This piece was first published online in a magazine called Views Unplugged. That link can no longer be found on account of the site having its own plug yanked out (quite some time ago, I imagine), so I will risk hosting it on this here blog.
The 'Angry Young Man' was one of the dominant figures of 70's popular cinema and defined Amitabh's career for that point in time. I'd like to talk here of what I consider the 3 most important films that dealt with this character: Prakash Mehra's Zanjeer, and Yash Chopra's Deewaar and Kala Patthar. There were other 'angry' films but they essentially derived from these sources, resulting rarely in sublime inspiration (Ramesh Sippy's Shakti), mostly in irksome parody.
First picking up some of the common threads between these 3 facets of the Angry Young Man (AYM) figure: Most obviously they were all created by Salim-Javed, the most popular screen writers of the time. Their contribution to the Angry Young Man genre lay in more than just writing the scripts; they were also instrumental in getting Amitabh to portray these roles, since in 2 of the 3 films he was not the director's first choice for the role (more on that later). The Angry Young Man is essentially a solitary figure. He may ostensibly possess lovers, family, friends but he craves for none of them; they are just incidental to the world he lives in. His outlook is entirely contemporary and he has no ties towards any form of tradition. This of course is related to his decidedly urban environment but also to his individualistic attitude which barely acknowledges the rituals of his society. He has a cynical streak in him although the extent of this has varied in different portrayals and in different sections of a single role. And there is of course the Anger that is the core of our interest in his psychology.
Now I'll try to dissect each individual character from the set of 3 that I mentioned:
Amitabh's debut as the AYM: A cop haunted by a childhood dream that comes to him in the wake of his parents' cold-blooded murder. In a move of sheer genius the film avoids the usual flashback tripe by portraying the object of his nightmares as a masked rider on a horse (the killer wears a bracelet bearing a horse pendant). Besides being in itself an inventive move it also allows us to look at the character in a non-stereotypical light. His anger reflects more than just sorrow, it reflects a fear of facing his nightmares, of wanting to stamp them out by hunting down the criminal hand responsible for it. This is the most salient aspect of this character.
Zanjeer's AYM is the least cynical, although the source of his passionate idealism, if one goes by what is discussed above, comes from a negative source, a black hole. Unlike the other 2 avatars, he has his fairly cheerful moments and is also more receptive towards fellow society. Interestingly family relationship is depicted in a very low-key manner here with none of the effusive hugging sequences that plague traditional films. Even the scene where he proposes to the woman in his life is handled with an unusual restraint that offsets its perfunctoriness. In the climax he guns down the villain, the source of his nightmares. The film ends on an upbeat note with the AYM hopeful of a more tranquil existence.
Destiny had a great role to play in the casting of this film and thereby the realization of the AYM. The role which Amitabh embodied had originally been offered to Raaj Kumar who turned it down saying that he couldn't work with Mehra because of the smell of the latter's hair-oil. Another suggested candidate was Dev Anand. But Salim-Javed used their clout to bring in the then gangly newcomer Amitabh because they felt sure of his ability to play the part and the rest is history. Sadly Zanjeer seems to have been a fluke classic because Prakash Mehra's subsequent films only ended up prostituting the AYM before he morphed into an all-round buffoon.
This is the predominant and most rehashed facet of the AYM. It also represents the most externalized form of the anger. Here is an open conflict, a conflict against society, against law, against civilization. The battle is waged not for the purpose of any ideology but for survival, for the primal instinct towards self-preservation. He is angry because he wants to live but the world is against it and all his actions are geared towards snatching his next bit of existence from this hostile, predatory world.
The tone is much more cynical here. The AYM of Deewaar is an atheist (although not averse to keeping talismans, why is this?) who keeps no hopes of either divine favor or goodwill from his fellowman. He seeks power, not for its own sake, but as requisite to survive - The dockyard fight is because of his fear of death for not being able to settle his dues in a foreseeable future. His joining hands with the rival don comes from his fear of retribution, also the prospect of wealth that will ensure his escape from the jaws of soul-chewing poverty. The survival instinct also fuels his rapid rise up the crime ladder where he is more likely to delegate tasks than execute them. His lone-man against a crowd shootouts may belie this aspect but I believe they are more the result of commercial considerations which require a protagonist to display a stupid level of courage. But he can also be said to welcome the fear that runs through him - his refusal to remove the tattoo that reminds him, not of his father or considerations of his guilt, but of the hostility that grew forth to his existence in its wake.
He has family attachments here, most notably the Mother. The mother could represent a life-giving source thereby linking to his survival instinct (she herself has it, if one recalls her outburst against the dockyard scrap). The mother could also represent a kind of innocence, a kind of idealism that acts as a relief to his paranoia. His ties with the prostitute are essentially physical, two scarred souls seeking escape in body heat or perhaps communing in this vital act their common thirst of self-preservation. His desire to reform comes in the wake of the illness of the Mother, his life-giving force because her death would mean the loss of the balm to his fears, and its subsequent reversal comes after the killing of the pregnant prostitute which reinforces his view of the hostile world, though now his rage supplants his survival instinct. He dies, after being gunned down by his law-abiding brother, in the lap of his mother as though finally reverting back to his lost innocence.
Rajesh Khanna claimed in an interview that the part of Deewaar had originally been offered to him by Chopra but diverted to Bachchan on the insistence of Salim-Javed again. One is curious as to the impact of the character had Khanna played it instead of Amitabh.
This film displays the most unusual, deeply personal version of the AYM and is my favorite in that aspect. In Yash Chopra's adaptation of Lord Jim (Joseph Conrad) he is an ex-naval officer who after a shameful expulsion for having deserted passengers in a stormy sea escapes to a small coal-mining town where he spends his days laboring into total exhaustion to avoid the ghosts of his past life.
The unique aspect of this persona is that here his Anger is directed not at any individual or society, but towards himself, towards his cowardice. He constantly jumps into dangerous situations, always offers to put his life at risk as an expression not merely of simple regret towards the earlier incident but of the self-consuming hatred that develops in its wake.
He is both an atheist and a cynic. He has no regard of the world at large and no prescribed purpose of existence, except perhaps a lack of sufficient will to kill himself (Could he be also hoping to die in one of his rescues/ reckless scraps?). His interaction with his neighbors, even whose lives he has saved, has an air of indifference to it although he is certainly not antipathetic. He craves pain, I believe for its capacity to cloud memory. But he also nurses the solitude that brings back his past. He is the ultimate masochist. This is in direct contrast with the survival instinct of Deewaar's AYM.
Ironically his romantic interest lies with a Doctor (life-saving entity). His trauma is the result of his own actions (inaction in this case) and has more repercussions on his psyche than that of the AYM in Zanjeer whose nightmares arise from circumstances outside of his control. This man's redemption comes when he saves his fellow miners from drowning in a massive underground flooding and rises to find his past (personified by his parents) telling him to discard the shame of his initial cowardice.