Like their later script Deewaar, Salim-Javed's Zanjeer ("chain") attempts to fit a tense, gritty story into masala clothes. Unfortunately, Zanjeer is less successful - rather than delivering an intense, visceral experience, Zanjeer lurches(*) like a movie that can't decide how to present itself.
Inspector Vijay Khanna (Amitabh Bachchan) is a brooding man, with deep-seated anger that even he doesn't understand. Haunted by dreams that stem from a repressed memory of his parents' murder, he throws himself into the work of bringing criminals to justice - even, sometiems, exceeding the bounds of justice to do so. When Vijay tries to break the illegal liquor-brewing and smuggling ring of Teja (Ajit), Teja arranges to have Vijay sent to prison on trumped-up corruption charges. Disgraced and stripped of his badge and authority, Vijay vows vigilante justice against Teja. Mala (Jaya Bhaduri), an itinerant girl whom Vijay rescued and fell in love with, fears for Vijay's life. She prevails on him to give up the vendetta. But without that purpose in his life, Vijay is lost. Mala and Vijay's friend Sher Khan (Pran) have to find a way to help him, before his seething rage consumes him from within.
Zanjeer is not by any stretch a bad movie. The script is less taut than Deewaar and the result far less tense and engaging, but at least Amitabh delivers as the roiling Vijay, struggling to contain his anger and venting it in tense, explosive bursts. Zanjeer is at its best a close psychological study of this troubled man, and the effects of his anger on the people who care about him. But a close psychological study is not the stuff of masala films, and over-the-top masala trappings need larger-than-life masala themes to hang on, else the movie sags and bends under their weight. Zanjeer hints vaguely in the direction of some social statement or the other, but never hoists any of the great masala banners like brotherhood, family, democracy, communalism, et al.
And so, with Amitabh's strong performance as its foundation, Zanjeer could have been so much better that it's difficult not to be hard on it for its inability to decide whether it is masala or not. For example, it's great fun to see Pran in a good-guy role, and he is as charming and sweet as Sher Khan as he is creepy and villainous in his many blackguard roles. (He even has a marvelous song, the qawwali "Yaari hai imaan mera".) But the way Sher Khan becomes Vijay's best friend just doesn't fit the somber tone that Zanjeer otherwise aims to set - after taking a beating from Vijay, whom he calls the first man with guts he's ever met, Sher Khan immediately casts aside his illegal gambling empire and pledges his eternal friendship. This sort of over-the-top twist works well in out-and-out masala, but only lends a split personality to Zanjeer.
Mala's arc is frustrating as well, another microcosm of the sharp zig-zags taken by the script. She starts the film as a feisty, independent gypsy girl, and it's delightful to see Jaya Bhaduri taking a Hema-esque turn in the song "Chakku chhuriyan". But Vijay sprinkles Mala with some kind of magic dust that instantly transforms her into seedhi-saadhi boring ladki. The magnificent qawwali during which they tenderly realize their love ("Deewane hai diwaanon ko", picturized on Sanjana and the movie's lyricist, Gulshan Bawra) is a highlight of the movie - Vijay and Mala don't speak and hardly move, and yet convey an entire world of emotion with subtleties of body language and facial expression. In the circumscribed context of the song, Mala's delicate shyness is touching - but the larger personality transplant that turns the spirited gypsy into the picture of demure domesticity just doesn't work overall, and disrupts the tone of the movie. Instead of a meeting of two rageful independent souls, Zanjeer gives us a quivering and fretting Mala who steps into a premature sort of "ma" role. It leaves me wondering what happened to the girl who put a guy in a headlock at the beginning of the film, just for questioning her honor.
Despite its warts, Zanjeer is worth a look, especially for fans (like me) of the young, pre-stardom Amitabh. This is one the roles that defined the "angry young man" of the 1970s, and even if this Vijay's story lacks the polish of later incarnations, the best moments of the film are gems that shine in the rough substrate. And besides, you get Pran in a wig that is spectacularly orange even by Pran standards, giving him a look that is eerily prescient of a character who comes some 30 years later:
(*) Heartfelt thanks to Beth for suggesting the magnificent phrase "tone lurch" when I told her about this movie.