Most great things almost never happen and nothing could better describe the creation of Hindi cinema's most enduring character, the Angry Young Man. It's been 40 years since writers Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar came up with a, for the lack of any suitable word especially in the light of the impact it has had on cinema that followed, template for the hero and nothing has come close to dominate the first century of Hindi cinema. It's interesting to note that the role, the character and the film which not only ended up redefining the concept of hero in commercial Hindi cinema but also influenced people on both sides of the screen the most almost didn't happen the way it did.
Of all the things that contributed to Amitabh Bachchan's dominance as the leading man nothing played a greater role than the portrayal of Angry Young Man. Today, it's almost implausible to think how Prakash Mehra, the director of Zanjeer, could even imagine Dev Anand as Inspector Vijay Varma? Written in the initial stages of their partnership, Zanjeer was the story of an upright police officer who suffers for his honesty and discards the uniform when pushed beyond the edge. At the time the duo penned the film they were still a few years from becoming the most powerful writers ever seen in Hindi cinema and suffice to say didn't have final say on matters such as casting. Mehra had initially offered the film to Raaj Kumar, who refused simply because he couldn't stand the thought of working with a man whose preferred brand of hair oil, yes hair oil, didn't meet his approval. The thespian couldn't tolerate the fragrance of Mehra's hair oil and told him in no uncertain terms the reason he couldn't do Zanjeer. Mehra then pitched the film to Dev Anand who wanted a few romantic songs added to suit his persona but thankfully Mehra refused to give in. It is said that even Dharmendra was pursed for a while but finally it was Pran and Om Prakash who suggested Bachchan. Om Prakash had just done Parwana with the newcomer and told Mehra about the scene where Kumar (Bachchan), an obsessed lover, silently crushes the glass he's holding when he gets to know Asha (Yogita Bali) being in love with Rajesh (Navin Nishcol). That scene which was reprised by Shah Rukh Khan in films like Darr and Anjaam gave the veteran character actor goosebumps and he advised Mehra to see the actor. Mehra wasn't too keen on someone new, and more importantly someone who had a string of 13 flop films, and asked the writers to see if Bachchan was worth considering. The climatic fight sequences of Bombay to Goa, Bachchan's then latest release, convinced Javed Akhtar that they had, in fact, found their Angry Young Man.
When viewed from a broader perspective the Angry Young Man is but a derivation of the anti-hero first seen in films like Waqt and Aadmi Aur Insaan. Raja (Raaj Kumar) was to the manor born but circumstances ferry him to a world where he grows up to be a criminal, yet he is someone who has his scruples intact while Jai Kishan or J.K. (Feroz Khan) is a rich industrialist who actually enjoys bending a few rules to get his work done. Both Raja and J.K. walked on the wrong side of the law and ironically, ended up walking with most of the glory as far as the films went. Both Raaj Kumar and Feroz Khan even won the Best Supporting Actor statuettes at Filmfare too. In that context Vijay (Bachchan) is far more upright and even though the man, Teja (Ajit), who takes his uniform away is the same who killed his parents in cold blood, Vijay never really loses control in the blind fury to avenge himself. Somewhere even though he slips over to the other side the heart of a lawman continues to beat in his body. A large part of Zanjeer's magic could be attributed to its casting. Had the film featured Dharmendra or an already established actor some part of the impact might have been lost due to the image the star carried. By contrast Bachchan had the distinct advantage of anonymity to bestow Vijay, and by extension, the Angry Young Man the seething rage that would be the hallmark of Zanjeer. Years later Akhtar recalled in an interview that he could never forget how a faceless person in a darkened cinema hall said, 'baap re…' and straightened himself when Vijay (Bachchan) kicks a chair and stops Sher Khan (Pran), a local gangster, from making himself comfortable in his police station.
Zanjeer gave Hindi cinema one of its best creative associations in the form of Salim-Javed, who changed the way the trade perceived writers. They went on to become the first superstar writers who commanded as much respect and money, sometimes even more, as the stars they wrote for. It also gave Hindi cinema it's last true superstar in Amitabh Bachchan and bought in a wave of films that married the romantic escapism that often marred popular Hindi cinema with a sense of realism, however limited, which audiences craved. But Zanjeer's greatest contribution has been the invention of the Angry Young Man, who remains a part of every single commercial Hindi film hero template ever since. The fact that in spite of changing times the morality of the Angry Young Man, which was a clear break from the heroes that preceded him, hasn't been replaced by those who followed it is testimony enough that the characters who succeed him haven't really been able to come up with an equally durable sense of cinematic ethics.
Zanjeer celebrated its 40th Anniversary in May 2013.