A Reading of Deewar

by Abhishek Bandekar

The 1970s is an important decade in the history of Indian cinema. And not just because of Amitabh Bachchan.

The seventies was the decade when the middle class emerged. Bachchan's "angry young man" of this decade represents the struggles of this middle class, while Indian cinema attempted to make a statement on the socio-economic times of the decade. It is interesting to note that Indian heroines of this decade were more Western than ever as well. Deewar was one of the first films to show pre-marital sex minus judgment. In earlier films, such as those of Rajesh Khanna, if you had sex out of wedlock just once, you got pregnant and suffered disapproval from society.

On the surface, Deewar seems to be a simple story of two brothers, with one gone wrong. But, in fact, it is actually the story of India in the 1970s. With independence, India had been promised a lot of hope and prosperity. Sadly, freedom came at the cost of Partition. Much of the anger surrounding this was directed at Mahatma Gandhi because of his decisions that ultimately allowed for Partition. However, it became clear that the foundation of the country's existence was weak, breeding the evils of corruption, smugness, and nepotism leading to unemployment and poverty, as well as anger and resentment among middle class Indians who felt cheated by the system. All the promises of a better future had turned out to be false. At the same time, there were those Indians who continued to have faith in their country and believed that its past would shape its future and the present was just an aberration.

Deewar begins with a family of four-a father (Satyen Kappu), a mother (Nirupa Roy), and two sons-trying to carve out a life for themselves amid the tumult of the 1970s. The father is a union leader who is trying to acquire better rights for his fellow workers, but just when he feels his efforts have come to fruition, he is told by his employer that his wife and children are in danger unless he chooses to betray his fellow workers, which he chooses to do against his heart. He does this for the safety of his family, just like Gandhi chose to go against his followers with the interest of his Hindu and Muslim countrymen in mind, so that Satyen Kappu becomes a kind of Gandhi figure.

Following the betrayal, Satyen Kappu cannot make peace with his guilt and disappears, abandoning his family. However, the worst after-effect of the betrayal is that Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) has Mera baap chor hai (My father is a thief) forcibly tattooed on his hand by those agitated with his father's betrayal. Though they share a father, Vijay is fated to relive the betrayal and shame throughout his life, unlike his brother Ravi (Shashi Kapoor). This is where the main crisis of the film takes place: comparing this situation to Gandhi's downfall, whose extremist followers felt disgraced after independence yielded Pakistan, and so avenged their humiliation by assassinating Gandhi. However, Vijay has no way to avenge himself against his father, so his humiliation will always be with him; he will be mocked for his father's decision his whole life.

Further into the story Ravi, the educated one, becomes a police officer while Vijay, the uneducated one, becomes a labor worker. Ravi represents the cultured class with better opportunities at his disposal, while Vijay represents the middle and lower middle class, earning a measly salary for his hard work, yet must live under the threat of goons who snatch his hard-earned money. Vijay chooses not to accept this situation and fights back. Like many people in India, he realizes that all the promises of a better future were bogus and seethes with anger and resentment. Hence, when money and prosperity come to him in the form of illegal activities, he isn't bothered with moral arguments and accepts the criminal way of life.

So, while Vijay is the criminal and Ravi is the police officer, they are still both brothers. The brilliance of the script is that it gives a common father to both sons, but inserts an argument for the rights to the mother. In the famous scene under the bridge, Vijay gloats about his achievements and chides Ravi by asking what his way of life has given him. Ravi calmly responds that he has their mother, at once denying Vijay his mother. This is especially damning, given that Vijay now has to live only with his father, whose sin and shame he carries with him! Essentially, in this scene, the writers (Salim-Javed) are imagining an argument between the rebelling India (the angry youth who've taken to crime) and the optimistic India (the educated and cultured class). While the former can claim to riches earned by dubious means, the latter can always claim to be the son of his mother (India), absolving himself of his father's mistake, something that the former will never be able to do. That this scene takes place under the bridge is also for a reason, as it is under this very bridge where as kids, Ravi aspires of education and a correct life while Vijay sternly tells his mother that he will always live with the shame of his father. The first scene takes place just after independence, while twenty-eight years later, the haunting track of "Saare Jahaan Se Achcha" is played in the background to act as a rude reminder of the false promises.

In the figures of Bachchan and Kapoor, we have two different understandings of this anthem: for Vijay it represents a promise by the nation/society, one that has not been kept; for the Ravi, this anthem is performative, in that one makes the nation better by being and doing a certain thing, by singing/living the anthem. For example, when the anthem is first heard in the film, the boy Ravi has vanished because he has joined the other kids singing. Vijay is a man who believes he is owed something, whereas Ravi's do-gooder persona suggests a man who thinks he himself owes something. In exchange, of course, he strives to keep the mother, though he cannot appropriate her, since the mother's actual preference for Vijay subverts the exchange.

This actually offers an interesting spin-off where justice may not even be the prime reason behind Ravi's killing of Vijay. He commits fratricide-an act that is not necessarily heroic but more vengeful. The scene prior to their mother leaving for the temple to wait for Vijay is indicative of this, as she hands over the gun to Ravi and answers him with a wonderful choice of words when he questions her decision to go meet Vijay at the temple. She says, "Ek aurat hone ka farz maine nibha diya hai, ab ek maa ka vaada pura karne jaa rahi hoon" (I have fulfilled my duty as a woman, now I am going to live up to my responsibility as a mother). This is an obvious slap on Ravi's face and his Oedipal desire to keep his mother with him. Oedipal because not only is his possessiveness concerning her seemingly incestuous, but he also acts as the agent of death who informs her of her husband's demise (dropping the sindoor from her hand) and later also kills the son she loves. In this way, Ravi eliminates any competition.

To further elaborate on the fight over the mother, it is a bizarre imbalance that Vijay is always seeking the patriarchal figure to replace his father. Hence, he chooses the Muslim insignia over the Hindu god of his family, and in Iftikhar finds a stand-in father figure. In this way, he represents the suppressed and cheated working-class India by declaring rebellion, therefore going against the Gandhian path. This is not to suggest a denouncement of Gandhi, but more symbolically, anger against one's own father. Ravi meanwhile tries to replace the father by assuming the role of the patriarch, and in the scene under the bridge, the tone in which he asserts his possession of their mother is more patriarchal than anything. The final scene of Vijay's death then becomes one of poetic justice, as he dies in a temple on his mother's lap, representing the convergence of his father (religious and sanguineous) with his mother. In his death, Vijay is finally at peace with his parents and himself.

Every scene in this film is well thought out and raises all sorts of political and ethical dilemmas. This film is a profound commentary on the state of the nation during this critical period of its socio-political development.