Monday, March 30, 2015

Amitabh's breakthrough: Zanjeer

Zanjeer (Chains, 1973) is not the kind of film my partner and I normally seek out, and a glance at the blood, guns, knives, and angry grimaces on the poster will tell you why. But Zanjeer holds such a significant place in Hindi cinema that we thought it was worth a look.

Ranjit (M. Rajan) is involved in the illicit trade in fake medicines. When he emerges from prison to discover that his daughter has died due to an injection of the very product he's been peddling, though, he decides that he wants out of the business. But Ranjit's bosses aren't willing to let him go—he knows too much about their operation—and they send a hit man to eliminate him. Ranjit's son Vijay witnesses the brutal murder of his parents by a man wearing a chain bracelet with a white horse symbol:

Orphaned, Vijay is taken in and raised by the upright Police Inspector Singh (Iftekhar). Twenty years later, Vijay has grown into Amitabh Bachchan, an honest cop in a world full of corruption and crime.

His battle against evil is a lonely and dangerous one. Once the local gang boss Teja (Ajit)—who not only distributes adulterated medicines, but also adulterated booze—discovers that Vijay isn't deceived by respectable appearances and can't be bought, he frames him to make it look as though he is taking a bribe. The honest and compassionate Vijay is sent to prison for corruption.

But this just makes Vijay more determined to bring down those who sent him there. Months later, when he is released, he resumes his crusade. Teja, angry that Vijay hasn't gotten the message, orders him to be savagely beaten and left for dead. But Teja and his gang come to regret that they didn't finish the job...

Vijay does have a few allies in his battle against Teja's vast criminal enterprise. There is De Silva (Om Prakash), whose sons died after being poisoned by Teja's "whiskey." De Silva seems like a harmless drunk, and so he is ignored by the gang. But since they don't pay him any attention he is able to see and hear all about the gang's plans, and he telephones Vijay with information about their next moves.

Mala (Jaya Bhaduri) is an itinerant knife-sharpener. She is a prime witness when one of the gang's liquor trucks speeds through a checkpoint and plows into a group of schoolkids. Reluctantly, Jaya agrees to identify the driver; murderously pursued by the gang, she seeks shelter with Vijay. He takes her to the home of his step-brother and wife for safekeeping. But as Vijay and Mala are thrown into each others' company, tender feelings begin to develop between them...

"Deewane hain" (We crazy ones) was composed by Kalyanji-Anandji, with lyrics by Gulshan Bawra, and sung by Mohd. Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar.

Just remember that (to paraphrase Chekhov) if in the first act a knife is sharpened, in the third act it must wind up in someone's back—hurled there by Mala.

Vijay's other ally is Sher Khan (Pran). Sher Khan ran a gambling den that was broken up by Vijay. After the two have a brutal but honorable bare-knuckle fight that leaves them both dazed, they become fast friends. Sher Khan closes his establishment, becomes an honest auto mechanic and Vijay's two-fisted backup.

This is the first film that made us really notice Pran, who (both before Zanjeer and after) mainly played villains. We had seen him (without giving him special attention) in other classic films: Ram aur Shyam (1967), Bobby (1973), Don (1978). But Sher Khan is so memorable because he is such a delightful and strongly positive character: tough, fearless, and loyal, as he demonstrates in "Yaari Hai Imaan Mera" (Friendship is my honor, friends are my life; Pran's playback singer is Manna Dey):

With friends like these can Vijay's ultimate discovery of the identity of his parents' murderer, and his victory over Teja and his gang, ever be in doubt?

Zanjeer has a key place in Amitabh's career because he had not previously had a great deal of success as a leading man. It also has a key place in the career of the heroine, Jaya Bhaduri. At the time she was a more successful actor than he was; she had had several hits and had already won a Filmfare Award. It was something of a risk for her to appear with him, but (already in love with him, thanks to their work together on Bansi Birju the year before) she didn't hesitate. During the shooting of Zanjeer the couple reportedly decided to marry if the film was a hit. It was, and they married less than a month after its release. Ironically, the success of Zanjeer and the couple's subsequent marriage mark the beginning of the decline in Jaya's film career: a young wife and mother, she was soon displaced as a romantic heroine by other, unmarried actresses.

Zanjeer was also the first Salim Khan-Javed Akhtar scripted film in which Amitabh appeared. Salim-Javed went on to write the Amitabh-starring superhits Sholay (Flames, 1975), Deewar (Wall, 1975), Trishul (Trident, 1978), and Don (1978), among others. Although these Salim-Javed films are all very distinct, in each Amitabh plays a working-class man who is forced to respond—usually with violence— to the world's crushing injustice. The names of his characters? Vijay (Zanjeer), Jai (Sholay), Vijay (Deewar), Vijay (Trishul), and Vijay (Don).

Zanjeer is the film that made Amitabh Bachchan a superstar, and which defined the Angry Young Man role he would play for much of the next decade. And while it's impossible for us to watch this film without hindsight, it's clear that this kind of role became Amitabh's trademark because of his powerful charisma and fierce conviction—qualities that he continues to bring to his roles more than four decades later.


  1. Zanjeer! I really ought to watch that again. I was pretty new to Bollywood when I saw it and I probably missed a lot, but I enjoyed it pretty well. I liked Mala.

    1. Jean, Jaya's Mala is definitely not a demure, helpless heroine waiting to be rescued by the hero. She's strong-willed, gives as good or better than she gets, and even winds up rescuing Vijay. She's one of the most enjoyable things about Zanjeer.

      I will say that the frequency of the fistfights kept my finger hovering above—though only occasionally pressing—the fast-forward button. But despite our aversion to violence, we enjoyed Zanjeer thanks to the smoldering Amitabh, the feisty Jaya, and the irrepressible Pran. If you saw it early in your Bollywood viewing, it's definitely worth a rewatch.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Yes one more vote for Zanjeer here. I'm a fan of Amitabh (young and old) and think him not only a good "angry man" but also an excellent "funny man" and also a "broody lover", actually he is one of those rare actors who can do any role and manage to give a good performance every time (I have seen some bad AB films, he is really not very choosy, but never saw him give a bad performance or phone in no matter what the role is)

    Yes, it was sad for Jaya Badhuri, but still she has left good films where heroines are interesting and strong (Milli and Guddi are two of my faves). And my favorite performance of hers (despite liking her a lot in Zanjeer) is Abhimaan.

    1. Eliza, you're right to point out Amitabh's amazing range as an actor. I want to point out one other aspect of his versatility: he's an excellent dancer. "Khaike Paan Banaraswala" from Don (sung by Kishore Kumar) showcases many of his talents:

      Thanks for your comment, and for your Amitabh and Jaya movie recommendations (which I strongly endorse).

  3. This comment may cause angst for the many die hard Amitabh fans - I personally think Jaya was a much better actor than AB. Make no mistake like millions I too like many of AB's movies. However, Jaya's movies covered a variety of roles - Guddi, Abhimaan, Jawani Diwani, Doosri Seeta, Koshish, mili, uphaar, piya ka ghar, bawarchi, kora kagaz etc

    1. Filmbuff, I would never want to take anything away from Jaya Bachchan, who amazed me in Kal Ho Naa Ho before I had any idea who she was, and who (you're absolutely right to point out) is an excellent and versatile actress.

      But I disagree with you about Amitabh: I think he's a fine actor (and over his career he's appeared in an amazing variety of roles). At the same time, I think that he is something more than an actor: he is a star.

      As James Baldwin famously wrote about film stars, "acting is not what they are required to do…One does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be. One does not go to see Humphrey Bogart, as Sam Spade: one goes to see Sam Spade, as Humphrey Bogart." The frame of reference is simply different for stars, and it was Amitabh's smoldering, burning, and finally explosive performance in Zanjeer that made him one.

      Thanks for your comment!