The Zanjeer on Devdas

9 09 2008

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The idea for the present column first came to me after I watched (again) the 1975 Bollywood cult movie, Zanjeer.  As most would know, Zanjeer is the story of the angry-young-man-Amitabh Bachchan who is witness to the traumatic twin murders of his parents which orphans him as a child and how he takes revenge for that in his youth. Zanjeer established the hegemonic genre of “angry young man” films and put Amitabh Bachchan firmly on the road to superstardom. So domninating was this genre that it rapidly led to the eclipse of the romantic hero and forced everyone with “heroic” aspirations in Bollywood to enact “dhishoom – dhishoom” roles. In the post-Zanjeer era of Bollywood, only the angry-young-man character could deliver blockbuster hits. Exceptions like Love Story or Ram Teri Ganga Maili were precisely that – exceptions. Almost all other genres and characters were confined to niche audiences or forced to become supporting characters to the angry young man. Other hero-aspirants quickly learnt the new rules of the game and moulded themselves into similar screen personas.

The typical Bollywood plot of the 1970s and 80s consisted of the villain killing the future hero(e)’s parents / family or kidnapping the young boys before the first reel of the 18 reeler was out; only to face justice and meet their maker in the last reel. The plot would generally have the orphan growing up with a loving semi-family, finding a sweetheart after some aggressive skirt-chasing and energetic song and dance routines, discovering his true identity and/or the true identity of his family killer and then proceeding to take revenge.

Small divergences were often put in to make a particular film “different”! The love interest of this angry young man could be rich or poor, his siblings could be his partners or oppose him or even be his rivals, the context could be rural or urban, but one of the near invariants of the angry young man screen persona was that he was effectively an orphan. So the question which came to my mind was, “Why were so many of Bollywood heroes orphans”? What was it that made orphan-hood such a powerful idea in Bollywood stories? Another way of asking this same question would be, “Why did millions of film watchers identify so closely with the orphan to convert his stories into blockbusters”?

Interestingly, most film reviewers and writers have identified the angry young man with the anger of the young and restless generation which was born after independence and was unhappy with the system, with the continuing poverty and with a failing, corrupt State. The secret of the angry young man’s popularity has been analysed in the semi-proletarian urges of the youth. While this is surely important, I have a feeling that the deep resonance of the angry young man with his audience was founded on his being an orphan – the hero who had no real ties with family or caste. In fact, this hero persona – orphan with no real ties to family or caste, goes back much before the emergence of the angry young man. Most of Raj Kapoor’s abiding heroes were similar orphans – his global all time hit being Aawara (vagabond). Other popular heroes too were similar orphans. It may not be an exaggeration to state that the orphan-hero is the most abiding screen persona of the Bollywood hero.

It is difficult to provide any easy answer to why this is so. I feel that we need to understand the role of popular cinema in India to understand the deep resonance of the orphan-hero. Celluloid stories are infamously stereotypical and celluloid characters are gross caricatures of real humans. But it can well be argued, as has been by scholars like Sudhir Kakkar, that stereotypes and caricatures build a world which enables the audience to project their selfs onto the screen. For the three hours inside the film hall the viewer is living a dream, transferring themselves onto the personas on the screen. The story and characters are not supposed to be “real” but rather fantasised versions of how we perceive reality.

If this is even partly true, it implies that the persona of the orphan – or the hero without family or caste ties – enables mass identification by millions of people who are aspiring to be unshackled by the ties of family and caste which bind them so fiercely in real life. Breaking with the real ties of family and caste impose an unacceptably high cost as is experienced by Devdas or by Raj of Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. The family and caste does not allow either the hero or his fan in the film-hall to live a life of his choice. The celluloid orphan-hero undergoes the pain of watching his family being killed, an act which is voyeuristically consumed by his fans in the film hall who then proceed to inhabit his persona to the extent of mouthing dialogues, getting haircuts and stitching clothes which identify them with the orphan-hero. This orphan-hero is free from all primordial identities and free to make his own life as he chooses.

The deep resonance of the orphan-hero was a cry of millions of Indians who wanted to break out of the suffocating ties of family and caste which they found themselves bound by but had no idea of how to escape. The three hour film provided that escape and they returned repeatedly to relive the liberatory experience that these films were. As a leftist looking back at this slice of our cultural history, I cannot but feel that we failed to identify this cry and longing of the multitudes and failed to initiate any programmes for social reform and cultural transformations which could have given meaning to this and led to real change in peoples’ lives. We merely condemned the film-viewers to crass culture; for their addiction to crass culture.

Today the issue of caste is increasingly being addressed by the left. It is still unsatisfactory and ad-hoc, but a clear beginning has been made. Unfortunately, the family remains still uncritiqued and untouched. There is not even the beginning of the realisation that the uncritiqued family of South Asia is the real foundation of reactionary politics, regressive ideas and oppressive practices so prevalent. Whether it is honour killings, sexual choice, property inheritance, dowry, female-foeticide, nepotism or corruption, the family and kin are at the centre of each of them. It is pertinent to remember that one of the most important intellectual and political movements which eventually led to the anti-colonial struggles which gave us independence started by a radical critique of the extant family by people like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Henry Derozio, Pandita Ramabai, etc. It appears that this tradition of critiquing and transforming the family ended after Ambedkar’s valiant efforts to push in the Hindu Personal Law in the immediate aftermath of independence.

Today the movement to change and destroy the Indian family is an orphan. The Zanjeer (chain) tied to Devdas’ feet remained shackled. Even Bollywood has moved on and now celebrates this same family. But that is another story, or column!

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This article was published in my weekly column in The Post on Wednesday, 10 September, 2008.

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7 responses

9 09 2008
Jyotirmoy

But I would say that in most of the angry young man movies, the hero is not really an orphan since the father is actually a large presence–whether living or dead. Deevar: the son rejects the ideals of his trade unionist father but still fights to avenge him–“pehle us aadmi ka sign le kar aao jisne mere haath pe yeh likha ki mera baap chor hai”. Shakti: once again the tussle between individualism and the claims of the state reflected in the father-son relationship. Kaala Patthar: where the father/State emerges from the sky to pluck the hero away from his temporary proletarian existence once he has redeemed himself. Don: father-figure SP is removed and hero now has no way to prove his authenticity, a fact made even more clear by the different ending of the remake.

So, I would still go with the conventional notion that the shackles on the angry young man is not those of caste but those of the Nehruvian state.

10 09 2008
janaki

its an interesting argument but simplistic. and rather patriarchal, for most angry young men have the mother alive- remember nirupa roy in her white saree. in fact the rape of the sister is a pivotal turning point marking the transformation to the angry young man. many are illegitimate- and their anger is directed at either revenge from the father or a search for the father.
i was also taken aback when rammohan roy is seen as a critic of the patriarchal family and clubbed with ramabai. the transformation of the family that took place with the rammohan roy kind of intervention actually created the family as we know it now- the middle class nuclear ‘modern’ yet ‘traditional’ and ‘companionate’ marriage; it is this new patriarchal family that is celebrated by today’s bollywood. ramabai, ambedkar and periyar belong to the a different tradition which critiqued the patriarchy of the family.

10 09 2008
janaki

and in zanjeer itself the heroine is transformed from the free spirited presumably tribal/low caste economically independent woman to a domesticated, upper caste, respectable housewife. she is the one free of family bondage and he, when he is done with taking revenge, will make with her the very same caste based patriarchal family of his childhood.

11 09 2008
Manjari Katju

To understand the mass identification with the orphan-hero, we also have to look at the trajectory of the hero’s life – the way his life unfolds. And here the material trajectory is important and gives us some clues as to why the mass appeal. In Aniket’s article this is fleetingly referred to but not fully fleshed out.

What I mean by this is that the hero from a state of material nothingness goes on to achieve a state of material absoluteness and bliss. For the mass of the film watchers this idea and trajectory of upward material mobility is appealing. They are themselves placed in this situation and are watching the films from this particular material situatedness where higher aspirations are a part of their very existence. They are aspiring for a completely fulfulling material life for which they are involved in struggles – with the state, the privileged and the oppressor. What is unfolding on screen and in the life of the watcher is a process of economic sanskritization. On screen it is most often than not bearing fulfilling results and the audience identifies with it more, or atleast feels happy about it. For me this is more at work than the family and caste reason pointed out by Aniket.

This leads me to my next point. I am of the opinion that one has to delink family and caste in the context of these particular films. One cannot club these two together. The youth (who are watching the films) might be desperate to be unshackled by the ties of caste but the same cannot be said about the patriarchal family. On the contrary they are very much aspiring for that kind of family which for them is an indespensable part of their material well being and more importantly signifies ownership. For having a wife and child apart from house, car, land and jewellery not only enhances one’s status as a property owner but puts one on a firmer footing as an amasser of more property. What it means is that the consequent division of labour helps one in one’s further material pursuits. That’s why the films always end with the orphan hero marrying the beautiful girlfriend who will be to him a dutiful wife and complete his family. While the audience loves the orphan-hero, it also loves the way their hero becomes the protagonist of a patriarchal family, ie, the audience loves the film-endings as much as the film-beginnings.

22 10 2008
Rhett

today morning I saw Zanjeer, and was on the look-out of a write which would explain me the dynamics of those movies – and I found it!

4 07 2012
On subversion and masala Bollywood (Part 2) — the brilliance of Gangs of Wasseypur 1 « In a Brown Study

[…] Sardar Khan’s sons grow up, and echo the feel of the 70s  Bollywood hero. I direct you to this blogpost by Aniket Alam who discusses some very interesting elements of the 70s ‘angry young man’, and raises […]

23 07 2012
Pritam Singh

A very fine piece by Aniket and equally fine comments especially those of janaki (on family) and Katju on materiality.

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