ZANJEER (1973)

Zanjeer kick-started the angry-young-man phenomenon that till this date finds a voice in many of the Bollywood films. It made a superstar out of Amitabh Bachchan and firmly established the writer duo of Salim-Javed and announced their arrival in the big league. As I was watching this film for the purposes of this review, I was surprised to find my father (who seldom watches films) sitting with me till 12 pm i.e till the film ended. That’s 2 hours past his go-to-bed time. I haven’t seen him overstepping his routines atleast in the past 5 years. That’s not all. As the film unfolded, he could actually mouth dialogs even before the characters could speak it. Before every dramatically charged scene, he would say “Now! Now! The big jolt is coming”.

I could sense a child-like excitement in him which pleasantly surprised me. He must have seen this film 20 to 30 years before and it still remained fresh and etched in his memory. Such was the power of the tale, the drama, and the performances. Zanjeer demonstrates the characteristic of an enduring classic even though it’s not without its share of flaws. It was successful in hitting the emotional core of the viewers which ultimately made it so dramatically satisfying. People were able to find a voice through the protagonist of the film at a time when all was not well in the Indian society. The film worked as a means to let out the frustration and angst of the people even if it was strictly within the boundaries of a theater.

Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) watches his parents murdered from a cupboard as an infant by Teja (Ajit). His father, who worked for a syndicate that dealt in fake medicines wanted to turn a new leaf but was cleaned up before that. Vijay is taken in by the inspector who dealt with his father’s case and grows up to become a police inspector himself. He is morally strong but sometimes takes his duty to a whole new level inviting disciplinary trouble. Soon Vijay crosses path with Teja, the man who murdered his parents (Vijay didn’t see his parent’s killer but only saw his hands and a bracelet to remember him by) and is at the helm of all illegal trades in the city. He also comes into contact with Mala (Jaya Bachchan) who is a witness to a crime and is being targeted for murder by the perpetrators of the crime. The two soon get romantically involved. And then there is Sher Khan (Pran), a reformed criminal helping Vijay in his quest against Teja.

Zanjeer starts off with a bang. The pieces of the story beautifully fall in line with the basic premise being set up quite naturally. Once Amitabh appears on screen, the tale gets rollicking. Since the audience is privy to the dark childhood that he had, one fully understands his angsty attitude towards everything. The persona worked so well because of 2 reasons. Amitabh Bachchan’s sterling act that made it real and the highly believable background that justified why he was the way he was. The film gets a major kick when Amitabh comes into the contact with Sher Khan. The portion that documents how the 2 become friends is extremely well done and leaves a feeling of warmth. Pran basically reprised his role in this film in 2 different avatars with different treatments in films like Majboor and Don.

The next part of the film that comprises of the blossoming romance between Vijay and Mala and how Teja smartly gets Vijay suspended is the only somewhat weak portion of the film. The reason is simple. After the rousing drama and dialogue-bazi of the first quarter, this part feels somewhat petered down. Also, the manner in which Vijay is implicated didn’t go down too well with me. However, these issues are minor hiccups as Vijay’s dismissal and incarceration turns him even angrier. Once out of jail, he wants to go all out against Teja but he is constantly pulled into marital bliss and an ill-placed feeling of peace by Mala and for once he gives in. But a chance encounter with De Silva (Om Prakash) who was so long tipping him off with information about Teja makes him seriously re-think his premature retirement.

I just loved the portion where Vijay comes home after a meeting with De Silva where he comes to know about how De Silva’s entire family fell prey to spurious liquor on a Christmas day and how he has been waging a lone war against Teja ever since. As he is lost in these thoughts, Mala tries to talk to him about decorating their house. Vijay snaps and it is one of the most rewarding sequences about how disillusioned and frustrated he is at his current predicament. His words in a way gave a voice to many in the society who were actually in the same frame of mind. Soon Vijay is attacked by Teja’s men and nearly killed but Sher Khan saves him again (another sequence that is not particularly well done). After recovering, he goes all out against Teja and finally this time, he lands up with some substantial evidence against the man. During the final showdown, the fact finally dawns on him that Teja was the one who killed his parents in the first place.

The climax is a tad bit too dramatic and there are some editing issues here and there but that can all be forgiven because of the sheer satisfaction it brings to see the villain bite the dust after spending almost the whole film having an upper hand on the protagonist. This finale in a way also points to the very thought and belief that no matter how insurmountable an evil may feel, the good always triumphs in the end if that good is willing to fight.

This review wouldn’t be complete without a word or two about Pran. With his red hair and equally noticeable sherwani and an interesting rendering of the khan-dialect with words like “khabis ka baccha” and “Vijay Khan” thrown in every now and then, Sher Khan is a character who is easy to love and like. He is the prototype of the loyal friend who starts off as an enemy but is beguiled by the protagonist’s goodness and becomes his ally for life. This mantra has been used innumerable times in Bollywood but seldom was able to achieve kind of success that Pran’s character is able to extract here. The reason is Pran’s wonderful act for which he deserves every bit of appreciation.

Ajit’s Teja became immortal for his “Mona darling”, “Sona” and a breezy but calmly evil attitude. He enacted a similar part in many other films but never with the kind of success that he is able to garner here. Even other antagonists took leaves out of his sublime act and interpreted it in their own manners. It is difficult not to like his act even though he is detestable. Java Bachchan’s character goes through a strange arc in this film. From a self-sufficient and free individual, she metamorphs into a clingy la housewife character that is happy to shy away from every atrocity and horror in the world as long as she has beautiful and flowy curtains on her windows and her man by her side. For writers like Salim-Javed who wrote some of the most progressive women every written in Bollywood (Shanti-Trishul (1978), Anita- Deewaar (1975)), this was a far cry.

Overall, Zanjeer is a potpourri of every ingredient that makes Hindi films irresistible to the viewers. It has high drama, it has songs, it has camaraderie, it has a larger than life antagonist and it has a David vs Goliath scenario that works really well. Add to that a new discovery in the form of the angry-young-man attitude and you have a film that is a classic for all the right reasons.

Rating : 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)

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