Deewaar is the story of two brothers, Vijay and Ravi Verma, who follow widely divergent paths as adults – Vijay is a dockyard worker and later smuggler, while Ravi is the honest cop. When the management threatens to harm his family, their father an honest trade union leader is forced to sign an agreement that betrays the workers’ interests. Unable to bear this disgrace, he disappears, leaving behind his wife and mother of his two children. Forced to move to the city, they try to eke out a living by day (the mother works as a low wage coolie while Vijay works as a shoeshine boy) and sleep under the footpath by night. They both enable Ravi, the younger brother, to pursue an education. As Ravi grows up to be an honest cop he is assigned to hunt down his own brother who has by now grown into notoriety as an underworld leader. In the conflict that ensues, Vijay is killed, and the film ends with Ravi receiving an award for exemplary service.
Deewaar is an iconic, epic film in the history of Indian cinema – it is remembered as much for Indian superstar, Amitabh Bachchan’s portrayal of the ‘angry man’ 1 as for its complex portrayal of sociological and political realities of contemporary India. The film is set in the seventies, when the ‘imagined community’ 2 of the nation was being threatened by a repressive state – a crisis that came to a head when Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency in 1975. Madhava Prasad describes this moment as one of ‘deep disaggregation’ 3 of familiar structures resulting in the ‘de-legitimization of the authority of the state’. 4 Popular Hindi cinema’s response was thematised in the figure of the ‘angry man’ – an anti-state, if not anti-national figure, embodied in the brooding and angry screen persona of Amitabh Bachan, who became a symbol of urban working-class militancy. Rejecting the state and accumulating wealth via the underworld, Bachan’s character (Vijay) in Deewaar is supposed to have been modelled on the real-life don, Haaji Mastaan. Mastaan’s meteoric rise from a humble dockyard worker to a key player in Bombay’s underworld parallels Vijay’s own career in the film.5
As Prasad notes, the film begins as the ‘unofficial memory’, 6 the flashback of the Mother who receives the award for ‘exemplary’ performance of duty on behalf of her younger son Ravi. Thus the narrative is already dispersed in two strands as public history and private memory. Ravi is the hero of the official history, his honest actions in the service of law are rewarded by the state while the elder son, Vijay (the underworld don) is the real hero as the mother’s private memory coalesces around this psychologically motivated complex figure who has to be sacrificed in order to preserve the body politic.
The flashback opens with the trade union leader, Anand Babu’s (Satyen Kappu) address to the workers about a new morning that will rise when workers have access to health care, housing and education. During one such organised strike movement at the mine, the management threatens to kill his family if he did not relent to their demands. He chooses family over the community of workers – a betrayal that costs him and his family dearly. After this episode, the father never really recovers from his sense of shame and finally abandons his family to the mercy of the community. Vijay is apprehended by the workers who tattoo the young boy’s arm with the words ‘Mera Baap Chor Hai’ (‘My father is a thief’) – words that are singed not only into his skin but also into his psyche, marking his destiny and his choices. They are now pushed out into the unorganised working class milieu of the city where the mother resorts to low-wage manual labour and Vijay works as a shoeshine boy, their home is a street under the bridge – the footpath. The footpath, the underside of the bridge, is the operational metaphor of the movie. It is the psychic bridge that links the two brothers, even as the bridge separates them in two moral universes, on either side of the law. If the bridge is the official site, the public monument, the footpath is the unofficial monument – the ‘unintended city’. 7 It is home to millions of homeless urban poor who have been driven out in attempts at city development by the state.
Both Ravi and Vijay are framed by backstories of their childhoods that are crucial to their character formation. Vijay is the son who is ‘marked’. He bears his father’s shame on his tattooed arm. As a young boy he is fiercely protective of everyone he cares about and lashes out against authority and injustice. He throws a stone at the contractor who harasses his mother at the construction site where she works as a coolie. This rebellious attitude is carried into his adult life where he mobilises against the extortionists at the dockyard. Later the same fierce courage earns him both his notoriety and respect in the underworld. His sense of justice is governed by his own private morality, one that conflicts with the state.
Ravi, on the other hand, represents the perfect citizen. His childhood is framed by a sequence where he is seen running away from the footpath to watch a group of neatly dressed schoolchildren, while a song extolling the glories of the nation ‘Sare jahaan se acha’ plays in the background. He does well at school and Vijay makes it his life’s mission to work so that his kid brother can get the education he deserves. As an educated young man growing up in the 70s, Ravi realises that degrees and certificates have become meaningless as there are no jobs for men without connections, and the nationalist song of his childhood is now rendered ironic. He is however unwavering in his commitment to law and righteousness. Through his hard work and commitment to the letter of the law, he is integrated into a respectable middle-class milieu and united with his love, Veera (Neetu Singh), who is initially separated from him by class. Vijay accuses Ravi of growing up in forgetfulness, in the famous exchange in the ‘footpath scene’, in sharp contrast to Vijay who constantly remembers and is reminded of his past in the ever-present tattoo on his arm. Vijay’s life is a struggle to own the past by avenging it while Ravi strives to dispel it by attaching himself to an abstract citizenship realised through his ideals.
Oppositions are staged within the film’s melodramatic schema: private versus public morality, community versus individual, biological versus adopted family, good versus bad woman, capital versus labour and nation versus state. These conflicts are presented through popular Hindi cinema’s melodramatic device of choice – ‘doubling’. 8 As Ashis Nandy points out, Vijay (underworld don) and Ravi (cop) ‘are actually the same person deliberately divided and put back together again’. 9 These conflicts are ultimately resolved in the film’s melodramatic ending as Vijay dies in the lap of his mother after being shot by his brother.
The film embodies a ‘uterine world-view’ 10 in that narrative authority is vested in the Mother (Nirupa Roy) – it is her story told to us via her flashback, she is the law and the nation, the prize and the primordial authority. The brothers vie for her affection and though she loves her elder son Vijay more, she rejects his love to stay with her righteous younger son. She even refuses to accept Vijay’s gift of the high-rise apartment where she had once worked as a manual labourer and chooses instead to live with her honest cop son in a humble home. In the film’s oft-cited dialogue between Vijay and Ravi under the bridge, Vijay asks: ‘Mere paas bangla hai, gaadi hai, paisa hai. sab kuch hai. Tumhare paas kya hai’ (‘I have a bungalow, a car, money. everything. What do you have?’). Ravi answers: ‘Mere paas Maa hain’ (‘I have mother’). This is also the film’s indictment of capitalism; she the mother is the prize that money cannot buy.
The mother in Deewaar is ‘Mother India’, 11 who will sacrifice the law-breaker son for the sake of the community. In order to restore the rule of good, she, much like the epic character of the Mahabharatha, Kunti, pleads with her son Vijay not to harm Ravi in the inevitable clash between good and evil that will claim one of them. The invocation of the mythical story of the Indian epic Mahabharatha and the parallels between Vijay and the complex character of Karna12 helps to frame the story in a moral universe familiar to an Indian audience.
While many have noted the alienated ‘inner exile’ of Vijay’s character, Vinay Lal makes an observation about the ‘impossibility of the outsider’ in Deewaar. Vijay, at different points in his life, is bound by affect and duty to communities that he finds himself a part of. As a dockworker he takes up cudgels on behalf of the workers threatened by extortionists, and forms a close friendship with one of the workers, Rahim Chahca, whose talismanic badge he wears until the moment of his death. An alternative to the biological family is proposed in the community – the underworld boss takes the place of Vijay’s father and the bar girl Anita is his lover and mother-substitute. She accepts him tattoo and all. Yet in the end it is the ties of blood that prevail – Ravi even though righteous at the end, initially cannot accept hunting down his own brother and asks to be taken off the case. Vijay, under no circumstances, will kill his own brother. Vijay is finally brought back into the fold not through an impersonal law or the rational state but through the blood family and the primordial authority of the mother in whose arms he dies at the end.
1. See Mazumdar, pp. 1–40 for a discussion of Deewaar and on-screen rage.
2. As Benedict Anderson famously defines it in Imagined Communities (1983).
3. Prasad, p. 120. See pp. 117–37, for an exegesis of this moment in India’s socio-political history.
5. For more parallels with Haaji Mastaan, see Virdi, p. 6.
6. Prasad, p. 148. See detailed analysis of the film, pp. 144–53.
7. See Mazumdar, pp. 1–40, for an insightful analysis of the unintended city in the film.
8. See Pinney, p. 10.
10.K. Chandrasekhar cited in Lal’s essay in Nandy, p. 246.
11.This parallel has been noted by Nandy among others. See Nandy’s interview with Pinney (Pinney, p. 10).
12.See Mazumdar, pp. 1–40, Prasad, pp. 144–53, on the parallels with the Mahabharatha epic.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: India. Production Company: Trimurti Films. Director: Yash Chopra. Producer: Gulshan Rai. Screenwriters: Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar. Cinematographer: Kay Gee. Editors: T. R. Mangeshkar and Pran Mehra. Music: R. D. Burman. Cast: Amitabh Bachchan (Vijay), Shashi Kapoor (Ravi), Nirupa Roy (Mother), Parveen Babi (Anita).]
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso, 1983.
Alka Anjaria, ‘Relationships which have No Name: Family and Sexuality in 1970s Popular Film’, South Asian Popular Culture, 2012, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 23–35.
Munni Kabir, Talking Films: Conversation with Javed Akhtar, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Vinay Lal, Deewaar: The Footpath, the City and the Angry Young Man, Delhi: Harper Collins India, 2011.
Vinay Lal, ‘The Impossibility of the Outsider’ in Ashis Nandy (ed.), The Secret Politics of Our Desires: Innocence, Culpability and Indian Popular Cinema, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 228–59.
Ranjani Mazumdar, Bombay Cinema: An Archive of a City, Delhi: Permanent Black, 2007.
Christopher Pinney, ‘Hindi Cinema and HalfForgotten Dialects: An Interview with Ashis Nandy’, Visual Anthropology Review, Vol. 11, No. 2, Fall 1995.
Madhava Prasad, Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Ashis Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen (eds), The Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, London: BFI, 1994.
Jyotika Virdi, ‘Deewaar: The Fiction of Film and the Fact of Politics’, Jump Cut, No. 38, June 1993, pp. 26–32.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.