While rummaging through my old literature text books for notes on T.S Eliot yesterday, my eyes fell on the title Look Back in Anger, a play that I had studied during my Bachelor years in Delhi. Images of John Osborne’s unique character Jimmy Porter and his rebellious attitude to life flitted through my mind while relishing the memories of IP College, Delhi city and my dear teachers and friends. It also brought up the character of Vijay Khanna in the movie Zanjeer, about whom my husband and I had a discussion during one of our long walks along the Kallang River. Shreekant, being the Bombay loving Bollywood movie fan, had often arm twisted me into watching the old Hindi classics, and today, the experience had proved fruitful by providing me with enough fodder to do a comparative analysis between the two art works- the 1956 play and the 1973 movie.
John Osborne had taken the stage by storm with his debut play Look Back in Anger, staged at London’s Royal Court Theatre on a sultry summer evening in 1956. The overnight revolution caused by this play overturned all notions held dear by 20th century traditional playwriting. It did away with elaborate stage backdrops, directing the audience’s attention instead to the drab and dreary lives of middle class working population. The language was brash and splattered with expletives, while the characters too were common men from the lower strata of society. The protagonist Jimmy Porter is forever tirading over the plight of the educated youth, who are unable to gain access into the elite and well-paying jobs in the society. Similarly, Prakash Mehra’s Vijay Khanna strives to vanquish the evils of society in his dashing role as a police officer who fights to his death to establish peace and safety in a country wreaked with the havocs of unemployment and corruption.


Zanjeer established new standards for the Bollywood movie industry with its focus on the plight of the nation’s youth, plagued to anger and frustration by the rampant social hypocrisy. It set a benchmark for the production of movies with a social indebtedness, rather than those featuring romance, comedy and patriotism. The stereotype of “the angry young man” became popular, through Amitabh Bachchan’s scintillating role as the brooding, explosive young man.
Both Jimmy Porter and Vijay Khanna are victims of the system. Orphaned in childhood, they are both self-made men who struggle to maintain a respectable life. Both characters epitomize the triumph of good over evil, and the directors subtly hint at how they chose the rigorous yet righteous path over deceitful and shoddy ways of life.
I consider Vijay Khanna as an improvement over Jimmy Porter. Vijay, while being aggressively reluctant to accept the flexible moral values in society, still try to strike a balance between rage and serenity. He is portrayed as the rectifier of human follies, in the way he converts the local gambling goon Sher Khan into a respectable auto mechanic. Jimmy, on the other hand, cannot maintain ties of mutual love and respect, neither with his wife Alison nor his friend and business partner Cliff. Jimmy’s vituperative attacks on Alison’s frozen insensitivity and Cliff’s foolhardy ventures can easily be contrasted with the polished yet caustic remarks of Vijay to Sher Khan. Unlike Look Back in Anger, Zanjeer however portrays equally strong replies from other characters who match the hero’s vigour and style.
The most notable difference between the two characters is in their action/reaction to social evils. Jimmy is intolerant and constantly using the stage and its characters as preys to be assaulted by his acidic remarks. He is never shown as actively pursuing a cause or fighting the inequalities in society. He is merely a passive complainer, very akin to his wife and her father, whom he constantly rebuke for their lofty ideals and laidback attitude. Vijay, as we see, is a police officer who takes on the arduous task of refining the wrong doers in society.


Jimmy has often been critiqued as a pessimist and misanthropist, who laments over the loss of the splendor and values of the past Edwardian world of which Alison’s father is a product, Colonel Redfern. He admits that “if you’ve no world of your own, it’s rather pleasant to regret the passing of someone else’s.” He feels that “there aren’t any good, brave causes left” and resorts to whiling his time away being cynical and inactive. The political decay abounding in his contemporary England fills Jimmy with a disappointment over the loss of an age which valued sincerity and hard work. It could be this disappointment that triggers the burning anger in this educated, articulate 25 year old who is forced to earn a meager living running a street-corner candy stand.
The characterization and treatment of women are critical issues when it comes to a comparison of the two creations. Mala, who is the heroine in Zanjeer, rises from her status as an orphaned street performer to a sophisticated, confident lady who eventually finds her soulmate in Vijay. Alison, on the hand, is forever behind the ironing board and seen performing mundane household chores. Jimmy’s nicknaming her as “Lady Pusillanimous” and describing her as “a monument to non-attachment” clearly demonstrates how he hates her higher social status. While Mala is shown as having an influence in calming Vijay’s furious temperament, Alison mutely walks out of her marriage after being constantly subjected to ridicule and ill treatment. Mala and Vijay finally find true love and happiness in marriage while Jimmy and Alison unite only after Alison loses her baby and fertility and returns to Jimmy. Jimmy accepts her because he is now satisfied that Alison’s pain has brought her more in tune with his own suffering.
Both the play and the movie are products of their times. Zanjeer efficiently appeases the attitudes and desires of the Indian cinema audience, who revel in hero-villain stereotypes, linear and predictable plotlines and happy endings. Look Back, however, is a richly ambiguous play that uses the tropes of dissatisfaction, sadism and marital discontent to lure the theatre audiences of 1950s England. The economic success of both these works stand testimony to the fact that they were wholeheartedly accepted by the viewers. One cannot be certain if Prakash Mehra derived inspiration from John Osborne’s work and modelled his character Vijay Khanna on Jimmy Porter, but it is nevertheless true that both these works were trendsetters in their own rights, and set forth the theme of the ‘aggrieved, angry young man’ which was taken forward by many actors and directors later on. Even today, theatres and film makers continue to create adaptations and remakes of these two productions.

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