The Footpath and the Skyscraper: The Pleasures of Deewaar
Few films from mainstream Hindi cinema have captivated audiences as much over nearly four decades as Yash Chopra’s Deewaar (1975, with Amitabh Bachchan). At a book launch in New Delhi, a journalist told me that the film producer, writer, poet, and former editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, Pritish Nandy, once declared Deewaar to be the single most interesting ‘masala’ film. I cannot say how reliable is this information, but for many years I nursed an ambition to write a small book on Deewaar. The results of that ambition are there to be seen in my book Deewaar: The Footpath, the City and the Angry Young Man, which will be released by HarperCollins India in early January 2011.
Among the most captivating elements of Deewaar is what I have described as the dialectic of the footpath and the skyscraper. To give readers a taste of what they might expect by way of interpretation, here are some slightly edited passages from the book:
“Moving as he does between the extremes, from the village to a global trade in smuggled goods, from the uniform of a mere coolie at Bombay’s docks to tailored suits, we should not be surprised that Vijay [Amitabh Bachchan] teeters between the footpath and the skyscraper. Deewaar has justly been described as a film that gives vent to the explosive anger of discontented young urban India, as well as a film that, while exploring, partly through tacit invocations to the rich mythic material found in the Mahabharata, the inexhaustible theme of fraternal conflict, provides an allegorical treatment of the eternal struggle between good and evil within oneself.”
“Compelling as are such readings, I would nevertheless suggest that Deewaar also puts on offer the dialectic of the footpath and the skyscraper . . . . The footpath or pavement . . . has ever been present in the Hindi film, to be numbered among the dramatis personae. The ubiquity of the footpath as home to the homeless, migrant labourers, and myriad others living at the margins of society is too self-evident to require comment. One can think of it more imaginatively as a school where life’s lessons are imbibed: while Ravi [Vijay’s brother, played by Shashi Kapoor] goes to school, where under the umbrella of the textbook, the national anthem, and the discipline of the rod he will learn to become the dutiful subject of the state, Vijay takes up shining shoes on the footpath. It is on this footpath that some of the dialogues inescapably associated with Deewaar take place: issuing a retort to Jaichand for throwing money at him after his shoes have been polished, the young Vijay says, ‘I polish shoes and do not beg for money. Pick up the money and place it in my hands.’ Vijay, Davar later cautions Jaichand, is the steed that runs long races (‘lambi race ka ghora’): ‘He is not going to be shining shoes the rest of his life. That day when he catches life by the neck, he will leave everyone behind. Mark my words: One day this boy will make something of himself.’”
“Sure enough, Vijay gravitates from the footpath to the skyscraper. Elsewhere in this book, I have described the impossible gift: when riches comes his way, Vijay’s first thought is to gift his mother the skyscraper built with nothing less than her blood, sweat and tears. All the insults and humiliations heaped upon her, he deludes himself into believing, are thereby avenged. Curiously, no sooner has he gained possession of the skyscraper than his fall commences, as if the footpath were beckoning him to return to his roots and plant his feet on the ground. ‘Meri ma ne yahan eente uthai thi’ (‘my mother carried bricks on her head here’), Vijay informs the businessman from whom he purchases the skyscraper, but the fact that his claim on this skyscraper is ephemeral, and ultimately undeserving, is underscored by the fact that the viewer’s sight of the building is barred throughout their negotiations.”