The year was 1973 and the stage seemed to be set for a major upheaval in Hindi cinema. Rajesh Khanna, the reigning superstar of that era was nearing the end of his career as a romantic hero. The socio political scenario in the country too was undergoing a change. Gone was the era of ideals, people were looking for results and were disillusioned with the establishment.
It became obvious that the populace was not really interested in romance and needed a new idol. Heeding the call of their times, writers Salim Javed and director Prakash Mehra gave Hindi cinema the phenomenon of the 'Angry Young Man' with the film 'Zanjeer', setting off a mass frenzy about the film's protagonist, Amitabh Bachchan, the tall, lanky son of poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan. And that frenzy continues till date.
The actor had been trying his luck in Hindi films for a while, but had not met with much success as a solo hero. But that was all before the advent of 'Zanjeer'. The film not only changed his destiny but also that of the Hindi film industry, which got its 'Angry Young Man'. There may have been many through the decades who have also tried to cash in on the phenomenon, but none could quite capture the imagination of the public as Bachchan did.
For here was a hero, who finally seemed to have emerged from the common masses and was one they could identify with. Bachchan, with his gawky frame, deep baritone and brooding persona, was able to instantly connect with his audience in 'Zanjeer', and his angst was suddenly the angst of every young man in India. He was the common man's hero, a man of his times. In contrast, Khanna's old styled romance seemed to be dated, stale and out of sync with the times. The hero was dethroned and a new superhero was born as Zanjeer rocked the box office and raked in some Rs. 5 crore.
But to tell the truth, Bachchan was never the first choice for the men behind the making of 'Zanjeer', Mehra and Salim Javed. The original choices were Dev Anand, Raj Kumar and even Khanna, all of who turned down the role for various reasons. It was probably never meant to be for them and maybe the Gods had planned it that way. Hence, the role fell into the lap of Bachchan, who had just tasted moderate success with films like 'Bombay to Goa', 'Ek Nazar' and 'Anand'. His girlfriend and leading actress of that time, Jaya Bhaduri, now Bachchan, also threw her weight behind her man and agreed to star in this hero oriented film, thus setting the stage for the phenomenon to manifest.
One can never talk about the movie without talking about its writers, Salim Javed, who seemed to change the idiom of their times. They came up with a simple script, layered it beautifully with psychological undertones, thus totally transforming this simple story of a young man's quest to take revenge against his father's killers and made it a cult classic. Incidentally, the film is said to have been inspired by the spaghetti western, 'Da Uomo a Uomo or Death Rides a Horse' (1967).
As for the director, Mehra displays his mettle as a storyteller par excellence and embellishes the film with his usual flourishes. He makes the best use of the written material available to him and makes a taunt, gripping movie, which many believe was his best ever. After the stupendous success of 'Zanjeer', Salim Javed continued to back their dark horse and penned many more equally successful films with him in his 'angry young man' avatar like 'Deewaar', 'Sholay', 'Trishul', 'Muqaddar ka Sikandar' and 'Kaala Patthar'. Mehra too formed a very fruitful relationship with Bachchan and the duo did many films together like 'Hera Pheri', 'Khoon Pasina,' 'Muqaddar ka Sikandar', 'Namak Halal' and 'Sharaabi'.
Coming back to 'Zanjeer,' the film's story is about young Vijay Khanna, whose parents are murdered on a Diwali night by an unknown assailant, who wears a bracelet with a white horse on it. Having witnessed the death of his parents, the young Vijay is haunted by dreams of a white horse. The boy grows up and becomes Inspector Vijay, an honest police officer. Very early on, he collides with Sher Khan (Pran), the 'satta' don. But the encounter ends very favourably for Vijay, who not only is able to win Khan's respect but also his friendship. Needless to say, Khan also shuts down all his gambling dens and turns over a new leaf. The big fish that Vijay is really gunning for, is the underworld don, Teja (Ajit).
Meanwhile, an accident perpetuated by the underworld which leads to many school children losing their lives, is witnessed by a street performer called Mala (Jaya Bhaduri), who keeps quiet as she has been bribed by Teja and his men. But she buckles under Vijay's unique style of questioning and confesses the truth. With her life in danger, Mala seeks shelter at Khanna's house where the two finally start bonding.
Teja manages to get to Vijay and has him framed on false charges and jailed for six months. Vijay comes out of prison filled with thoughts of revenge but Mala persuades him otherwise. However, his promise to her is tested when he meets a man in cemetery who turns out to be one of his informants, De Silva. Torn between his promise to Mala and his burning need to do the right thing, Vijay becomes depressed till Mala releases him from the promise. Back on the trail of Teja, Vijay realises that the criminal is the murderer of his parents after he recognises the bracelet on the crininal's wrist. He finally takes his revenge when he manages to shoot Teja dead, thus setting to rest forever the ghosts of the past which had haunted him for the last 20 years.
This was the film which actually made a star out of Bachchan. And the actor gave his all to this movie, in terms of performance. He lives the role with passion and is able to convey the underlying angst and smouldering rage of his character with great intensity and economy. Bachchan rises to the occasion and delivers a fine, nuanced performance. In fact, he is like a timebomb just waiting to explode. While watching the movie today, one can hardly think of anyone else in this role but him.
Bachchan is extremely well supported by Pran, who plays a Pathan in this movie. The villain of yesteryears, changes over a new leaf as he essays a role of an honourable man, leaving the villainous deeds to Ajit. Pran is quite brilliant in this film and his good humoured Khan is a perfect foil to Bachchan's brooding Vijay. Jaya Bhaduri sails through her role with ease and manages to translate her on screen chemistry with Bachchan on to the screen quite effectively. Ajit plays the villain with his usual aplomb and is well supported by Bindu as his moll.
The film's music which has been composed by Kalyanji Anandji has some lovely gems like the ever popular friendship anthem, 'yaari hai imaan' sung by Manna Dey; Asha Bhonsle's 'dil jalon ka dil jala' and Lata Mangeshkar's 'banake kyon bigada re'. This composer duo went on to have a musical hand in many of the actor's other successes through the years.
Besides faring well at the box office, 'Zanjeer' won a lot of awards too that year. But strangely, Bachchan, who was a huge success after this movie, lost out on the Filmfare for the 'Best Actor' that year to Rishi Kapoor, who won it for teeny bopper romance saga, 'Bobby'. It also lost out on the 'Best Film' award which went that year to Shakti Samant's 'Anuraag', and the 'Best Director' award which went to Yash Chopra for 'Daag'. But 'Zanjeer' went on to win other awards like the Filmfare for best story, screenplay, lyrics and editing.
Today, Mehra is no more and the writer combo of Salim Javed has long since parted ways. But Bachchan still rules over the masses, much older, more suave and polished as he has become down the years. It was these early years and films like 'Zanjeer', 'Deewar' which really went behind building a rock solid foundation for Bachchan, who still continues to prove a challenge for the much younger Khans, Kumars et al of Bollywood, even in his 68th year. A genius at histrionics, a thorough professional who truly casts a long, long shadow.