Readers Write In #386: Shakti: Third and Final Act of Hindi Cinema’s Oedipal Trilogy

Posted on July 20, 2021


(by Aman Basha)

Shakti begins in a similar fashion as did another Ramesh Sippy directed, Salim Javed scripted most iconic of Indian films, Sholay, at a station as a policeman waits for a train on a platform. Barring its opening scene, Shakti is unlike any other film Ramesh Sippy had ever made to that point. It could in fact be perfectly slotted alongside the Yash Chopra directorials Deewar and Trishul to form Salim Javed’s Oedipal Trilogy.

In fact, more than Trishul, it is the similarities between Deewar and Shakti that are fascinating. There is at the surface, the reworking of the bhai-bhai tiff into a baap-beta fight but also that the entire script of the former with its trajectory and events seems to have been refracted into the latter, there are as many moments which mirror each other in these two as there are in the two Bahubalis. Although Shakti was and is most widely known as the film that brought together the thespian, Dilip saab and the titanic talent of Amitabh Bachchan on screen for the first and only time, it could have been doubly more fascinating if the Ashwini Kumar character was simply named Ravi Verma and was played by Shashi Kapoor. Shakti already serves as the perfect spiritual sequel of Deewar, with the above change it would instead become a direct sequel, a Godfather II to the Godfather perhaps?

Both the films involve at the deepest level, the elevation of ideal over insaaniyat. They are a deep, meditative look on how the imposition of order requires great sacrifices and how any system and authority, no matter of what nature; involve some form of subjugation and suppression.  Ashwini Kumar in this film is in some way a stand in for Mahatma Gandhi, whose ideals and stubborn insistence often caused great suffering to his family and followers. It was no surprise that Ram was Gandhi’s favorite god, for Maryada Purushottam means “one who follows the rules perfectly”.

Both Deewar and Shakti begin with Vijay’s father abandoning his son as he is taken away. One is left tattooed with his father’s karma, while the other’s ears constantly ring with his father’s words leaving his son to death. Both Vijays struggle to reconcile with their fathers, one who had compromised on his ideals and then abandoned him out of guilt, the other refused to compromise and thus abandoned him. Both Vijays have nothing but scorn for the systems that produced their circumstance and openly rebel against it, even in their personal lives choosing not to marry till their partner becomes pregnant. Milton lies here somewhere for the son’s choice to move out of his father’s home reflects the old adage “better to rule in hell then serve in heaven”.

The comparisons are even more numerous, both have a kind hearted crook whose generosity Vijay reminds them of as they take him under his wing. Parveen in Deewar and Smita Patil here have a romantic moment in a hotel, the latter working in a hotel in another Bachchan film with Parveen, Namak Halaal. There is also a warehouse fight where Vijay is trying to take away stolen goods for his boss in a truck. In a positive, RD Burman gives two great songs to Shakti unlike the terrible songs in Deewar, and there is no Sasur-Bahu Jodi to tolerate. The film further proves that Ramesh Sippy had perhaps the best technique amidst directors of his generation, with overheard shots, some beautifully lit frames even in a more small film that does not offer the grand scope of a Sholay or Shaan.

With regards to the preeminent Maa characters in both films, one can’t help but wonder whether there is a deep resentment within the son towards the mother, for being supportive of Ravi, an idealist like his father intent on changing the system and Ashwini, who follows rules to a T. Both sons want their mothers to affirm their revolt but the mothers only chastise them, refusing to even enter their sons’ homes and stating that they are not for sale or weak enough to give up their ideals. While Parveen is killed and sets off the climax in Deewar, it is Rakhee’s murder at JK’s hands that does the same here.

Despite all the fascination the mirror structure provides in watching Shakti, it is ultimately the weakest of this trilogy, several notches below Deewar and quite inferior to Trishul. Throughout, what strikes one is that this seems to be a designed film. Most of Salim Javed’s serious works have greater themes expressed strongly apart from the characters. In Deewar, we see Vijay’s war with God, in Trishul, a breakdown of the family, corporate battles and so on. Shakti seems to be a film written exclusively for the purpose for bringing Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan on screen. In a sense, Shakti is far more intimate but lacks the powerful charge animating both the earlier films. The intimate nature of this film also makes it harder to relate to both characters, this Vijay has never seen the hardships faced by his counterparts in Deewar or Trishul. There are some ideological aspects where Vijay, the sacrifice made by the father at the altar of his values and to uphold the system right at the start of the film, becomes the law unto him and has to be killed to maintain order, but it is ultimately more of an ego tussle.

The best scene of Shakti is the one where Amitabh returns home at his mother’s insistence to his father’s contained joy, till the police come in with his warrant, the father so very quickly turns into the officer despite the mother’s pleading and very much in tune with what the son had always expected, as the son leaves, he leaves his home forever. One can learn everything there is to know about the film from this scene alone.

The father here seems to deliberately want to kill his son, like Kamal in Indian (a scene similar to old Kamal and Manisha plays out here with Dilip Kumar and Smita Patil). This is unlike Ravi in Deewar, who seems to shoot his brother on the arm in a heat of the moment. When mother and son receive the medal at the end of Deewar, there is a sense of irony but when the father in Shakti narrates how he guns down his son, there is an off-putting pride one senses. The character I most liked here was in fact Smita Patil’s, in front of whom both baap beta come across not too well.

Shakti thus falls quite short of its potential but is ultimately a clash of the generations (with Ashok Kumar, Anil Kapoor in cameos) and what a clash it is! Dilip Kumar, contrary to what I was told, does little head scratching and is neither a caricature. He puts in enough mannerisms to liven up a rather tight character but the actor truly shines when he displays regret and hurt, regret over his past choices and hurt as his son taunts or rebels against him. The script goes out of the way to give him a great part and he is deeply affecting. Amitabh is simply extraordinary elevating a weakly written character to equal terms against Dilip Kumar is no mean feat. This Vijay is a more external creature than in Deewar or Trishul and also gets a great heroine in Roma like in Don. In the confrontations we get, we witness two styles of acting; Dilip Kumar’s rehearsed implosion and Amitabh’s spontaneous explosion in a hell of an acting duel. It is perhaps more fair to term Shakti not unfavorably along Deewar and Trishul, but more appropriately as an Indian counterpoint to Michael Mann’s crime drama Heat. Heat seems to even derive its airport tarmac climax from Shakti as well, the rare instance where the West took from the East perhaps.

PS: Interestingly, the train fight in Pokiri seems derived from the opening fight scene here while the opening scene of Pokiri took from the warehouse fight in Deewar. Puri Jagannadh ended up making a version of Pokiri with Big B (BHTB). What a fun series of coincidences.