A little boy sits on a rocking horse while his father sings a lullaby to him. Soon the mother joins in and adoringly vows to not let her son go away from her sight. Their idyllic conversation is interrupted by the kid’s uncle who gifts him a toy gun, much against the father’s wishes. The uncle quips that the kid is brave and toys like these are what brave men should indulge themselves with. The father retorts “aaj kal sharafat ko hi kayarta kehte hain” (nowadays decency is what is mistaken for cowardice) and asks the kid to hand over the toy gun to him. But the kid is enthralled by it and refuses to hand it over. We then see shots of a rifle being loaded with bullets and as the person holding it takes aim, his face is revealed. The kid has now grown into a young man, but what has stayed with him is his fascination for the gun. It also hints that this obsession is going to last for a lifelong. This powerful scene marks the opening of J P Dutta’s Hathyar.

Hathyar-1989-3The 80’s were a much maligned time for Hindi cinema. Though the parallel cinema movement was in full force with the likes of Shyam Benegal, Kundan Shah, Sai Paranjpye and Govind Nihalani helming some of their best films, the mainstream Hindi cinema had a different story to tell. Much of the 80’s in Bollywood was characterized by indifferent revenge, good vs. evil sagas that oscillated between the atrocious and the bizarre. It also saw stars like Dharamendra being reduced to a poor caricature of his former glorious self, after having worked with the likes of Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Ramesh Sippy in the earlier decades. Though he had hits like Khatron Ke Khiladi and Watan ke Rakhwale to his credit, most of Dharamendra’s films from the 80’s were a major embarrassment and did enough harm in the long run to the repertoire of one of Bollywood’s most charismatic stars.

Thankfully the decade saw a few directors who actually made an effort to tell a cohesive story and gave us some memorable films. One such filmmaker was J P Dutta. With his debut film Ghulami, Dutta proved he was notches above most of his peers. He also gave Dharamendra some of his better films in an era marked largely marked by a spate of forgettable films for the actor. The success Of Ghulami perhaps gave Dutta and his producers the courage to explore subject that were unconventional for its times, yet rooted in the mainstream milieu like Yateem. A similar film of Dutta was the multistarrer Hathyar.

Thakur Ajay Singh (Khulbhushan Kharbanda) is part of a clan that is prone to violence and wields guns to settle scores. Unlike his siblings, Thakur does not believes in violence and causes enough resentment to his hot blooded brothers and son Avinash (Sanjay Dutt). A long standing feud with a neighbouring royal family that seems no end, prompts the Thakur, his son and wife (Asha Parekh) to relocate to Mumbai. In the city, they encounter Samiullah (Rishi Kapoor), a kind hearted neigbour and the estranged brother of a powerful don Khushal Khan (Dharamendra). Some unfortunate events in the city force Avinash to resort to crime leading towards a self destructive journey.

Though Hathyar deals with the Mumbai underworld, it explores several interesting sub plots and themes in the course of its proceedings. It is also the only Dutta film largely set in Mumbai, unlike his other films that were firmly fixated in the deserts and villages of Rajasthan. Yet he manages to weave the locales of Rajasthan briefly in the film. The film takes a while before the characters transition to Mumbai and Avinash begins his descend into the murky waters of Mumbai underworld. Dutta uses these initial scenes to depict the feudal ways of the landlords, patriarchy, their inflated egos and a false sense of pride that prevails among them. These are themes that have always found their way in most J P Dutta films. And he manages to weave it convincingly with this film’s central theme in a short time.

The film highlights a few striking similarities between the urban and rural life. Thakur makes a dash to the city in order to escape the violent ways of the village. But upon his arrival, he realizes that life in cities is no different from that of the village. There may be no feudal landlords, but violence still is an inherent part of the city, thanks to thugs and hoodlums who operate in gangs and indulge in street fights to settle scores and assert their superiority. And powerful people call the shots in the city, much like those in villages. Just when you think that there can be no positive aspect to the city life, the film introduces us to Sami– the Good Samaritan of the chawl where Thakur and his family resides. Interestingly, Kapoor is the only positive male protagonist in the film besides Kharbanda, which perhaps justify their mutual respect. Their ethics and disdain for violence may also be the reason for this mutual respect.

The film uses suburban trains of Mumbai to draw interesting allegories with the conflicts taking place in the protagonists’ lives. It also uses these them to highlight the indifferent ways of the city. When Kapoor and Dharamendra part ways, we see two such trains passing each other in opposite directions. One witnesses a similarly striking and poignant scene when Avinash and Sami discover the Thakur’s dead body lying between two adjacent railway tracks. And they are stuck between trains passing each other at a furious speed and we get a fleeting glimpse of the passengers who look at them even as the trains speed by.

The film depicts Dutt and Dharamendra with shades of grey and in contrast with the other males in their families. Kharbanda’s Thakur is someone who has abhorred violence and has tried to instill the same values in his only son Avinash. The son however has taken after the violent ways of his uncles. This affliction for violence is what perhaps draws him to the cesspool of the underworld, which follows a few failed attempts at finding a job post his father’s demise. Yet the film depicts this violent transition with conviction after unemployment forces Avinash to resort to pick pocketing and later marks his foray into more serious crimes. This foray is preceded by a superb scene in which he learns of his mother having slept hungry and lying to him about it.

On a similar note, Dharamendra’s Khan is shown as an individual who joins the underworld after being falsely implicated of a theft. For he believes it is the only way to avenge the wrongdoings done to him and to survive in this big, bad world. And he doesn’t mind gunning down a person or two while trying to locate his younger brother’s infant child who has been kidnapped. He also unfailingly rescues Avinash when the latter indulges in pick-pocketing and later on gravitates towards more heinous crimes like killing people. Yet Khushal Khan never forgets to discourage Avinash from choosing a life of violence. The latter’s affliction for violence is what leaves him with no remorse after killing people, while a conscientious man still resides within Khan.

One however wishes that the women in the film, despite having strong characters could have been better dealt with, especially Asha Parekh as Avinash’s mother. Indian cinema has always portrayed mothers with a strong voice of conscience, who discourage heroes from choosing the wrong path. Avinash’s mother initially reprimands him when he resorts to taking arms to settle age old rivalries or indulges in street fights whilst in Mumbai. But we do not get to see her reactions as Avinash gets drawn deeper into the world of crime. It would have been interesting to note her reactions to the same. Similarly, the only time we see Suman (Amrita Singh) – Avinash’s wife react to his murky life is when Sami rescues her from being abducted.

What also irked me was the character of the rival don Rajan Anna (Paresh Rawal). An interesting character is bogged down by an annoying South Indian accent (which had been the norm of Hindi cinema for a long time) which results in a caricatured performance. Unlike the underworld films of the 90’s, the cops in the film play a perfunctory role and assume significance only towards the bloody finale. These however are forgivable drawbacks in largely well made and engrossing film.

Like most J P Dutta’s films, Hathyar is technically superior. Editors Deepak Wirkud and M D Worlikar manage to keep the proceedings crisp despite a lengthy runtime and a few songs (which continue to be a necessary evil in mainstream cinema till date). Much of the film’s visual flair is derived from Ishwar Bidri’s cinematography. Be it the painstakingly crafted chase sequences amidst railways tracks or Sanjay Dutt shooting a person as the latter tries to escape through a swamp are some of the brilliantly shot scenes. A special mention must be made of the final scene which sees the camera move farther from an extreme close up as the cops make their way to the crime scene and the end credits kick in. Dutta’s visual flair also tell us why his films deserve a mandatory big screen viewing when being watched for the first time.

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O P Dutta’s dialogues with the right mix of masala and realism, give the scenes their much needed zing. The background music (much of which was also used for Amitabh Bachchan’s Main Azaad Hoon) helps to elevate the proceedings, though I would be keen to know the original source from where it has been derived.

Sanjay Dutt is impressive in a role that would later on become second skin to the actor’s onscreen persona. Be it his anger towards his father’s disdain for violence and later sympathizing with the latter’s helplessness, his regret at not being able to fend for his mother, his attraction towards the bad life and ultimately realizing his follies as his end draws nearer, Dutt performs with utmost conviction making it one of the best performances of his career. In an interview or two, the actor has regarded this as one of his best films.

Dharamendra is superb and the scenes in which he secretly yearns to reunite with his estranged brother or tries to act as an authoritarian figure for Dutt, after the demise of the latter’s father are examples of how good he is. It also reminds us why he was once among the most sought after names of Bollywood. Rishi Kapoor brings a sense of warmth and dignity to his character and is helped by some fine writing which helps to elevate a stereotyped role. Similarly one empathizes with Khulbhushan Kharbanda who is repeatedly forced to trade his morals in an increasingly immoral world. Satyajeet also leaves a mark as Pakya – with whom Dutt begins his foray into crime. Among the ladies, Amrita Singh shines in her limited screentime. While Sangeeta Bijlani in her debut role as Kapoor’s wife is unremarkable and a similarly limited screentime doesn’t help her case.

Hathyar can be termed as a precursor to the Mumbai underworld films which spawned a genre of its own with Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya and Mahesh Manjrekar’s Vaastav and saw a spate of similar films. Dutta’s film is also relevant for it makes a pertinent case about the futility of violence. It also tells us how by giving children toys such as a gun, can instill violence in them at an early age. For those looking out for their share of trivia, the film shares several similarities with Vaastav, which also saw an avoidable sequel named yet again as Hathyar.

Thanks to a few passionate film buffs, it is only of late I realised that J P Dutta’s Hathyar has not been released till date on DVD since the company which owned the rights, shut shop a few years ago and hence the film never made it to the DVD format. And that’s such a shame considering the large canvas and visual opulence of J P Dutta’s films, especially of the 80’s can be best enjoyed in a great quality print. The non-availability of Hathyar’s DVD explains the inferior quality print of the film currently available, which I am told was transferred from its VHS print to the VCD format. I wish some home entertainment or satellite player makes an effort to get it restored and released on DVD (if not Blu-Ray) or television and helps audiences to rediscover this fine film.

(Special thanks to Bobby Singh for sharing the info about the mystery behind the film’s unreleased DVD)