Monday, March 30, 2015

Amitabh's breakthrough: Zanjeer

Zanjeer (Chains, 1973) is not the kind of film my partner and I normally seek out, and a glance at the blood, guns, knives, and angry grimaces on the poster will tell you why. But Zanjeer holds such a significant place in Hindi cinema that we thought it was worth a look.

Ranjit (M. Rajan) is involved in the illicit trade in fake medicines. When he emerges from prison to discover that his daughter has died due to an injection of the very product he's been peddling, though, he decides that he wants out of the business. But Ranjit's bosses aren't willing to let him go—he knows too much about their operation—and they send a hit man to eliminate him. Ranjit's son Vijay witnesses the brutal murder of his parents by a man wearing a chain bracelet with a white horse symbol:

Orphaned, Vijay is taken in and raised by the upright Police Inspector Singh (Iftekhar). Twenty years later, Vijay has grown into Amitabh Bachchan, an honest cop in a world full of corruption and crime.

His battle against evil is a lonely and dangerous one. Once the local gang boss Teja (Ajit)—who not only distributes adulterated medicines, but also adulterated booze—discovers that Vijay isn't deceived by respectable appearances and can't be bought, he frames him to make it look as though he is taking a bribe. The honest and compassionate Vijay is sent to prison for corruption.

But this just makes Vijay more determined to bring down those who sent him there. Months later, when he is released, he resumes his crusade. Teja, angry that Vijay hasn't gotten the message, orders him to be savagely beaten and left for dead. But Teja and his gang come to regret that they didn't finish the job...

Vijay does have a few allies in his battle against Teja's vast criminal enterprise. There is De Silva (Om Prakash), whose sons died after being poisoned by Teja's "whiskey." De Silva seems like a harmless drunk, and so he is ignored by the gang. But since they don't pay him any attention he is able to see and hear all about the gang's plans, and he telephones Vijay with information about their next moves.

Mala (Jaya Bhaduri) is an itinerant knife-sharpener. She is a prime witness when one of the gang's liquor trucks speeds through a checkpoint and plows into a group of schoolkids. Reluctantly, Jaya agrees to identify the driver; murderously pursued by the gang, she seeks shelter with Vijay. He takes her to the home of his step-brother and wife for safekeeping. But as Vijay and Mala are thrown into each others' company, tender feelings begin to develop between them...

"Deewane hain" (We crazy ones) was composed by Kalyanji-Anandji, with lyrics by Gulshan Bawra, and sung by Mohd. Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar.

Just remember that (to paraphrase Chekhov) if in the first act a knife is sharpened, in the third act it must wind up in someone's back—hurled there by Mala.

Vijay's other ally is Sher Khan (Pran). Sher Khan ran a gambling den that was broken up by Vijay. After the two have a brutal but honorable bare-knuckle fight that leaves them both dazed, they become fast friends. Sher Khan closes his establishment, becomes an honest auto mechanic and Vijay's two-fisted backup.

This is the first film that made us really notice Pran, who (both before Zanjeer and after) mainly played villains. We had seen him (without giving him special attention) in other classic films: Ram aur Shyam (1967), Bobby (1973), Don (1978). But Sher Khan is so memorable because he is such a delightful and strongly positive character: tough, fearless, and loyal, as he demonstrates in "Yaari Hai Imaan Mera" (Friendship is my honor, friends are my life; Pran's playback singer is Manna Dey):

With friends like these can Vijay's ultimate discovery of the identity of his parents' murderer, and his victory over Teja and his gang, ever be in doubt?

Zanjeer has a key place in Amitabh's career because he had not previously had a great deal of success as a leading man. It also has a key place in the career of the heroine, Jaya Bhaduri. At the time she was a more successful actor than he was; she had had several hits and had already won a Filmfare Award. It was something of a risk for her to appear with him, but (already in love with him, thanks to their work together on Bansi Birju the year before) she didn't hesitate. During the shooting of Zanjeer the couple reportedly decided to marry if the film was a hit. It was, and they married less than a month after its release. Ironically, the success of Zanjeer and the couple's subsequent marriage mark the beginning of the decline in Jaya's film career: a young wife and mother, she was soon displaced as a romantic heroine by other, unmarried actresses.

Zanjeer was also the first Salim Khan-Javed Akhtar scripted film in which Amitabh appeared. Salim-Javed went on to write the Amitabh-starring superhits Sholay (Flames, 1975), Deewar (Wall, 1975), Trishul (Trident, 1978), and Don (1978), among others. Although these Salim-Javed films are all very distinct, in each Amitabh plays a working-class man who is forced to respond—usually with violence— to the world's crushing injustice. The names of his characters? Vijay (Zanjeer), Jai (Sholay), Vijay (Deewar), Vijay (Trishul), and Vijay (Don).

Zanjeer is the film that made Amitabh Bachchan a superstar, and which defined the Angry Young Man role he would play for much of the next decade. And while it's impossible for us to watch this film without hindsight, it's clear that this kind of role became Amitabh's trademark because of his powerful charisma and fierce conviction—qualities that he continues to bring to his roles more than four decades later.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Money and sex: New Grub Street

Victorian novels have an entirely undeserved reputation for gentility; really, they are all about money and sex.

Think of Trollope's Palliser novels, in which (to take one of many examples) Phineas Finn must marry a wealthy, socially-connected woman in order to realize his political ambitions. Or Vanity Fair, in which Becky Sharp becomes the mistress of the Marquis of Steyne in exchange for the advancement of her husband's career. Or Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, in which Squire Hamley is staunchly opposed to his son's marrying either of the daughters of his family doctor—an old friend but a social inferior. Daringly for its time, George Gissing's New Grub Street (1891), set in the literary world of London, takes the connection between money and sex as its explicit subject.

New Grub Street (1891)

Grubstreet, according to Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, was a lane in London "much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems"—literary work produced for hire. So "grubstreet" became a widely used synonym for hackwork. (Johnson, of course, was also recorded by Boswell as saying that "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.") And by the late 19th century, a hundred years after Johnson's death, mass literacy had vastly expanded the market for literary labor.

New Grub Street follows the increasingly divergent fates of two characters who are toiling in the mines of literature. Jasper Milvain has an acute sense of what the marketplace values, and he uses that judgment to guide his conduct in every arena. His easy facility with words allows him to produce work that he knows will sell, curry favor in the right quarters, and make his reputation, and he cultivates professional and personal relationships that will be instrumental in helping him advance. The other main character, Edwin Reardon, writes from an inspiration which does not often come, acts on his (often misguidedly generous) impulses, and forms friendships based on intellectual affinity. Poor Edwin.

Both men take up with lovers who are temperamentally and morally unsuited to them. In a rash moment the shallow Milvain commits himself to marry the smart, sincere, and deeply-feeling Marian Yule. Reardon, temporarily riding high on a minor literary success, unwisely marries Marian's beautiful cousin, Amy Yule. Amy is attracted to Edwin because he seems to be a rising new author, but she's bitterly disappointed when he proves incapable of producing the kind of writing that will provide her with social and material success.

Milvain is quite explicit about the conscious alignment of his sexual and monetary interests. As he explains to his friend Whelpdale:
'I haven't much faith in marrying for love, as you know. What's more, I believe it's the very rarest thing for people to be in love with each other….As a rule, marriage is the result of a mild preference, encouraged by circumstances, and deliberately heightened into strong sexual feeling. You, of all men, know well enough that the same kind of feeling could be produced for almost any woman who wasn't repulsive…A preference of this kind can be heightened into emotion, if one chooses…[but] I am far more likely to marry some woman for whom I have no preference, but who can serve me materially.' (Chapter XXII)
While Milvain subordinates his sexual feelings to his calculations of material advantage, Reardon has allowed his sexual desire for Amy to lead him into a marriage whose incompatibility becomes increasingly stark as continued literary success proves ever more elusive. Reardon begins but then abandons several different novels, finally persevering, at Amy's urging and to his growing self-disgust, with a book that he knows is mediocre. Gissing is unsparing about the devastatingly corrosive effect that the lack of money can have on emotional attachment and sexual desire. As Reardon declares to his friend Biffen:
'I am quite free from sexual bias. I can see that Amy was not my fit intellectual companion, and all emotion at the thought of her has gone from me. The word "love" is a weariness to me...The best moments of life are those when we contemplate beauty in the purely artistic spirit...utterly remote from the temptations and harassings of sexual emotion. What we call love is mere turmoil. Who wouldn't release himself from it for ever, if the possibility offered?' (Chapter XVII)
For the character of Reardon, Gissing drew on his own experiences of poverty and literary struggle. Between late 1889 and late 1890 Gissing worked fitfully on at least seven projects, all of which turned out to be abortive. Finally, he had a breakthrough, and over nine weeks during the fall of 1890 wrote New Grub Street, which features agonizingly vivid descriptions of Reardon's inability to write. Ironically, it was by becoming a "chronicler of vulgarity, squalor and failure" (George Orwell's words) that Gissing finally achieved moderate success. He was then in his mid-thirties; he died in 1903, at the age of 46, after having suffered ill-health for most of the final decade of his life.

In its candidness about the connection between money and desire, New Grub Street was daring in its day; it remains compelling in ours.