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To watch the aboriginal Bollywood blockbuster Zanjeer (1973) is to bebodily transported to a very particular cinephilic place and time: themoment when the Indian film industry, already one of if not the world's mostprolific, fully recognized its crazy commercial potential outside of a setof popular genre frameworks, and galvanized the world's second largestpopulation into a movie-mad frenzy. A rough-and-tumble crime saga oozingwith moral indignation, Prakash Mehra's film instituted a new wave in Indianpulp movies, at a time when Indian society itself was plagued by corruption,post-colonial difficulties, and what was mockingly referred to by economistsas "the Hindu rate of growth," referring to socialist India's sluggishfiscal performance in the decades since independence, as compared to thebooming economies of other Asian countries. The poverty-stricken lowerclasses seemed to be just getting larger and poorer, and social discontentwas in the air (as it has been for so many postwar societies, includingAmerica's). Indian movies tended toward the melodramatic and romantic - thatis, until Zanjeer, which channeled the Indian proletariat'sfrustration and rage, with a tale hinging on insatiable vengeance andchockablock with brawls, executions, persecutions and righteous kick-ass.Famously, star Amitabh Bachchan became a generational icon, a pure-heartedand fearless "angry young man" whose ethical balance was only compromised byhow disposable he thought the rules of law and order were if they got inhis way.
"Zanjeer" is Hindi for "shackles" or "chains," here being takenmetaphorically as every kind of socioeconomic burden, but also literally, inreference to the tell-tale chain bracelet worn by the story's ultimatesuper-villain, a wealthy gangster sitting atop a Mumbai moonshine ring. Butconsideration of the story per se must take a backseat, at least initially,to the formal attack of Bollywood films as they thrived in the mid-century -that is, for American viewers something like Zanjeer is a rashlydifferent kind of experience, a film apparently made in a state of panicky,breathless emergency, without the slightest minute to spare on cinematicniceties like establishing shots, steady zooms, and tidy shot-counter-shotclose-ups. Indeed, Indian actors were used to shooting a full movie in aweek's time, and often shot more than two or three simultaneously. By 1973it was already a movie culture that did not prize smoothness, continuity orconvincing illusion, in the Hollywood vein - rather, Bollywood movies prizedpropulsive forward motion, totemic emotional peaks (no visual or auralemphasis was too strong), and theatrical soap-opera hyperbole. (Ironically,for such rapid-fire cinematic style, Bollywood films are routinely three ormore hours; at nearly 2.5 hours, Zanjeer was modest in scope.)
What might pass for crude, harried amateurishness in other cultures isactually in India an expression of native attitude toward cinema; like theChinese, another ancient culture beloved of order and etiquette, the Indianssaw movies as an outlet for quick, dirty, simple enchantment. They also,famously, prioritized musical dance numbers, five of which stop the plot ofZanjeer dead for more or less extraneous folk dancing and "filmi"songs, some last six minutes or more, a dynamic that sounds trying but isactually the most entertaining part of almost any Bollywood film. You haveto appreciate the strategy: no matter how dire the circumstances, or tragicthe drama, nothing could or will stop the film from erupting at virtuallyany moment into keening melody and torso-shimmying boogie-woogie. Asaesthetics go, it's pure life-affirmative folk culture, and clearlyaddictive. Here, once Jaya Bhaduri (the future Mrs. Bachchan) begins dashingaround warbling "Get Your Knives Sharpened," changing outfits in mid-song,you know that whatever disasters will befall the characters, the visceralenergy of movies will prevail.
Acted in "Hinglish," Zanjeer begins with a father embroiled in the"spurious medicines!" trade deciding to go straight and quit his syndicate,thereby bringing assassins to his door. Guns blaze, but the man's little sonis saved hiding in a closet, and in short order grows up to be Bachchan(looking quite like an Indian mash-up of Ray Romano and George Hamilton), whoas a rookie cop is already being reprimanded for hotheaded police brutality.After brawling with a local gambling-den hood (Pran), who subsequently goesstraight and becomes a lifelong ally, Bachchan's Vijay begins tracking downshipments of poisonous and illegal hootch, and eventually discovers that theoperation is run by the aforementioned gangster (Ajit), who has more thanthe air of an untouchable. Vijay is undeterrable, but Mehra's story getstwisty, in ways that always revolve around the use and abuse of money -bribes, debts, loans, payments, interest, ad infinitum, some forms mistakentragically for others - as if to offset the film's huge emotional gestureswith careful plotting atomized down the rupee. There's little doubt Vijaywill triumph in the end - but at what cost?
Zanjeer was violent by 1973 Hindi cinema standards, and that was whyaudiences responded - here finally was a film, amidst a nonstop flood ofmovies, that voiced the population's anger and put the rod to the corruptone-percenters responsible for the country's wretched inequity. Bachchanbecame 1970s India's James Dean figure, and after making five more films in1973 went on to become one of the preeminent figures in the world's nuttiestfilm culture. As conventional as Zanjeer's narrative appears to us,in 1973 it was a breathtaker for Indians, and was imitated and sequeled todizzying degrees, before being remade outright in 2013. The movie's statureas a historical touchstone - equivalent to our understanding of TheGraduate (1967) or Breathless (1960) or Blow-Up (1966) - is a phenomenon thatoccurred and sustained largely outside of the western purview, for a hundredmillion Asian film fiends besotted finally with the catharsis of violentmovie justice.
By Michael Atkinson