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Smokers’ Corner: Angry young men from reel to real life

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The arrival of James Dean and Marlon Brando in the 1950s in films such as Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One heralded a new kind of cinematic idol. He was the ‘angry young man’ a brooding type with a propensity to explode into sudden bursts of anger. His character became even more complex by the presence of bottled-up emotional vulnerabilities which he carried as a burden. He was a contradictory character with the good intentions of the conventional hero but (simultaneously) exhibiting an ambiguous ethical disposition.
The character became an immediate draw, especially among the youth who vented their frustrations against the sterile socio-political conformity imposed by the American post-war establishment through him. The cinematic angry young man symbolised the tumultuous underbelly of suburban serenity.
In Bollywood, the cinematic angry young man did not arrive until 1973’s Zanjeer, starring Amitabh Bachchan. His role was of a brooding cop prone to bursts of anger which saw him undermine the system by bypassing the apathy of the bureaucracy and the police, and taking on the villains on his own terms.
Amitabh’s character in Zanjeer was a way for the audience to vent their own resentments, especially against the degenerating law and order situation and the rising political and economic corruption in India in the 1970s.
And even though Bollywood’s angry young man would continue in this vein across the 1970s and early 1980s, his character in films, no matter how menacing, intense and angry, was always about a conscientious entity up against crooked individuals, never the state itself.
Indian film critic and author Nikhat Kazmi, in her book Ire In The Soul, suggests that even though the worsening political and economic situation in India in the 1970s and the lack of any political leader who clearly articulated the pitfalls of the situation inspired the creation of Bollywood’s angry young man, he might just have been created by the Indian state itself.
In other words, popular ‘angry young man’ films were never about masses of people rising up against state institutions. Instead, the films were about a renegade individual getting rid of the rotten apples who 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 as exemplary cinematic motifs 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.
Strangely, till the late 1970s, heroes in Pakistani cinema remained rather straight-arrowed and conventional, apart from Nadeem’s character in the ‘socialist’ film Har Gaya Insaan (1973).
All this began to change from 1975 onward when, due to the Z.A. Bhutto regime’s haphazard nationalisation policies and his growing autocratic tendencies, the country’s politics and economics began to come under severe stress.
It was, thus, in 1979’s Maula Jat that Pakistani cinema first witnessed the creation of its very own angry young man. He was played by the late Sultan Rahi. Rahi’s character was quite unlike that of Bollywood’s angry-young-man. Whereas Amitabh’s roles in this context were street-smart, brooding and ideologically-charged, Rahi’s role was that of a man steeped in the rugged and earthy myths of honour and revenge in rural Pakistan.
Maula Jat’s theme of an angry young man in a Punjabi village taking on cruel feudal lords and eventually his main nemesis — the cool, calculated psychopath Noori Nath — went down well with audiences to whom these villains symbolised the uncaring and exploitative ‘establishment.’
When hordes of working-class Pakistanis and peasants started venturing into cinemas to watch the film, the Zia dictatorship stepped in and demanded the director re-cut certain scenes of violence from the film.
According to the film’s producer, Sarwar Bhatti, this happened because Gen Zia’s regime — which had by then established a working relationship with various anti-Bhutto members of Punjab’s landed elite — was alarmed by the film’s ‘anti-establishment’ tone.
But by the late 1980s, just as Bollywood’s angry young men had become unintentional self-parodies, so did Rahi’s roles. They became disconnected with the changing political and economic dynamics of a transforming society. Economic liberalism had unleashed an unprecedented streak of consumerism in both India and Pakistan and their film heroes became either sanitised consumer brands, or untouchable and implausible superheroes.
But the new urban middle-class prosperity had an underbelly as well. This time it was the frustrations of a class which had gained economic mobility but felt that its aspirations to achieve political power were being blocked. The manifestation of this particular frustration did not come in the shape of a new version of the angry young man. Rather, it did produce one, just not on the silver screen, but on the political podium!
The new angry young man has emerged on TV talk-shows and in political rallies, specifically those covered by TV news channels. Imran Khan in Pakistan and Arvind Kejriwal in India are prime examples. They are real flesh-and-blood men (though not very young). But as angry political entities brilliantly utilising the media, they are largely scripted characters and acts written by the circumstances of an urban class which wants to vent the political frustrations which betray their economic wellbeing.
Narendra Modi too represents the same. But instead of being cast as the angry young man, he has been scripted (by the same class), as the new Bollywood hero: the superman.
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