Salim Khan on Zanjeer, which turns 50 today

A supreme game-changer: Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bachchan, nee Bhaduri, in Zanjeer. Photo: Publicity Photo

There have been many game-changers in Hindi cinema. Zanjeer, probably leads them in the way it changed established norms and patterns in Hindi cinema. Released on May 11, 1973, it completes 50 years. It became an unexpected blockbuster in that year and completed a Golden Jubilee (50 weeks) run in mid-1974, and was written by Salim-Javed, as Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar were known.

On this historic occasion, co-writer Salim Khan, goes down memory lane.

Excerpts from an interview follow.

We all know that Zanjeer was a true-blue game-changer. We would like you to elaborate on this.

Yes, it brought about a paradigm change in Hindi cinema. Before the film, our hero used to be the long-suffering kind until the end when he showed his strength. We brought in a brand new concept and image. Credit Javed and me or discredit us, but this hero and film changed the complete film industry!

And yet several top heroes turned down the role that Amitabh did. Myths flourish about this: Dev Anand wanting songs, and Raaj Kumar not liking the smell of Prakash Mehra’s hair-oil, and more.

Rumors and conjectures will happen as people want to say or write something! But, since we had a different hero who barely talks, hardly ever smiles, does not romance the heroine or sing songs, we had a tough time getting the lead actor. Prakash Mehra had bought our script, but several heroes turned it down.

So please tell us the true reasons.

Prakash Mehra and we took the script (which Javed and I had completed) to Dharmendra as we felt he was ideal for it. But he could not accept the film because there were some family issues pertaining to Mehra. He later expressed that he should have done the story.

Dilip (Kumar)-saab  has gone on record to state that this was one of three movies he should have taken up but did not—the others being Baiju Bawra and Pyaasa. Pran-saab, already on board as he had loved his character of Sher Khan, suggested Dev Anand’s name.

Dev-saab listened to the story with rapt attention, embraced and escorted me out, and stated that if for any reason he did not accept our film, it did not mean that he found the script wanting, because it was a film that deserved to be made. Later, we came to know that he was fond of working only with a fixed team of his insiders, and maybe he did not wish to work with Mehra either.

And Raaj Kumar, as you know, was a police officer before coming to films, and joked ‘This is my story!’ But I feel that this atypical hero was not what he would have liked.

So what made you choose Amitabh Bachchan?

We liked his looks and eyes. We had seen some films of his and thought he would be the right choice and took him to Prakash Mehra. He had the brooding persona we needed and at that time, he was desperate for a good role. And after his first scene, in which there are bodies of dead children, we knew he was the right choice.

You have always said that a lot of your characters are inspired by real people you have known or heard about in Indore where your father was a Deputy Inspector-General for over three decades.

Yes, I knew of someone like him, and modified his character, mixing traits of some others and taking elements from some older films. Incidentally, my father, who held the highest position Indians were allowed then—as the IG would be a Britisher—also believed that murderers who do not respect life had no right to live and it was better to kill them rather than give them a chance to escape or be freed for some technical reason. And Pran’s character was also a mix of some dadas (ruffians) I had heard about from my father.

What about the heroines? We heard of difficulties there as well.

Yes, almost all top heroines turned the film down, and some did not even know who Amitabh was, or thought he was just the son of a poet! At that time, he had many flops, except for Bombay to Goa. Finally, we went to Jaya Bhaduri, as she was known then, who grumbled that she had no role to speak of. I replied that was true, but requested her to do it for Amitabh, with whom I knew she was going steady! I told her that he had signed all the wrong movies, and this could be his take-off film. I doubt if she was even paid much! But she did it for him!

And still, that was not the end of the troubles.

Yes, the film was not being sold. Mehra finally somehow released it himself, even grumbling, we were told, that he was stuck with our script!

And then the film became huge!

The big thing was that after the film became a hit, Mehra made all the money because he did not have to share anything with distributors!

Javed and I went to watch the film at a suburban theatre and realized that people were just not interested until the scene in which Amitabh kicks the chair in the police station as Pran is about to sit and tells him, ‘Yeh tumhare baap ka ghar nahin hai’. After that, everyone got engrossed. This scene made him a star!

We became sure we had a hit, and as our names were not mentioned on posters outside theatres, we hired a painter with a ladder to write ‘Written by Salim-Javed’ and the man just mechanically did his job, so that he even painted it on someone’s arm or face!

I am also happy that the film benefited both Pran-saab and Ajit-saab, who played the villain and has been my mentor in the industry. Finally, we had good music from Kalyanji-Anandji, and Yaari hai imaan mera became a chartbusting hit.

This was the first script totally written by Salim-Javed.

This was the first film for which we got total credit. In actual fact we had written most of Haathi Mere Saathi, Andaz and Adhikar and all of Seeta Aur Geeta.

Zanjeer also set trends like the Angry Young Man, male bonding, a friendship song and a qawwali. Would you say that the Amitabh-Pran angle initiated the multi-hero trend, as Pran was almost like a second hero?

Yes, but I would say we consolidated the multi-hero trend, because some films were already being made with two or three heroes.

A major consequence of the film is that you two demanded and got respect for the writer, which had never happened before.

Yes, while I agree that the film is a director’s medium, in Indian films and especially Hindi cinema, it is also the writer’s medium, because our films are typically about relationships! Therefore, unless the script is good, a director is not able to rise above it. Take a film like our Deewaar: so many films have been made on the same subject, but we did not have even a single scene taken from either Mother India or Ganga Jumna, which were our inspirations for the script!

Before us, writers were poorly-paid nobodies, who were expected to travel by bus or train even if the director was going in his car to the same place! A lyricist would be paid a lakh for five songs, which were essentially like scenes, but a writer would get Rs. 25,000 for the entire film! A noted director once boasted that he had paid only Rs. 25000 to his dad for writing a film when the latter was a big-name non-film writer as well!

And payment modes were decided for the writer with money coming only when he asked for it to pay the electric bill, his child’s fees or a train pass. We changed all that, and we initially were paid a lakh!

Word spread that these writers were paid so much, and when I bought this apartment, people exclaimed, “This writer has bought a sea-facing flat!” I moved here on October 6 in the same year as Zanjeer. I was told to sleep here for a night, as it was the auspicious day of Dussehra!

Still, all I want to add is that if we were in America and had delivered the number of super-hits we have written, we would have owned islands!

A final point: Zanjeer was remade in 2016 by Prakash Mehra’s sons and was a disaster.

They were stubborn and just wanted to make it. We even told them that the film had already been made in Telugu with Chiranjeevi when they wanted to introduce Ram Charan, his son, to Hindi cinema. They were not even ready to pay us, but when they lost the case they themselves had filed when the Film Writers’ Association had asked them to do so, we were compensated. But nothing in that film was good.



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