Zanjeer @ 47: how one film changed Bollywood forever

It was in 1973 when the release of two films changed the course of the leading man in popular Hindi films.

While one of them, Bobby (1973) that introduced teen-sensations Dimple Kapadia and Rishi Kapoor, dominated the Box Office, and also won a bevy of awards, it was the other film, Zanjeer (1973) that proved to be the dark horse as far as the impact on the narrative and the future mainstream Hindi films went.

As both films turn 47, Zanjeer continues to get more relevant with the years and the film that started the journey of screenwriters Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar’s ‘Angry-Young-Man’ character assumes greater significance in a post-COVID-19 world.

While Salim-Javed films have been celebrated, the Angry Young Man, who was seen later in Deewar (1975), Trishul (1978), Kala Patthar (1979) and Shakti (1982), the point where it all began remains both understated and underrated.

As a film, Zanjeer had a tumultuous journey where for some reason it was passed over by a few of the biggest names in the industry. The script was developed with Dharmendra attached to both produce and star. However, due to some personal issues on a previous film where he had worked with director Prakash Mehra, circumstances compelled the star to give the script to Mehra to pitch to someone else.

Mehra spoke to Raaj Kumar and Dev Anand, too but in the end it was fate that ordained him to sign Amitabh Bachchan, then an actor with 13 flops to his name.

Bachchan featured in Namak Haraam and Zanjeer in the same year and soon the supporting actor who stood his own in front of superstar Rajesh Khanna in Anand (1971), finally arrived in the truest sense of the word. 

Zanjeer is perhaps the most underrated of Salim-Javed films not for any other reason but the body of work that followed. It’s hard for a cop-drama to stand firm in front of the iconic Sholay (1975) and Deewar.

The no-nonsense drama had a straight story: an upright cop Vijay Khanna (Bachchan) is pushed by Teja (Ajit), a gangster who also killed Vijay’s parents, to become a vigilante with the help of Sher Khan (Pran), a former criminal, and De Silva (Om Prakash), a police informant.

Zanjeer’s policeman was unlike the cops in Hindi films before and the hard as nails Vijay became a template for future films. The reason why the police officer in Zanjeer endeared himself to the masses was that he was cut from the same fabric that some people might have seen cops don in real life.

It was also one of the first films where the upright policeman has to pay a heavy price for his principles, which was unlike the standard narrative in films. 

Traditionally, Hindi films paint services such as police in a negative light, unless the lead is played by a superstar and this quality would undergo a change n the post-coronavirus world.

The police forces across India have not only risen to the situation but have also won hearts with their dedication to duty where many lives were lost due to police personnel working as frontline corona warriors.

Moreover, most of the go-to ‘bad guys’ of popular Hindi films, such as politicians, too, have, in fact, emerged as the ones who are venturing out there to make things easy for us.

In that light, Zanjeer, one of the first films to explore an upright cop who rather leave the job to do what was right than succumb to pressure, seems an ideal fit. The impact of the realism that rubbed off on Zanjeer can be gauged from the fact that up until Ardh Satya (1983) most reel cops were not even considered worthy of being discussed.

Even today, Zanjeer is the parameter for a screen cop. Despite being a film that is set in Bombay, Zanjeer has aged well and still packs a punch when compared to the lacklustre remake that was made a few years ago. 

The 2013 remake featured Ram Charan Teja as Vijay, Priyanka Chopra as Mala and Sanjay Dutt as She Khan but the Apoorva Lakhia directed remake was not even a pale shadow of the original.

The time when Zanjeer released the country was facing social unrest that reportedly inspired writers Salim-Javed to infuse angst within the character of Vijay as a response of sorts to what was happening around them.

When Hindi film writers finally decided to update their database when it comes to depicting policemen and women in the days to come, the reality of what we are witnessing should be taken into consideration.