stand up and fight for someone he barely knew, to fight for an objective idea that it is WRONG for their hard earned money to be paid off week after week to these gangsters, to reach outside his blinkered view of caring for his family above all and see something bigger than that. He is not afraid, he is not hiding, he knows the fight is coming to him and he is waiting for it.
That moment, the moment that he is revealed sitting there, that is the moment that is in the mural by his house. That is the moment that AMITABH, as we know him onscreen, was born. The moment he decided it was time to fight and die if necessary, because sometimes it is easier to die fighting injustice than live trying to be blind to it.
And that is what the audience responded to. They had been out there looking in the world for a hero to follow, someone to fight the injustice of daily life in India for the working classes. And here he was, inside the movie theater, waiting for them.