The Bachchan Screen Persona, and Violence
Violence in Hindi cinema is multi-hued, and has multiple perspectives
He came to Kolkata (then Calcutta) in search of a job in one of the several blue chip companies that were steadily filling the employment gaps in the city. He landed a job at an advertising agency, and in his spare time, got involved in English theatre, or kept busy watching club football matches at the Maidan. But in his mind, he dreamt of bigger things he could not quite put a finger on.
Then, one fine morning, on February 15, 1969 Amitabh Bachchan signed his debut film. It was released on November 7 the same year. No one guessed, including Bachchan himself, that the history of Indian cinema had begun to rewrite itself to include his name and work spanning more than five decades.
The hero, with the rise of the Amitabh Bachchan persona, evolved into a product of his environment. His shifting principles, from honesty to dishonesty (Deewar), from innocence and naiveté to negative wisdom (Adaalat), from forthrightness to brutality (Lawaaris to Muqaddar ka Sikandar) were in keeping with the decaying morals and eroding values of an increasingly corrupt society.
The hero as projected, popularised and perpetuated by the Bachchan persona, was the unique symbol of kitsch.He sometimes gave the impression of being an Indianised Rambo or Eraser or Terminator, the unique member of a species of humanity where industrialization and modernisation underlined the existence of man as a consumer, and also a destroyer of values and of fellow-men.
This hero became a machine created by his predecessors and was no longer the creator who could manipulate the cinema-machine, and the audience-psyche himself.
Journalist and film historian Narendra Panjwani in an article following the assassination of Indira Gandhi wrote in The Sunday Observer, "we live in a society at once medieval and modern, a society where vengeance and honour inspire great heroism as well as violence, are considered sacred and right (The Indian Penal Code notwithstanding), and what is more, have the power of giving most people a sense of solidarity and identity in an otherwise bewildering modern world.
"A challenge to one's honour is a high point in the life of the man who receives it. It is an opportunity for a man to feel he fully exists as a man, to prove his manliness to himself and others."
He quoted examples like Sholay, Deewar, Zameer and Qurbani where the ethic of manliness, real justice and self-definition through vengeance against his humiliators are sought to be justified and then emulated in real life. This debate between those who believe that films inspire violence in real life and those who believe that it is the other way round – that it is real life violence that reflects itself through films, goes on endlessly, more often for its own sake than for finding reasonable answers.
The question arises 'is violence necessary?' Or is it the most convenient shortcut to get even, get instant solutions to seemingly irresolute problems? Or more logically, to mesmerise the box office? Note that Bachchan plays a lead role in the above films except Qurbani.
No star worth his salt was willing to step into the role of the angry police inspector in Prakash Mehra's Zanjeer. Even the not-very-choosy Dharmendra rejected the offer. The reason was said to be the negative shades in the character of the hero which, these stars felt, would go against their screen and public image.
Then, someone called Mehra up to tell him to try out 'this new actor' who seemed to have a lot of potential. By then, Mehra was at the end of his tether. He was willing to try out this lanky, six-feet-three guy whose track record showed a string of super flops.
Zanzeer turned out to be a box-office hit and India got the greatest star-actor of all time – Amitabh Bachchan. The rest, as the clichéd saying goes, is history.
Zanzeer, was said to be a plagiarised version of the Clint Eastwood starrer American pulp film Dirty Harry. It left the original 'inspiration' far behind. Bachchan changed the face of the mainstream cop who was also the hero of the film. For the first time, the angry young man in police uniform strode across the screen, holding the audience in thrall with his unsmiling visage, clenched teeth and eager-to-hit fists.
His anger arose from a lonely, orphaned childhood thrust on him by the villain who killed his parents as he, a little boy, watched from a hide-out. His methods were unorthodox, both when placed within the police force, as well as against the backdrop of the Hindi cinema's policeman stereotype.
He used bad language – a novelty at the time – and pounded the villain with his naked fists. Zanzeer made history, sparking off a fire of rage, police violence, where the honest-to-God policeman often threw away his badge, uniform and rifle to fight the criminals outside the law, when he failed to fight this within the system.
Yash Chopra's Deewar is said to have been a take-off on the real life story of the notorious smuggler Haji Mastaan. The film was a blockbuster and marked a turning point in cinema by perpetuating the popularity of the negative hero through the persona of Amitabh Bachhan.
Bachchan consolidated the image of the angry young man he introduced in Zanjeer. Violence in Hindi cinema is multi-hued and has multiple perspectives. It wears many faces and dons different expressions, often known, sometimes unknown.
The oft-tread path of violence is predominantly Hitchcockian in character and image, used more in misuse and abuse, than in aesthetic expressions. But it was the power-packed performance of Amitabh Bachchan in Deewar that made it a cult film linked directly to Bachchan's magnificent performance.
In his analytical essay, 'The Impossibility of the Outsider in the Modern Hindi Film', Vinay Lal while commenting on Amitabh's role in Trishul, points out "Trishul's Vijay is not a generalised, existential rebel but a man with a mission, setting out systematically to destroy his own father, a megalomaniac industrialist in a highly entertaining series of sharp-practice business deals."
This violation of a taboo has a distinct subversive appeal, but in Bollywood terms it can only be justified as a response to an even greater violation: Vijay is out to avenge his sainted mother (Waheeda Rehman), who was abandoned, unwed and pregnant, so that her fiancé (Vijay's dad) could marry up into a rich family.
This betrayal lays the groundwork for the financial empire his son attempts to destroy. To honour one imperative of his duty as a good son, Vijay must violate another, a contradiction he chews over obsessively in a series of set piece speeches.
No individual trigger like a mother or father is called for in contemporary films. The hero is almost totally self-motivated, his actions spurred on as if as the result of a strong electric charge that diffuses only when his revenge is complete.
Examples are Deewar, Sholay, Adalat, Lawaris, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar and many more Amitabh Bachchan starrers during his 'angry young man' phase. This kind of violence radically changed the character and personality of the hero bent on retributive justice.
From a well-meaning, good-natured and honest individual, he is transformed to become the villain he has set out to destroy. As a means of attaining poetic justice through cinematic balance, the script often leads the protagonist to destroy himself, killed either by the circumstances he has built around himself, or death in his own hands or through the hands of a close one.
The death of the hero is written into the script because it becomes a no-exit situation for him. He dies, either in the cross-firing in a gang-war or with the police, knowing that there can be only one end for him – death because of, by and in violence.
Author's Note: PVR Cinemas in collaboration with the Film Heritage Foundation and the poster collector SMM Ausaja, have organised a tribute to Amitabh Bachchan, titled 'Back to The Beginning' with a retrospective of 11 of his films across 19 theatres in India. An exhibition of Ausaja's select posters of Amitabh Bachchan's films will be held in Mumbai till October 11, to celebrate the actor's 80th birthday.
Cover Photograph- A scene from the blockbuster Sholay.