“Zanjeer” is forty. Long live Vijay

An entire century of Indian cinema has produced only three male screen personas which lasted more than a score of respectable films. The Devdas model of Nehruvian Bharat, the urban youthful romancer of a nation entering its twenties and the vigorous, violent angry young man; all now entrenched in the DNA of popular culture and exemplified by Dilip Kumar, Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan.

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The 1970’s were an unsettling yet defining decade with crumbling idealism, decaying establishment edifices and overpowering angst. Bereft of heroes, the testing times demanded one with a metallic spine who would declare a crusade against the constant onslaught of corrupt authorities trying to stifle his aspirations.

Taking a cue, Salim-Javed stepped into the arena.

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The birth of their fictional progeny named ‘Vijay’ (victory) coincided with the self-delusional power trip of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Riding on the back of her father’s legacy, her coterie pitched the emotional occult of “India is Indira” to the largely uneducated masses while exploiting the traditional belief of nationhood as ‘mother’.

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Like cinema, she too dealt in the projected image. However when she betrayed the nation and declared emergency in 1975, this idea dissipated. The mother in human form slayed the mythical one in a single stab.

Swiftly, the popular persona of the passive persecuted hero who blamed Kismet for personal inertia disappeared as Vijay took up cudgels for the nation. Overnight the old order changed as the celluloid cosmos gave birth to a new superstar.

The Gandhian philosophy of non violence, which saw brief rejections by the protagonists Birju in Mother India (1957) and Ganga of Ganga Jamuna (1961) was transferred to the cryogenic vault for the next fifteen years.

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Birju and Ganga

Bereft of any super heroes other than the Gods of yore, a new India forged and connected with its own brand of the bare-fisted daredevilry dictated by popular psyche thus defining a new cult of urban mythology.

Vijay, first introduced in Zanjeer (1973, Dir: Prakash Mehra) is a cowboy at heart.

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The late great Prakash Mehra directing Amitabh Bachchan

He is an adventurer flying in the face of danger and prone to risk taking. Death is often invited and sporadically cheated. He takes on just about everything built up by a regressive inherited system; the law and order machinery (even when in uniform), the still delayed and denied criminal justice system and capitalists sans conscience.

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He even breaches the deeply ingrained final Indian frontier and challenges God on his own turf.

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Raised on a diet of foreign films, Salim-Javed had urban sensibilities inspired by western aesthetics.

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Salim-Javed: Hmmm… What Next?

Their suited villains smoked cigars, guzzled VAT 69 and drove Impalas. To clone Vijay, they perfectly blended some legendary Hollywood images.

He has the terseness of Eastwood’s lone outsider with the bravado of Bogart and…

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…the realism of Brando with the rectitude of John Wayne.

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Salim Khan also derived inspiration from his father who was a cop.

Besides being articulate and industrious, Salim-Javed were extremely smart screenwriters. They borrowed liberally and made it their own; like the opening of Zanjeer is derived from Death Rides a Horse (1967) with a boy watching his family being massacred by a killer wearing silver earring (instead of Zanjeer’s bracelet).

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Without overtly radical insinuations in their writing to avoid censorship and delays, they shifted the political arena and posited it within the family and work space. However the implications did not escape the fans or the sociologists.

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As Salim Khan says, “Vijay was the anti-thesis of existing sensibilities. A hero, who did not sing or dance, was averse to humor and romance and seized his rights when infringed upon. He was not only tough to create but even more difficult to sell.”

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History has recorded a succession of fortunate refusals for playing this role (especially by Dilip Kumar) which brought Bachchan to the center stage or we would have had a middle-aged mumbling Devdas matching wits with the groovy bad boy Ajit and his moll, Mona darling.

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Another one of Vijay’s gifts to the cinegoer was the respect he accorded to women. Other than the mother (of ‘mere paas maa hai’ fame) he never fought shy of protecting their dignity, even if she was a lady of the night (Deewar, 1975).

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Today in a largely splintered audience demographic, Bollywood is finding it increasingly difficult to zero in on any cohesive characterization which has a pan-Indian identification like Vijay did.

For a nation led by an indifferent, perplexed polity and a public oscillating between socialist shackles and capitalist confusion, we desperately need another hero to redefine the rage of today. As Batman says, “A hero could be anyone”.

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And Chulbul Pandey is probably not the answer.

Coming Soon: The “Rage of Vijay” Trilogy.

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