Early on in Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer, the swaggering Sher Khan (a suitably flamboyant Pran) saunters into the police station and attempts to sit on the chair in front of newly arrived Inspector Vijay Khanna (a brilliant, brooding Amitabh Bachchan). Vijay kicks the chair away and declares, with gritted teeth: Jab tak baithne ko na kaha jaye sharafat se kadhe raho. Yeh police station hai tumhare baap ka ghar nahin.
This scene, from a film released 45 years ago, was our introduction to the Angry Young Man and it still gives me goosebumps. The Angry Young Man, created by two of Hindi cinema’s greatest writers – Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar – is one Hindi cinema’s greatest archetypes. Salim-Javed distilled the angst and frustration that had crept into the social fabric of the country and put a face to it – Vijay, a good man with a scarred soul. The Emergency, one of the darkest chapters in Indian history, arrived two years later. So did an even darker avatar of Vijay in Yash Chopra’s Deewar – he no longer functioned within the system. He was a noble outlaw now, a mafiosi bereft of a moral center (here symbolized by his mother) who is eventually killed by his own brother, a police inspector (Shashi Kapoor) who memorably tells him – mere paas maa hai.
Of course, the persona flourished because a stellar actor arrived to inhabit it – Amitabh Bachchan. Bachchan’s lanky, layered intensity hinted at a constantly simmering rage. Even when he cried (watch the temple scene in Deewar in which he begs God to spare his mother’s life), you could see the fire in his eyes. Bachchan and the Angry Young Man is, to my mind, one of the most organic matches of actor and character – like Rahul and Shah Rukh Khan or Chulbul Pandey and Salman Khan, it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The Angry Young Man and Amitabh Bachchan dominated the decade.
But what makes the 70s so magical is that there was so much more to savor. Diversity flourished – we got some of the best comedies ever made – has anyone topped Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Chupke Chupke (1975) and Golmaal (1979) or Manmohan Desai’s 1977 classic Amar Akbar Anthony? The last took the ‘lost and found’ formula to giddy, absurdist levels. Desai had no interest in logic. He was wholly invested in giving us a good time and honestly, there are few things in Hindi cinema that can match the madness of Bachchan’s drunk scene in this film or the exuberance of the nonsense lyrics in ‘My name is Anthony Gonsalves.’
Now imagine, that at the same time as Desai was creating these outlandish fantasies, Shyam Benegal was making Ankur (1974) and Nishant (1975) – stark, gut-wrenching critiques of exploitation and greed in rural India. Stories that refused to offer the comfort of song and dance or pretty people. The art house movement was blossoming. In 1974, M. S. Sathyu’s Garam Hava released. The film remains the finest portrayal of the Partition made in India. The story of a Muslim businessman who chooses not to migrate to Pakistan after the country is cleaved into half, captured the magnitude of the tragedy in the fate of one family. The image of the dignified Balraj Sahni as the broken Salim Mirza is forever etched in my mind.
And if you are a romantic, look no further than Yash Chopra’s Kabhi Kabhie (1976), which I consider among the best romantic dramas made. Khayyam’s music is magnificent – the title track “Kabhi Kabhie Mere Dil Mein” became the romantic anthem of a generation. But the film gave us that rare thing – a husband who discovers that his wife once loved another man but he makes his peace with it. When Vijay Khanna finally understands what happened, all he says to his wife’s earlier partner is that he wished he had told him. Because after all, Pooja is so beautiful that any man would fall in love with her.
These varied stories and styles played out side by side in the 70s. Dharmendra, dashingly handsome, was a star but so was the more intense Sanjeev Kumar. And Amol Palekar, who represented the common man, in films like Rajnigandha (1974), Chitchor (1976) and Gharonda (1977). Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor provided alternative narratives to Bachchan. Hema Malini was resplendent as the country’s Dream Girl (1977). While Rekha found the role she was destined to own – the beautiful, forever unfulfilled courtesan in Muqaddar ka Sikandar (1978). And the nation fell in love with the teenage romance of Bobby (1973) – is there a more delicious moment in Hindi movie villainy than when Prem Chopra casually holds Bobby’s hand and declares in a velvet voice – Prem naam hai mera, Prem Chopra.
Above all, the 70s gave us my favourite film of all time – Sholay. I consider Sholay to be one of the finest renderings of the Hindi film form. The film blended drama, comedy, tragedy, romance and action into timeless art. And those lines – once again the masters Salim-Javed at work – Jo dar gaya samjho mar gaya or loha garam hai maar do hathoda and my absolute favourite: Kitne aadmi the? These dialogues passed into colloquial language so that even a line taken out of context carries a world of meaning.
Need I say more? If you want to discover the 70s, here are five titles to start with:
Amar Akbar Anthony