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Deewar

Deewar

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Deewar

ratings:
5/5 (2 ratings)
Length:
154 pages
2 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Oct 3, 2012
ISBN:
9789350292464
Format:
Book

Description

Yash Chopra's 1975 film, Deewaar, one of the most iconic and influential works of superstar Amitabh Bachchan, has been (to borrow a line from the film itself) the 'lambi race ka ghoda', enjoying a nearly unrivalled popularity in the long history of Hindi cinema. Its remarkable plot, crisp dialogues and epic narrative structure, revolving around the familiar story of two brothers whose paths diverge and lead to a fatal collision, have endeared it to millions. And its most famous line, 'Mere paas ma hai', has been endlessly imitated, parodied and referenced in cinematic and cultural works. However, as Vinay Lal demonstrates in his study of Deewaar, the film lends itself to much more complex readings than is commonly imagined. Examining it in the context of the history of Hindi cinema, the migrations from the hinterland to the city, and the political and socio-economic climate of the early 1970s, he draws attention to Deewaar's dialectic of the footpath and skyscraper, the mesmerizing presence of the tattoo, the frequent appearance of the signature and the film's deep structuring in mythic material. In doing so, he assesses Deewaar's unique space in popular Indian culture as much as world cinema.
Publisher:
Released:
Oct 3, 2012
ISBN:
9789350292464
Format:
Book

About the author

Vinay Lal is a historian, writer, and cultural critic. He has been on the faculty at UCLA since 1993 and is presently professor of history, Delhi University. His author of ten books.

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Deewar - Vinay Lal

Copyright

1

The Many Lives

of Deewaar

The thirty-five years that have elapsed since Yash Chopra's Deewaar (‘The Wall’) hit the screens have done nothing to diminish the reputation of the film as one of the most iconic works of mainstream Hindi cinema. Deewaar was the product of tumultuous times, though it must be said that to every generation its own period seems uniquely troubled, fraught with crises. To Indians, the 1970s were a time free of what these days is called terrorism; nor could one have imagined something like 200,000 farmers, their lives weighed down by debt, committing suicide. Recalling my life as a teenager at that time, I seem to remember, among other things, lines for milk, shortages of essential food items, and interminably long delays in procuring telephone connections. Those were the days when it took ten years or more to get a landline number – indeed, the word ‘landline’ did not exist in our vocabulary, as there were no mobiles by way of distinction.

It may be safely averred that the first half of the 1970s, as a later chapter in this book will detail at greater length, was a period of great uncertainty for India's citizens. In late 1971, India had achieved a decisive military triumph over Pakistan, even if this achievement is recalled in Pakistan as a deliberate dismemberment of the country; and the party once led by Mohandas Gandhi seemed positioned to consolidate its achievements and reputation under the leadership of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. A few years later, India would even seek entry into the exalted, or should we say debased, club of nuclear powers with a test, quaintly described as a ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’, at Pokhran. However, these signs of prowess only obfuscated a more profound sense of unease that, close to three decades after the attainment of independence, the dream had soured. In January 1975, when Deewaar was released, unrest was widespread: economic productivity had declined precipitously, cities were crippled by strikes and protests, and political unrest would underscore the fragile nature of the Indian state.

The ‘common man’, a character created by the cartoonist R. K. Laxman, was wont to look upon the political landscape with a wry sense of humour, but to the average Indian the prospects for economic advancement must have appeared bleak. The mere notion that one might lead a life of simple but quiet dignity would have struck many as a form of indulgence. Hunger and malnutrition were rampant; unemployment remained the bane of the young. What to say of rural India, even in the cities, as I have already suggested, shortages of milk, grains, pulses, and other necessities of everyday life were widespread. Great had been the slogans about the eradication of poverty, the creation of a ‘new India’ that Nehru imagined would buzz with the beautiful sound of machinery, employing millions of Indians and carrying the country to the threshold of modernity, and the dawn of freedom that had long been suppressed under the despotism of a colonial regime. Yet the sense of loss and betrayal was prefigured in the very act of independence, accompanied by vivisection and numbing bloodshed: in the memorable if oft-quoted lines of Faiz: Yeh daag daag ujala, yeh shab gazida sahar / Vo intezar tha jiska, yeh vo sahar toh nahin (This stained daybreak, this night-smudged dawn /This is not that dawn which we awaited).¹

The time was ripe for the birth of what would become known as ‘the angry young man’. In recent polls, India's young, at least in middle-class circles, have been described as among those who are most optimistic about the future, even prepared to believe that India is now poised to occupy its rightful place as a leading power in Asia and the world beyond. One might expect that Deewaar has consequently aged, but it is inescapably clear that neither changing cultural and cinematic fashions nor the substantially altered political landscape have reduced its appeal an iota. It has even found new audiences, its reach suggested by the unusual manner in which Deewaar is referenced in contemporary cinema. In the comedy, Loins of Punjab (2007), which has a near cult following, a young Jewish man, Josh Cohen, obsessed with Bollywood, and an elegant non-resident Indian, Mrs Kapoor (Shabana Azmi), are among those who gather at a motel in New Jersey as contestants vying for the American Desi Idol. When Mrs Kapoor is congratulated by a young reporter on her melodious voice, she turns to her guru and says, ‘As Amitabh Bachchan said in that famous movie, "Mere paas ma hai." Well, mere paas guruji hai, I have my teacher.’ Thereupon, Josh corrects Mrs Kapoor, ‘Amitabh didn't say that. In Deewaar, Amitabh didn't say that.’ With clenched fist and a determined look on his face, Josh adds: ‘He said, mere paas bungalow hai, gadi hai, tumhare paas kya hai, and then Shashi Kapoor said, "Mere paas ma hai."’ How can you, the young reporter asks Josh, know so much about Hindi films? ‘I'm a huge fan of Amitabh,’ confesses Josh.

Appreciation of the film has come from other unexpected quarters: Danny Boyle, describing Deewaar as ‘absolutely key to Indian cinema’, is known to have studied the film before making Slumdog Millionaire.² We may think of Slumdog Millionaire as a film that, as much as anything else, renders homage to Amitabh, and nowhere more strikingly than in its echoing of the narrative structure of Deewaar. I would like to think, moreover, that Shahrukh Khan had Deewaar, more so than any other film, in mind when in a recent interview, on the eve of the release of his film My Name Is Khan, he described the world of Hindi films as characterized by one eternal truth: ‘There has to be a mother in the film.’³

Amitabh Bachchan, given a fresh breath of life after Zanjeer (1973) rescued him from a career that seemed to be spiralling downward, was perhaps already on the way to stardom before Deewaar was launched; nevertheless, Deewaar was unquestionably critical in installing him as the unrivalled hero of the commercial Hindi film. Film aficionados will likely debate whether Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) was required to complete Amitabh's persona, but I am inclined to agree with a recent study of Amitabh's films which claims that ‘Deewaar is the basic text of Amitabh Bachchan’, and that his later films should be viewed as entering into a ‘dialogical engagement’ with the hero image generated by Deewaar.⁴ Similarly, though the scriptwriter duo of Salim– Javed, the shorthand for Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, had signalled its momentous arrival on the Bombay film world with Zanjeer, the crisp dialogues of Deewaar have left a staggering imprint on Hindi cinema and popular memory. The film's signature line is echoed in every nook and cranny of Indian culture, and it is touching that, in accepting an Oscar for his music for Slumdog Millionaire, A.R. Rahman rendered the film tribute unlike any, I suspect, ever heard at an Oscar ceremony: ‘Before coming, I was excited and terrified. The last time I felt like that was during my marriage. There's a dialogue from a Hindi film called "Mere paas ma hai, which means I have nothing but I have a mother," so mother's here, her blessings are there with me. I am grateful for her to have come all the way.’

It may be, then, that the success of Deewaar owed much to its harnessing of sentiments that were widespread but not yet fully articulated in cinematic language, as well as to the synergy among members of its cast and production team. I have already spoken of the arrival of Salim– Javed in tinsel town, and similarly of the revival of Amitabh Bachchan's career with the projection of his image, with which he is pre-eminently associated to this day, as the angry young man. The touch of a consummate director such as Yash Chopra, whose reputation was well established with films such as Dhool Ka Phool (1959), Dharmaputra (1961), and Waqt (1965), was perhaps all that was wanting in taking Bachchan to unrivalled heights. But is it too far removed to imagine Deewaar as a film that could well have been made by Prakash Mehra or Manmohan Desai? Is there something that allows us to hook Deewaar to Yash Chopra's world view, or does the enduring appeal of Deewaar arise from its treatment of the underlying themes of Indian society in transition and its deep structuring in what might be described as the mythos of Indian civilization?

Having traversed the realm of contemporary history, I would like to position Deewaar between the other axes of mythography and autobiography. I have asked myself why, as a social and cultural historian accustomed to dealing with large periods of time, numerous orders of temporality, the interplay of structures and events, and rather gargantuan repositories of the written word, a single film from the mid-1970s should warrant such attention as I am now bestowing upon Deewaar. The film encapsulates many of the themes that have so conspicuously shaped the urban landscape in India, such as the great migrations from the hinterland to the metropolis or the popular narratives of those who seem to be beyond the reach of the law. Does the singularity of Deewaar reside, so to speak, in the paradox that it could be anyone's story? ‘In the middle of the road of our life,’ begins the great author of the Inferno, ‘I found myself in a dark wood, where the right way was lost.’⁵ One brother loses his way in Deewaar and so sets in motion the events that bring his life to an early end at the hands of his other brother. How do two such brothers appear in one family? If members of a family are so unlike, why then do we expect people constituted in families to be quite unlike those not cast in the ‘family way’? People living in families, so say modern psychologists, are likely to be happier and live longer than those who have abdicated family ties, but Deewaar seems to give a different insight into the nature of the family. Happy families are all alike, and unhappy families are unhappy each in their own way: thus wrote Tolstoy in the opening line of Anna Karenina. And, yet, in watching Deewaar, one is tempted into accepting that all families are alike in being unhappy. Is the story of Vijay and Ravi another iteration of the story of the Kauravas and Pandavas that appears to have informed so much of Indian culture? We may be certain that we know what it is that led the Kauravas astray, but is the allegorical battle within ourselves ever fully resolved?

Nearly fifteen years ago, in a passing remark consigned to a footnote, I had occasion to remark that the huge bulk of Hindi films of the last five decades could be read as disguised commentaries on the partition of India.⁶ For an event of that colossal magnitude, leading to the loss of around a million lives and the largest displacement of people over a short period of time, the partition had, until then, generated little creative response. In the middle class and semi-English-speaking (but only marginally anglicized) circles where I grew up, Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan was easily the best-known work on the partition in English; over time, in my late teens, I became aware of more complex cinematic and literary

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