When Chandra Barot set out to make Don, it was not with the idea of giving birth to one of India's most iconic thrillers but to make a good film for a good cause. No one involved with the film foresaw the kind of overarching impact it would have, not only in terms of its success at the box office but in spawning a cult phenomenon that would stay strong for more than thirty years with its slick theme, fantastic music and unforgettable dialogues, that is what Don became.
The journey of Don was not an easy one. There were some close shaves before it all came together: Iftekhar's role was eyed by a big star of the 1960s; getting Kalyanji-Anandji to compose the score called for a delicate balancing act; it was only thanks to the shrewd advice of a mentor that the super-successful 'Khaike Paan Banaraswala' was included at the very last minute.
Why did Chandra Barot decide on such a short name for the film?
How did Dev Anand almost play spoilsport for a crucial scene? What personal intrigues did the actors engage in behind the scenes? Who (not Amitabh Bachchan!) was paid the most for the film? Krishna Gopalan answers these questions, and more, and tells a tale that is as compelling as the one that made it to the theatres. A fast-paced narrative born out of interviews with the cast and crew, and supplemented with rare photographs from the director's archives, The Making of Don is the story of one of Bollywood's most memorable classics.
Krishna Gopalan grew up in Chennai and then Hyderabad, from where he finished his schooling. He acquired a postgraduate degree in Economics from the University of Madras before moving to NMIMS in Mumbai for his MBA. A couple of years in advertising have now been followed by a career in business journalism. He has worked in publications like The Financial Express, Business Today, The Economic Times and Fortune India before his current position with Outlook Business.
Krishna enjoys films at large, though it was not till the late 1980s that he began watching Hindi cinema in a big way. Over the years, he has managed to catch films across decades, though he believes some of the finest Hindi films were made in the 1970s. Krishna reads widely on subjects like business, films and politics. He lives in Mumbai.
Don was not just another script or a routine project. It was the result of a thought to do something for a friend. If it is called a cult film today, the credit for that goes to a fantastic, cohesive team effort. Everyone who agreed to work on the project put aside their busy schedules to help Nariman Irani. Be it Amitabh Bachchan, the crowned king of the 1970s, who was at the peak of popularity after Zanjeer, Deewar and Sholay, or Zeenat Aman, the heart-throb of the generation, or Kalyanji-Anandji, the music directors-they all contributed wholeheartedly to the project. We were a large group of friends first and were colleagues in this fabulous industry later.
Time plays funny tricks with one's memory and incidents that were once crystal clear suddenly become hazy. It has happened to me many a time, though there is absolutely no ambiguity when I think of Don. I remember each day of the shooting and the joy and worries that came with it. Of course, I recall the shiver down my spine when the film was rubbished by a well-known critic. For that matter, when Sea Rock Hotel was bombed in the early 1990s, there was a sense of loneliness in my own life. I shot a good part of my film here, and in one stroke the structure was a thing of the past.
Don came into my life when I least expected it and its success was not a part of the script. I made the film over four long years, little anticipating that it would be spoken of several years later. When people refer to it as a path-breaking film, I continue to be surprised. I don't think any director makes a film with the knowledge that it will become a classic. To my mind, the noble objective is only to make a film that the audience will like. Anything beyond that is a welcome addition. Don was no exception to that and it does feel very good when people say it still looks slick.
I was barely thirty when I started work on Don and, at that age, one is nervous, confident, suspicious and excitable all at the same time. If that's not bad enough, I was in the company of people who were older than me and far more accomplished. Not once did any of them question my judgement and, in retrospect, that was probably the best thing that happened.
Eventually, I made the film my way-and that was a big thing for a debutant director.
To date, I hear some really interesting things from people who have watched Don several times. There are those who still watch it on satellite television and ask me how the one- liners sound so fresh even today or tell me that its background music is the ringtone on their mobile. I do not know how to react to all this and it is often overwhelming. How a film with a running time of less than three hours could have such a profound effect on people, so many years later, is puzzling to me. How did Salim-Javed, a very talented duo, come up with such a tight script? By the way, I still catch bits and pieces of Don when it is aired and every scene brings back memories of how it was filmed or something that came in the way of it. Much of that has been presented in this book with some details that are possibly private but certainly something that the reader should know.
When Krishna reached out to me for the project, the broad understanding was that it would be the story of how the film was made. In reality, it is more about how it almost didn't get made. Scenes were shot when the actors were relatively free and songs were composed in real time. Through all this, the support of Nariman Irani made a lot of things possible. I learnt a lot from him and the film was a small way to repay that debt. Though a lot gets written about the success of Don, making the film, I assure you, came with its own share of stories. The reader will discover them and I think there are many incidents that even the diehard Don fan may not be aware of.
Farhan Akhtar came up with a unique way of storytelling when he directed his version of Don. It was a concept of the times that was very well received by Gen Next and it revived a lot of nostalgia for the original Don. I was interviewed several times and it was very satisfying to enjoy acceptance from the audience even after three decades. In the process, my 1978 release was declared a cult film and a classic. I personally like Farhan's interpretation of the film, though my own view is that a classic, as fans affectionately call Don, should not be touched. People like to remember the film in a certain manner and I think it is best left that way.
Don had incredibly good performances by Amitabh, Zeenat, Pran Saab, Om Shivpuri and Iftekhar, to name just a few people. Some of them are not with us any more, but their contribution to the film remains beyond measure. It is apparent to me each time I watch the film.
Summers in Mumbai are hot, humid and difficult. Temperatures soar well into the high 30s and often flirt quite easily with the 40s too. If the humidity level is high, it induces a sense of lethargy without any effort.
On one such sultry Sunday afternoon in 1974, as Chandra Barot eased into his cane chair, the phone rang. He gave himself a moment to wonder who could be calling at this siesta hour. It was the familiar and fond voice of Jaya Bachchan at the other end, who wanted to know what Chandra had planned for the evening. 'Nothing specific,' he said as he waited for Jaya to say something. 'Amit and I were thinking of watching Naya Din Nai Raat. Why don't you join us?' she asked.
In less than half an hour, Chandra emerged from his upmarket Peddar Road apartment and took the drive to Andheri to meet the Bachchan couple at the landmark theatre complex-Amber, Oscar and Minor. It had been a while since Naya Din Nai Raat had released. The feedback on the film was positive and everyone was effusive about Sanjeev Kumar's performance. Jaya, as the girl who runs away from home to escape getting married, was also impressive. Sanjeev played nine remarkably different roles in the film.
The show that evening was for a select gathering. Chandra and the Bachchans were quickly engrossed in the film and kept hearing the audience gushing about Sanjeev. 'This man is so versatile,' was what they heard throughout the film.
An hour and a half into the film and Jaya had already encountered Sanjeev in six roles that ranged from a wealthy widower, a drunken lout in a brothel to a psychiatrist. If these six characters were serious yet witty, it was the seventh that caught Chandra's attention. This was Sanjeev as a transvestite stage artist running a troupe called Fulkunvar Theatrical Company.
Dressed in a spotless white kurta and dhoti, this character was never to be seen without the betel nut or the paan stained lips. The audience was in splits as it saw and heard the slightly effeminate Sanjeev at his best. In the film, he asks Jaya to be the leading lady in his play. The lady grudgingly agrees to help him.
As Chandra saw Sanjeev with the paan, his mind was already working furiously. 'Tiger, this is your character in our film. Take a good look at Sanjeev here,' he whispered into Amitabh Bachchan's ears. The tall actor smiled and did not say anything. He just observed the character for every minute detail.
As everyone went home after an evening of entertainment, Chandra's mind was still ticking. It was imperative for him to build on the Fulkunvar character. He was intuitively convinced that he had hit a goldmine; now the job on hand was to give that character a certain form and shape. In a few weeks, he was ready to describe the character in complete detail to Amitabh.
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