Cast: Amitabh Bachchan
Director: Mukul S. Anand
Runtime: 167 min.
Verdict: One of our finest filmmaker’s masterstroke.
Genre: Drama, Crime
It might be tempting to brand Mr. Anand’s Agneepath as one of those “interesting failures”, especially when he himself wasn’t exactly satisfied with the finished film, and walk away. But then, this was a time a kid (me) was fed with ready-to-digest stuff like Toofan and Shahenshah, or even Deewar (this was the late 80s, my dad started taking me to the movies as early as he could), where the images were exciting but linear, and where the general notion assumed an Amitabh Bachchan film was mostly designed keeping the kids in mind, Mr. Anand’s film, with its grim barely lit interiors mostly served only by a silvery ray barging its way in, and its dynamic almost distorted frames – the distortion seeping from/into the anger within – the experience was somewhat maddening, and probably even unpleasant. It was an Amitabh Bachchan film unlike any Amitabh Bachchan film, and there was a resident ugliness about the proceedings I probably wasn’t prepared for.
This is, we need to understand, a time when the social structure was easily defined, what with our movies mostly being mouthpieces for the working class, and a deep-rooted suspicion of any foreign body wanting to “invest” in here, who happened to be easily classified under the section provided for my Mr. Tom Alter, or the late Bob Christo, or even Mr. Kader Khan donning a white suit and silken grey hair and a pair of sunglasses and walking inside a submarine. This was the time where suits were almost shorthand for some kind of corruption, or in the very least financial affluence, and power, that one ought to be in the very least suspicious of. And unlike much of mainstream Hindi cinema’s resident classical cut-and-dried approach to such issues as if reading out a newspaper article, Mr. Anand doesn’t leave the fabric all clean and dry. The camera does track along smoothly but jags along in a staccato. There’s a roughness in those “steadicam” (probably?)shots that seem to betray the undulating undeveloped terrain below. There is some serious physicality going for his film here, and in the manic energy of the film’s exaggerated movements the feeling is one of exploding warts. You know, like watching, and applauding and squirming watching Saurav Ganguly’s shirt-waving antics down at the Lord’s, or Virat Kohli in general. I quite like the tone of this article.
Mr. Anand probably was the only other filmmaker, besides Mr. Chandra Barot (Don), who displayed the filmmaking chops to modulate an Amitabh Bachchan performance, and to not let the rest of the film be an aside. There sure is respect, so much so that one might even be “fooled” into believing the film is playing to the performer’s tune. Vijay Chavan (Mr. Bachchan) walks into the Commissioner’s house intending to warn him, and in keeping with his restlessness Mr. Anand provides us with this profile foregrounded heavily with the Commissioner’s body. We know he’s talking, but until now it mostly feels like rhetoric.
The film, though, wouldn’t let the performer run away with its tone. Here was a man fresh from his political debacle and really angry, and Mr. Anand both plays up the icon and causes him to embarrass himself using that very same raw material (performance). Vijay Chavan walks into his bosses’ den, and Mr. Anand uses one of narrative cinema’s standard tropes – the introduction through shoes – to not merely tune into its standard service of representing the power equation, but to let him physically announce his presence as well. Be it the murder in the prison, or climbing down those symbolic stairs down in
or the crowd outside the hospital, Mr. Anand goes real close with his
compositions and wraps it around the corporeality. In those dark rooms he’s the
one surrounded by enemies, or in those slums he’s the one hogged by devotees
touching him, feeling him. The need for this reverence, or worship, is at the
heart of Agneepath, and it is a need
that seems to run within the genes, from dad to son. Mr. Anand highlights
(contrasts) this spectacularly in a sequence down at a classy restaurant, an
absolute caricature/shorthand for the bourgeoisie, and despite the odds (what
chance does the precious affluent class of society have against the raw honesty
of the working class) Vijay Chavan neither intimidates nor trumps the establishment
(ala Howard Hughes in The Aviator)
but instead, thanks to the almost disdainful calmness of everyone including the
restaurant official, is basically caught frothing in his mouth. It is an
expansive place, with human figures distributed around, and in its vacuum Vijay
Chavan cuts a pathetic figure, the embarrassment of which he wishes to wash
away in the intimacy of the slum. There’s a sense of insecurity in the
performance that Mr. Anand taps into. Here is a man neck-deep in his identity
crisis, and to constantly recite his roots is probably more of a defense
mechanism than anything else. Mauritius
Mr. Anand draws some serious leverage from banisters, which hitherto in Hindi cinema were only silent representatives of status, but here becomes the defining boundary, a sort of separation between the powerful and, well, us.
It is in fact one of Mr. Anand’s one of many masterstrokes in the way he separates even “our hero” from us, making in many ways “the inaccessible powerful”. This was never the Amitabh Bachchan we have known. The whole sequence down in Mauritius, i.e. the Alibaba song, becomes a sort of meta-narrative to the proceedings (so much so that I might as well shed everything else and concentrate wholly and solely on this song), chalking out the power zones within the film, and also through those spectacular uber-stylish ultra-closeup staccato pans, from right to left and from top to bottom around Vijay’s profile, juxtaposing the opaque present with the past, acting some sort of reminder is probably one of Hindi cinema’s inspired moments. There were many films (Ram Lakhan and Parinda) that dwelled on revenge and moral corruption but none that incorporated the whole bargain into its very aesthetic.This makes it all the more frustrating when the narrative absolutely derails in the final hour, achieving some ludicrously high melodramatic pitches, which, to be honest, didn’t make sense then, and don’t make sense now. Mr. Anand was rightly unsatisfied the way the film came out. I never understood his wife lamenting him about Mandwa, as if he had meandered from his goals, when the film presents a Vijay Chavan so resolutely chasing his vengeance. There’s probably something about Vijay Chavan coming around from wanting to be worshipped to conforming to God, and I guess that was on Mr. Anand’s mind, that gesture of dropping the village’s mud before the idol could be an indicator of submission and acceptance. Yet, Agneepath is a maddening trainwreck, arm-twisting its way into some sort of resolution. Which is disappointing. Because this remains one of my greatest influences. Those intense expressionistic closeups focusing on a raised brow or a moved finger, those rack-focused shots, the staccato pans are personal territory. But more importantly it showed one of cinema’s great actors in a rather new light. Despite Adalat, despite Trishul, and despite Aakhri Raasta, there never was an image of my man sitting around talking whilst a man pleaded on his legs. I never knew Amitabh Bachchan could be ruthless and frightening. To see a hero smile whilst his sister is kidnapped leaves one hell of an impression. It was some experience, when I first saw Agneepath, of not an anti-hero but a neo-villain. For that alone, for bringing a crisis into the very identity of this great actor, I consider this Mr. Mukul Anand’s masterstroke.