In 1964, Paramount produced a memorable Hollywood historical Becket, pitting two screen giants Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole against each other. The two thespians played best friends turned bitter foes.
Nine years later, Hrishikesh Mukherjee attempted a more contemporary interpretation with Namak Haram, starring two of Hindi cinema's most famous names --- seventies superstar Rajesh Khanna and the actor destiny had singled out to be his successor, Amitabh Bachchan.
Since Namak Haram was released late 1973 after Amitabh had already achieved stardom courtesy Zanjeer and Abhimaan, it was a momentous teaming up.
Namak Haram may talk a lot about the clash of opposing economic ideologies, but it works essentially because of the ever morphing human relationship between its two pivots.
Satish Wagle, Jayendra Pandya
| Hrishikesh Mukherjee
|| R D Burman
|| Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha, Simi
The film begins with the promise of a prolonged flashback: Vicky (Amitabh), sporting a dash of grey in his hair, has been just released from jail. He is received by a sympatico Nisha (Simi) who, we learn as the spools unravel, was born with a golden spoon but propagates socialism.
On reaching home, Vicky meditates over Somu's (Rajesh Khanna) garlanded photograph. It does not leave you with much guess work about his character's culmination, but it is the perfect cue for a flashback.
Somu, a middle-class youth, and millionaire Vicky belong to two different strata of society. They are held together by their friendship. They wear identical shirts, share a whiskey bottle, lust after the same courtesan, and even do a stint of work for the same firm.
Unfortunately, the short-tempered Vicky gets embroiled in a spat with his moneybag father's (Om Shivpuri's) employee Bipinlal (A K Hangal). Bipinlal, a union leader, announces a strike. At his dad's insistence, a seething Vicky reluctantly apologises to Bipinlal.
A disturbed Somu hatches a plot to avenge Vicky's humiliation. He poses as a labourer called Chander, lives in the workers' basti, and starts working in Vicky's factory, to displace Bipinlal as the leader.
Hereafter, the story takes what one could possibly call a commercial break. Somu gets sentimental about a song penned by the cynical basti poet Alam (Raza Murad), and has a romance with a buxom basti girl Shyama (Rekha).
Somu then wins the workers' confidence after Vicky concedes to Somu's demands for a bonus. Bipinlal loses the union election to Somu. An elated Vicky wants to celebrate the momentous occasion with a glass of Chivas Regal. But Somu is too busy contemplating the morality of gulping down a mazdoor's day's earnings in one swig.
Somu's sympathies are now genuinely with the workers. Vicky, subconsciously influenced by his father's views that the middle class is ambitious and unreliable, begins to see Somu as a namak haram.
Beneath Vicky's acidic attack lies his pique at his friend seeming to have chosen the bastiwalas over him, and the director effectively makes this implicit.
Vicky's father, the master puppeteer, now delivers two blows. He blows Somu's cover and later gets him mowed down by a truck. Revolted by his father's ruthlessness, Vicky claims he masterminded the killing and hands himself to the police.
It is his way of making his father pay.
|Famous songs from Namak Haram|
| Sooni re sejariya saajan
|| Asha Bhosle, Usha Mangeshkar
| Diye jalte hain
|| Kishore Kumar
| Nadiya se dariya
|| Kishore Kumar
| Main shayar badnaam
|| Kishore Kumar
| Woh jhoota hai
|| Kishore Kumar
Namak Haram's dialogue makes abundant references to the class distinctions, the greedy capitalist, the role of politicians in encouraging discord and appeals for a more orderly world and a more even distribution of wealth, albeit without offering any concrete solutions.
It may ostensibly be a story about the class war but it is no dry economic treatise. The film is juiced up by its exploration of the mercurial yet binding relationship between the two friends.
Somu's pain at his divided loyalties and the conflict of interests are well brought out by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. So is the blend of love and hate that defines Vicky's relationship with his father. After destroying his father's dreams, Vicky says with all sincerity: "Dad, aap apna khayal rakhiyega."
Mukherjee does take his time to get the story off the ground. The development of the friendship and the boisterous scenes could have been more interestingly portrayed. Also, the shifts from scene to scene is puzzlingly old fashioned. The women sadly remain on the fringes.
Rajesh Khanna plays the conventional hero with charm and a sense for the grand gesture.
But Amitabh has a definite edge over him in this closely fought clash of the titans.
The film offers an early glimpse of Amitabh's intensity and his ability to play a role with uncanny authority. Watch him thunder at Om Shivpuri when he first gets to know of his attack on Rajesh: "Jo kuch bhi hua, woh mere aure uske beech mein hai, koi teesra beech main aaya toh [Whatever happened, that is between him and me. If a third comes between us]..."
If I were to single out one Amitabh scene, it would be his expression of impotent anger as he relives Rajesh's humiliation at the hands of the union leader. There are tears when he turns around and rarely have tears seemed more real on the Hindi screen.
Vicky: "Hai kisi maa ke laal mein himmat jo mere saamne aaye?"
(A lone Vicky's challenge to the dozens of workers who have beaten Somu to pulp)
Alam: "Jeene ki arzoo mein mare jaa rahe hai log, marne ki arzoo mein jeeye jaa raha hoon main."
* Amitabh won Filmfare's Best Supporting Actor Award for Namak Haram. Coincidentally, two years before, Amitabh had won Filmfare's Best Supporting Actor Award for Anand, a film also directed by Mukherjee and costarring Khanna.
* The same year, Amitabh Bachchan was also nominated in Filmfare's Best Actor category for Zanjeer but lost the award to debutante Rishi Kapoor for Bobby.
* Most of Amitabh's solo portions were shot before busy star Rajesh Khanna began shooting for the film.
* Rekha might not have had much to do in Namak Haram but her association with Hrishida proved profitable when he later cast her in Khoobsurat.
* Hrishikesh Mukherjee worked for the first time with the Anand Bakshi-R D Burman combination and was rewarded with three hit Kishore Kumar songs. Though Gulzar didn't get a chance to pen the lyrics, he wrote some easily accessible and scathing dialogues.
* It was the rare occasion when Asha's sister Usha Mangeshkar got an opportunity to duet with Asha.
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Design: Uday Kuckian