The first and greatest thing about Deewaar is the fact that it truly is a fantastic piece of cinema. It is also why it has endured as a classic. The storytelling is simply compelling, a big reason for its repeat value. Indeed, there is truth in the near-universal consensus that Deewaar has the “perfect script,” written by Salim-Javed who first brought stardom to writers in Hindi cinema who till then were largely underpaid, ignored, and insulted.
Then there’s the fundamental reason for the success and appeal of any piece of art: Rasa or emotion or feeling. This is also one of the biggest contributors to Deewaar’s success. The movie lapses into a mediocre fare minus the iconic scenes of the film and the dialogues that have since become idioms in popular culture. It is this emotional richness infused so skillfully into the plot that enabled Deewaar to become a commercially-successful vehicle for peddling the twin toxic ideologies of Communism and Nehruvian Secularism.
This point becomes clearer when we compare Deewaar with what is known as “arthouse” or “parallel” cinema, euphemism for openly hawking Communist ideology and variants thereof on celluloid. Around the time Deewaar was released, parallel cinema was just taking off but invariably every product that emerged from this “arthouse” was a commercial disaster but equally invariably, won awards. There used to be a time when “national award” films were equated with unintelligible and crappy filmmaking. The reason was simple: there was no emotional appeal, no aesthetics, and was marked by a kind of storytelling that no one understood. To complete this all-encompassing artistic catastrophe, these films also had an abundance of slum-like production values. Angered with their own serial failures, these filmmakers began giving awards to themselves and to one another and blamed the world for their self-inflicted loss.
Not so Deewaar. The mainline plot is really straightforward: the travails of an honest, hardworking lower-middle class family that mostly suffers at the hands of a cruel, oppressive, and unjust world. But it finds a silver lining—the mixed happy ending—in an unswerving devotion to the values of honesty and integrity. But the twisted genius of Deewaar lies in its underlying premise: the world is cruel, oppressive, and unjust because of rich people. As Shashi Kapoor playing the character of Ravi says in the film, “The true morning will arrive on that day when everybody will have a job,” and echoes his father who had earlier said, “when the correct wages are paid to the labourers for their sweat.” That’s straight-off-the bat Communist theory.
And what better way to showcase the glories of a Pure Communist System than by contrasting it with the Indian system which oppresses an illiterate wife and abandoned mother who works as a construction labourer in Big Bad Bombay and has two young boys to bring up?
Softcore communist propaganda begins almost right in the beginning of the film. Satyen Kappu as the fiery trade union leader belting out scorching speeches against the evil capitalist mining baron demanding “workers’ rights,” etc in the backdrop of plenty of Red symbolism: flags and assorted communist paraphernalia. In true Communist style, Satyen Kappu’s comrades, the masses of mining workers are innocent and gullible and easily swayed by the machinations of capitalists. Then there’s Kamal Kapoor, the evil-eyed, ruthless mining baron with a bunch of murderous henchmen and a stuffed leopard symbolizing his cruelty. Of course, he does what he has to do: kidnaps Satyen Kappu’s kids, cooks up a bribery case against him and shatters his entire family. The said gullible workers themselves beat up, humiliate and ostracize Satyen Kappu. The ordinary mortals who don’t understand the sacrifices of their own Saviour who would’ve surely led them to the Paradise of the Workers. The famous scene of villagers tattooing “mera baap chor hai” (my father is a thief) on the young Amitabh Bachchan’s wrist has a powerful ideological message: the evil capitalists are the real thieves who impute their crimes to poor people who are all uniformly honest but powerless.
The other short-lived scenes reinforcing Communist messaging feature the Bombay dockyard. This time, the Urban Workers are regularly victimized not directly by their businessmen-employers but by street-level extortionists backed by merciless smugglers and violent criminal bosses. On a tangential note, when the aged, benevolent, kind-eyed, toiling, devout Muslim, Rahim chacha says, “I’ve been working here for the last thirty years and nothing has changed except the names of the extortionists,” it is an indirect reference to the condition of thirty years of India since independence. In other words, even after thirty years, the Communist Revolution still hadn’t succeeded as anticipated.
Then there’s the scene of the teenager shot by the honest police inspector, played by Shashi Kapoor. His crime? Stealing double roti (bread/sandwich) so that he can feed his hungry family headed by an old and retired municipal schoolteacher. This sets up the stage for his grieving and angry mother who yells at Shashi Kapoor, “is your idea of justice restricted only to shooting unclothed and hungry people? Go and catch those people who have hoarded grains in their godowns!”
Hoarding is one of the main crimes symptomatic of the era. Others include bootlegging, illegal gambling and gold smuggling…all, the direct consequences of the Stalinist policies inaugurated by Nehru and taken to criminal levels by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. When the smuggling ringleader Davar tells his minion Amitabh Bachchan that his gold comes from Dubai, the statement reveals more than it conceals about the India of that period. It is also not coincidental that more than two decades later, the mafia Don, mass-murderer of Hindus and Islamic terrorist, Dawood Ibrahim was treated almost like the state guest of Dubai.
Yet another facet of the twisted genius of Deewaar is in the manner in which it carefully, skillfully avoids mentioning the root cause of the pervasive shortages, unemployment, poverty, exploitation and crime. The selfsame socialist policies. You won’t find a single criticism of the Government. Quite the contrary. It is completely faithful to the Government’s economic ideology of demonizing business and businesspeople.
Equally, the premise of Deewaar that all poor people are automatically virtuous also has another side to it. If some of them become criminals it is precisely because the oppressive rich people forced their hand. Amitabh Bachchan is a powerful symbol of this sick ideology rooted in destructive jealousy. Salim-Javed try to do a monkey-balancing act by getting his mother, Nirupa Roy give him ethical sermons about the error of his ways. But ask yourself as the audience: at the end of the film, where do your sympathies lie? Who emerges as the unquestioned hero of Deewaar? Why is Amitabh Bachchan still considered the symbolic anti-establishment “hero” instead of the frustrated loser he really symbolizes?
Then the names and backgrounds of villains in Deewaar are also quite telling. Almost all of them are Hindu businessmen: Samant, Davar, Jaichand…The extraordinary success of Deewaar went on to stereotype Hindu businessmen in Hindi cinema that followed…typical generic names like Lala, Seth, Munshiji et al came to be associated with ruthless capitalist exploitation of the poor masses.
And who or what symbolizes the good, the righteous, the devout and the virtuous? Rahim Chacha, as we shall see.
Deewaar was and remains truly, a coup d’état, a magnificent feat in subtly but appealingly propagandizing Communism in a moving fashion in mainstream Hindi cinema that would have made Lenin proud.
To be continued