TALKING FILMS

Tinnu Anand on 30 years of ‘Shahenshah’: ‘A vigilante is everyone’s dream’

‘Shahenshah’, starring Amitabh Bachchan, went through a trial by fire before it could be released.

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.

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Andheri Raaton Mein, Shahenshah (1988).

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.

The introductory shot of Amitabh Bachchan as Shahenshah. Image credit: Film Vision.
The introductory shot of Amitabh Bachchan as Shahenshah. Image credit: Film Vision.

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.

Amitabh Bachchan in Shahenshah. Image credit: Film Vision.
Amitabh Bachchan in Shahenshah. Image credit: Film Vision.

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).

Tinnu Anand.
Tinnu Anand.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.