Many films have a habit of remaining with you, no matter how long ago you saw them. But some movies sometimes go on to become the stuff of legends, with their dialogues and performances soaking into the popular consciousness and becoming an irreplaceable part of people’s lives. One such movie, Deewaar (1975) — written by Salim-Javed and directed by Yash Chopra — stands tall among Hindi cinema’s most iconic films. And you wouldn’t believe it, but the film recently turned 42 years old. So, HT Café sat down with Amitabh Bachchan and Javed Akhtar at the former’s office, Janak, to hear first-hand the story behind the film that cemented Bachchan’s standing in the industry as a star and his image as the ‘Angry Young Man’.
The two meet with a warmth that can only be developed through years of friendship, and slip into conversation with ease — sometimes even completing each other’s sentences. Peppered with many laughs, jokes and praises for each other, the conversation turns and twists as Akhtar and Bachchan stroll down memory lane.
What made Deewar so special for you in your career and personal life?
Javed Akhtar: It is difficult to remain modest and answer this question. People say that the film had one of the most perfect screenplays. Amitabhji played the angry young man in Zanjeer (1973), but it was Deewaar that established him. One had seen angry young men in Mother India (1957) and Ganga Jamuna (1961), but those characters were diluted, as the films had romance, drama and songs too. With Amitabhji, the angry young man flourished, as it was undiluted. That was the impact that people have yet to get over.
Bachchan: For me, it was another job. Fortunately, post Zanjeer, every time, Salim saab and Javed saab wrote a script, they thought of me. Deewaar was accidental, as I was working on another film with (the late) Yashji, but when one day they [Salim and Javed] came to my house and narrated this script, I called Yashji and told him about it. Whenever they narrated a script, [Salim and Javed] had immense confidence in their story, its feasibility and its success ratio. I remember, after four or five scenes, Javed saab would say, ‘yeh aapke 15 hafte ho gaye’ (here are your fifteen weeks), and after another few scenes, he’d say, ‘yeh aapke 25 hafte ho gaye’ (here are your twenty-five weeks), and count up to 100 hafte (weeks).
Akhtar: We narrated a storyline to Yashji, who was a bit skeptical, as [he thought] it could look or sound like some other film. Today, people look at the film and see the socio-political and socio-economic elements in the film. People wrote their theses on the film, focusing on the sublime messages, symbolism, how Vijay was relevant and people were anti-establishment, etc. We were blissfully unaware of all that (laughs). We had seen Amitabhji’s not-so-successful films, but we also saw his talent, which most makers didn’t. He was exceptional, a genius actor who was in films that weren’t good. A good actor adds his experience and his take away to his performances, and his contribution has been immense in his films, as much as the writers [sometimes]. No one else could have played Vijay.
Bachchan: All Salim-Javed scripts are so meticulously written, and all the credit goes to them, as no one had a bound script back then. Nothing was changed in the script afterwards, which helped actors like me. In fact, the one scene that stayed with me when I heard the script was Salim saab saying, after Vijay is shot, he goes to the temple and stumbles, hanging on to the bells in the temple. That appealed to me. Peculiar things appeal to actors sometimes. It was the perfect script and there were no flaws. It was dynamic. The dialogues were so impactful that, even today, people appreciate those lines, like ‘aaj khush toh bahut hoge tum’. At the premiere, people laughed when I said that dialogue, but later, there was a stunned silence in the theatre. The words were gems. You don’t find that kind of writing anymore.
Akhtar: Back then, the writers, directors and actors worked closely, and we were like a team. When we were shooting Deewaar, he was a star and after Deewaar, he was the undisputed number one star. During the temple scene, we had a long talk with Amitabhji and Yashji, discussing if the scene should start on a high note or not. Vijay wasn’t an atheist, but he was upset with God. He wasn’t on talking terms with God.
Bachchan: The temple scene was to be shot in the morning, and we ended up shooting at midnight. It was a complex scene, as Vijay, who never believed in God, felt forced to go to the temple due to his love for his mother. I didn’t know how to approach the scene. Javed saab gave me pointers for the death scene, as he said he didn’t know what a dying person says. We didn’t dub for the scenes, as that would have been tough. You can hear the trolley in one scene — during the death scene, a clock chimed and people thought it was a brilliant sound effect, but an actual clock went off on its own, symbolising that Vijay’s time was over.
Why do you think worked for this film?
Akhtar: It was a well-written, well-performed film with great emotions and scenes. Back then, there was dissatisfaction and anger in the people, and they were looking for a vigilante. A hero is the personification of the morality and aspiration that Vijay had.
Bachchan: Amidst other kind of stories, this one was a breath of fresh air. It was a unique topic with strong characters. I don’t know if people clap today when they hear great dialogues (laughs), but every line was impactful. To be a bit immodest, you find many reflections of moments of Deewaar [in other movies].
Akhtar: Yes. But the other films failed, as they didn’t star him. There is a difference between anger and arrogance. Vijay was hurt and angry, but many others, in trying to emulate him, came across as arrogant and rude. You need a good actor to take care of your lines.
Bachchan: I want to take credit for one scene in the film. When Vijay lights his father’s funeral pyre, instead of my right hand, I told Yashji, let me do it with my left hand, because my sleeve will ride up and show off the tattoo ‘Mera baap chor hai’. It was symbolic.
Akhtar: I felt the confrontation scene between the two brothers, Ravi (played by Shashi Kapoor) and Vijay, which ends with the dialogue ‘mere paas maa hai’, was dramatic.
Bachchan: People read a lot into the scenes now. That scene was shot under the bridge, which people felt signified that a bridge had formed between the brothers. There was a subtle atmosphere of secularism in the film, with the Billa no 786, when Rahim chacha casually tells Vijay that the number is scared in his religion (Islam). Religion isn’t forced in the film. When he gets shot, he kisses the billa, and when he loses it during the final chase scene, the audiences know that something is going to go wrong. These were such symbolic and powerful moments without harping on any religion.
Apparently, Rajesh Khanna was the original choice for the film with, Navin Nischol and Vyjantimala as co-stars.
Akhtar: We were so enamoured by Amitabhji that we wanted him in all our films. When we spoke to Yashji about Deewaar, he asked, ‘does Amitabh pay you a commission that you want him in all your films?’ (laughs). Producer Gulshanji (Rai) had signed Rajesh Khanna, who was a successful actor, but we felt only he (Bachchan) could do justice to Vijay’s role. We insisted and, thankfully, we prevailed.
Bachchan: We had a discussion once about how Yashji would make this hard-hitting film. In some of the serious shots, he would end up panning the camera to a flower (laughs).
Why do you think Vijay became a champion of the masses and was loved so much?
Bachchan: A grey character is admired a lot. The character has been subjected to so much oppression yet is fighting against it. His fight was legitimate, even if his methods were not always right. There were many factors that we were riding on along with the character. After the stigma of the tattoo, whatever he does is looked upon as right due to the injustice done to him. He is so tough, yet he breaks down when his mother is unwell. There is only one action scene in Deewaar, but it is called an action film. The positioning of the fight was very powerful, and that has never been replicated.
Parveen Babi’s character was a modern woman who felt no guilt or shame in having pre-martial sex, drinking or smoking, unlike conventional heroines.
Akhtar: The mother was more of a heroine than the heroines, Parveen and Neetu Singh, in the film. It was an experiment and it worked. It was novel and revolutionary for people. Today, it might not be.
Bachchan: But there was a lot of dignity in [Babi’s] character, who was doing something as a professional, but in her heart, wanted marriage. And when Vijay is sympathetic towards her, the audience is too.
What was the atmosphere post release?
Bachchan: Soon after the film was released, I was shooting in Kolkata. A huge crowd gathered at the hotel where I was put up. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t get into the hotel. Someone got a little violent too. One man shook my hand, and I later realised he had a blade and had cut my palm. After that, wherever we shot outdoors, it was impossible to shoot due to the crowds. That reflected the interest people had in the film, characters and story. Those were the days.
Akhtar: Yeh silsila aaj bhi jaari hai (that’s the same story now).