It was 1975. The Emergency was still five months away, but there had been a sense of dread in the country’s middle-class youth for some time. The newer generation was more frustrated, less easy to spawn, and angrier for a number of reasons too diverse and complex to fit in here. This year they would get a face for their fear in the most unlikely of places – Bollywood. Amitabh Bachchan appeared in Deewar, gave a different kind of ‘hero’ to the public and changed the meanings of heroism as we understand it. As the superstar turns 80 on Tuesday, a look back at this groundbreaking film that remains his greatest legacy. Also read: Dharmendra shares photo of Sholay, calls Amitabh Bachchan ‘most talented actor’ as he sends wishes for his film Uunchai
Many say that the turning point in Amitabh Bachchan’s career was Zanjeer, the film that gave the “angry young man” persona. Undoubtedly, the 1973 film marked a shift in his fortunes. He had seen more than a dozen flops and Zanjeer’s success has revived his career and paved the way for more such roles. But what Salim-Javed had started in Zanjeer was only perfected in Deewar. Vijay, the name that would become synonymous with Amitabh, was an imperfect hero. Hindi cinema had seen anti-heroes before, no less since the days of Kismet. But it had largely been aberrations. Deewar’s success and Amitabh’s towering presence would make them the norm.
Vijay was a smuggler, an atheist, and someone with a flexible moral code. He had no qualms about killing and didn’t care that his brother was against him. It was not the archetypal Bollywood hero. Vijay was more recognizable, a lot grayer. And despite these flaws, he was “good.” Amitabh would go on to play variations of Vijay for the next ten years with varying degrees of success. But none of those roles would be as layered and nuanced as this one. Still, they would turn it into a one-man industry, with Hindi film characters previously considered too “risky” for lead actors. Don’s Vijay was softer, Sholay’s more heroic, and Agneepath’s more iconic. Yet they all had their origin in this harbor coolie first seen on screen in January 1975.
Deewar also started a trend of Bachchan remakes that would either amplify existing superstars or create new ones in the south. The year after Deewar, superstar NT starred Rama Rao in the Telugu remake Magaadu of the film. The name Vijay remained unchanged. Tamil film Thee, released in 1981, was also a scene-by-scene remake of Deewar. It catapulted a certain Rajinikanth to superstardom. Two years later came Nathi Muthal Nathi Vare, the remake of Malayalam starring Mammootty. In between was a Cantonese remake (that’s a Chinese movie, you read that right). The Brothers (1979) starred Tony Liu and created some of the iconic Deewar scenes, including “that” showdown.
But the influence of the film and Vijay extends beyond the remakes. It has seeped into the blueprint of the angry young man used over and over in Indian cinema. And it is still used even today. The biggest Indian film of the year – in terms of box office collection – is KGF: Chapter 2. Interacting with Bollywood Hungama around the film’s release, lead actor Yash admitted that his character borrowed elements from Deewar’s Vijay. “It’s the essence of the belief system, the hero and his heroism, that kind of movie. It has nothing to do with any movie, but in general, the kind of movies they made, the essence is the same, what all India wants to see,” he said.
Every fearful, rebellious character used in Hindi cinema today has shades of Vijay, consciously or unconsciously. The influence of the character and persona on our pop culture has been so immense. Times have changed. Those larger-than-life heroes left and have returned. But there has been no Vijay. The Chulbul Pandeys and the Bajirao Singhams or even the Pushpa Rajs have all come close. But there has been no other Vijay. And given the way commerce dictates cinema now, it probably never will.