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Prakash Mehra, the director who took a chance on Amitabh Bachchan and made him a star

At a time when romance dominated the scene, the filmmaker created a new formula for success, and a key ingredient was the Angry Young Man.

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When Prakash Mehra read Salim-Javed’s script of Zanjeer, the story of an honest, intense cop fighting corruption and brutal crime, he was convinced it was a story he wanted to put his weight behind.

But making Zanjeer (1973) wasn’t a smooth ride. This was the era of romantic movies and, more specifically, the era of Rajesh Khanna in romantic movies. Hindi cinema was, at the time, dominated by its original superstar, to whom women wrote letters in blood and whose photographs they married.

Given this backdrop, it is not surprising that the role of the temperamental, explosive Inspector Vijay Khanna didn’t appeal to many leading actors of the time. Mehra approached everyone from Dev Anand to Dharmendra, and they all rejected this film. Even the original heroine, Mumtaz, eventually left the project when she was going to be married. It seemed as if Zanjeer just wasn’t going to happen.

Meanwhile, the scriptwriters, Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, had watched Bombay To Goa (1972) and were struck by the screen presence of its tall, thin lead actor, particularly his style of chewing gum in a fight scene. That actor had so far been part of a dozen commercial duds and the hit Anand, in which he played a supporting role to Rajesh Khanna. Bombay To Goa was, in fact, his first success as a lead.

Salim-Javed were convinced that this actor, whom the industry lampooned as Lambooji, was the perfect choice for Zanjeer. They convinced Mehra to meet him, and Salim Khan arranged the meeting.

The actor was Amitabh Bachchan, who, thanks to his now-legendary performance as Inspector Vijay Khanna, became known as Hindi cinema’s Angry Young Man and was catapulted to superstardom.

The rest as they say, is history.

If it wasn’t for Mehra’s risky move, the world might never have truly appreciated Amitabh Bachchan’s talent, and Hindi cinema might never have got the jolt it needed to get out of the romantic hero syndrome.

On his 11th death anniversary, ThePrint looks at the career of the filmmaker who redefined the Hindi movie industry.

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Life and career

From the time he was in his early twenties, Prakash Mehra, who was born on 13 July 1938 in Bijnaur, Uttar Pradesh, was recognised for his talent as a poet.

As a young man in Mumbai, Mehra found his first home on a footpath, where a man named Farid Miyan, who worked at a nearby salon decided to help him out upon learning that the two belonged to the same place.

Thanks to Miyan’s contacts, Mehra got his first job in the industry as a production assistant in the early 1950s. His first film as a director, Haseena Maan Jaayegi (1968) starring Shashi Kapoor was a hit, followed by Mela (1971) starring Feroz Khan and Samadhi (1972) with Dharmendra. He gained a reputation of a decent, serious director. But it wasn’t until Zanjeer that he came to be recognised as a force to be reckoned with.

As a director, Mehra was experimental. At a time when romantic capers dominated the scene, he started making films representing the frustration and struggles of the common person faced with the evils of society. He was one of the first directors to try his luck in Hollywood in the late ’80s, with a movie called The God Connection that, unfortunately never got made.

But more often than not, the risks he took paid off.

Also read: The champion of masala films, Manmohan Desai made Bollywood what it is today

He cracked the formula

Together with Manmohan Desai, one can argue that Mehra cracked the formula to deliver a hit: Mass appeal, solid action sequences, high drama, a few tears, commentary on what was happening at the time. The rivalry between the two extremely successful directors lay in their similar style of storytelling, parallel careers and the muse they found in Amitabh Bachchan.

While Desai’s films had, as Bachchan himself pointed out, a grander scale and solid doses of the ridiculous and unbelievable, Mehra’s smaller narratives followed the lives of an angry, emotional character.

After crushing the box office with Zanjeer, Mehra teamed up with Bachchan on a number of big hits including the comedy Hera Pheri (1976), Muqaddar ka Sikandar (1978), Laawaris (1981), Namak Halal (1982) and Sharaabi (1984). He directed a few films in the 1990s as well, but by then, Bachchan had started to go through a bad patch, and in 1992, a new actor, Shah Rukh Khan, had strode into Bollywood and made waves in a way that was entirely different from Bachchan’s towering personality, signalling the end of the Prakash Mehra era.

Prakash Mehra died of pneumonia and multiple organ failure on 17 May 2009 in Mumbai, at the age of 69.

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