Zanjeer is the perfect example of the right film at the right time. It came at a time when the country was tiring of Rajesh Khanna’s romantic mannerisms and turning to more real issues, the issue of day-to-day living. There was much disillusionment, especially among the youth of the country, a quarter of a century after Indian Independence. Life had become one big struggle, corruption was rife, unemployment was an all time high. And then Zanjeer happened…
Audiences were stunned and happily embraced this new hero – the ‘angry young man’ as he took on his problems and solved them himself, even taking recourse outside the law if need be. Here was a man who understood their everyday problems and what’s more faced up to them. Gone were the weak, romantic heroes who spent all their time looking into the heroine’s eyes and mouthed sweet nothings. The saviour had arrived and how!
On the surface, Zanjeer is very much a simple revenge drama not unlike the Western films from Hollywood as the hero avenges his father’s murder by the villain and the film itself is inspired by the Spaghetti Western Da Uomo a Uomo or Death Rides a Horse (1967). But Salim-Javed’s deft and multi-layered screenplay helps to elevate the film into something much more. Rarely has a character on the Hindi screen been explored as well psychologically as in Zanjeer as we see Bachchan battling his inner demons. The scenes where Bachchan tries to come to terms with his mental turmoil, his recurring nightmare of a black hooded figure riding a white horse for instance, his uncontrollable outbursts of rage and violence, are all most effectively realized. What’s more Prakash Mehra shows a firm directorial control over the film and takes off from where Salim-Javed’s script left off. Zanjeer was a path-breaking film for him and beyond anything he had done till then and in fact remains his finest film to date
The film finally made a star out of Amitabh Bachchan. Till then a promising but flop hero of a spate of films, he was still going nowhere in spite of fine performances in films like Anand (1970) and Ek Nazar (1972). Zanjeer changed all that. And to give full credit to Bachchan, he goes way beyond the powerful film and the author-backed role. He responds with a fine, internal and intense performance of a tormented man smoldering beneath the surface and waiting to explode. The Bachchan wave swept through the country rendering heroes like Rajesh Khanna obsolete. Ironically he wasn’t first second or even third choice for the role. Actors like Dev Anand, Raaj Kumar and yes, ironically even Rajesh Khanna, had turned down the role of the psychologically troubled cop. Thankfully the writers, Salim-Javed saw potential in Bachchan after seeing him in Bombay to Goa (1972) and recommended him to director Prakash Mehra. The rest as they always say is history and today, the film is absolutely unthinkable without Bachchan.
The other roles are mainly supporting in nature. Pran shines as the tough but kind-hearted Pathan who helps Bachchan in his mission. Following Upkar (1967), Pran had evolved into a fine, versatile actor who went beyond standard villainy and was starting to play all kinds of roles including comic ones like Victoria No 203 (1972). Zanjeer undoubtedly sees one of his finest ever performance. Be it in the initial confrontation with Bachchan or as he dances in the unforgettable Yaari Hain Iman Mera, Pran is perfect. Jaya Bhaduri more than efficiently goes through her largely undemanding role as the ‘chakuwali’. In fact, one fall out of the ‘angry young man’ syndrome was the decreasing importance of the Hindi film heroine as they were but (unnecessary!) interruptions for the man that came in the way of his mission, which could do without even love if needed. The film also made a top villain of 1950s hero, Ajit. In fact, Ajit went on to have an extremely popular innings as a villain with his dialogue delivery and ‘Ajit’ jokes becoming a craze. Bindu vamps it up deliciously as always.
Musically the film is effective enough. The highlight, both in terms of musical composition and picturization, is undoubtedly Yaari Hai Iman Mera, sung beautifully by Manna Dey. Dil Jalon ka Dil Jala, the vamp’s dance (sung of course by Asha Bhosle), has germs of the title song of Muqaddar ka Sikandar (1978) composed by the same Kalyanji-Anandji for the same Prakash Mehra! The other songs Banake Kyon Bigada re, Chaku Chhuriyan Tez Kara lo and Deewane Hain are adequate enough without being spectacular.
Zanjeer became a trendsetting film that changed the face of mainstream Hindi cinema. The angry young man took centre-stage and though other heroes like Dharmendra and Sunil Dutt also took on the mantle, he was best epitomized by Bachchan himself in a series of films written by Salim-Javed – Deewar (1975), Sholay (1975), Trishul (1978), Muqaddar ka Sikandar and Kaala Patthar (1978). Zanjeer also marked the beginning of a fine partnership between Bachhcan and director Mehra - a partnership that saw some fine films like Hera Pheri (1976), Khoon Pasina (1977), Muqaddar ka Sikandar, Namak Halal (1982) and Sharaabi (1984) besides the dreadful Jaadugar.
Besides being a huge success at the box office, Zanjeer went on to win the Filmfare Awards for Best Story, Screenplay, Lyrics (Yaari Hai Iman Mera) and R Mahadik’s crisp editing. Shockingly, Bachchan lost out in the Best Actor category to Rishi Kapoor’s teeny bopper act in Bobby (1973) and the film itself lost out to Shakti Samanta’s soppy Anuraag (1972) for Best Film while Mehra lost the Best Director Award to Yash Chopra who got it for his soap operaish, Daag (1973).
Incidentally, Salim-Javed re-worked the same plot of Death Rides a Horse equally effectively for Nasir Hussain as well as Yaadon ki Baraat (1973) beautifully blending typical features of a Nasir Hussain film with the revenge track. Ajit played the villain here as well wearing one shoe of size 8 and one of size 9! And yes, this one too was a huge success at the box-office!