Years ago, watching a black and white film over Doordarshan, I began to sense that the story unfolding on the small screen was somewhat familiar. A criminal is wounded by the police, put away in jail, and another man — a striking image — is planted in the gang in his place. As every film buff knows, this is the story of Don, first made with Amitabh Bachchan in the lead and subsequently with Shah Rukh Khan. Javed Akhtar co-wrote the scripts of both, bringing the older version up to date with some stylistic touches. But the film I was watching was neither — it was China Town, directed by Shakti Samanta, known to audiences for his soft, romantic films like Aradhana and Amar Prem.
Nonetheless, China Town was an entertaining and pacy thriller, with great songs and the inimitable Shammi Kapoor. It was, as we front benchers say, paisa vasool. Javed Akhtar had lifted the story of China Town and, after making a few changes, presented it as Don. Soon I discovered that they had done the same with many other films — Deewaar was Ganga Jamuna, Haath Ki Safai had touches of an old B-grade film called Do Ustad and Seeta aur Geeta was nothing but Ram aur Shyam with the gender of the protagonist changed. Nor were only old films rehashed — Zanjeer and Yaadon Ki Baraat, both released in 1973, had several common plot points — Nazir Husain, the director of the second, said as much.
Clearly, Javed Akhtar and his partner (in crime?) Salim Khan, were among the most "inspired" scriptwriters of their time. They were also the best known and the richest. The scriptwriter in Hindi cinema was, and to some extent is, a much-ignored part of the filmmaking process. Script and dialogue were often written on the set according to the whims of the director and the star. No one knew, when they set out to make a film, the twists and turns the story would take. Salim-Javed not only gave a complete script and the dialogues, but also took a keen interest in every aspect of the film, including, as the author of this film points out, pre-release publicity. They gradually pushed their name up in the lights; soon there came a time when ads with just their name were released in the trade weekly, Screen.
Diptikirti Chaudhuri, who has written enjoyable books on film trivia, has dug out these and other facts about the two authors. He traces their individual journeys and their inevitable split, with a generous sprinkling of anecdotes and facts. In between those two sections is the backstory of some their films, done in "Salim-Javed" style, or so he says. Each chapter on a film has a synopsis of the story, its genesis, the reviews, the publicity and the author’s own assessment of the film. The chapter ends with the name of the next film, a sort of cliffhanger that the writers were famous for. A bit formulaic, but that is what S-J were; indeed, that is a kind word — "cut and paste" and "rehash" would be more accurate and, much as he admires them, Chaudhuri does not hesitate to say so.
He is quick to point out connections, lifts and the originals which inspired their work. Curiously, given his extensive digging, there is no mention of China Town or indeed of Do Ustad; at least the first was a very well-known film. Also, S-J were clever enough to lift not just plots but also scenes and characters which they found to be dramatic. The climax of Majboor, in which a bleeding Pran manages to keep the villains at bay with his gun, is a direct copy of a similar scene in Cold Sweat, while what is Shakaal in Shaan but Ernst Stavros Blofeld, as played by the great Donald Pleasance? (The name Shakaal and a dialogue or two were also used in Yaadon ki Baraat — the two were cannibalising themselves!)
Yet, while it is fairly widely known that Salim and Javed were masters at using old stories and reworking them, why were they more successful than others who did the same? After all, plagiarism — to put it bluntly — was quite common in the Hindi film industry. None of the others managed to become the stars Salim-Javed did. Chaudhuri puts it down to their extreme self-confidence and their determination to be as big, if not bigger, as the stars. Perhaps they also chose the right stories to rework and added that extra punch — smarter lines and more compelling scenes — that others could not manage. For this reviewer, it was their keen understanding of the changing socio-political environment that set them apart from the others. The "Angry Young Man" that they invented came to represent the national mood of the time. Was it a deliberate decision to create a lead character who does not sing songs and takes the law in his own hands? Or was it a happy accident which clicked? And would the same script enacted by Dev Anand, as was once envisaged, have worked?
Sholay is a good example — it came after Mera Gaon Mera Desh, which had a dacoit called Jabbar Singh and a happy-go-lucky outsider who helps a village fight this menace; yet, Sholay, with its pastiche of different films (Seven Samurai, Spaghetti Westerns, even a scene from an Anthony Quinn film) was a bigger success. Could the coming together of a terrific young director, great actors and high-class technicians have played its role too? The book tends to stay on the straight and narrow, centering Salim-Javed all the time. That limits it; the research, primary and secondary, is impressive — the bibliography and list of interviews is long — but it appears that Chaudhuri did not interview the protagonists or Bachchan, and it shows. (The quotation marks mislead us into thinking these were from the author’s interviews.)
The book tells us the facts about Salim-Javed, the backstories of the films and their box-office performance, but we never get to know what Salim-Javed mean in the larger scheme of things. Both are delightful interview givers, ready to talk of wider issues; we would have loved to know how they perceive the evolution of cinema over the decades, for example, or the changing role of characters and protagonists or whether the basic formula has changed or not. How many times can one read that they were the only writers whose names were on the posters? A book on them was much needed, but such was their impact and importance, fans await more, which will examine the two writers whose brand lives even today.
Sidharth Bhatia is an author and columnist
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