Wednesday, November 13, 2013

DVR Diary: ZANJEER (1973)

Prakash Mehra's contribution to the global tough-cop genre of the 1970s made lead actor Amitabh Bachchan a star in India. The wider recognition of Indian cinema gave Bachchan enough celebrity worldwide that he was cast in this year's The Great Gatsby as a Jewish-American gangster. The thought might scandalize his core audience for a number of reasons. In Zanjeer Bachchan plays an incorruptible hero, a cop with a Batman-style origin. His parents are killed before his eyes amid the fireworks of a Diwali celebration; the only thing he can remember about the killer is the bracelet ("zanjeer") he wears. As an adult Vijay Khanna remains tormented by his loss. He suffers nightmares of a white stallion rampaging across a greenish nightscape. He takes his grief out on the criminal element; we learn that he's been bounced from precinct to precinct for getting too tough on crime and vice. His tactics work, however. This is illustrated by Vijay's encounter with a vice boss, Sher Khan (Pran) on his new beat. With few preliminaries, Vijay orders this rather vainglorious, nearly cartoonish figure to cease and desist. Sher Khan respects Vijay's fearlessness, and respects the officer even more after they fight each other (without weapons) to a standstill. Such is the criminal's respect for the fighting lawman that when Vijay orders him again to shut down his gambling dens and other related establishments, Sher Khan complies immediately and takes up a new career as a grease monkey. Better still, Vijay has made a friend for life and Zanjeer has acquired some reliable comedy relief -- or at least that's how I saw it.

Teja (Ajit, another mononymous performer) proves a tougher nut to crack. This vaguely Tony Cliftonish figure is a real hardcore crime boss, unimpressed by anyone's courage or prowess with fists. He deals with Vijay by having him framed for taking bribes and put in prison. Teja underestimates Vijay's resilience, however -- and now that our hero is off the force, he doesn't have to answer to anyone for how he deals with Teja. Actually, that's not quite true. He has to answer to his beloved, Mala the singing knife-sharpener (Jaya Badhuri, the future Mrs. Bachchan), who wants to settle down to a secure, peaceful existence. It's a tempting idea, but Vijay couldn't live with himself if he chose that path -- not after his long-awaited encounter with the mystery man who'd been tipping him off about crimes by telephone throughout the picture. This Indian Christian, Mr. DiSilva, has pretended to be a wino to get information about criminals ever since his sons died while celebrating Christmas with rotgut bootleg hooch courtesy of Teja's gang. Bootlegging was a big criminal business in India back then; Vijay's poor dead father had gotten into trouble in the first place by getting involved with the bootleg counterfeit medicine trade. And wouldn't you know? Everything's connected, as Vijay learns on another fireworks-lit Diwali night as he and Sher Khan storm Teja's headquarters, only to be distracted by a conspicuous piece of the gangster's jewelry....

Turner Classic Movies's presentation of Zanjeer did not inspire confidence. An already gamey print proved itself mismastered during the opening credits, when cast and crew information repeatedly went missing beneath the bottom of the letterboxed screen. Meanwhile, Robert Osborne had said that Zanjeer was not like contemporary musical "Bollywood" movies. If he meant to imply that there were no musical numbers, he was proven wrong once Mala started advertising her skills with song. Later, Sher Khan gets a big number as he tries to cheer up and motivate our hero, and there are other numbers in between, though nothing as elaborate as the Bollywood label now implies. I wonder whether Osborne bothered looking at the film before introducing it. I hold none of it against the film; the musical aspect of Indian films isn't exotic, but merely old-fashioned. Melodrama was a universal art form before movies; many an English-language stage play would intererrupt its action for specialty musical numbers, and the conventions of Bollywood might not seem so outlandish to Americans if more of us remembered all the singing cowboy movies made here from the Thirties through the early Fifties. Zanjeer differs from those films only in its refusal to put Bachchan over as a musical performer like Roy Rogers or Gene Autry. Vijay is a fighter, not a singer, and Bachchan's dynamic brawling must have put him over as much as his good looks. His fighting style is somewhere between martial arts and professional wrestling, and while that makes Zanjeer hard to take seriously in comparison to other countries' tough-cop pictures you can still see what Bachchan brought to the project that captivated audiences. The picture is crude and simplistic, but its energy kept me watching despite the problematic presentation, though for most outside India Zanjeer will probably prove less a classic than a historical curiosity. Fortunately, I like historical curiosities, so I'm glad I had to see this one.

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