Of Success, Al Pacino and Amitabh Bachchan

amitabh bachchan

The reasons behind the success of Amitabh Bachchan are well analysed. People have talked about his deep baritone voice. His tall and brooding persona. His legendary acting skills. And the fact that his portrayal of the angry young man captured the frustrations of an entire generation.

Bachchan may have succeeded because of all these reasons and more. Nevertheless, there is a something that people never seem to talk about—the role that luck played in Bachchan’s success. Bachchan’s golden era started with the success of Zanjeer, which was released in 1973.

But the fact of the matter is that he was not the first choice for the role of Inspector Vijay Khanna, the lead character in the movie. This became the first of the many angry young man roles that Bachchan would eventually play. As Diptakirti Chaudhuri writes in Written by Salim Javed—The Story of Hindi Cinema’s Greatest Screenwriters: “Not one major star of the day was ready to act in the film”.

The script was first sold to Dharmendra for a princely sum of Rs 2,500. The actor’s brother Ajit Singh Deol was supposed to produce the movie and Prakash Mehra would direct it. Things did not work out between Ajit Deol and Mehra, and as a reason Dharmendra opted out of the movie.

The script then went to Dilip Kumar. As Chaudhuri writes: “[Kumar] thought it would make a very good film but felt the lead character was too one-dimensional and did not allow enough scope for ‘performance’.”

The script then went to Dev Anand. At that point of time both Salim Khan  and Javed Akhtar felt that this would be a “horrible miscasting”. Anand asked for a couple of songs to be picturised on him and that was that. The story continued.

Mehra approached Raj Kumar. “He too loved the script, probably because he had been an inspector before joining films, and agreed to do the role, but—and this was a big but—he wanted the film to be shot in Madras. One apocryphal story goes that he did not like the smell of Prakash Mehra’s hair oil and made this preposterous demand to wriggle out of having to work with him,” writes Chaudhuri.

After all these stars refusing to do the film, the script landed with Bachchan. As Chaudhuri writes: “Partly out of desperation and partly out of respect for Salim-Javed, and Pran[who had a pivotal role in the film], Prakash Mehra signed Amitabh Bachchan.” And the rest as they say is history.

The broader point here is that if any of these stars had taken on the role of Vijay Khanna that was offered to them, Bachchan’s story may have turned out to be remarkably different than it eventually did.

Before Zanjeer, the only performance of his worth recalling was in the film Anand, as a side-hero to the then superstar Rajesh Khanna. After Anand, Bachchan had done a bunch of forgetful films. And that is how things would have continued, if Zanjeer had not come his way. In fact, his career could have fizzled out very quickly and he wouldn’t have survived as long as he eventually has.

A sort of a similar story played out with Hollywood star Al Pacino, as well. Pacino first shot to fame, a year before Bachchan, in 1972, when The Godfather was released. Pacino played the character of Michael Corleone in this movie, who was the youngest son of mafia boss Vito Corleone (played by the legendary Marlon Brando).

As Robert H Frank writes in Success and Luck—Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy: “Studio executives…wanted to cast Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, or Ryan O’Neal to play Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. Coppola, however, wanted an unknown actor, someone who actually looked like a Sicilian.”

But Coppola was clear that he wanted Pacino and threatened to abandon the project if anyone else was signed on. This forced the studio executives to agree and Pacino landed up with the role of Michael Corleone.

As Frank writes: “In Puzo’s novel, Vito Corleone was the central character. But Vito’s youngest son Michael is clearly the protagonist in Coppola’s adaptation. Pacino, who had previously appeared in only two minor films, thus landed what turned out be the most important role in what many critics have called the best film ever made.”

Interestingly enough Coppola was a young film director at that point of time and as Frank writes: “Inexperienced directors almost never get their way into disputes with studio bosses.” But Coppola did.

The point being that hard work and talent are important for success but they are of no use without luck and opportunity. As Frank writes: “Those who believe that talent and hard work inevitably triumph might argue that because Pacino was relatively young at the time, his skills would have eventually made him successful even if he hadn’t landed the Michael Corleone role. But there are many thousands of highly talented actors who just never get the right opportunity to demonstrate their skill.”

Like Pacino got the lead part in The Godfather, Bachchan got it in Zanjeer. They were lucky to get these parts, which gave them a huge opportunity to showcase their real talent. Of course, after they became successful, a narrative was created around their success. This narrative pointed out to their talent, their hard work and so on.

While all that is true, one cannot take away the fact that at a certain point of time, they were very lucky. And that luck gave a fillip to their careers. As Frank writes: “It is almost easy to create a narrative after the fact that portrays such outcomes as having been inevitable. Yet every event is the outcome off a complex interwoven sequence of steps, each of which depends on those preceding it. If any of those earlier steps had been different, the entire trajectory would almost surely be different, too.”

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected])

The column originally appeared on April 26, on www.valueresearchonline.com

Why Fareed Zakaria failed, and Salim-Javed got away

Vivek Kaul

“So you must be shocked?” asked a friend on Facebook chat on Saturday.
Now given the times that we live in it took me a while to figure out that she was talking about Fareed Zakaria and not about yet another train accident, riot or a flash flood.
“Nothing is sacrosanct in the media anymore,” was her far reaching conclusion.
For the uninitiated Fareed Zakaria is a former editor of the Newsweek magazine who has recently admitted to plagiarizing a column he wrote advocating gun control in America. He was stupid enough to borrow portions of the column liberally from a column written by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker magazine. (You can read about the entire controversy here). Till recently Zakaria was Editor-at-Large at the Time magazine and also hosted a programme called GPS on CNN.
As I spoke to my friend on Facebook chat there was a qawali playing on my CD player. Sabri Brothers were singing “ajmer ko jaana hai”. It was one of the random CDs that I had picked up around a couple of years back but had never gotten around to listening.
I had heard the tune before. The tune was exactly similar to that of the super-hit song “ek pyar ka nagma hai, maujon ki rawani hai” sung by Mukesh and Lata Mangeskhar, written by Santosh Anand and set to tune by Laxmikant-Pyarelal (LP).
Soon I logged out of Facebook chat and was trying to figure out who copied whom? Typically some Googling always helps in these cases. (The best website to visit in such cases is www.itwofs.com. The website normally has the original song as well as the copied song).
But it did not help in this case. Various questions cropped up in my mind.
Did LP set to tune their song first? Or were Sabri brothers singing what is a traditional tune? Or did they copy LP? Or for that matter did LP copy the Sabri brothers? I don’t know (Maybe the readers can throw some light on this).
No such problems exist in Zakaria’s case though. It’s an open and shut case. He copied from the New Yorker and has admitted to doing the same.
But such clarity is not always there. Let me give an example to explain. A couple of years back I discovered this Jim Reeves song called “My Lips Are Sealed”. As I heard the song over and over again it sounded very similar to a Hindi film song. But I just couldn’t which one.
It took me an entire day to figure out that the song sounded similar to “ajeeb dastan hai ye” from the movie Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai. The song had some beautiful lyrics written by Shailendra and set to tune by Shankar-Jaikishan.
If I were to use the language of the Hindi film industry the song was inspired and not copied. And the interesting part was that Shailendra had written some amazing lyrics to the tune of My Lips Are Sealed. And Lata Mangeshkar had made the song immortal by lending her melodious voice to it. So something good came out of the copying.
Now here are a few lines to ponder over.
‘So, young man. So now you have also starred frequenting these places?’
‘Yes. I often come by to pay Flush,’ Imran said respectfully.
‘Flush! Oh, so now you play Flush…
”Yes, yes. I feel like it when I am a bit drunk…
”Oh! So you have also started drinking?’
‘What can I say? I swear I’ve never drunk alone. Frequently I find hookers who do not agree to anything without a drink…’

If you were starting to wonder whether these lines are from that movie, which they happen to call the biggest Hindi film hit of all time, well you are not totally wrong.
The lines do sound surreptitiously similar to the ‘Veeru Ki Shaadi‘ proposal scene in the biggest Hindi blockbuster of all time Sholay. But these lines are not from Sholay.
Actually, these are lines from a book called The House of Fear written by the grandmaster of Urdu crime fiction Ibn-E-Safi. The book was originally published in Urdu in 1955 as Khaufnak Imarat. It was first in the series of 120 odd books that Safi wrote featuring the quirky detective Ali Imran MSc, PhD.
Ibn-E-Safi was the pen name of Asrar Narvi, who came from the village Nara in the Allahabad district. Born in 1929, his pen name literally means ‘son of Safi’ (his father’s name was Safiullah). Narvi, who moved to Pakistan after partition, was a poet who started writing detective fiction in 1952, with the Jasoosi Duniya series which had Colonel Faridi and Captain Hameed as the main protagonists.
In 1953, Saifi started writing the Imran series in Urdu. The same series of books appeared in Hindi as well with exactly the same story line except for the fact that a character called Vinod replaced Imran.
Sholay was released in 1975, whereas Safi’s Khaufnak Imarat was released two decades earlier in 1955. Given this, Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar (the writers of Sholay) copied (or should we say “were inspired” in the Bollywood sense of the term) the scene which is regarded by many as one of the greatest comic scenes in the history of Hindi cinema, from Ibn-E-Safi.
This is not surprising given that Javed Akhtar in his growing up years is known to have read Ibn-E-Safi. “He had tremendous flair and sophistication…Safi’s novels created an imaginary city that could have been the San Francisco of the 50s in India. His penchant for villains with striking names like Gerald Shastri and Sang Hi taught me the importance of creating larger-than life characters such as Gabbar and Mogambo as a scriptwriter,” Akhtar told the Hindustan Times a couple of years back.
In the book The Making of Sholay, Anupama Chopra, writes about the inspiration behind the scene. “A disgruntled parent also inspired the classic ‘Veeru Ki Shaadi‘ proposal scene. Javed was in love with actress Honey Irani. They had first met on the sets of Seeta aur Geeta and much of their courtship was conducted there. But Mama Perin Irani kept a strict eye on her daughters. And Javed, still a struggling writer, had little to recommend him. He had presented himself but had failed to make an impression at all. Salim was a little senior. He had also worked in Bachpan, which Irani had produced. Naturally, Javed requested his partner to carry the proposal. He didn’t know that partner didn’t approve either.”
What followed was an interaction between Perin Irani and Salim Khan, which went like this:
‘Ladka kaisa hai?’
‘We are partners and I wouldn’t work with anyone unless I approve of him. Lekin daaru bahut peeta hai’
‘Kya? Daaru bahut peeta hai!’
‘Aaj kal bahut nahi peeta, bas ek do peg. Aur ismein aisi koi kharabi nahin hai. Lekin daaru peene ke baad red light area main bhi jaata hai.’

Chopra further writes in her book that the last line of the dialogue in the movie- ‘khandaan ka pata chalet hi aapko khabar kar denge‘ is fiction.
There are a few issues that arise here. The first of course is that Salim-Javed copied a scene without any attribution. But that has always been the norm with the Hindi film industry. The bigger issue of course is that even though the copied the scene they tried to pass it off as an inspiration from real life, which as I have shown above it clearly is not. Unless of course, Salim Khan had also read the book and repeated the lines when he went to meet Javed Akhtar’s would be mother-in-law. But that still doesn’t mean the scene wasn’t copied.
(On a different note, 20 years back I saw Mahesh Bhat’s Dil Hai Ki Maanta Nahi at the Sandhya Cinema in Ranchi and fell in love with the movie and its heroine Pooja Bhat. A few years back I saw It Happened One Night, the Hollywood original. Dil Hai Ki Maanta Nahi other than the songs it has is a scene by scene lift of It Happened One Night, even its dialogues are translated from the English original.)
Getting back to the topic at hand, Fareed Zakaria unlike Salim-Javed, is unlucky to be living in an era where copying something, and passing it off as your own creation, is getting more and more difficult. Zakaria is just finding that out. He has been suspended by both the Time magazine as well as CNN.
In some cases all it takes it is a Google search to figure out whether the article has been copied or not. Even those who copy do not copy from a mainstream magazine like the New Yorker. They are more likely to copy it from some obscure journal or research paper. But even there the chances of getting caught remain pretty high. Also if the original creators find out these days that someone else has copied them they tend to sue for damages.
When Salim-Javed copied times were different. People were not as much aware as they are today and it was easy to pass off someone else’s work as your own. In fact, the writer duo even went to the extent of creating a background for how they had been inspired in writing the “Veeru ki Shaadi” proposal scene. They got away with it. Zakaria clearly didn’t.
To conclude all I can say is that clearly “The Times They Are A Changin!” Now before I get accused of plagiarizing. I didn’t write this. We all know who did.
(The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on August 13,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/world/why-fareed-zakaria-failed-and-salim-javed-got-away-416134.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])