Hindi, 1982; with Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Rakhee, Smita Patil, Amrish Puri, and Kulbhushan Kharbanda; director, Ramesh Sippy

[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 with endnotes has been published in Of Cricket, Gandhi, and Guinness: Essays in Indian History and Culture (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2002).]

In the Hindi film, the end is where we start from, a point that is reinforced by Shakti, one of the big multi-star films directed by Ramesh Sippy. Here the police officer (Ashwini Kumar, played by Dilip Kumar) is the father of Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan), and — as in most Hindi films — he is a man of strict moral code, bound beyond everything else to the performance of his duty, incapable of being corrupted. [His opposite is the corrupt police officer, also a familiar figure in Hindi films.] Ashwini’s moral resolve and fierce combativity make him an altogether unpalatable figure for J. K. (Amrish Puri), a man who runs illicit liquor shops and a large smuggling business, and who now resolves upon kidnapping Vijay as the only way of breaking Ashwini’s will and having his principal associate released from jail. Vijay is taken hostage, and J. K. places a call to Ashwini, saying that he must have his answer in half an hour. Looking across at Vijay, J. K. says: “We shall find out soon how much your father loves you.” But Ashwini avers that he shall not compromise his duty in order to save the life of his son: “I know my son’s life is in your hands at this time. You can kill him. Do what you want with him, but I won’t dishonor my obligations.” Unknown to him, this message, as it comes across the machine, is heard by his son in captivity, who will henceforth, for the rest of his life, labor under the illusion that his life is of no meaning to his own father. Vijay little realizes that his father’s love for him and his duty as a police officer are not mutually exclusive, nor is he cognizant of the fact that, in having prolonged the negotiation, Ashwini has gained the time he needed to have the phone call traced. Before Ashwini and his men can arrive at J.K.’s hideout, Vijay has given his captors the slip, and that day, as he is chased down narrow alleys, his life is saved by Narang (Khulbushan Kharbanda), who will himself become a mafia don one day and the employer of a grateful Vijay.

As in Deewar, so in Shakti Vijay undoubtedly has the sense of being abandoned. Where in Deewar the words, “Your father is a thief”, were burnt into his flesh, in Shakti the refrain of those words, “You can kill him”, leave an indelible impress on Vijay’s mind. If ever language, and an act of ‘misreading’, dictated the course of a man’s life, such is Vijay’s life. As he returns from school one day, kicking a can lying on the street, we see him transformed — through a match cut — to a lanky young man, aimlessly adrift. The match cut signifies not merely the empty passage of time, but also the alteration of states of mind: thus, through this match cut, we are confronted with the possibility that Vijay’s transformation into an outsider is now virtually complete. The conversation that then takes place between him and Roma (Smita Patil), a woman whose modesty he has prevented from being outraged by some goons with whom she was traveling on a train, appears to confirm this:

Vijay: Won’t your folks at home be anxious [at your being late]?

Roma: If there were folks at home, they would have been — as it, I live by myself.

Vijay: You live alone? Aren’t you afraid?

Roma: When I’m alone, then there is only me. And what is there to fear from oneself?

Vijay: I’m only afraid of myself.

Roma: Do you also live by yourself?

Vijay: Well, one can be alone even while living with others.

If in the existential sense one recognizes oneself, and knows oneself, as an outsider, then that perhaps defines Vijay’s state. But no such claim about Vijay, in the ontological or even sociological sense, is advanced; and indeed from here the entire movement of the film will be to draw Vijay into the realm of the human community. As in Deewar, Vijay falls into a relationship with Roma, and if in Deewar the relationship with Parveen Babi was first abrogated with her death, in Shakti it will terminate with Vijay’s own death. The brutal fact that such relationships cannot be sanctified through the act of marriage, because they are violative of the social codes instituted by sanctimonious patriarchs, does by no means render Vijay into an outsider; rather, it is suggestive of the fact that his incorporation will have to take a different route. Those morphological elements which determined the structure of Deewar are present in Shakti as well, which means that the figure of the mother will be critical, except that in Shakti she cannot be an altogether successful source of mediation between her husband and her son. At one point, having been admonished by his father for leading the life of an idler and worse, Vijay quite sternly tells his mother: “I have no need for lectures.” She replies, “Yes, you seem to need no one. Not even me”, whereupon he is quick to respond: “I need you very much.” (“Mujhe tumari bahut jaroorat hai.“) Here, and elsewhere, the son is no outsider to the mother, but nonetheless the relationship between mother and son is not entirely on the same footing as in Deewar, for a mechanical application of the formula will satisfy neither Vijay nor the viewer.

It is his father with whom Vijay must settle his relationship if he is not to become the outsider that he appears to be, and accordingly the film moves towards that resolution. Ashwini has made J.K.’s life miserable, his illegal operations have been largely shut down, and J.K. must now flee the country, but before doing so he resolves upon terminating Ashwini’s life. The bullets intended for Ashwini find their target in his wife instead: that death, too, was necessary, for as the film has suggested all along, no rapprochement between father and son is possible as long as she is alive, not that she aimed at being an hindrance to the achievement of that objective. Some matters can only be settled between fathers and sons. At this point, with the death of Sheetal, Vijay’s incorporation into the human community is complete, for father and son can now mourn in common. That much Ashwini realizes: whatever his son may be, he is fully cognizant of the fact that Vijay feels that loss deeply, and Vijay too is brought to an awareness of the loss suffered by his father. This obviates the necessity for a more formal reconciliation, but the plot must move to its end dialectically. Now is not the time for contemplation, but for action, and this can signal nothing else but a violent end to the life, at the hands of Vijay, of J. K., who it transpires is the same man who has abducted him years ago. But Ashwini is a senior police officer, and duty reigns supreme: he chases Vijay across the length of the airport, and his reluctant bullet eventually finds its mark. There everything is revealed, and the ‘misreading’ is set straight; as Vijay dies in his father’s lap, it is with the reassurance that his incorporation into the family fold, and into his father’s inner life, is now complete.

[see also Deewar]