As long as there have been films, there have been writers. While one can probably imagine a Hindi film without songs, it’s perhaps impossible to imagine great films without their mesmerising dialogue. Try conceiving Mughal-e-Azam (1960) without towering lines like “Hum apne bete ke dhadakte hue dil ke liye Hindustan ki taqdeer nahin badal sakte” or “Salim tumhein marne nahin dega aur Anarkali hum tumhein jeene nahin denge.” Yet the chances that a large number of people would actually recall the names of those who penned them would be slim.

Writers Aman, Wajahat Mirza, and Ehsan Rizvi don’t mean much to the fans of Mughal-e-Azam. By contrast, the mere mention of any film scripted by Salim-Javed can make people rattle off their classic lines. Lines such as “Mere paas Maa hai”, “Kitne aadmi the” and “Don ka intezaar to gyarah mulkon ki police kar rahi hai" are a part of our common parlance. Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar weren’t the first great writers to grace popular Hindi cinema nor the last, but there is little doubt that in the pantheon of the all-time great wordsmiths, they remain the first among equals. Their brilliance is not limited to the manner in which the two transformed the stature of the writer, an entity often relegated to the background and rarely acknowledged, or created a template for the hero that continues to be peerless even after 40 years of its creation. Unlike other writers before them or the ones who followed, Salim-Javed’s genius lies not only in what they did but also how they went about doing it.

Before Salim-Javed, writers were mere tools whose job was to come up with the right set of words. In the grander scheme of things, they were eminently dispensable. Some writers were better off if they attached themselves with filmmakers, such as Khawaja Ahmad Abbas did with Raj Kapoor, or became part of a big production house’s story department, such as Satish Bhatnagar with Sippy Films and Akhtar-ul-Iman and Rahi Masoom Reza with BR Films. Non-film writers saw movies largely as a source of a quick buck. Literary stalwarts such as Sadat Hasan Manto and Pandit Mukhram Sharma or popular ones such as Gulshan Nanda tried to keep one foot in and one foot out. Writers barely wielded any authority and far from being respected, as one producer-director defined their persona to me, they were considered munshis (scribes).

A scene from Haathi Mere Saathi (1971)

It was only after the advent of Salim-Javed that this description changed. The manner in which the two projected themselves resulted in them being treated as nothing less than rock stars. They were accidental writers. Salim desired to be an actor, while Javed chased dreams that didn’t involve being in direct contact with words, perhaps due to the tumultuous relationship he shared with his father, the famous poet Jan Nisar Akhtar. But their writing was far from accidental. The two met on the sets of SM Sagar’s Sarhadi Lootera (1966), in which Salim was acting and Javed had graduated from being a clapper boy to a makeshift dialogue writer for the director. Salim was interested in the overall craft and Javed was forever intrigued by the language of cinema. Their joint dissatisfaction with the way things were turning out drew them to each other. They would often talk tirelessly about films and discovered a kindred spirit within each other. Salim soon realised that he possessed the imagination but not the flair of projection and decided to give up on hopes of becoming a film star. At the same time, Javed resolved to team up with Salim instead of struggling alone.

The combination proved to be mutually beneficial as the two complemented each other – Salim would think of plots and characters that weren’t the norm of the day and Javed would embellish them with filmic nuance – but success took a while in coming.

Working at Sippy Films, Salim-Javed’s writing was lost in the credit that read – "Story – Sippy Films Story Department" but not everything that they did had an anonymous death. Impressed with their work on Ramesh Sippy’s Andaz (1971), where his character barely had 10 minutes of screen time and yet ended up being prominently etched in the hearts and minds of viewers, actor Rajesh Khanna offered Salim and Javed not just more money than what they were making at Sippy Films but also the one thing that eluded them. Khanna told them to come up with a screenplay that would be worth his stature for a film that was to feature him and a herd of elephants and for which he had already taken a large fee. The film was Haathi Mere Saathi (1971), and not only did it make a killing at the box-office, but Salim-Javed’s screenplay displayed that the two could take a thing that would hardly warrant a second glance and overhaul it into something extraordinary.

They delivered on the early promise with hits such as Seeta Aur Geeta (1972) and Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973). The twins-separated-at-birth idea in Seeta Aur Geeta might have been inspired by Ram Aur Shyam (1967), but the metamorphosis of the heroine Hema Malini into the "hero" or featuring an immensely popular star as Dharmendra in a glorified supporting role made the movie stand out. Similarly Yaadon Ki Baraat, while best recalled for its lilting RD Burman tunes, was one of the first films to perfect the lost-and-found formula, a ploy first seen in Yash Chopra’s Waqt (1965). Yaadon Ki Baraat also laid the foundation of chic thrillers with suave villains that would become a staple in the 1970s.

A scene from Deewar (1975)

But the thing that made Salim-Javed larger than life and usher in a phase of unparalleled superstardom for screenwriters was the creation of the Angry Young Man in Zanjeer (1973). Perhaps a culmination of years of pent-up rage against just about everything and everybody, the character of Vijay in Zanjeer, an upright cop who becomes an anti-hero to beat the villain at his own game, was said to be inspired by the prevailing socio-political conditions of the nation that ultimately converged into the Congress party-imposed Emergency. The seething rage that saw Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) go off the handle in places where injustice triumphed over the right way was a never-seen phenomenon that changed the way Hindi cinema viewed the hero.

While Zanjeer’s success established Salim-Javed as a force to reckon with, their decision to take what was rightfully theirs, such as the writing credit on posters, instilled respect and awe within the industry. Salim recalls how, when Prakash Mehra, Zanjeer’s producer-director, didn’t accede to their demand, the two hired a painter to stencil "Written by Salim-Javed" on posters plastered across Mumbai. As luck would have it, the poster painter, who was in an inebriated state, ended up painting the credit over the face of the star.

Salim and Javed were the first to hand in bound scripts along with detailed narration on every single film they wrote. Javed once described the job of a Hindi scriptwriter to be one where he/she is "supposed to write a totally original script that has come before". Herein lies the true virtuosity of their craft. The duo had the audacity to tell Yash Chopra, who was dissuaded by the failure of Joshila (1973) that they would meet in 15 days with a script ideal for him and which would be part Mother India (1957) and part Ganga Jumna (1961). That movie was Deewar (1975).

A constant argument made against Salim-Javed is that barely any script of theirs is original in the true sense of the word, but no one accuses them of plagiarism. This is because their talent lay in their treatment and the manner in which their narratives made the similar appear different. Take Don (1978), a film that had the most basic "black or white" characters. Don’s air-tight screenplay and a retinue of extremely colorful supporting characters distinguished it from China Town (1962), a film with almost the same elements and plot. Regular referencing to previous films in Salim-Javed’s writing could also be due to the fact that they were among the first generation of writers who grew up watching films alongside reading popular literature. Classic Hindi films such as Mother India and Ganga Jumna or the films of Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone not only inspired them, but also seeped into their works.

A scene from Trishul (1978).

Their success and hallowed stature notwithstanding, Salim-Javed have faced regular criticism about the path or means chosen by their hero. In film after film, the duo emphasised and even justified their protagonist’s foray into anti-social activities such as smuggling. Zanjeer’s Vijay resorts to violence, Deewar’s Vijay resorts to crime, the Vijay of Trishul (1978) stoops to bribery and corporate espionage, and in Shakti (1982) Vijay chooses to become a criminal out of defiance. Only in Kaala Patthar (1979) does Vijay put his life in danger in order to overcome the guilt of abandoning his duty as the captain of a ship that endangered hundreds of lives.

The duo has argued that the actions of their protagonists were defined by the reality of the times, but this is debatable. Events that led up to Emergency and the government’s general apathy inspired certain sections of society to question, oppose and even revolt against the state. But in Salim-Javed’s scripts, lack of power appears to be the reason why people get hurt in the first place. Therefore, their heroes stand vindicated for their methods, at least to some extent. Of course, Vijay’s tragic end in Deewar or Shakti puts things in perspective, but for successive films to have that same outlook might reveal the unscrupulous influence that the writers risked imposing on audiences.

In the end, Salim-Javed and the scripts they wrote are works of fiction. In the popular milieu of their cinema, entertainment and not social change was the mainstay of storytelling. The morality of Salim-Javed’s protagonists could be debatable and the source of their inspiration questionable, but everything besides that is pure and an indisputable work of art.

Gautam Chintamani is the author of Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna (2014). He is working on a monograph on the significance of Salim-Javed’s cinema.