Dir. Manmohan Desai
There is much that can be said about Coolie, a stellar exemplar of the socially meaningful masala movie. It is a rich text packed with social commentary, in which the working poor organize and strike against rich, corrupt, and cruel-hearted bosses. It is loaded with masala archetypes, symbols of brotherly and motherly love, religious iconography, unlikely coincidences and grand-scale tragedies, the goofy non-literalism of filmi medicine. And it's long on the kind of entertainment one expects from Manmohan Desai films, superstars palling around and one-upping each other in songs, villains occupying posh and outrageously decorated spaces, romance and charisma and dishoom-dishoom.
The titualar coolie Iqbal (Amitabh Bachchan) is, as you might expect, a charismatic figure with a traumatic past. As a boy, Iqbal is separated from his mother Salma (Waheeda Rehman) during a tragic flood engineered by a narcissistic and entitled millionaire, Zafar Khan (Kader Khan), who kidnaps Salma, traumatized into muteness and amnesia, for his own. Iqbal grows into the de facto leader of a group of coolies. He organizes them against Zafar's attempt to cheat them out of a promised housing development, and leads a dramatic strike in which one by one they throw their badges to the ground, beginning with Iqbal's own 786, of course (cf. Deewaar).
Iqbal befriends a drunken and sympathetic newspaper reporter, Sunny (Rishi Kapoor), who has ambitions of breaking the big story of the coolies' strike. Sunny was raised by Iqbal's mother; Zafar believed that abducting a child for her to raise would ease her trauma, or at least his conscience. At any rate, of course neither Iqbal nor Sunny know for most of the movie that they share a mother, leading to some of the film's many almost-but-not-quite reveals. In one fantastic shot Sunny and Iqbal share reminiscences of their beloved mothers; Sunny keeps a photograph of her inside his typewriter, and Iqbal sits beside it, framed with the portrait, but never seeing the photo.
Coolie is a rich meta-text, too. As is well known, Amitabh Bachchan was seriously injured when the timing of a choreographed fight scene went wrong; he took a full-strength punch to the gut from Puneet Issar. For months during Amitabh's recovery, crowds gathered near his home and prayed for his health. This fact alone says much about the place Amitabh Bachchan occupies among the many gods worshiped in India. Even more telling is the astonishing breaking of the fourth wall that occurs in Coolie itself; the action stops during the fateful scene, and an overlay tells us (in three scripts, so that everyone who can read can understand) that this is the very moment at which Mr Bachchan sustained the terrible injury.
It is difficult to imagine the story taking second seat to the actor in any other circumstance. Film is already a medium in which much suspension of disbelief is required; Hindi film arguably moreso, and the genre of Hindi film to which Coolie belongs, masala, most of all. Yet when it is the life of Amitabh Bachchan on the line, the audience is asked to suspend its suspension of disbelief for a moment, to pay respect to this legend among men and the sacrifices he makes to bring us a good story.
In addition to this worship of Amitabh Bachchan, worship of God is a powerful theme in Coolie. But in contrast to Manmohan Desai's masterpieces of syncretism, Amar Akbar Anthony and Naseeb, the God that is present in Coolie is unequivocally Allah. This is no doctrinally-vague Bhagwan. Allah literally drops from the sky, in the form of a Koran that falls from the rafters of a flooded home into the boy Iqbal's arms, letting him know he is not alone; in an inscribed prayer that tips off a lintel and clocks Salma on the head, restoring her memory; in a preternatural circle of lightning, summoned by Iqbal's fervent prayer, that encircles Salma with divine vivifying energy. Allah even flies through the sky, in the form of the super-intelligent falcon called Allah Rakha (“Allah the protector”), who repeatedly swoops in to save our heroes from one scrape after another.
Over and over again Allah descends from heaven to grant his blessings to the good guys in Coolie. In the climactic fight scene between Iqbal and Zafar Khan, which takes place in a Muslim shrine, a silken shroud embroidered with the name of Allah blows off an altar and drapes itself protectively around Iqbal's body, rendering him immune to the bullets from Zafar's gun. Desai's trademark syncretism appears only at the very end of the film, where various characters pray to a diverse array of gods, and Krishna, Jesus, Sai Baba and the rest all contribute to Iqbal's recovery from the wounds he sustained in his defeat of Zafar.
There are weaknesses in Coolie that make it less a perfect masala specimen than films like Amar Akbar Anthony or Parvarish; like Naseeb, it suffers from dime-store heroines, a common place to cut corners in masala films. At least Naseeb had the gorgeous sparkle and presence of Hema Malini to make up for the relative dullness of Reena Roy and Kim; here, there is no relief from Rati Agnihotri and Shoma Anand, who are both so unmemorable that it is difficult to tell them apart as the story progresses. One of them (I think it's Rati Agnihotri) gets a little bit of a revenge plot, but it is mostly filler. They are there because heroes need heroines to dance around trees with, else how do you get the flavor of romance into your masala? But their blandness doesn't matter much; Coolie is Amitabh Bachchan's film all the way, and that's just fine. Accept that truth, and you are rewarded with satisfying masala, worthy of the Desai name, and with plenty to chew on, whether watched purely for its fun, or the pleasure of examining all its textual levels.