How Big B became the Don of Bollywood with one film
Like most great films, the Chandra Barot-directed picture too was a surprise hit.
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Although widely regarded as the leading box office draw and a superstar, the success of Don (1978) that released 38 years ago catapulted Amitabh Bachchan to a completely different league.
Post Zanjeer, his breakthrough film, that incidentally released exactly 43 years ago, Bachchan had only a handful of solo lead films, but it was only after Don, the first monster solo hit that Bachchan enjoyed after a long stint in numerous multi-starrers or two-hero hits since Zanjeer (1973), that the seeds of a one man industry were sown.
Like most great films, Don too was a surprise hit and although with the passage of time it has come to assume a larger than life aura, when it was first released, much like the manner in which it was made, the film wasn’t taken very seriously.
Don was born from a script that most of the industry had rejected at a conceptual level. In spite of the dizzying heights that writers Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar had achieved with films such as Seeta Aur Geeta (1972), Zanjeer, Majboor and Yaadon Ki Baraat (1973), they weren’t able to get big names interested in the film about a suave gangster, Don (Bachchan), who is killed in a police operation led by the DSP D’Silva (Iftekhar) and is then replaced by a doppelganger, Vijay (Bachchan in a double role), a village bumpkin, who ends up getting the short end of the stick.
While shooting Roti Kapda Aur Makaan (1974) Bachchan, Zeenat Aman, and Pran, along with Manoj Kumar’s then assistant director Chandra Barot decided to help the film’s cinematographer Nariman Irani, who was in a financial mess.Zeenat Aman and Amitabh Bachchan from the film Don.
Irani had produced a film, Zindagi Zindagi (1972), that flopped and he owed over Rs 12 lakh. Seeing him disenchanted, the Bachchan and others told him that he should produce a film where they would pitch in to help him tide over the bad phase.
Salim-Javed was offered the film that everyone had passed by and in the three years that the film took to take shape, Irani, unfortunately, died but everyone kept his or her promise and completed the film. What separated Don from others films in the genre was the combination of airtight screenplay and a retinue of extremely colorful supporting cast mixed with the classic 1970s retro chic elements.
One wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that Don’s basic plot could have been inspired by Shakti Samanta’s China Town (1962) but the Salim-Javed treatment that laid emphasis on how things were said rather than what was being said made it look different as well as fresh.
Don would perhaps also be the most accessible of Salim-Javed scripts and the lack of layering as far as characters went was realised by the deft execution of the narrative. The other constituent that made Don stand apart from the gangster or urban crime genres, which was at their peak in the mid to late 1970s, was the element of style across the spectrum.
Never before had popular Hindi cinema made crime look so polished or the leading character, Don, an unapologetic misogynist who was both detestable and alluring at the same time, the no-nonsense female lead, Roma (Zeenat Aman), who doesn’t mind taking up a life of crime to avenge the murder of her sister Kamini (Helen) and her fiancé besides well-etched supporting roles.
Right from Pran as Jasjeet, P Jairaj as Dayal, the judo instructor who coaches Roma, Iftekhar, and Om Shivpuri as the criminal mastermind Vardan who fools everyone by pretending to be Interpol officer Malik, Satyen Kapu as the gullible Inspector Verma who doesn’t believe in Vijay’s innocence and the entire bunch of baddies right from Kamal Kapoor as Don’s right hand man Narang, Shetty as Shakaal and Macmohan as Mac (what else!) all characters stood out.
Even with Pran’s detailed near parallel story arc (Jasjeet has suffered at the hands of Narang and is on the look out for his children, who have been kept safe by Vijay) to actors who had just a few lines like Anita (Aparna Choudhary), Don’s moll who can’t stand the attention he’s been paying to Roma, the screenplay never looks burdened and barely misses a beat.
Right from Zanjeer when they came to be seen as the harbingers of new Hindi cinema, Salim-Javed’s heroes have always towed a fine line that defined the good and the bad for them. While the "Angry Young Man" films (Zanjeer, Deewar (1975), Trishul (1978), and Shakti (1982) initiated a new change in the morality of the Salim-Javed hero, Don is the only instance where the line almost dissipates.
Moreover, the double role gives both the evil and the good the same face and there was hardly anything that could differentiate the two. Interestingly enough, almost all the films that Salim-Javed wrote together have a high degree of timelessness attached and even though some tropes might look dated they continue to inspire filmmakers and writers even today.
It’s ironical that while Don isn’t the first film that comes to mind when one thinks of Salim-Javed and while a majority of Salim-Javed scripts were rehashed at some point or the other, at times even by the writers themselves, this is the only Salim-Javed film that was remade in the truest sense.
Today, Don being a cult classic and even a masterclass in studying the concept of the screenplay in hero-oriented popular Hindi cinema is a no-brainer. Yet it was almost declared a flop within days of its release and had it not been for the Kishore Kumar classic "Khaike paan Banaraswala" perhaps the film wouldn’t have enjoyed the success it did.
Legend has it that director Barot showed a cut of the film to his guru Manoj Kumar who found the second half too action-oriented. He cautioned Barot that audiences might find the film too taxing and he better put a song in the second half before the climax.
Although Barot agreed with Manoj Kumar, he was sure he wouldn’t get a song at that short a notice but fate works in strange ways. The music directors, Kalyanji-Anandji, not only had a song ready but it was something that seemed godsent for the film.
Years ago the duo had pitched "Khaike paan Banaraswala" for Dev Anand for the film Banarasi Babu (1973) but the iconic star found it tacky and refused to use it. Kalyanji-Anandji then replaced it with "Hum hain Banarasi babu" and told Barot that former would suit Vijay’s character. The song became an instant hit. The first week audiences hung around to see it on screen and the repeat value of the song helped them discover the brilliance of Don.