Kaala Patthar: Amitabh Bachchan is Gritty, Grungy and Great in this Salim-Javed scripted disaster drama

Amitabh Bachchan and Salim Javed are like our Olivier and Shakespeare .They are the greatest Actor – Writer collaboration in Hindi film history. Even in world cinema, it’s rare to find a combo like this, who practically came up together, each complementing the other. They brought in a completely new aesthetic to Hindi films which was starkly different from what existed before them. They brought in an element of ‘modernism’, even as they stuck to stories and characters  that were part and parcel of Indian culture. Salim and Javed through their films created a new kind of hero, the angry young man who was at war  with the world, and in Amitabh Bachchan’s towering persona and talent they found the perfect vehicle to carry through their ideas.

With their first collaboration, Zanjeer(1973), which launched Bachchan to stardom, they changed the Hindi film landscape. Up until that time, Romantic social dramas were the norm and the lead heroes  were all romantic heroes. This film brought in the great Indian masala cinema culture. We had a larger than life hero in the middle whose ‘Dharma’, his duty and main purpose of existence is exterminating evil from society (even if  through violent means). The movie’s narrative structure always possessed a mythic overview that draw parallels with the country’s great epics; Ramayana and Mahabharata , with themes of good triumphing over evil. Their collaboration continued into a lot more films that will see Bachchan grow in stature as both star and actor.

Kaala Patthar, released in 1979, is a unique film even by their own standards. Not just for the lead character of Vijay Pal Singh played by Bachchan , but also for the screenplay and the milieu in which the film is set . The Vijay that Bachchan plays here is very different from the Vijays in other films. He doesn’t have the theatricality of Deewaar, he doesn’t have the heroism of Zanjeer and Dostana, he doesn’t have the ironic coolness of Sholay, Don or Shaan nor the anti heroism of Thrishul and Shakthi. He is mainly a non-hero or rather a passive hero who does throw himself into action, but its mainly as an act of self flagellation. In his other films, his anger, his fight is directed outward, at criminals, at injustices in the society , at his father , but here it is directed at himself. The film seems to mirror this self hatred of the character and hence it’s completely de glamorized to the point that it looks more like a docu-drama.

I have always been intrigued by the beginning of this film . For a masala film written by Salim Javed, directed by Yash Chopra and starring some of the biggest names in Hindi commercial cinema, with a  Megastar like Amitabh Bachchan in the lead, it has a most somber and grim beginning ; the affect is  like watching scenes from the semi art films of Shyam Benegal or Govind Nihalani. Bachchan gets the most  non-heroic, non-star like entry of all times. Bachchan plays a coal miner in the film, and as the film begins, we see him returning to his quarters after finishing his shift; he looks  tired  and he is covered with all the filth from the mine. He walks in to his room and drops down on the bed and immediately has some nightmares from his past life. Later, he gets to hear that a co-worker is stuck in the mines and nobody can get to him to save him. Bachchan jumps in without thinking twice and rescues the person. We will soon realize that it’s less a hero’s actions and more a self loathing individual’s attempts at  punishing himself.

Kaala Patthar is a part drama, part disaster film, based on the Chasnala mining disaster. The  lead character of Vijay Pal Singh  is loosely based on the titular character of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. As  in that novel (and subsequent movie) , Vijay was a  captain of a merchant navy ship, which he abandons during a storm as he feels that his ship is going to sink. But the ship does not sink and Vijay is court martialed for his shameful offense. Unable to live with the shame of being branded a coward , he escaped into this mining town. Now filled with self hate and haunted by the nightmares of those whom he abandoned to die, he now jumps at every opportunity to prove his courage and erase the scar on his soul. With Bachchan playing such an intense, introspective role, the entertainment quotient of the film is split by the other two heroes: Shashi Kapoor, who plays Asst. Engineer Ravi, is the romantic hero, while Shatrughan Sinha, who plays escaped convict Mangal, is the stylish over the top mass hero. Shashi hardly gets much screen time, while Shatru has almost a parallel role to Bachchan. But his performance is practically the same as in hundreds of his other films. It’s outsized, all external bluster and posturing and appear quite fake in front of  Bachchan’s very truthful performance.

The main conflict in the film is set up between the pompous, itching to fight Mangal, who is now working in the same coal mine,  and the self loathing, suicidal, eager to prove himself Vijay. Their conflict is seen  escalating through a series of confrontations where they stare each other down, but never get physically violent. Then Mangal insults Dr. Sudha (Rakhee Gulzar) , who has a silent romance gong with Vijay, and the situation escalates into full blown violence. Vijay and Mangal gets into an epic fistfight, which comes to an end only when Ravi pushes them apart. But when the mine gets flooded and majority of the workers gets trapped in it, the three heroes join forces to save them. In the end Mangal dies, while Vijay survives, after managing to save a lot of lives. His courageous act finally wiping out the stain of cowardice.

Like most of the the films made in that era, Kaala Patthar hasn’t aged very well. Yash Chopra, who directed the first, was never a good technician, and this film with its complex mine sequences and flood sequences cried out for a techno-wiz like Ramesh Sippy.  But with the brilliant  screenplay , performances and the gritty nature of the film, it’s still manages to make an impact.

It appears that there was great off screen tension between Sinha and Bachchan  at the time, as they had a strong professional rivalry going. Sinha’s late comings were also a problem for the very punctual Bachchan. The tension seems to have worked in the film’s favor with Bachchan being really good in the stand off scenes. Bachchan also looks the sexiest he has ever looked. With his toned physique in sleeveless vest, all grungy and sweaty, he oozes raw masculinity. Bachchan’s performance here  is undoubtedly one of his greatest: a masterpiece of nuance and control, tightly coiled and elemental .He convey a lot through silences in this film. The animosity with Shatru, the romance with Rakhee and his self hatred are all portrayed brilliantly by Bachchan without much dialogue .

Nobody writes movie dialogues like Salim javed and Bachchan is born to deliver them. He has always been  extraordinary in the dialogue scenes.  My favorite scene from the film is the one between Prem Chopra and Bachchan that comes just before the mine is flooded. In the scene Dhanraj Puri , the owner of the mines, played by Chopra is trying to get Vijay to kill Ravi. Ravi has become a thorn in his flesh as Ravi is concerned for the workers’ welfare and had started turning them against him.  The conversation that follows between them is pure Bachchan gold. I wish I had a clip of that to put it here. Bachchan’s timing: his finding the irony, the music, the sarcasm in  Salim Javed’s words are just fantastic.

The gist of the conversation is that  Vijay rejects the offer to kill Ravi , It is topped off by my favorite bachchan punchline from the film

“Jo insaan ki khoon ko paani ki tarah baha sakta hai , woh kuch bhi Kar sakta hai”

This obviously  pisses off Chopra, who retorts ‘tum hamein nahin jaante’

Bachchan’s  counter goes something like this: ‘Nahi dharaj Puri,main manta Hoon ki  Kal Tak toh main tumhein nahin jaanta tha , lekin aaj jaan Gaya Hoon, main tumhe ek ghatiya,zaleel aur ghira hua insaan samjhtha that lekin tum chaho toh bhi tum ek ghatiya insaan nahin ban  sakte kyonki tum insaan ho hi nahi,Tum ek darinda ho jo in mazdooron ka khoon peethe ho’.

Well, What can i say?, they just don’t write them like that anymore and there isn’t anyone like Bachchan to  say them either.

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