Hindi, 1975; color, 174 minutes; with Amitabh Bachchan (Vijay), Sashi Kapoor (Ravi), Nirupa Roy (the mother); director, Yash Chopra.

 [Excerpted with some revisions from Vinay Lal, “The Impossibility of the Outsider in the Modern Hindi Film”, in The Secret Politics of Our Desires: Innocence, Culpability, and Indian Popular Cinema, ed. Ashis Nandy. London: Zed Press and Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 228-59; revised version of the essay has been published in Of Cricket, Gandhi, and Guinness: Essays in Indian History and Culture (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2002).]

Deewar is in some respects the most famous commercial Hindi film release, the film that consolidated the reputation of Amitabh as the supreme icon of the Hindi film world. In Deewar the family of four (but not the ideal four of family planning programs) is, at the outset, practically reduced to three. The father, who leads the workers of a mill on strike in quest for higher wages and better working conditions, is confronted with a cruel choice by a desperate and ruthless management. His wife and two young sons are taken hostage, and under duress he signs, in his capacity as representative of the workers, certain papers whereby the workers relinquish their demands, forsake their right to strike, and agree to work under conditions laid down by the management. Having saved the lives of his family members, he also betrays the trust reposed in him by the workers, and his life is made miserable by the town dwellers. In utter shame, he flees the town, leaving the family to fend for itself and bear the people’s fury. One day, Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan), the elder brother, is accosted by a group of townspeople, and when he returns home that day, bruised and beaten, his arm is shown to have been tattooed with the words, ‘Your father is a thief’. These words are furrowed deeply not merely into his arm, but into his mind as well, and the constant memory of that burning insult never leaves Vijay. Hounded by their near and distant neighbors, the family leaves town, and like countless others they arrive in the city of dreams, to spend their days on the footpaths of Bombay. The mother finds work as a laborer, and gradually Vijay takes to shining shoes, for on two meager salaries Ravi (Shashi Kapoor), Vijay’s younger brother, can be sent to school. Thus the two brothers take two different paths, a point highlighted by Vijay’s adamant refusal to step inside the temple, though Ravi, the dutiful son that he is, cheerfully accompanies his mother into the temple.

Years have elapsed, and Vijay is now a laborer at the docks. A masterfully orchestrated fight with the local mafia, who consider it their right to extort protection money from every worker at the docks, earns Vijay a fearsome reputation, and another underworld don, played by Iftikhar, invites Vijay to join his business. Before long, Vijay is in possession of millions, and his mother and brother are now moved to a palatial mansion. Bombay must, after all, remain the city of hopes and desires. But long before the two brothers had been set on different paths, and as fate would have it, Vijay’s unemployed brother is commissioned into the police, and entrusted with the task of finding evidence that would implicate Iftikhar and his associates with smuggling and other illicit operations. Duty compels: brother is pitted against brother. Once Ravi learns that his own brother is leading a life of crime, the two cannot stay under one roof; Ravi leaves, and takes their mother along with him to his humble abode. The film winds its way to the foregone conclusion: a search warrant is issued in Vijay’s name, and a chase through the city streets leaves Vijay, wounded by a bullet from his brother’s revolver, dead — but not before he collapses into his mother’s arms, where he can at long last find the eternal sleep of those who know they are wanted. It is, as some would maintain, the return to the womb.

It has been argued that “the Amitabh persona is the quintessential outsider of the ghetto”, and the narrative I have offered would appear to corroborate that reading. K. Chandrasekhar, from whose article I have quoted, further argues that Amitabh, whether in Deewar, Shakti, or indeed almost any of his other films, “longs to belong, to find security, to be spared the turmoil of survival in the ruthless city. He hankers for his roots, he yearns to put the clock back to the epoch when all human society was pastoral.” Vijay merely has “the lumpen desire to belong”. It could be argued against this that Amitabh is never completely shunned by others: in Iftikhar, the father figure is reincarnated and the family rendered whole, and in Parveen Babi, who makes her entry into the film as a night club hostess (of loose morals), and makes her departure as a repentant woman fully cognizant of the glorious virtues of motherhood and wifehood, he finds a female companion who gives him that hearing which others would deny him. But the restoration of the ‘natal’ family is aborted, for Iftikhar is taken under arrest, while Amitabh is prevented from starting his own family by the violent elimination of Parveen Babi, whose repentance cannot obfuscate the fact that her attempt to tie the knot with Amitabh and thus acquire respectability constitutes a threat to the social order which alone can stipulate the rules under which marriages may take place.

Iftikhar and Parveen Babi are, nonetheless, minor figures, and we must turn to the mother (played by, here and elsewhere, Nirupa Roy, who along with Rakhee appears to have cornered the trademark on this role in Hindi films) as the pivotal axis around whom the plot and, in particular, my argument must revolve. The figure of the mother, as perhaps every student of the popular Hindi film is aware, is central to the commercial cinema. At a very general level, this is easily explained by the importance attached to fecundity in India from the days of antiquity, while it is also possible to argue that Indian civilization has always had a substratum of matriarchy, certainly antecedent to the patriarchy which is far more characteristic of Indian society today. On another view, no more important or poignant relationship exists in Indian society than that between mother and son, and the Hindi film best exemplifies the significance of this nexus. Chandrasekhar’s argument, as it appears in his article “The Amitabh Persona”, adopts this viewpoint; as he says, Amitabh’s films embody a “uterine world-view”, and the fury of the Angry Young Man abates “the moment the umbilical cord is restored.” “In the Indian context,” he adds, “the sole irreproachable ideological thesis one can defend is love of the mother.” Vijay’s only desire in Deewar is to restore the state of original bliss that existed before he was parted from his mother, and towards the end of the film, as Vijay is bleeding to death, he states that his only desire is to enjoy, in the lap of his mother, that profound sleep of contentment which he has missed since she left him. The Hindi film, then, enacts for the Indian male a double return to the source: seated in the dark chambers of the movie theatre, we all descend into the darkness of the womb, but for the Indian male that darkness is like a wellspring of light, and the womb that place where our sleep is always undisturbed and calm. A film such as Deewar, to extend the argument further, represents the regression of the male into a state of childhood, an attempt to reinstate the primacy of the umbilical stage.

I want to argue, however, that the critical place of the mother in Deewar (and the Hindi film more generally) owes considerably more to the fact that she is the force that prevents Vijay from becoming an outsider, a significant Other. As is quite transparent, both Vijay and Ravi vie for her affection and attention, and when the manner in which Vijay is making his living becomes known to her, and she seems determined to leave the mansion he had brought for her, his only defense is that he has done everything in her interest. (‘Maine Jo Kuch Bi Kiya, Tere Liye Kiya.’) Indeed, it is to avenge her humiliation that he has purchased for her a skyscraper, which was built with the sweat of her labor. (Clearly, she belongs to him, much as the building belongs to him.) But this argument does not prevail, and it is even possible to interpret her resistance to his claims as resistance to the presumed fact of ownership; mother and Ravi leave. In what is perhaps the most famous scene of the film, Vijay arranges a rendezvous with Ravi, and attempts to persuade him that he should arrange to get himself transferred to another police station, as the mafia is hungry for his blood. Back and forth goes the argument; finally, being quite at the end of his patience, Vijay says: “I have a bungalow, a car, wealth, good clothes to wear. What do you have? What do you have besides a measly job, a uniform, a mere roof over your head?” This is a dramatic moment, for by this time it has been established what is at stake; and thus Ravi can look Vijay squarely in the face, and say with immense pride: “Mother. I have mother.” (“Ma. Mere Pas Ma Hai.”)

The victory has been clinched, but only seemingly so. What attenuates the ‘victory’ is the peculiar fact that when Ravi speaks, he speaks not only as the brother of Vijay, and as the one whose abode she shares, but that he also speaks in the voice of patriarchy, as the defender of the family and the social order, and also as the reincarnated husband, with all the ‘rights’ that accrue to the husband. When she stands by Ravi, she is only reaffirming the extraordinary hold that the social order has over us, and helping to restore the family; she is not making a choice between her two sons, though in fact, as she admits at some point, she has always loved Vijay more than Ravi. In one respect, Ravi is quite incapable of having a human relationship, for he must bear the burden of the social institutions around him, as well as the anthropological burden of kinship: thus he never addresses Vijay as Vijay, but always as bhai (brother). Vijay’s relationship with his mother is not constrained by duty or form, and it is a sign of the strength of that relationship that he locates her at the center of his moral universe. It is at the risk of being captured by Ravi that he attempts to visit his mother at the hospital; more tellingly, when her life is hanging in the balance, he takes the unthinkable step of going to the mandir and asking God, though scarcely in a voice of reverence, for her life. We recall that it is at the temple steps that the two brothers, in their adolescence, already seemed to be veering towards two different paths, and that Vijay seemed marked as the loner, as the outsider; but now, if it has not been established before, it becomes indubitably clear that he, too, must be drawn into the circle of inclusivity. Far from being a film about the outsider, Deewar is about the impossibility of being one.