Shahenshah: 30 Years On, Lessons from the Baap of Avengers

Bollywood

Shahenshah: 30 Years On, Lessons from the Baap of Avengers

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

I

n 1988, three long years after he quit Bollywood and entered politics, Amitabh Bachchan, the OG angry young man, returned to the big bad world of movies. His comeback came on the back of a vigilante goldmine that’ll go down in history for gifting the world two extraordinary pop-culture moments: a nocturnal avenger who wore the raddest costume ever, and a catchphrase that keeps on giving.

“Rishte mein toh hum tumhare baap lagte hai, naam hai Shahenshah,” bellows Amitabh Bachchan, the eponymous hero in Tinu Anand’s Shahenshah, signalling the arrival of numerous blows on unsuspecting evil men. But over the years, the line has metastasised: It has become a conversation starter, found its way into parodies and memes.

In the film – whose story comes from Jaya Bachchan herself – Vijay is a cowardly cop by day, and ruthless avenger by night, whose sole aim is to exact revenge for his honest cop father’s suicide twenty years ago after he was wrongfully framed for corruption. His chief target is crime baron and all-round creepster JK Verma, played to perfection by – who else? – the Black Dog-loving and bathrobe-wearing Amrish Puri. Besides being an amusing revenge drama, the film is marked by campy dialogue and the most insanely melodramatic courtroom scene in the history of courtroom scenes.

Shahenshah starts off with a sneakily pertinent lesson: Never loan your friends money. Bank manager Mathur (Prem Chopra) learns it the hard way, when he loans JK 2.5 million rupees, naturally taken from the deposits of hardworking folks. The latter seems to be in no particular hurry to return it, leaving Mathur in a moral, financial, and personal dilemma. Being the kind-hearted crime baron that he is, JK suggests orchestrating a fake bank robbery to bail his friend out.

Shahenshah

In Shahenshah, Vijay is a cowardly cop by day, and ruthless avenger by night, whose sole aim is to exact revenge for his honest cop father’s suicide twenty years ago after he was wrongfully framed for corruption.

Image Credit: Tinu Anand/Shiva Video

While it’s a move that’s definitely more complicated than, say, returning the loaned amount, it does the bare minimum, giving Mathur a probable excuse to justify the disappearance of the 2.5 million rupees. Mathur, on his part, readily agrees to this solution, wholly dedicating himself to seeing it to its fruitful end (down to instructing the robbers on where to hit him to make the robbery look believable). As it turns out, friendship in the ’80s necessitated supporting friends through every bad decision, especially those that are most likely to get them killed 20 years later.

Unfortunately for them, Inspector Anand Shrivastav (Kader Khan) gets an inkling of their plot after arresting one of JK’s henchmen. The rest is routine 80s’ Bollywood backstory involving framing, suicide, and a raison d’etre for a vigilante.

In the midst of a tragedy, we learn of the film’s second lesson: The importance of good parenting. It’s a tutorial someone should ideally have given eight-year-old Vijay’s mother, Shanti. Not only does she take the poor kid to jail and lets him think that he is the reason his father is behind bars, but she also doesn’t stop the little boy from finding the hanging, dead body of his father. You’re allowed to take a break at this point to call your parents and thank them. Go on, I insist!

Naturally, Vijay grows up to be a secret collector of disturbing souvenirs. In another glorious example of bad parenting, Shanti remains oblivious to the fact that her son has been in possession of the very noose that her husband used to hang himself. Of course it serves a plot purpose: In a monologue with a portrait of his late father, Vijay, noose in hand, reveals that his parody of a corrupt cop is actually just a front to identify potential criminals. “Dusro ke liye phassi ke phande taiyar karunga. Main khud kanoon banuga,” he promises his father before setting off in the dead of the night, to the tune of the immensely humworthy “Andheri raaton mein”. It only serves to prove that whether it was the eighties or the noughties, parents don’t know their kids at all. Even if said kid believes he’s a one-man army of justice: the judge, jury, and the executioner.

“Rishte mein toh hum tumhare baap lagte hai, naam hai Shahenshah,” bellows Amitabh Bachchan in Tinu Anand’s Shahenshah.

It’s a matter of time before Vijay exploits his obsequious demeanour to get on JK’s payroll, who uses him to bypass the police and runs his underworld crime empire in peace. But he soon triggers Vijay into openly revealing his Shahenshah side to the world after he kills an innocent crime reporter who would bravely report on JK’s excesses. This is where we learn Shahenshah’s third lesson: Journalism is the real loser. It’s a prescient thought, that holds true even three decades later. And it leaves us with the most extra climax in the history of film climaxes.

It starts with Inspector Vijay escorting a key witness, who has agreed to testify against JK by driving a car through the wall of the courtroom. But despite her testimony, JK is acquitted after a defence attorney pulls a rifle aimed at the judge (Extra level: unimaginable) forcing him to make a false confession in order to prove how easy it is to give one.

This forces Vijay to channel his inner Shahenshah and chase JK to the roof of the courthouse. After making him admit to a litany of crimes, including his father’s suicide, Shahenshah lynches JK right in the middle of the courtroom after he falls through a hole in the roof. Before the whole court, JK is hanged with Shahenshah’s trustworthy noose and Vijay’s revenge is finally complete. My karma just ran over your dogma.

So there we have it. Thirty years later, if you find yourself watching the entertainfest that is Shahenshah, and attempt to question its logic, remember that there are no wrong answers. There are only kickass ones. And not one of them is a patch on: “Rishte mein toh hum tumhare baap lagte hai.”

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