Revisiting Deewaar: Amitabh Bachchan's 1975 film confronted class divide within constraints of commercial cinema
Yash Chopra's 1975 film Deewaar is often considered a parable for good versus evil. As part of the column Rewind to Unwind, I will investigate the latent themes the film explored within the stringent framework of a typical mainstream Bollywood film.
What makes a classic? How does a much-talked-about film or TV show of its time go on to attain cult status? In our new column, Rewind to Unwind, we break down classics to see how they stand in 2020 and how they have aged (if at all).
For the better part of my life, I have been an alien to pre-90s Bollywood. My only segue into the era were meme-fied versions of “Yeh Haath Mujhe Dede Thakur” and “Mere Paas Ma Hain,” and a library of romance songs which, in many cases, outlived the films they were a part of.
Looking back, I feel a lot of my ignorance also stemmed from my abject disregard for anything bubbling with melodrama, featuring exalted demi-gods for heroes and cardboard cutouts for women, playing mothers, sisters and love interests to heroes, acting as catalysts in a hero’s cause. (Oh, the irony, for someone who ticks all the boxes of a 90s kid prototype).
But, I believe, age and a certain responsibility towards my profession have significantly mellowed me. So, when the opportunity to watch Amitabh Bachchan’s Deewaar for the first time presented itself, I couldn’t help but be a tad bit curious about the world I had so cheekily scorned as an obstinate teenager.
“So, sir, what is the difference between us and them?
There is no difference. We do it for the law, they against it.”
Of many things that stayed with me from Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani was this exchange between Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Deputy Inspector Khan and Parambrata Chattopadhyay’s Rana. It could be because of my steady exposure to a Bollywood-only buffet for as long as I could remember, this non-valorisation of cops in a mainstream Hindi film came as a mint-fresh change. Much to my surprise, Yash Chopra’s 1975 directorial Deewaar negotiates a middle-ground where despite its cop hero being celebrated in the end, the establishment is called to question time and again throughout the film.
The story is thus –Anand Verma (Satyendra Kapoor), a trade union leader, is forced to cower to the pressures of the corrupt businessman when he threatens to harm his family – wife Sumitra (Nirupa Roy) and his two sons Ravi (Shashi Kapoor) and Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan). His compliance with the demands of the higher-ups makes him a betrayer in the eyes of the labourers who he was fighting for. Shunned by society, Anand deserts his family, leaving Sumitra behind to fend for her sons.
Vijay, the elder of the two brothers, grows up in acute awareness of their deprivation. He carries the burden of his father’s humiliation, a tattoo reading “mera baap chor hai” (my father is a thief) forced upon him, and the responsibility of a provider. He starts out as a boot-polisher, acquires a job at the dockyard, is hand-picked by a smuggler to do his odd jobs, and then charts his way to become a formidable figure of Bombay’s underworld.
Meanwhile, Ravi receives education and lands a job as a sub-inspector. But Deewaar is hardly a parable for good versus evil. Vijay’s life of crime is a product of his circumstances, and his fight, like that of his father, is for the oppressed. His rebellion is against the victimhood of his destiny; his struggle is to give his family a better life. He fosters a simmering rage inside of him against the powerful, and slithers his way up the ladder of crime, because “uff yeh adarsh, yeh usool” (ideals and principles) ring vapid to his hardened, practical mind.
On the other hand, Ravi’s cocooned life makes it easier for him to lead a principled life. His education and his privileged gaze increasingly alienate him from the socio-economic realities of the world around him. Chopra expends enough time to shed light on the high rate of unemployment at the time through Ravi, who is frustrated of not being able to secure “even the last job” because he does not have a “letter of recommendation” to boot.
But the moment he is able to break away from the hamster wheel of poverty, his pragmatism is overshadowed by naivety – “if he can make a living through legitimate means, everyone can.”
Deewaar successfully subverted the conventional depiction of Mumbai as the land of opportunities. After her husband unceremoniously deserts her, Sumitra decidedly declares that they have nothing else to look forward to in their hometown, and heads to Mumbai in search of a better livelihood. But postcards are different from reality. Sumitra, who takes up a job as a labourer at a construction site, is but a cog in the wheel of an assembly-line. In this new landscape, families live on streets, survive on scraps, but still hold onto their unwavering hope for “a new morning.”
It is Deewaar’s unswerving confrontation of class divide in the urban milieu that makes it a narrative of dissent.
Until then, poverty was only explored from the perspective of rural India, like in Mother India and Do Bigha Zamin. But Vijay becomes a mouthpiece for the plight of the urban poor, migrating from the rural belt only to be relegated to the mushrooming slums and ghettos in the cities.
The struggles of the working class find expression in the dockyard sequence, where an old labourer Rahim Chacha notes "nothing, but the face of the workers, have changed for the past twenty-five years," referring to the dispensability of workers, the uncertainty of their livelihood as temporary workers and their extortion by local gangs. When a worker refuses to comply with the local gangster to pay hafta, he unceremoniously dies. So little is the value of their lives.
In another poignant scene, Ravi shoots a young man in a “police encounter” only to discover he had stolen a pound of bread. Guilt-ridden, when Ravi offers food to his family, the mother scathingly rejects his “charity.” She accuses the police of colluding with the state in protecting those who hoard grains, and hunting down petty thieves trying to feed their impoverished families.
But her indictment is swiftly undercut when the father declares “stealing, for a dime or a dollar, is a crime.” He goes onto explain that if everyone dying of hunger resorts to a life of crime, it would lead to anarchy. Ravi, whose belief that he is fighting the good fight is fortified, touches the feet of the father. As a contemporary viewer, this scene stuck out to me at first as apologist. But Deewaar released during the Emergency — at a time where creative autonomy was under the constant threat of clampdown. Hence the film, like most films of the time, had to tread the precarious line of what could and could not be depicted on-screen.
But for a film often regarded as a cultural zeitgeist for its anti-establishment narrative, Deewaar’s portrayal of women was far from revolutionary.
Predictably, the long-suffering mother is the moral centre. Neetu Kapoor played Veera, the archetypal angel-of-the-house. But in addition to these characters, there was also another woman, Anita (Parveen Babi). Not much is known about her life, except that she is often found in bars sipping on alcoholic beverages and smoking cigarettes. We are told she has a red saree her mother gifted her once. But what becomes of her family, what experiences she has had to live through, evade the narrative proper. Like Veera, Ravi’s beloved, Anita’s prime function is to give the audience a peek into Vijay’s vulnerabilities. However, it was perhaps the first time in the history of mainstream Hindi cinema that a female character was shown to have sexual agency. She tells Vijay she will never "force him to marry her" after finding out she is pregnant.
Until this point in Hindi cinema, young women were either virginal heroines or licentious vamps. In most cases, the latter were portrayed as smoking cigarettes, drinking and wearing short dresses, and leading a life influenced "by the West.” Actors such as Helen, Bindu, Aruna Irani, Kalpana Iyer and Shashikala became notoriously popular for their depiction of the Bollywood “vixen.”
Since Deewaar was not invested in exploring the duality of right versus wrong, even with its heroes, Anita’s character was exempted from such regressive labelling. But Anita was still an anomaly within the chaste Bollywood heroine framework, and thus, her only fate could be death.
The duality Deewaar is interested in is law versus lawlessness. Ravi is the embodiment of law, Vijay of lawlessness. Ravi is presented with a gallantry award in the end, Vijay dies in his mother’s arms looking for peace. The resolution seems like a compromise, and it is. By showing Vijay repenting for his “misdeeds” and by awarding Ravi, Deewaar makes hogwash of an attempt to make up for aligning audience sympathies with the “amoral” criminal, Vijay.
This duality is represented by the not-so-subtle metaphor of deewaar (wall) There’s an impenetrable barrier that separates the two brothers. Which is why, when the brothers leave the temple grounds with their mother, right at the beginning of the film, they literally walk two diverging paths. They meet for a final time as brothers under a bridge where they had grown up, the only token of their once-shared lives.
Vijay’s tragic death must’ve driven audiences to shed copious amounts of tears when it released. I’d lie if I say I didn’t tear up a little, even though blood stains on Vijay’s forehead were comically orange.
There are several other scenes where the film’s rudimentary aesthetics threatens to puncture one’s willing suspension of disbelief. But it is to the credit of the actors, especially Amitabh Bachchan, and the film’s watertight screenplay (despite a whopping 174-minute runtime) that not once did I feel impatient.
Although Deewaar’s USP remains Bachchan’s high-strung dialogues, be it “aaj khush toh bohut hoge tum” or the iconic “mere paas ma hai,” his portrayal of Vijay was remarkably subtle in the other emotionally-charged scenes. Incidentally, it was his turn as Vijay that cemented his image as the “angry young man,” an image he would go onto mine even as a septuagenarian, a la Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham and Mohabbatein.
In many ways, Deewaar is not a tour de force a classic is supposed to be. The film came out at a particularly fraught juncture in Indian history, and was made as a commercially viable enterprise. Hence, it does pander to mass sentiment. Remember when an atheist Vijay kneels in front of a Hindu deity?
But mainstream Bollywood rarely presented a hero till then who scorned the state and its machinations till his death, or ever proclaimed,
“Tumhare saare usoolon ko goondh kar ek waqt ki roti nahi banayi ja sakti.”
Frankly, mainstream Bollywood is still in dearth of such daring films and protagonists.
(All images from Twitter)
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