Though Sholay continues to be Ramesh Sippy’s signature work it is to many of his admirers an inferior work to Shakti which he made 7 years after Sholay became a landmark and benchmark for successive generations of Indian filmmakers. But sorry, Shakti, it is for me. And it’s not just about the historic union of the mighty Dilip Kumar with his greatest successor Amitabh Bachchan. It’s a lot more. The sheer velocity of the screenplay, the structuring of the father-son conflict, the deeply contoured sketching and execution of the characters as they hurl towards an amazing nemesis, simply make Shakti the most powerful script that the awesome twosome Salim-Javed ever wrote. This is a far superior screenplay to the duo’s other celebrated Bachchan films including Zanjeer and Deewaar.
In fact, Deewaar and Shakti are in many ways first-cousins. The script for Salim-Javed‘s Deewaar was directly inspired by Mehboob Khan’s Mother India. Mr Bachchan’s uneasy relationship with his screen-mother Nirupa Roy culminating in the heart-rending annihilation of her own flesh and blood was directly traceable to Mother India. In Shakti, on Ramesh Sippy’s request, Salim-Javed turned the mother and son’s ideological conflict to a father-son drama. Here, the father is an upright police officer who doesn’t think twice before telling his son’s kidnappers to kill the child if they so wish. But he wouldn’t budge from his line of duty. What psychological repercussion would this kind of eccentric idealism have on the poor child who is made into a sacrificial lamb goat in his father’s devout festival of idealism? It’s a great thought, ingeniously sex-changing the ‘Mother India’ theme into a father-son drama. But retaining the mother-son core of human emotions that made Nargis and Sunil Dutt so vividly etched in the public mind.
Rightly, Ramesh Sippy shoots the drama with all the punch lines between the father and the son tilted in the father’s favour. The cop’s character holds the ideological key to the drama. Miraculously, this doesn’t undermine the father-son conflict, nor does it make the son’s character look morally diminished. Rather, the father’s righteous quest for an ideological high-ground makes those around him look humane in their frailties. If there’s an element of Mother India in Shakti there’s also a pronounced allegiance to Mahatma Gandhi’s troubled relationship with his elder son Harilal in the way Inspector Ashwini Kumar keeps pushing aside his fatherly duty for the sake of his work ethics. “Sometimes you can be part of a family and yet feel completely alone in the world,” Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) tells Roma (Smita Patil) when they first meet. In the films of yore, the hero generally met the heroine when he ‘rescues’ her from goons. In Shakti too, the silently smouldering Vijay erupts in a local train when a bunch of rowdy Romeos accost the single girl. Smita may have looked ill-at-ease in the damsel-in-distress’ role. But she managed to win the troubled loner’s heart. Roma eventually moves in with Vijay, who has now moved out of his parents’ home. Roma seems distantly related to Anita (Parveen Babi), the single girl in Deewaar who lives in with Vijay and becomes pregnant with his child.
The progressiveness of the characters, their determination to grab destiny by its balls and manoeuvre their lives into the darkest recesses of uncertainty without fearing the inevitable moral backlash, makes human interactions in Shakti mature, mellower and more moving than most of the cinema in the 1980s. There is a remarkable sequence where Roma comes visiting Vijay’s estranged parents after she secretly marries him. The high-definition humanism and the sheer exultation as family values are celebrated in the scene makes the family drama of Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham look embarrassingly over-done in comparison. If we make bold to compare the father-son dramatic conflict in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, with what we see transpire with such intimacy and inevitability between Dilip Kumar and the Big B in Shakti, we soon realize that somewhere the family drama featuring larger-than-life superstars became progressively awed by their own casting audacity, thereby relinquishing the right to build a restrained and believable rapport between warring parties within a family.
In Shakti, the equation between father and son is perfectly pitched. We feel the crackling tension created by the two intelligent actors in scene after scene. We know, even if we haven’t seen Mother India or Deewaar, what nemesis awaits Vijay as he guns down his mother’s killer (Amrish Puri) in the transit area of the crowded Mumbai airport. The mother-figure remained central to Salim-Javed plot. Bravely Raakhee Gulzar took on the challenge of playing the Big B’s mother right after playing his romantic interest in Kabhi Kabhie, Kasme Vade and Barsaat Ki Ek Raat. The temptation here lay not in the challenge, but in the sheer joy of being teamed with Dilip Kumar. Raakhee crossed over to the matriarchal podium without fuss. Her death precipates a war of bullets between father and son. The mother-figure embodies the crux of compassion in Salim-Javed’s script. It was very important that an actress of great dignity and substance and with a fair stronghold on the box-office play Dilip Kumar’s wife and Amitabh Bachchan’s mother. Raakhee took up the challenge, and delivered a poignant if somewhat whiny performance. She binds the two warring men. Her death sequence makes remarkably eloquent use of silence. The Big B holds his grieving father’s hand, their acrimonious ideological division forgotten in that interlude of mutual grief.
It’s hard to imagine the impact of this film with any other two actors. This was one of Dilip Kumar’s last really great performances. Like the rest of the humanity from the entertainment industry, Big B and director Ramesh Sippy were in awe of the mighty Dilip Kumar. But they never allowed their reverence to come in the way of keeping the plot and characterizations balanced. The father-son conflict never gets tilted. Admittedly, Dilip Saab had some fabulous scenes in the film. The sequence in the hospital where the inconsolably grieved Inspector Ashwin Kumar holds his dead wife’s hand and berates the doctor for declaring her dead when her hand is still warm, will give us goosebumps for as long as cinema exists. The power of Shakti is star-power at its starkest. But it’s also the power of the director and the actors to maintain an aesthetic and dramatic equilibrium between narrative and populism. The scenes are written in a seamless sequence of gripping drama. There is no pause for applause. Just a story about a father and a son who couldn’t see eye to eye, which had to be told to its tragic finale.
Trivia- The film was inspired by a hit Tamil film Thanga Pathakkam from 1960 where Sivaji Ganesan played an honest police constable who guns down his own truant son, played by Srikanth. Ramesh Sippy bought the rights of the Tamil film. Only the germ of the original idea was retained. The son’s role was to be played by Raj Babbar who was then completely new to movies. Raj auditioned for the part. He was even paid a signing amount. But was dropped when the Big B showed an interest in playing the son’s part. Raakhee took the risk of turning prematurely into a screen mother, a la Waheeda Rehman in Phagun, only for the pleasure and privilege of playing the mighty Dilip Kumar’s leading lady at least once. Satish Shah made his screen debut in a bit part. He was one of the ruffians who accosts Smita Patil in the local train. During the outdoors, Raakhee would lovingly cook all of her favourite actor Yusuf Saab’s favourite dishes. But wife Saira Banu firmly stopped her husband from relinquishing his diet. There was no scope for songs in the film. R D Burman managed to squeeze in a popular Lata Kishore duet Jaane kaise kab kahan iqraar ho gaya. Anil Kapoor made a guest appearance at the beginning and end of the film as Dilip Kumar’s grandson and Amitabh Bachchan’s son. The film is narrated in a flashback with Anil listening to the story of his dead father’s life .
Ramesh Sippy shot Shaan and Shakti simultaneously. Long before, when I had spoken with Ramesh Sippy. When asked How did the unthinkable combination of Mr Bachchan and Mr Dilip Kumar? He said, “After I finished Sholay I began working on two projects Shaan and Shakti, one for my own production house and Shakti for producers Mushir-Riaz. It was always my dream and ambition to work with Mr Dilip Kumar . Later generations of directors felt the same way about working with Mr Bachchan whom I had already worked with in Sholay. For my generation the Living Legend was Mr Dilip Kumar. He still is.Even Mr Bachchan acknowledges his debt to Mr Dilip Kumar.” When questioned how did he convince them to come together for Sholay? Sippy shared, “First came the thought of wanting to do a film with Dilip Kumar.One of my favourite films was Mother India. I felt Mr Dilip Kumar had grown in stature as an actor to handle a role in that genre with ease. I wanted to make what you might call a Father India with him, about a man who sacrifices his son for his ideology. Though I would never take my inspiration from any source to those limits .When Salim-Javed and I were taking about it—they also wanted to work with Mr Dilip Kumar—I told them about a film starring Sivaji Ganesan which I had seen. I suggested to Salim-Javed that we buy the rights for the Tamil film at a time when copyright infringement was not even a thought in our industry. We took the rights and then we worked on the story.Almost nothing of the original remained finally,except the father killing his own son. Then once the scripts was done we thought of only Mr Dilip Kumar.
When I asked how did Mr Bachchan agree to play a role that had every possibility of being overshadowed? Ramesh Sippy said, “We toyed with the idea of casting someone new since the father’s role was so powerful. We considered Raj Babbar . We even took his screen test. But no, I haven’t kept that screen test. I am not the film-historian’s delight. I don’t believe in preserving my work for posterityThen Mr Bachchan heard about this project and wondered why we didn’t offer to him.” When I asked, “Why hadn’t you offered it to him?” Ramesh Sippy replied and said, “He had become such a big star by then. One felt it wouldn’t be fair to him and to his fans. But the temptation of bringing these two actors(Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan) together was overpowering. We were eternally grateful to Mr Bachchan, the superstar by then, for offering his services. If he hadn’t come forward to do the role we’d have never gone to him for a son’s role in a Dilip Kumar film. I owe what Shakti became as much to Mr Bachchan as Salim-Javed. When I asked Ramesh Sippy why Mr Bachchan did not play to the galleries in Shakti? He said, “That was the other problem. By the time we came to Shakti his image was of an all-rounder. He was expected to sing dance and do comedy. Just like today Salman Khan is expected to do his ‘Salman-giri’ Mr Bachchan also carried some expectations in the audiences’ heart.He was like a one-man entertainment machine.I was a little worried about disappointing his fans. And initially when the film was released,that’s exactly what happened.”
When I asked Sippy if he means “audiences were disappointed by Ms Bachchan’s restrained role?” The filmmaker said, “They expected something else, just like they had expected a histrionic jugalbandi when Prithviraj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar came together as father and son in Mughal-e-Azam. But Dilip Kumar had to remain within the boundaries of his character as a son in Mughal-e-Azam. Likewise, Amitabh Bachchan in Shakti. Yet he came out with a scintillating performance.He was underplayed and intense.I don’t think anyone else could’ve played the role the way Mr Bachchan did.He had to play a hurt and wounded son.” I then asked Sippy, “When the film was released Dilip Saab got all the raves and awards?” to which he had replied, “The father’s character was far more crowd-friendly.” When asked why he cast Raakhee as Mr Bachchan’s father? The director had said, “Yes, and right after she did a very romantic film Kabhi Kabhie with him. But my rationale was, if Sanjeev Kumar could play Jaya Bhaduri’s father-in-law in Sholay why can’t Raakhee play Amitabh Bachchan’s mother?. I’d say it was a fascinating challenge for Raakhee to play Dilip Kumar’s husband and Amitabh Bachchan’s son. Talking about if
“Box-office wise Shakti was not as strong as it was expected to be?” Ramesh Sippy had said, “Only if you place the expectations next to Sholay.But I think my Shaan should be compared with Sholay in boxoffice terms, not Shakti. Shakti is a different genre. It was like a stage play, a very internalized drama. We couldn’t open out that theme into a vastness of a masala product. If we did that we’d have lost the drama. When asked if “Watching Mr Bachchan’s character sing in Shakti was odd?” Sippy said, “I don’t agree. He was in love. And he lost his brooding demeanour when he was with her. There would be debates and disagreements. I make my films with my convictions.”
Finally, during the interview, when asked Ramesh Sippy if he would have remade Shakti whom would he have cast as the father and son? The filmmaker said, “I’d never remake my films. When I was working with Amitabh Bachchan I was asked would he be the next Dilip Kumar. When I was working with Shah Rukh Khan I was asked would he be the next Amitabh Bachchan.In future another actor would be asked if he’s the next Shah Rukh. When asked last “Though you made other great films your reputation seems stuck on Sholay?” Ramesh Sippy said, “Never mind .Wohbhi to meri hai na.”
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