There is a reason that the classics are the classics, that seminal films are seminal, that genre-defining films define genres. When I sat down to watch the classic, seminal, genre-defining Deewaar ("wall"), I expected to enjoy it, but I didn't think I'd be blown away. I should have known better.
Anand Verma (Satyendra Kapoor) is a labor organizer who is viewed as a hero by the workers in his area - until he backs down in the face of threats against his family. Then the workers' admiration quickly sours to revilement and Anand flees, leaving his family to bear the burden of his disgrace. His wife (Nirupa Roy) takes their two boys to Bombay in hopes of rebuilding their lives. The boys grow up together, but on very different trajectories. Ravi (Shashi Kapoor), ever pious, joins the police force at the encouragement of his warm and perky girlfriend Leena (Neetu Singh). Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan), more deeply scarred by their early struggles, renounces God as well as the straight and narrow path; he takes a more thuggish (he might say practical) approach to problems. When he single-handedly beats up a cadre of gangsters who were extorting wages from his fellow dockworkers, he becomes a hero among his colleagues - and attracts the notice of an underworld don (Iftekhar), who hires Vijay to protect his shipments of smuggled gold. Vijay proves a natural talent, and the don soon decides to retire, leaving Vijay in charge of operations. It's not long before Ravi and Vijay find themselves in direct opposition on either side of the law, with their mother caught in the middle.
The plot summary might sound like a recipe for masala; brothers on opposite sides of the law, saintly mothers, gangsters, thugs, and pretty girls call to mind masala classics like Amar Akbar Anthony and Parvarish, for example. But Deewaar is not a masala film. It is hard and gritty and at the same time deeply symbolic and emblematic. And there is very little to distract from the core narrative, no subplots or comic diversions, just the unflinching, driving force of a story that is bigger than the sum of its parts.
Vijay is an anti-hero par excellence, a resourceful and principled fighter who loves his mother and enters the underworld not out of greed or lust but only because he sees it as the most efficient means to provide for his family. His disillusionment and frustration are fully motivated; early in the film, after his father's disgrace, the little boy Vijay suffers a trauma that stays with him for life when angry villagers waylay him on his way home from school and tattoo his arm with the legend "mera baap chor hai" - my father is a thief. That tattoo is both Vijay's humiliation and his motivation, and he returns to it again and again as he chooses his destructive path. This is what makes Vijay the seminal, quintessential "angry young man" of Hindi film. He is not a mindless thug or a rebel without a cause. He is sensitive, tortured, and scarred. Vijay is at his most heartbreakingly compelling in his quiet interactions with his girlfriend Anita (Parveen Babi). She probes his suffering, and he pours out his heart to her. It is difficult to imagine a Hollywood tough-guy hero baring his soul to a woman as Vijay does; the corresponding western archetype is a calloused, hardened loner, the kind of man who would yell at his girl if she tried to get at his emotional core. And so Vijay is a revelation, a marvel of compelling cinema, brought vividly and ruggedly to life by Salim-Javed's expertly crafted dialogues and a dense, earthy performance by Amitabh Bachchan, whose superstardom was just then coming into its full force.
Ravi is a complete contrast. While he isn't overly cheerful - the burden of his family's suffering and their sacrifices for his education have shaped him as a serious and determined man - he is always bright-eyed, straight-spined, and clean, in palpable opposition to Vijay's heavy-lidded eyes and smudged, sweaty face. In confrontation with his brother he seems almost idealist as he clings to his commitment to honest, hard work within the system. But while Vijay's unlawful pragmatism may put a luxurious roof over his head and a fancy set of wheels in the garage, Ravi's constancy earns for him the one thing that really matters, which he asserts with the film's most famous line: Mere paas maa hai - "I've got mom."
All told Deewaar is as taut, tense, and lean as Amitabh Bachchan himself. There is very little fat in this film; I understand that even Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, those quintessentially populist poet-entertainers, originally intended that the film be songless, and only relented upon the director's insistence that songs be accommodated. And the songs - there are only three of them - are the only points where the intensity lets up for even a moment. They're good songs - especially the charming Kishore-Asha duet "Keh doon tumhe", and the sexy uncredited item number by the fiery Aruna Irani. (Check out Sanket's concurrent post on Bollywood Music Club for more about Deewaar's music and lots more about the movie as well.) Even with the songs, Deewaar is as tight and relentless and compelling and emotional a mainstream Hindi film as I've ever seen. Though the outcome holds no surprises - it's easy to guess where it has to end - so perfectly wrought is Vijay's trajectory toward redemption and resolution that tears sneaked into my eyes several times as the film's climax approached.