Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Revisiting Deewar

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.


  1. Nice one, another movie I liked as a child was "Aakhiri Raasta". Thought of it as pretty rational movie. Saw it again some time back, needless to say, was a big let down! Same with "Hum" & "Khuda-Gawah".

  2. very well recreated deewar in your post... it was one of his best performances..

    even zanjeer.. the apparent nail-in-the-coffin for his 'angry, young man' image, was good. A little raw (seemingly due to lack of practice) but well done performance wise.

  3. But weren't all of Bachchan's best performances the understated ones? The quiet ones. Dude, I keep going back to Bemisaal to make my point (you haven't seen it, if I remember right), and that has to be Bachchan's greatest performance. And it's such a quiet role all the way despite the whole revenge factor and usual angry man pfaff. Sholay as well, right? Kala Pathhar is another one. His best films, despite all the crap about his really popular films. A few of his movies in recent times as well, till the hackwork script makes him ham. BMS

  4. BMS: At least three people have raved about Bemisaal to me and I haven’t been able to see it yet. (Must’ve seen it when I was four or so.)
    Of course his best performances are the understated ones - and even in the more flamboyant roles the best moments are often the quieter ones. But that somehow doesn’t seem to be the general perception.
    Another thing we’ve discussed already is how he was greatly underrated as a romantic hero - about that being swallowed up by the angry-young-man image.

  5. Another well made but often overlooked Amitabh movie is Shakti. It had made quite an impression on me as a child - and I found it to be euqally compelling when I watched it recently. By Hindi movie standards, the drama and emotion are pretty understated - the only jarring note is the placement of a couple of songs (which are all really good too).

  6. Make it 4 people who swear by Bemisaal being the best Bachchan performnce by far.

  7. I would agree with Jatayu. Shakti is his best film if you want to watch quiter but fierce Amitabh. Watch the scnes with Dilip Kumar and the look in his eyes when he is listening to him. It is physically understated but explosive emoting with eyes. I am going to rent that movie today!

  8. Nice article. Post Deewar, he was very good in subtle roles in movies such as Alaap & Kala Patthar. Almost all his other 80s films were trashy.

    And it is also nice to see that no one has taken the bait to respond to the obvious troll on Sanjeev Kumar.

  9. Very nicely written !! I havent watched Deewar, though Ive wanted to do it for a long time now.

  10. Cool how an Amitabh blog still gets so many responses...!

    Jatayu, dude: Don't like the "by Hindi movie standards". What are you talking about? Hindi movies rule, ok!

    Quizman: No bait to take there. Sanjeev Kumar sucked for the best part of his celebrated career. The only really good performance I can think about (outside of Sholay, which can't be part of any discussion) is in that one particular song in Parichay...never before, never after. And I think the song had to do quite a bit with his performance. BMS

  11. "Sanjeev Kumar sucked for the best part of his celebrated career"

    I think your comments suck and exhibits ignorance.

    Haven't you seen
    -Aandhi(Filmafare Award)
    -Koshish(Nationl Award)
    -Dastak(Nationl Award)
    -Naya Din Nayi Rat
    -Shatranj Ke Khiladi
    I am exluding Sholay as you have accepted his performance.

  12. QUIZMAN: You've got your wish.


    The only movie from your list I haven't seen is Qatla. Doesn't sound too good, but I'll go with your opinion that it's good. Which brings SK's total number of good shows to one-and-a-half.

    Aandhi (Terrible, worse that Suchitra di also), Koshish (Not bad, but totally cliched), Khilauna (OH HEAVENS!), Dastak(Terrible), Naya Din Nayi Rat (I'M FEELING BAD FOR YOU NOW, BROTHER), Mausam (Good in patches, but not worth much), Shatranj Ke Khiladi (Even Saeed Jaffrey acted well in it), Trishul (Not his film).

    You missed Angoor, brother. Probably his best outside of that Parichay song (Beeti na beetai raina).

    And you left out Angoor... he was really good in it. BMS

  13. I didn't mean to write about Angoor twice...mistake. Wanted to ask MSC about the roller skates song from Seeta Aur Geeta.... the high point of our man's life with darling Hema falling down and stuff!

  14. @Anon (BMS): Didn't mean that in anay negative sense (agree with you that Hindi movie rulez :-)). Just making a point that in most Hindi movies the sentimental scenes are always a bit over the top (not that there is anything wrong with it) - Shakti is one of those rare films which had less histronics and more understated acting. Ditto for Kala Patthar IMO.

  15. Anonymous,

    Kutte, kameene, tumne Haribhai ka insulate kiya hain. Agar maa ka doodh piya hain to apna asli roop dikha. Mein tera khoon pi jaoonga.
    - Dharmendra

  16. Never mind Qatla, my newly find brother. It was at the bottom of the list. If you didn't like those mentioned above, forget it.

    To each his own, really!

    But when you say "Trishul (Not his film)", I hope you didn't mean it literally.

    About Angoor. Even you didn't mentioned about it in your previous post.

    And what's "Shatranj Ke Khiladi (Even Saeed Jaffrey acted well in it)" - How that relates to Sanjeev Kumar? Now You think Satyajit Ray was a fool!

    Finally, please don't feel bad about me. First do it for yourself. We all are already doing the same for you.

    Good Bye

  17. Of course I mean it literally when I say Trishul was not his film. It was Amitabh's film. When I say "not his film", I don't mean he was not in the film. I mean that he was not too significant in it. His role, that is. Though that's how I liked SK mostly.

    Of course I didn't mention Angoor. Oversight. That's why I mentioned it.

    And what's "Shatranj Ke Khiladi (Even Saeed Jaffrey acted well in it)" - How that relates to Sanjeev Kumar? Now You think Satyajit Ray was a fool: What I mean when I say "even Saeed Jaffrey acted well in it" is not that Satyajit Ray was a fool, but that because SR was the director, even a fool like SJ acted well. SK didn't have a choice but do well.

    Finally, please don't feel bad about me. First do it for yourself. We all are already doing the same for you: I do, mate, I do. I started feeling bad for myself the moment I read your list and figured that I had seen all these SK movies...quite depressing.

    Just for the record, SK also did look good when he was playing the dhol to his wife Rekha and Amitabh making out to Rang Barse. Now that's actually when I liked SK best.

    In fact, now that we have discussed SK so much, I think I didn't give him enough credit. He was good in two songs, one-and-a-half films. Better than a lot of others, and that's not being sarcastic.

    Veeru-ji: can't disclose identity because I can't log in for some reason. In any case it's to be found at

  18. Jabs: See. Stop being such a lit-fuckwit. Your eyeballs are going to soar if you concentrate on Hindi films. Take cue from TOI. BMS

  19. A Sanjeev Kumar debate in the Comments section. Excellent! Have been waiting for this ever since I wrote that Sholay post months ago.
    Have to clarify I don’t think he was a terrible actor, just that his reputation was way overblown. A case of (admittedly noble) intentions winning over actual execution; people getting over-impressed by the fact that he avoided standard hero roles for “character” roles. Trishul is the classic example of an actor doing practically nothing but getting hosannas for playing an older character, being tight-lipped, etc.

    P.S. Manish, it’s “Qatal”, not “Qatla”. I remember seeing that as a child, it was released posthumously and SK played a cuckolded husband who managed to singlehandedly plot his wife’s murder despite being blind. Super-cool!!! It’s had a lasting effect on my life.
    BMS, you may have a point. Was planning a long blog on Murakami but think I’ll forego that for now. Bollywood is jolly good for Comments.

  20. "Anonymous said... Jatayu, dude: Don't like the "by Hindi movie standards". What are you talking about? Hindi movies rule, ok!"

    I always fail to understand why the standards applied to Hindi movies should be different from those applied to any other movie. It is fashionable to applaud the melodrama in Hindi films these days, but if 'by Hindi movie standards' some film has less of it, why should we feel apologetic about admitting that or comparing the two?

    Sentimentalising this issue, as Jatayu does when s/he says "Just making a point that in most Hindi movies the sentimental scenes are always a bit over the top (not that there is anything wrong with it)" never helps. There is surely something wrong with being over-the-top, so why not say so? That just makes the merits of those that are NOT over-the-top easier to appreciate, doesn't it?

  21. "Just for the record, SK also did look good when he was playing the dhol to his wife Rekha and Amitabh making out to Rang Barse. Now that's actually when I liked SK best."

    I see that with every post, your appreciation for Sanjeev Kumar is slightly increasing. Keep it up.

    "..moment I read your list and figured that I had seen all these SK movies...quite depressing."

    No you haven't seen Qatla(or Qatal), remember ?

    "I started feeling bad for myself the moment I read your list.. "

    You are contradicting quite a lot. You didn't feel bad about yourself. Rather you felt bad about me. You wrote -"I'M FEELING BAD FOR YOU NOW, BROTHER"

    That was my last rejoinder on SK. No point banging my ahead against the wall.

    Jabberwock: Agree with you. Difficult to spell the word. But since it was proper noun, went ahead with mine version :-)

  22. Jabberwock, it is Qatl not Qatal. I am amazed to know that someone does not like SK. Anyway, pasand apni apni, khayaal apna apna. Likewise, for me SK rules but i dont think much of AB. Ppl have different taste.

  23. Excellent post and excellent responses. I've always believed Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra were the people who may have given Amitabh a couple of big hits but screwed his legacy. I just wonder how they become such big directors because when I go back to their movies, I just keep laughing at the equal doses of action, drama, tragedy, patriotism, secularism and comedy. I must admit that as an adolescent I have clapped at that crap. Maybe it was made for the really tiny minds.
    But I think we get carried away by understated performances. So much so that a wooden face like Ajay Devgan gets critical acclaim just because it's understated. He can't emote, and we think he's understating. Today any moron who can't act is being labelled understated performer. That's what makes Amitabh different, he was convincing in both understated and overstated performances.
    And let's accept that he hammed then, he hams now, he will ham in future. There's nothing wrong in that if a good actor does five films a year, he can afford to sleepwalk through any role. Shah Rukh does that in all his movies, but with his own brand of elan, and he delivers hits.

  24. hey! don't say anything bad about my sanjeev, he is my idol. i love him. i am trying to get all of his movies, and started drawing his photos. i have made him my hobby, to watch his movies and draw him. he will always be in my heart. i am just so sorry that he died so young. i wish i had the priveledge of meeting could a woman turned him down, i wish i had that opportunity to be with him. leela

  25. how can anyone sj is not a good actor. have anyone seen nayi din nayaa raat. have any other actor attempted to do so many different roles in one movie. i think that sanjeev is one of the greatest and most hansome actor in his times. every one has his or her own taste. one man meat is another man's poison.

  26. i make acorrection on my spelling of naya din nayi raat.

  27. for older generation he is screen demi-god.for new generation he is an automaton who churns out zillons of films.
    the younger generation does not quite understand why an old man gets top billing even in a sharukh shahrukh is the 'new'demi-god, right?
    i thought they were right.
    ...until srk started a 'don'.
    if srk himself is sooo infatuated with don(as he tiringly repeats in his interviews)who are we to comment.
    i come to the conclusion that all bollywood is crap,and turned towards hollywood.hmm..

  28. I would like to know about the song that plays in the background of the film Deewar's Bar Scene where amitjee meets parveen babi for the first time. that song was too good man.
    please take the pain to mail me the song at and get a prize for 251/- i'll pay via icici online or by credit card or cash.

  29. Very well put. Deewaar was a departure not only for the extension of the Angry Young Persona but for the subdued manner all the 'Deewaar Moments' are played out.

    In fact, I wrote about it here.

  30. I always feel one of the most matured performances of bachan was in Anand...maybe Rajesh khanna was the centre but the young amitabh surely held his ground and created a character whose intellectual reserve served as a superb foil to Khanna'a boisterous gaiety....

  31. Jumping in wayyy late on this one, but it has to be said - Sanjeev Kumar was one of our best actors ever. This short and portly guuju bhai made the character of Thakur in Sholay believable - the dude who could bring down a horse with his arm strength alone ! Nasal high pitched voice and all, he made you believe in Thakur's blind rage and lust for revenge. Sholay does not work otherwise. And people routinely ignore his range - all his roles mentioned here, except Angoor, are drama parts, but he was so good at comedy too. Have you seen the hugely underrated "Biwi o Biwi"? Same oes for Pati Patni aur Wo and several other lighter films he did in the 80s. The most remarkable thing was how natural he was in his performances and how he instinctively knew the perfect pitch - underplay vs overplay - for each character to make it believable. I have always felt that in his ease before the camera he was equal to the great Balraj Sahni.

  32. Really nice post on Deewar. I still remember I loved the film so so much that no matter how sad or stressed I was, one viewing was enough to divert my attention. But yeah over the years, it has not remained my favourite film. But yeah one more scene, and I guess the only when in which AB smiled was when he is waiting for train and Shashi Kapoor comes to see him off with his girl friend. The way bachchan hugs him, smiles and says "acchi hai" is so well acted. Don’t know if you have seen Bemisaal (since it’s an old post). It’s one of those rare performances where you one can’t entirely decipher AB’s character. (whether AB is a good or evil character, or to what extent he is good and to what he is evil). And he balances it so well. For instance, he calls Rakhi sakhi while she is married to his brother. The script tells us that he loved Rakhi but to what extent we could never figure out.

  33. Hi Jai!! remember your old mate from cricinfo's DS? Really nice to see your blog getting bigger and stronger..I dropped in after - what, 6 years? Keep going stronger mate. I still laugh when I remember that post on Brokeback Mountain, and your co-watchers reactions at the theatre. I am searhing for it today! Bet Wishes - Angshuman Hazra