Who is the James Dean of Pakistan and India?

Anger as energy

Posted by Nadeem F. Paracha 

Anger as energy

The arrival of James Dean and Marlon Brando in the 1950s in films such as Rebel Without A Cause and On The Waterfront heralded a new kind of hero. He was the anti-heroic “angry young man.” A silent, brooding type with a tendency to explode into bursts of anger, reflecting a stark emotional vulnerability. The anti-hero was a complex character charged with the good intentions of the conventional hero but almost as morally flawed as the cinematic villain.

Further highlighted by Richard Burton in Look Back in Anger (1958), Peter Fonda in Easy Rider (1968), Al Pachino in Serpico (1975) and Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites (1992), the angry young man was hit, especially amongst a growing audience weary of a world that was fast becoming more politically and socially complex.

Angry young Indian

In Bollywood, the cinematic angry young man did not arrive until 1973’s Zanjeer starring Amitabh Bachchan. His role was of a brooding, angry-cop-turned-vigilante who used his quiet but vengeful streak to undermine the ways of the system by bypassing the rotten eggs in the bureaucracy and the police, and taking on the villains on his own terms. Amitabh’s character in Zanjeer was an excellent way for the audience to give vent to their own frustrations and resentments, especially against the degenerating law and order situation and the rising political corruption in the India of the 1970s.

And even though Amitabh would continue in this vain – particularly during Indira Gandhi’s State of Emergency (1975-77) – in gems like Deewar (1975), Sholay (1975), Trishul (1978) and Kala Pathar (1979), his characters in these films, no matter how menacing, intense, and angry, were always about a conscientious working-class entity up against crooked individuals.

In other words, these popular cinematic folk-tales of street-smitten working class heroics were never about the masses of people rising up against state institutions. Instead, Bollywood always tried to portray the theme of working-class disgust with political and economic exploitation as being only about a renegade individual getting rid of the rotten apples that were spoiling a system that was otherwise okay. The system was never blamed. Only individuals were. So Amitabh’s angry-young-man roles were weaved more as an instrument of collective catharsis, rather than an exemplary cinematic motif of mass revolution.

By the 1980s, however, Bollywood’s angry young man character started to seem rather irrelevant in India’s shifting sociology, politics, and economics. But the new Indian political-economic maneuvers and the shift towards free market enterprise, politico-religious conservatism (BJP), and the consequent rise of urban, middle-class consumerism in the 1990s did not necessarily kill Bollywood’s cinematic angry young man.

Whereas these changes did give birth to a new hero in the shape of the soap-operatic and well-to-do bourgeois Romeo (such as Shahrukh Khan in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham), the angry young man role reinvented itself.

He now became a hot and bothered streetwise soul who, out of vengeance and anger for being left at the bottom of urban, middle-class India’s love affair with consumerism and materialism, takes his place in the society, not as a working class loner (a la Amitabh’s roles in the 1970s), but as an underclass street-smart gangster ( such as J. D. Chakravarthy in 1998’s Satya, Sunjay Dutt in Vastaav (1999), and Vivek Oberoi in 2002’s Company).

The tension in the 1970s Bollywood angry-young-man cinema between the exploited individual, tradition (mainly in the shape of a struggling mother), and the state (itself struggling to keep a balance between good and bad apples), was now replaced with a call for economic equality whose socialist and moral clothing was stripped off and swapped with a new meaning. Economic equality now meant that a street thug should also be given the opportunity (mainly through violence) to enjoy the fruits of modern economic consumerism – that included everything from designer clothes, mobile phones, DVD players to sophisticated weapons.

This strain of the Bollywood angry-young-man is parodied brilliantly by Sanjay Dutt’s role in Rajkumar Hirani’s hilarious Munna Bhai MBBS (2003).

What about Pakistan?

Strangely, Pakistani cinema somehow failed to create its own angry young man. Till the late 1970s, its cinematic heroes remained rather straight arrowed and conventional, apart from Nadeem’s character in the ‘socialist’ film, Har Gaya Insaan (1973).

At least one reason for this can be the comparatively better economic and social situation Pakistan found itself in between 1972 and 1975. Though losing a depleting war with India in 1971 and eventually half of the country (former East Pakistan), the populist government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was largely successful in turning defeat into an opportunity for widespread economic and social reform. So as the West began to buckle in the face of economic downturns – especially after the oil crises of 1973 – and the politics of India was on the verge of a nervous breakdown (the JP Movement), Pakistan retained a comparatively more solid veneer of stability.

Of course, all this began to change from 1975 onwards: Bhutto’s haphazard nationalisation policies and growing autocratic tendencies led to the fall-out of the global economic downturn of the time finally arriving in Pakistan and severely affecting its politics and economics.

So not surprisingly the first signs of the Pakistani cinematic angry young men started to appear after 1975. Ironically though, it was comedians like Rangeela in 1975’s Insaan Aur Gadha and Munawar Zareef in Jeera Blade (1975) who were more in the forefront of picking up jest-ridden but anti-heroic roles.

In Insaan Aur Gadha, we see a donkey praying to God to turn him into a human being. When the donkey does turn into an (albeit awkward) man (played by Rangeela), he faces situations that make him ask God to turn him back into a donkey again!

This film is one of the finest satirical looks at the human condition in Pakistan of the 1970s. It was also a disguised attack on the mindlessness of the masses that fall for popular leaders’ false promises. The Bhutto regime almost banned the film believing that Rangeela’s donkey-turned-man role was a parody of Bhutto. Though Rangeela had been a passionate supporter of Bhutto and the PPP’s socialist manifesto, he had become disillusioned with the elected prime minister.

Rangeela would soon go on to direct and act in another controversial film which poked fun at the Pakistani society’s matriarchal and male-dominated social and religious dynamics. The film was called Aurat Raj (or Women’s Rule). Made in 1978 (that is during the time of General Ziaul Haq’s conservative and intransigent dictatorship), the film is set in a world where women play men’s social roles and the males stay at home!

For Pakistani audiences of the time, the anti-heroic film was way ahead of its time and as a consequence suffered at the box-office, almost leaving Rangeela bankrupt.

It was with the popular arrival of Maula Jat in 1979 that Lollywood first witnessed the creation of its own bona fide angry young man. He was actor Sultan Rahi. But unlike the angry young man characters of Hollywood and Bollywood, Rahi’s roles were those of an angry dhoti-wearing and axe-wielding rural toughie always flaring up against sadistic feudal lords. Directed by Yunus Butt, Maula Jat took off from where Dulhan Aik Raat Ki left in 1975.

Dulhan Aik Raat Ki (Bride For One Night) was inspired by British and American ‘adult films’ that had become a hugely successful outing for young, middle-class Pakistanis and couples in the 1970s.

By 1974-75, cinemas (especially in Karachi) that had signs saying ‘For Adults Only,’ were doing a roaring business. Karachi’s Rio Cinema and Palace Cinema became known for running such films. They were mainly low-budget American romantic farces in which nudity scenes and sexual content were allowed to be shown by the censors, thus the tag: ‘For Adults Only’.

Inspired by the period’s ‘adult film’ phenomenon, director Mumtaz Ali Khan helmed Pakistan’s first Urdu film that was ‘For Adults Only.’ It was appropriately called Dulhan Aik Raat Ki. Staring the ‘Charles Bronson of Pakistani (and Pushtu) cinema,’ Badar Munir, the film was a raunchy meat fest of quivering female bodies and muscular (hairy chested) men. The film was amoral and unapologetic in its gaudy, blood-splattered setting, telling a story of kidnapping, honour, and revenge, consequently giving birth to the prototype of the Pakistani cinema’s angry-young-man.

Munir’s angry role was quite unlike that of Indian cinema’s angry-young-man of the time (Amitabh). Where Amitabh’s role in this context was street-smart, brooding, and ideologically charged, Munir’s role was that of a man steeped in the rugged and earthy myths of honour and revenge in rural Pakistan.

Maula Jat was lavishly studded with bawdy female dances and snappy dialogue turning struggling Urdu and Punjabi actor, Sultan Rahi, into a popular mainstay. Also gaining notoriety and popularity through the film was veteran villain, Mustapha Qureshi, whose role as the violent Noori Nat would see him play Rahi’s nemesis in a number of similar Punjabi films throughout the decade.

By the time the film was released, Pakistani cinema’s main audiences, the urban, middle-classes, had started to retreat inwards. Maula Jat was therefore largely patronised by a new class of cinema goers (urban proletariat and rural peasants), and became a massive box office sensation. Its theme of an angry young man in a Punjabi village taking on criminal feudal lords and eventually his main nemesis, the cool, calculated psychopath went down well with the particular audiences to whom these villains symbolised the uncaring and exploitative ‘establishment.’

The angry ‘young’ hero is mostly armed with a long axe (called a gandasa in Punjabi), and there is very little usage of any kind of guns as such in the film, underlining the fact that till 1980, Pakistan’s infamous Kalashnikov culture was still some years away in the making. The violent film was allowed by the Ziaul Haq dictatorship which, till then, had been concentrating in curbing the much larger Urdu film industry.

But when hoards of working-class Pakistanis and peasants started venturing into cinemas to watch the film, the censor board (now populated with pro-Zia conservatives and members of the Jamaat-i-Islami) suddenly stepped in and demanded the director to re-cut certain scenes of violence and sex from the film.

According to the film’s producer, Sarwar Bhatti, this happened because the Zia dictatorship that had by then established a working relationship with various anti-Bhutto feudal lords and members of Punjab’s landed elite, was alarmed by the film’s “anti-establishment” tone. The censor board ordered the producer to tone down the film’s content through editing, which Bhatti duely did. But a large number of cinema owners still had the original cut of the film with them, which they continued running in spite of the fact that they had been given a new one.

Maula Jat eventually ran for more than two years and just missed out on becoming Pakistan’s biggest box office hit.

But just as in Bollywood, Rahi’s angry young man roles soon became cynical self-parodies. The mantle was attempted to picked up by actor Shan (especially in 1994’s Junoon), but by then the gandasa party had long overstayed its welcome.

nadeem_80x80 Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.



  1. Hi, Mohammed…this is an interesting article. Thanks for posting it. Just an idle question, do you think that some of the earlier foreign films that he mentioned were ever shown in India, say, the James Dean films of the fifties, so one could see if the earlier “angry young men” directly influenced the younger ones? I know American and British films play more regularly in India these days, at the multiplexes, but what about back then? Just curious.

    • Thx for the comments, I think many of the foriegn films were shown – but very few ‘picture houses’ existed in India and Pakistan – those that did were catering for the middle and upper classes and the educated english speakers. i think there is a good market for the ‘james dean’ type films – maybe the existing films can be dubbed into hindi/urdu to get a feel on things?

      Indian movies are pushing the envelope further and making movies around various issues but they still need support and expertise

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