In Tinnu Anand’s Shahenshah (1988), Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) is a bumbling and comically corrupt Mumbai police inspector by day and a imposing figure of dread for the city’s criminals by night. The hit vigilante movie was cited by director Vikramaditya Motwane as one of the inspirations for his June 1 release, Bhavesh Joshi Superhero.
In a conversation with Scroll.in, Anand recalled the making of Shahenshah, the ideas behind the character’s iconic costume and dialogue, and the film’s relevance.
I have been a great fan of Superman comics since I was a child. It fascinated me because Superman was essentially two people. One man was playing two roles – Clark Kent, as a cowardly journalist who cannot stand for himself and fight, but later the same man changes his costume and becomes Superman. That is what I had in mind for Shahenshah.
I wanted to have a buffoonish policeman who could easily be bullied. He would use that as an advantage to get close to the underworld. So, in the night, he could come out and fight crime as Shahenshah.
My father [Inder Raj Anand], Santosh Saroj and I worked on the screenplay. My father wrote the dialogue entirely. He was a great writer of Urdu, which is a very poetic and flamboyant language with a lot of flair. While writing Shahenshah, I told him, “Our generation has changed. We can’t speak Urdu that well. Why don’t you give us simple lines to speak?” Because a lot of actors – not Amitabh Bachchan – would find it difficult to speak my father’s Urdu lines. And my father said, “You have a lion as an actor. Give him mutton to eat. Do not give him vegetarian food.”
Because Amitabh Bachchan is such a powerful actor, you give him any line, and he will say it with the utmost conviction, and that will be remembered forever. Even today, when we meet, he tells me, “Could you imagine 30 years ago that Shahenshah’s dialogue would become so famous that I am still asked to say them today?” Rishtey mein to hum tumhare baap lagte hain, naam hain Shahenshah. (I am like your father. The name is Shahenshah).
Then there’s another line my father wrote for him in Kaalia: “Hum jaha khade ho jaate hain line wahin se shuru hoti hain.” (The queue begins from where I stand). All of these came from, obviously, the treasure of knowledge about language and literature that my father had. For that I am grateful, because he was my backbone, a powerful wall behind me.
Being from Allahabad, Amitabh could speak in a particular style rooted in his hometown, which he added to his character of the policeman, the paan-chewing inspector Vijay. Amitabh reasoned that since the other guy, Shahenshah, has all these heavy dialogue, the alter-ego should have a different lahja (tone) of speaking. So I ensured that both characters had a different body language, manner of speaking, and overall personality.
The idea for the costume came to us by pure chance. When the film was initially planned, I had designed Shahenshah’s costume, and had planned for it to be made with full black leather with a rope around his shoulder, which signified the rope with which Shahenshah’s father (Kader Khan) had committed suicide. Now, Shahenshah used it to punish criminals.
The metallic arm wasn’t there. And I had no intention of giving him a cape either, because a cape like Superman’s makes sense only if the character is flying.
But then, Amitabh fell ill with myasthenia gravis. The doctors said he might not be able to work again. He called me and said, “Tinnu, I will probably never work again. Maybe, I will complete the two films that are incomplete right now, but not Shahenshah. So, please take someone else.”
That was a big blow for me. For one year, I roamed like a mad man because my hero wasn’t available to me.
In that time, the dress I had designed for Shahenshah had already been made by Amitabh’s tailor, Akbar, who always made his costumes. Since Shahenshah was put on hold, Akbar gave our costume to a South Indian producer who was making a film with Jeetendra. It was a great shock to me when I saw Jeetendra wearing it.
Luckily, Amitabh came back and the first thing he told me was, “Tinnu, let’s revive Shahenshah. Where’s my costume?”
I had already begun working on a new costume with a designer called Kishore Bajaj. Amitabh, till then, had never worked with a new designer, so it was a big challenge for us. We sat down and leafed through thousands of magazines in Bajaj’s shop. One day, I found an advertisement by a fencing company, where I saw a fencing costume. The idea for the special arm came from there.
I remember I took the costume to Madras where Amitabh was shooting. After he wore it, he stood in front of the mirror for ten minutes, admiring it. The costume weighed about 14 kgs. I was very worried if Amitabh, who had just come out of a health scare, could carry it, but he completed shooting wearing it. In fact, for the fight scenes, we had replaced the metallic arm with a lighter version created with aluminium, but Amitabh insisted on wearing the heavier costume because the aluminium version wasn’t giving the same effect.
Despite the roadblocks, like Amitabh’s health or the political situation at the time for which the release date was getting postponed, one thing was sure – Amitabh was coming after a very long time, and I knew that I had a winner on my hands. Those were turbulent times politically too. His name was being linked to Bofors, and Shiv Sena had come to the streets threatening that they won’t let the film be released. I remember I went to a theatre in Bombay on the first day of the film’s release, and some protester fired a gun and disrupted the show.
But the innumerable people who showed up at the theatres was absolutely unbelievable. If you see video footage from the time, you will know. The mania was spectacular all across India. In fact, in Uttar Pradesh, at four o clock in the morning, people were carrying their lotas and standing in the queue for Shahenshah’s tickets. That was the magic of Amitabh returning to the screen.
Speaking of Shahenshah’s relevance today, people like JK Varma [the villainous crime lord, played by Amrish Puri] still exist. They existed 100 years back as well. The only difference is that their dresses have changed, their names have changed. Corruption still exists in the highest sectors of society. So you need a Shahenshah, a vigilante, to fight them.
A vigilante is everyone’s dream because none of us is strong enough. You always have a dream that someone will come and bloody control this. Shahenshah was a dream. And we sell dreams. How successful we were, we know, because our pockets became full because of it.
(As told to Devarsi Ghosh).