I watched a lot of films early on because they were on lists of Hindi film “classics” that one should watch. Some I remember well, some I do not. This is one that I didn’t think I remembered, until I began to watch it again and realized: “Oh this is where I saw that!” Turns out that a lot of my memories from “some movie” are all from this one. I’m hoping that the memories got fragmented because Hindi cinema was all so new to me back then—I was absorbing so many things, many of which I can take for granted now so they don’t distract me. Otherwise, I need to worry about my brain, because this is a great movie. The script and the performances are pure gold. If I had to put it simply I’d say it’s a story about choices, and the things that influence those choices and shape a human being, and it is done with such finesse that I am left speechless (okay, not really; this is a long post, even for me). It is a brilliantly crafted psychological portrait of the damaged Vijay in particular, supported by simply stunning performances from Amitabh Bachchan and Alankar Joshi, who plays Vijay as a boy. There is nothing wasted—not a word, not a look, not a nuance, not a scene.
Our story opens with police Inspector Ravi Verma receiving an award for bravery or honesty or some combination of virtues thereof. He tearfully thanks his mother, and asks her to come up and receive the medal herself. She does so with obvious reluctance, and we are taken into a flashback to Ravi’s boyhood (where he is played by my favorite Master Raju! so CUTE!).
His father Anand (Satyendra Kapoor) is a mining labor union leader leading the miners in a strike. He is well-respected, and the workers are depending on him to better their lives with concessions from the owner. The mine’s owner (Kamal Kapoor) kidnaps Anand’s sons Ravi and Vijay (Master Alankar) and his wife Sumitra (Nirupa Roy), and forces him to sign a contract giving away the workers’ rights in order to save his family’s lives.
When he tells the crowd of striking miners what he’s done, he is beaten up and left bleeding by the very people who had been cheering him as their savior only minutes before.
As he lies in the hospital later recovering from his injuries, he hears the taunts of the people outside calling him a thief and a betrayer. I think to myself how very cruel and stupid people—especially en masse—can be. Nobody comes forward to question why a man of such strong ideals would suddenly reverse himself, absolutely no one asks him: “Why? Why did you do it?”
Older son Vijay, on his way home from school, is accosted by some of these cruel and stupid (and drunk) people. They drag him to the local tattoo artist and have the words “My father is a thief” tattooed on his arm. Meanwhile, in the hospital, Anand is unable to bear the jeers of the people outside and his guilty conscience—he chooses to slip away, abandoning the family for whom he had abandoned his principles.
Sumitra, horrified at Vijay’s ill-treatment and bereft of a husband to lend support, decides to move with her two young sons to Bombay. There, she and Vijay decide that they will earn money so that Ravi can get an education. She gets work ferrying stones at a construction site, while Vijay begins shining shoes. Vijay is deeply sensitive and fiercely proud, traits which he has inherited from both of his parents—we get to know him well through scenes like this one:
The tattoo on his arm is a constant reminder of his father’s betrayal. Ravi is enrolled in school, in the meantime, where he does well and is happy. Days are a hard struggle for Maa and Vijay though, and she teaches him some difficult—and very Indian!—lessons.
These sentiments aside, Maa is not a weeping, helpless woman; this is an Indian mother with a gritty toughness and pride which keeps her going for her two sons.
One day when she takes her two sons to the temple, Vijay refuses to go in. A priest urges her to let him be and she goes in with Ravi as Vijay sits outside. There is no surprise in Vijay’s rejection of his faith; at this point we have seen enough to understand his bewilderment and anger at a world turned upside down by his father’s desertion, and his inner struggle to maintain his sense of self-worth in the face of what he has to endure to help support his loved ones. It’s a perfect time to segue from childhood:
to adulthood, years later. Temple bells jangling, a now grown-up Ravi (Shashi Kapoor) accompanies his Maa back outside, where Vijay waits impatiently. Ravi is clearly used to playing peacemaker between mother and brooding son.
Ravi has graduated from college and is fruitlessly looking for work, while romancing Leena (Neetu Singh), the daughter of the District Commissioner of the Police. They love each other, although Ravi has become very discouraged by his inability to find work—largely because he doesn’t have any influential contacts to put in a good word for him.
They sing a lovely duet, and their happiness in each other is a sweet bit of relief from all the tension of the story. It also illuminates the difference between a momentarily disappointed but essentially optimistic Ravi and his much more serious older brother. Ravi wants to find work and contribute to his family’s situation, but he is not anywhere near as desperate as his brother and mother were as he was going to school and growing up.
The shared memories of that desperation bond Vijay and his mother at the same time as it creates tension between them. Vijay cannot understand his mother’s tenacious grasp on her ideals and her faith, and she doesn’t understand as her emotionally scarred son drifts further away from her.
Vijay works as a coolie on the docks, where a few rupees is extorted from each coolie on paydays by a local gangster. When a new worker refuses to pay up, he is killed and Vijay’s seething resentment and anger bubbles to the surface. He refuses to pay as well, and when the gang leader Peter (Kuljeet) orders his men to teach Vijay a lesson, Vijay comes to Peter’s warehouse base and teaches them the lesson.
This is a sublime scene—for one thing, Shetty’s fight choreography is excellent, and beautifully executed. Vijay of course is unrealistically indestructible—but what a fantasy fulfillment for people feeling downtrodden who are sitting in the theater. I’m not even downtrodden (well, not much) and I have to cheer when Vijay vanquishes his last opponent and opens the warehouse door.
He has become like his father, and in more ways than one: he too, will give up his ideals for his family, although maybe with greater ease, since his idealism has already been tempered by hardship.
As he staggers out bloodied but a winner, a crowd of coolies greets him cheering his name, much as similar crowds greeted Anand years before. And in another echo of his father, Vijay is essentially standing alone—the coolies are willing to cheer him on, but none of them even help him get water—he’s on his own.
Maa thinks so, too, and she’s angry when she sees his injuries. She asks him why he has to stand up and fight when nobody else would lift a finger on his behalf. His answer conveys all of his residual anger at his father’s desertion, and it stings her—as it is meant to.
Ravi intervenes to play peacemaker once more. He is a thoughtful and sincere man; his father’s ideals have remained alive in him, nurtured by his mother.
At this point we meet Anand again, briefly, traveling on a train. A fellow passenger asks him:
and he replies: “Nowhere.” Little does he know that the rest of the family he abandoned are about to split up themselves in opposite directions.
On his way to the docks, Vijay is hailed by a man named Davar (Iftekhar)—the same man whom young Vijay had confronted proudly at his shoe-shine stand years before. He’s clearly heard about Vijay’s run-in with Peter and his gang, who are minions of a more powerful gangster named Samant (Madan Puri).
Davar takes Vijay to his luxurious high-rise accommodations, and offers him a job. He’s a gold smuggler, and he’s tired of Samant hijacking his gold shipments. He wants Vijay to protect his gold and his interests.
Iftekhar is great in this role: Davar is a criminal, but he has great respect for Vijay’s abilities and character. He has strength and sympathy, and it’s easy to see that Vijay can find in him the father figure he has been craving. So how can he resist Davar’s plea, and his offer?
He can’t. When Davar tosses a stack of money on the table as a pay advance, Vijay reminds him that they’ve met before.
And Ravi meets Leena’s father, the DCP (Manmohan Krishna) at Leena’s house. The DCP suggests that he apply to the police force, which needs educated young men like him. Hope renewed, Ravi agrees to do so and Leena jokes with him.
And so the two brothers are set upon a karmic collision course.
Warning: the rest of this contains spoilers, so if you are the one person in the world who hasn’t seen this yet (and has made it this far through this post), you might not want to read further. (Don’t read the comments either!)
At this point I was worried that the curse of the second half would set in. And I do think it’s a little weaker than the first half of the film, but the first half set up the family dynamics and the personalities of each character so well that it carries the story through. Amitabh continues to dominate, as Vijay commits himself a hundred percent to the path he has chosen, even when it alienates his mother and brother. He only allows himself to soften with Anita (Parveen Babi), a woman as scarred in her own way as he is. But Shashi comes into his own too, in the second half, with more time devoted to Ravi’s character.
Ravi is as rigid in his idealism (ie duty) as his father wasn’t. He will accept nothing less from Vijay than Vijay’s betrayal of his new colleagues and friends. Many people (including my sister) find Ravi’s character incomprehensible in this half, but I think it’s sheer genius. Idealism without compassion is inflexible. Ravi is as much a product of his parents and his environment as Vijay is—but he is more the product of a different parent (his mother), and of different childhood experiences. He is both more carefree and more self-centered, and he completely lacks empathy for his brother’s point of view, even when Vijay attempts to remind him.
Like Vijay, he commits himself a hundred percent to the path he has chosen, and for me the tragedy of the end could not have played out any differently. It would have made it a much more cheerful film! for sure, but also a far less powerful one. I also think a great deal of Ravi’s inflexibility is due to lifelong envy of his brother’s bond with their mother. With the moral high ground on his side, he takes primary place in his Maa’s life (“Mere paas mai hai” indeed!)—but still finds himself the outsider, the less favored.
She even acknowledges that she always loved Vijay more—a statement she makes out of her own guilt on Ravi’s behalf, but all he can hear are the words. For me the hardest personality to define is that of Maa, possibly because she never takes center stage as such but is sidelined. Her preference for Vijay is evident, even as their relationship is more fraught with tension than hers with Ravi. I don’t have trouble understanding that—Vijay is the son who sacrifices his childhood, who supports her side by side through their tough times. Possibly he reminds her of her beloved husband as well, who knows?
In any case, it makes the opening and closing scenes in the film (of the award ceremony) even more poignant. Poor Ravi! Maa will never stop grieving for her lost son, even though she has been complicit in his end. And Shashi’s Filmfare award for Best Supporting Actor was well-deserved. He imbues Ravi with the balance of ideals and emotion necessary to make him sympathetic and his actions believable (at least for me he does—my sister called him an “ass”). His scenes with Leena add some needed levity and allow Ravi’s charm to shine through, as well.
I will never understand how Amitabh didn’t win Best Actor, though (Sanjeev Kumar did, for Aandhi!). And if anyone is still here, reading…I’m amazed!