“Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae (characters) folded in her hand.”
George Elliot’s quote from Middlemarch perfectly fits Amitabh Bachchan’s situation and his casting in Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer – written by Salim-Javed – the movie that created the angry young man phenomenon and gave Hindi cinema its most successful and lasting superstar to date.
The key characters who made this happen were its script writers Salim-Javed and actor Pran. Mehra was the final decision maker. Jaya Bhaduri played the role of a dutiful fiancée. Ajitabh Bachchan and Pran’s son had a hand too. The other covert participants were Dharmendra, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kumar. Rajesh Khanna, whose mindboggling success run was about to end, also played a salient part.
It was 1972 and Amitabh’s career was languishing in flops. He had made his debut in 1969 with Saat Hindustani. Even though he had seen success in Anand (1971) as supporting hero, it was superstar Rajesh Khanna’s film. His first solo hero film, Bombay to Goa, released on 3rd March to average box office success but his next few movies flopped. The industry was making fun of the tall lanky actor.
Enter Salim-Javed who were on a success run post Andaz (1971), Haathi Mere Saathi (1971) and Seeta Aur Geeta (1972). They had sold the idea of Zanjeer to Dharmendra first.
However, the actor was more keen on making Samadhi and Kahani Kismet Ki, which Prakash Mehra owned. So he gave away Zanjeer to Mehra, who loved the idea and was keen to start rightaway. Mehra still directed Samadhi and happily relinquished the rights of Kahani Kismet Ki to Arjun Hingorani.
Having lost his lead hero, Mehra then approached Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kumar – they all said no.
Salim-Javed could have approached Rajesh Khanna but they had experienced his famous ego during Haathi Mere Saathi. So the pair had hedged their bet on Amitabh instead after spotting his talent in Bombay To Goa. They were positive that the actor had fire and the goods to be an action hero. Influenced by the negative buzz, Mehra was not convinced yet and wanted an established star.
It was Pran who convinced Mehra. Pran’s son and Ajitabh Bachchan (Amitabh’s older brother) were flatmates. They had watched Bombay to Goa and the son raved about Amitabh’s performance to his father.
Pran put in a word and asked Mehra to watch Bombay To Goa. The director finally relented. “I was especially impressed by the fight scene between Amitabh and Shatrughan Sinha in the film,” said Prakash Mehra in an interview to Rediff.
There was one last battle to fight before they could start the movie: the heroine. Mumtaz, the original choice, had backed out as she was getting married. No other heroine was willing to work with a flop actor.
Amitabh and Jaya were engaged. Despite her apprehensions about the length of her role, she agreed to play the part to help out. Amitabh had also promised to marry her if the movie was a success. They got married on June 3rd, less than a month after Zanjeer released.
According to Mehra, Amitabh was planning to move back to Allahabad if Zanjeer failed.
1973 was a landmark year for Amitabh Bachchan. His first release Bandhe Haath was a flop. Zanjeer released on 11th May and made him a star. Followed by the average Gehri Chaal and successful Abhimaan.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Namak Haraam, Amitabh’s second film with Rajesh Khanna, released the same year in November.
By then, the tables had turned. The supporting actor was now the selling point and the dark horse on a winning streak. Allahabad’s loss was Hindi cinema’s gain.
Watch the fight scene that convinced Prakash Mehra – note the hint of a swagger that later became Amitabh’s trademark.