There is little doubt that Hrishikesh Mukherjee is one of the greatest auteurs the Indian cinema has ever produced. Be it his lighthearted Bawarchi with a social message as relevant to our times as it was 50 years ago when it hit the silver screen or the bold and unflinching family drama Satyakam, Hrishikesh Mukherjee could dabble with humour as easily as he could shock us into a brooding silence as a precursor to deeper introspection. Like all great artists, he, too, had his idiosyncrasies. Here’s one: Mukherjee was known for keeping the meat of his scripts a secret even from his lead actors. Be it the yesteryear superstar Rajesh Khanna or the heartthrob Dharmendra, all had to toe this line.
But when Rajesh Khanna learnt that his co-actor and junior Amitabh Bachchan's character Vicky would be the one to die young in the yet-to-finish Namak Haram, the superstar was upset. Khanna knew the pulse of the people well; he understood a character dying for a noble cause evoked sympathy among the masses. This tried-and-tested formula had yielded him rich dividends in the now cult-classic Anand. Khanna could not look on helplessly while a nobody like Amitabh Bachchan was being propelled to stardom.
Rajesh Khanna began pressurizing Mukherjee to tinker with the script to ensure his character became the martyr instead of Bachchan’s. When requests turned into threats of a walk out, a reluctant Mukherjee agreed to tweak the script. However, you don’t mess with a man like Mukherjee and escape unscathed. The change in martyr was not the only alteration Mukherjee had made to the script, much to Khanna’s detriment.
Namak Haram hit the box office in 1973 and propelled superstar Rajesh Khanna into the stratosphere of popularity in India. But the real beneficiary of Namak Haram was Bachchan, as it cemented his image as the angry young man of the Indian cinema. Cemented because the foundation to this epithet was laid by his solo hit Zanjeer, which had released a few months earlier to positive critical and audience reception. The combined successes of Zanjeer and Namak Haram made him a bankable actor. With Namak Haram, Bachchan had arrived, prodding even Rajesh Khanna to grudgingly admit that his junior had excelled him and, maybe, he would have to relinquish stardom to his co-actor.
Namak Haram's story is moved forward by two friends: Rajesh Khanna as Somu and Amitabh Bachchan as Vicky. The story comes into its elements after Vicky eats the humble pie when a stubborn trade union leader, Bipin Lal, played by the ever-old A K Hangal, brings his father’s mill to a grinding halt over the issue of compensation to an injured worker. This insult is Vicky’s first taste of the real world, from which he had been hitherto protected by his father’s money and clout. Vicky never wanted to be at the helm of the mill, but his father’s sudden illness left him with precious little choice.
Vicky’s father Damodar Maharaj, played by Om Shiv Puri, with his usual understated brilliance, gives him a lasting lesson: Gulp down the poison of insult, but never forget it. And bite your opponent when the time is right. It was a scene that sent shivers down my spine. The only other scene of such venomous vehemence I can recall is from another film starring Bachchan, titled Main Azad Hoon. The 1989 released Main Azaad Hoon is an underachieving film filled with great performances.
Veteran actor Manohar Singh as the antagonist delivers a lengthy dialogue that soon degenerates into a soliloquy, during the course of which his face contorts to manifest malice, greed and contempt for humanity. In that one scene, Manohar Singh managed to encapsulate Lord Acton’s most quoted remark:
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.
If you hunger for strong performances, Main Azaad Hoon is a must-watch. But it is also touted as the most disastrous cinema for Bachchan in the 1980s.
Cut to Namak Haram. After the humiliation at the hands of Bipin Lal, Vicky visits Somu with tear-filled eyes and narrates what had happened. Unable to watch his friend’s agony, Somu hatches a plot, which would see him entering Vicky’s company as Chander and go on to win the trust of other workers by bagging small victories at the expense of Bipin Lal. Chander then competes with Bipin Lal for the position of labour union leader, and wins.
This is where Chander's transformation begins. Just after Chander's victory, Mukherjee, in a montage of newspaper headline clippings, highlights the plight of those leading a hand-to-mouth existence in the India of the 1970s. The inflation and the income divide, the poverty, and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few churn Chander’s heart. His tour of the hovels of the workers makes the transformation complete. I could find resonance of this transformation in the great literary marvel Lust for Life written by Irving Stone. If it was the painter Vincent Van Gogh, who was affected by the poor and the squalid conditions of the working masses in the novel, here, a poet-singer Somu undergoes a metamorphosis from a happy-go-lucky middle-class youth into the torchbearer of the poor.
When an elated Vicky tells his father that he has exacted revenge on Bipin Lal, Om Shiv Puri presages a predicament that drives the cinema to its tragic end. Puri’s assessment of the middle class as a dangerous stratum of the society finds resonance even today. Puri says Somu belongs to that segment of society, which is neither beggar nor wealthy. Vicky is told that his friend’s middle-class credentials make him ripe for becoming a traitor, or a loyalist, depending on which side of the balance his conscience tilts, unlike the rich, who seldom have to undergo such churning.
A transformed Chander wants Vicky to make certain concessions to his workers. Chander details the travails of the mill workers and exhorts Vicky to find a replacement for him as he cannot play the double agent any longer. While Vicky cannot understand his friend’s dilemma, Chander is caught in a whirlpool of emotions. As Vicky pours a drink from an imported bottle of scotch for Chander, the latter asks what a peg of the whiskey costs. When Vicky takes a guess, Chander leaves without drinking as the cost of one peg was more than what a worker at Vicky’s mill earned in a month.
Vicky appeals to his father to cut some slack for his workers but uses certain phrases from Somu’s lexicon that cement Puri’s fears that his son is in bad company. In this class war, Puri does not want Chander to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor at the expense of his son. Soon, Puri blows Chander’s cover in front of the workers. This is a must watch scene, as the likelihood of your ever having watched a scene of such deviousness draped in fatherly love before is scarce. Such was the overpowering impact of Puri's performance that this scene found the pride of place in many cinemas across languages, most notably in the Malayalam classic Adwaitham, starring Mohanlal.
Meanwhile, the angry and the betrayed workers attack and beat up Chander, who’s saved by Bipin Lal. When Vicky comes to know of the incident, he reaches the workers’ colony demanding those that had beaten up his friend confront him. He tries to force Somu to leave the workers and return with him but Somu refuses, causing a rift. However, Puri has another trick up his sleeve. He sacks Chander and Bipin Lal, leading to a strike. Meanwhile, the news of an impending war reaches Puri, who now wants to end the strike because for him, war means money. Beating a tactical retreat, Puri reinstates Chander, but tells his henchmen to bump him off. One of Puri’s henchmen tells Vicky about the plot to kill Chander. However, by the time Vicky reaches the spot, Chander is mowed down by a lorry. Later, Vicky owns up the crime to punish his father, who shortly dies.
Inspired by the 1964 classic cinema Becket, starring Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton, Mukherjee tailored the script to suit the Indian milieu. Becket had a similar plot. King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) are close friends. Henry wants to gain greater control over the church, which is interfering in temporal matters. As a means to achieving this end, Henry II appoints Becket as the archbishop of Canterbury. This brings the church into direct confrontation with the throne. However, much like Chander of Namak Haram, Becket refuses to be Henry’s puppet. Becket begins taking his new job as the archbishop seriously, earning the respect of the church and the people, but making an enemy out of Henry. The cinema ends with Henry’s assassins killing Becket.
Now, let us return to the part where Rajesh Khanna prevailed over Hrishikesh Mukherjee to change the script. Let’s consider the facts now. After Zanjeer, Bachchan had become a hot property. This brewed insecurity in Khanna’s mind, prompting him to demand a change in script. He could not digest the fact that someone he had petulantly called manhoos (inauspicious) could challenge his stardom. This incident took place on the sets of the 1972 cinema Bawarchi. Bachchan was not a star yet. He had a small gig in the movie, giving a voiceover. However, he was in a relationship with Jaya Bhaduri and was friends with Asrani, whom he would hang out with on the film sets. Rajesh could not bear the sight of Bachchan, who had given a scene-for-scene competition to him in the 1971 classic Anand. During breaks, Khanna would make fun of Bachchan, calling him names.
At one point, Jaya lost her temper and told Khanna that he was making fun of a future star. Jaya would not have known that her words were prophetic. Moreover, Khanna had ruffled the feathers of Mukherjee by asking for a change in script. More so, because everybody knew Mukherjee hated changes to the scripts or unnecessary retakes.
A master editor and auteur, Mukherjee tweaked certain scenes to give more screen presence and punch to Vicky’s character. This masterstroke worked and the sentiments of the audience swayed in Bachchan's favor. In many scenes, Vicky seems more likeable and breakable than Somu, something the viewers could relate to. Khanna knew the pulse of the people but forgot that it was auteurs like Mukherjee that created them. After Namak Haram, Khanna and Bachchan never acted together again. While Bachchan remained in the good books of Mukherjee and worked with him in five more films, Khanna acted only in one.