It’s sad when the films you’ve grown up with, the ones that form some of your earliest memories, turn out to be disappointing, even a little embarrassing, when you return to them. It’s like going back to that big family bungalow you remember vaguely from your childhood and discovering it was just a little cottage all along, with a smallish courtyard.
Bachchan films from the mid/late 1970s and early 1980s are the points of reference in my movie mythology, but I saw almost all of them as an immature viewer, too young for much to register - which means there’s plenty of scope for disappointment on a second viewing 20 years later. I saw some of Silsila on TV recently and while it’s still lovely in parts I was irked by some of the forcedness of the first half -- A.B. and Shashi Kapoor (one nearly 40 when the film was made, the other a couple of years over 40) trying too hard to be young frat-boys; Rekha a little too heavily made up; Sanjeev Kumar a little too constipated, as he so often was, the yellow tulips in the field a little too yellow. Rant rant.
More traumatic was a viewing of one of my most beloved childhood movies, Amar Akbar Anthony, which revealed that it was a rambling, episodic film with a narrative structure that fell victim to a cardinal principle of mainstream Hindi cinema: that screen time, action, romance, comedy must be equally divided between the three heroes.
I’m not claiming to have suddenly discovered that these are bad films, just that some of them have been inflated by our memories. Which is why it’s a solace to turn to the few movies that do come through the prism of time and memory intact. Sholay is the obvious example and I’ve written about it a couple of times, but another such film, one I think always gets short shrift, is Deewar, a movie that has been stereotyped endlessly, and is consequently all but lost today in a sea of parodies.
If you haven’t seen Deewar in a long time and are asked to prepare a list of associations, I imagine it will look something like this: A brooding Bachchan. Dramatic pealing of bells in a temple, followed by a prolonged death scene. Nirupa Roy in yet another teary mother act. Shashi Kapoor bleating “Bhai” and, of course, with nostrils flaring self-righteously, “Mere Paas Ma Hai.” Bachchan’s confrontation with the Shiva statue. “Mera baap chor hai” inscribed on his arm. A litany of familiar images and dialogues that have, with time, turned into cliches.
But watch the film without all this baggage and you might be surprised at how powerful and mature it is - and how its most effective scenes are the quieter ones, the ones that haven’t been handed down to us as typical “Deewar moments”. One scene that sticks with me is when Ma is unwell and the fugitive son Vijay (Bachchan) can’t see her because police have been posted around the hospital. He waits in a van parked a few blocks away while his girlfriend (Parveen Babi) goes to check on the level of security. She returns, shakes her head, tells him it’s impossible for him to go there; and Bachchan (who’s wearing dark glasses - a chilling touch in this scene) says in a completely deadpan voice, face devoid of all emotion, “Aur main apne Ma ko milne nahin jaa sakta hoon.” No overt attempt at irony, pathos or hysteria (and how many other Indian actors would have, or could have, played the scene this way?), just the calm acceptance of a man who is taking the last steps towards his destiny and knows it. The fatalism and despair that mark Deewar’s final scenes is rarely ever commented on, because it wouldn’t fit too well with the popular image of the film as a pro-active, “angry young man” story.
Another scene that comes to mind is the one where Bachchan hesitantly calls his mother on the phone, arranges to meet her at the temple, then tries to say something more but can’t get the words out and just puts the phone down instead. The movie’s power draws as much from its silences as from its flaming dialogue, and the writing of Salim-Javed, in conjunction with Bachchan’s incomparable performance, take it to heights Indian cinema has rarely touched since.
Even the Bachchan performance, though iconic, remains mis-appreciated in my opinion, since it’s remembered for all the wrong reasons - for the flashing eyes rather than the dark glasses, for the booming monologues rather than the quieter moments. Rarely again would he ever be so understated; superstardom took over and he fell into the image trap, playing to galleries, playing inside moth-eaten palimpsests. Salim-Javed split up and the writing in the later Bachchan films was never as subtle as it had been in the earlier ones. Contrast the understated beauty of Deewar‘s best moments, for instance, with some shamelessly overwrought scenes in his later movies - in Sharaabi, for instance, when, glycerine firmly in eye, lump in throat, he tells his father (played by Pran) “Aapne meri hansi dekhi, lekin uske peeche chipe aansoo nahin dekhe”. Everything spelt out by a mediocre screenplay.
The power of Deewar, on the other hand, lies in its ability to make us feel the tragedy rather than present it to us all gift-wrapped on a platter. Watch it again and see for yourself.