He had been in Bollywood for over three years and appeared in over two dozen films, but the ones that stood out had him in cameos and the ones he starred in were flops. Then came the indignity of being removed from a film halfway for a more saleable star – and a disheartened Amitabh Bachchan was ready to quit Bollywood. However, three men – a pair of steadily-rising scriptwriters and a director – ensured that he not only remained in the industry but rose to the top.
And with “Zanjeer” (1973), prime movers Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, along with the initially reluctant Prakash Mehra, created a new Bollywood archetype, of the “angry young man”, and Bachchan was picked to give its definitive shape. He was also lucky that most of the reigning top actors rejected this paradigm shift for some reason or the other, based on their quirks.
The script-writing pair of Salim-Javed had divined the time was ripe for a change in Bollywood from the usual romance and dancing films after heartthrob Rajesh Khanna, who had over half of 1971’s top hits, delivered a string of flops in 1972, as Diptakirti Chaudhuri recounts in his “Written by Salim-Javed” (2015). Against the backdrop of rising discontent among public over prices, jobs and other maladies, they zeroed in on the “angry young man” who takes on the system.
In fact, Salim Khan, son of a police officer, had already the genesis of an idea even before he teamed up with Javed Akhtar, the son and nephew of noted Urdu poets, based on the tales his father told of dutiful police officers in the badlands of north and central India. What the duo did was to shift it into an urban setting and update it to the times.
They had prepared a script and convinced Mehra to take it on as his fifth film. However, they could find no hero for it. Dharmendra was initially interested but things did not work out between him and the director. Dilip Kumar liked the idea but considered the lead actor “uni-dimensional” and having no scope for “performance” (years later, he confessed to Salim that the picture was among the three he regretted not taking, as per Chaudhuri – the other two were “Baiju Bawra” and “Pyaasa”).
Dev Anand was approached but found fault with the hero given no songs, while even the supporting character had one, and turned it down when his stipulation. Next was Raj Kumar, who had been a police officer in Bombay himself before entering films, but he also declined – a story that did the rounds then was that he rejected it as he could not stomach the mustard hair oil the director applied!
Salim-Javed continued to espouse Amitabh Bachchan’s case but Mehra was not very happy, given his track record so far. However, the duo, who had twigged that Bachchan was only waiting for the right opportunity to demonstrate his talent (“I don’t know why the industry could not see what we thought was absolutely obvious – that Amitabh Bachchan was an exceptionally good actor!”, Javed told Chaudhuri for the book), continued to espouse his case.
They had found an ally in veteran actor Pran, who was the first to be cast as Sher Khan. As the story goes, Pran’s son, working with Ajitabh Bachchan in then Madras, was taken by the latter to see Amitabh Bachchan’s “Bombay to Goa”, liked his performance and told his father – who agreed, and passed his recommendation, and Mehra finally agreed.
He later told an abortive Bachchan biographer (Jessica Hines) that he chose Bachchan because “I liked his voice and eyes, this worked with the character – a cop who speaks very little and has all his expressions in his eyes”.
But, Salim-Javed still did not give up attempts to make their plan rock-solid. They then approached Jaya Bhaduri, who was a top star – and getting close to Amitabh – and convinced her to be the heroine, thus enhancing the film’s saleability.
The film was done but the distributors – the key element in a picture’s release – were still wary. And here, Salim-Javed performed a stratagem.
Then working on the script of “Sholay” for the Sippys, they organised a special screening of “Zanjeer” – at their own expense – for them, and prevailed on them to sign up Bachchan for the epic, which was still being cast. This sent a tremendous message – if Bachchan was good for the Sippys, then, the others need not fear to take him.
“Zanjeer” was a hit eagerly needed for all parties and they were left satisfied.
Mehra was now sold on on Bachchan and gave him a string of films that have become Bachchan classics – “Hera Pheri” (1976), “Khoon Pasina” (1977), “Muqaddar Ka Sikandar” (1978), “Lawaaris” (1981), “Namak Halaal” (1982), “Sharaabi” (1984) – and the forgettable “Jaadugar” (1989).
By Vikas Datta
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