When people roll their eyes and scoff at “Bollywood” this is the kind of film it’s nice to have on hand to prove all their misconceptions wrong. It is a powerful social drama with great performances from everyone and a tightly written (Gulzar) and directed (Hrishikesh Mukherjee) story. There’s not a minute wasted. It’s sad—and you know I hate sad—but it’s a film I’m glad I’ve seen and would heartily recommend, though my swollen eyes may never recover. Wah!
Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan are paired again as best friends after Anand, and are superb. And Om Shivpuri (who is inextricably linked in my brain to evil Mr. Oberoi in Disco Dancer) delivers in a small but pivotal role as an unscrupulous businessman. The core issue—socialism as a cure for the plight of the middle and lower classes (and a responsibility of the wealthy) still seems as relevant today as it was thirty-five years ago.
The story begins as Vikram Maharaj (Amitabh Bachchan) is being released after finishing a long prison sentence for murder. Waiting to take him home are Bipinlal (AK Hangal) and Nisha (Simi Garewal). At his home, furniture shrouded in sheets, Vicky stops in front of a garlanded photo and is lost in memories.
Somu (Rajesh Khanna) lives in a chawl with his widowed mother (Durga Khote) and younger sister Sarla (Manisha). His best friend is wealthy Vicky; they were in law school together and are trying to find work in a law office. Not all the other chawl residents understand this friendship but Vicky and Somu are inseparable.
Vicky’s father Damodar (Om Shivpuri) is a factory owner in Bombay, who has little time for his son and is consumed by wealth and ambition. Vicky is an only child who grew up without a mother. He’s found one in Somu’s mother, and a sister in Sarla.
He helps out with the family’s expenses, which doesn’t sit well with Ma and behen. They want Somu to stop goofing around with Vicky at bars and dance halls and get a job so he starts earning money himself.
Somu doesn’t see the problem, though; to him, Vicky is family and what’s the difference if he pays?
Vicky gets a call from Bombay: his father has had a heart attack and wants Vicky to come see him. In Bombay, Damodar has a visitor when Vicky arrives. Nisha is the daughter of one of Damodar’s wealthy friends, but is an ardent socialist; she and Damodar are amicably arguing. Damodar says: “Why should the wealthy have to give up their wealth? They’ve got power and brains and are superior to others.” Her retort is: “Should power and brains be used to help those less fortunate or to exploit them?”
Vicky is asked to take sides:
Damodar is on bed rest for two months, and he asks Vicky to take over the running of the factory. Vicky’s inexperience and innate arrogance soon cause a clash with the head of the factory’s labor union, Bipinlal. When the work force goes on strike in support of Bipinlal, Damodar orders Vicky to apologize to Bipinlal so that the workers get back to work.
Humiliated, Vicky grudgingly does so. His father sends him back to Delhi for a few days, and when Somu sees how upset Vicky is over the incident, he offers to help Vicky get back at Bipinlal. He goes to Bombay with Vicky and takes a job at the factory as an ordinary worker by the name of Chander.
Against Vicky’s wishes, Somu also settles down in the basti nearby. His plan is to oust Bipinlal as union leader by superseding him in the opinion of his fellow workers. Lonely Vicky makes Somu promise to visit him on the sly late at night.
Somu quickly befriends an alcoholic poet named Alam (Raza Murad), the mill foreman, Dhondu (Asrani) and falls for Dhondu’s sister Shyama (Rekha). Rekha is almost unrecognizable, she’s so young!
They all get high (well Rekha doesn’t, like a good girl, but the men do) on Holi in a very funny scene.
Anyway, Vicky and Somu work together in good cop-bad cop scenarios which they set up at the factory. “Chander” speaks out on behalf of workers’ issues and Vicky eventually “gives in” to his demands, making Chander-Somu quickly very popular with the factory employees.
[Side note: Should I worry that I recognized Vicky’s house from another film? Here’s Vicky’s house:
and here is the same room in Chorni nine years later!
I can’t remember how to spell my mother’s maiden name, but this—this I remember. Scary. End side note.]
As you might expect, Somu gradually gets ensnared in his new life. I’m leaving out many details about the people and events in the basti, but they are very well done character studies and situations.
When he is inevitably elected as union leader over Bipinlal Chander/Somu realizes that their deception has become his reality. Vicky wants him to resign as union leader so that he can have his friend back (now that his revenge over Bipinlal has been accomplished) but Somu tells him that it’s not that easy.
He tells Vicky that he can leave the job with a clear conscience only if Vicky and his father increase the workers’ pay. He explains to Vicky how they find it hard to make ends meet and Vicky agrees to propose an increase to his father.
When Vicky goes to Damodar to discuss it, Damodar is furious. He quickly understands the source of Vicky’s newfound concern (he knows that Somu is now the head of the union, and had earlier warned Vicky that it might backfire). He resolves to rid himself of Somu.
He first visits the factory, and deliberately identifies Somu as a friend of Vicky’s—hoping that a betrayed mob will take care of Somu for him. Somu does get a thrashing at the hands of the other workers, but is saved from death by Bipinlal and then forgiven when they realize that he has come to care about their plight. This creates a rift between Somu and Vicky, though, when Somu refuses to leave the basti. Feeling hurt at his friend’s defection—to the very people who have beaten him up—Vicky storms off.
Damodar’s next move is to fire Somu, but the workers quickly rally around him and go on strike. Somu visits Vicky to try and make up with him, but Vicky remains angry.
Nisha arrives as Somu is leaving, and she also tries to make Vicky understand the difficult position that Somu is in.
Meanwhile, Damodar is thoroughly fed up with the strike and he wants Somu gone for good. Seeing no other option, he gives final instructions to his men.
What happens next? Does Vicky kill Somu? How does he become friends with Bipinlal? Why was he imprisoned for murder?
Have a box of tissues ready when you’re ready to find out. It’s a fine film by one of Hindi cinema’s best directors with a talented cast. The songs by RD Burman are nice, although none of them particularly stuck with me. They fit in the film nicely though (and were subtitled! yay).
I understand that there was a huge tamasha over which of the two stars was bigger and better when this film came out. I personally find such a to-do idiotic, but a no doubt media-driven onslaught of gossip and rumor surrounded it. I prefer my info straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were, and here is what Hrishikesh Mukherjee had to say about it years later:
This was Amitabh’s first angry man role when he didn’t pick up an AK-47 and fire at the villains. He cares deeply for his friend who is not equal in his status. Namak Haram is about their attachment and quarrel. There are innumerable stories about quarrelling friends floating around, but critics insisted that mine was inspired from Beckett. Beckett is the story of a king who wants to turn his servant into an Archbishop. My film is about an affluent who cannot live without his middle-class friend. I cast Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh again, but this time in reversed roles. I wanted Amitabh to play the extrovert, while Kaka, an introvert. I didn’t reveal the end to either of them because I wanted it to be a secret. The only one to have a slight inkling was my dialogue-writer Gulzar. In Hindi films, the one who dies is considered a hero, so both were keen on being heroic. It was only on the day of shooting, that Amitabh finally learnt the truth. He was crestfallen! He was so hurt that he didn’t speak to me for several days. He felt I had betrayed him.
It was months later when recordist, Mangesh Desai, saw the film and phoned him to say he was brilliant, he was willing to rethink but still disbelieving. Next, Jaya and Gulzar saw the trial and were vastly impressed. Again, he was unconvinced. He felt he had screamed too much in the last scene. But then that’s Amit. Over-critical and perfectionist.