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10 films to remember Prakash Mehra by: Death anniversary special

On the tenth death anniversary of the filmmaker who defined the commercial Hindi entertainer, we take a look at 10 films that capture his flair for drama, music and one-liners.

Shriram Iyengar

In a 2013 interview to Forbes India magazine, Rohit Shetty shrugged off criticism of his films, saying “we are not Hollywood”.

That one statement would have brought a sly smile on the face of the man who defined the structure of Hindi cinema during its commercial peak in the 1970s.

Prakash Mehra, the man who gave India the ‘Angry Young Man’, also crystallized the emotional drive that often sets commercial Hindi cinema apart.

While Prakash Mehra started his career in Hindi cinema as a production controller, he was soon on his way to being a director. His first film saw him cast Shashi Kapoor, often a supporting actor, as the male lead in Hasina Maan Jaayegi (1969).

With sparkling one-liners, chartbusters, and high-end melodrama, Prakash Mehra knew how to give the emotional Indian audience bang for the price of its movie ticket. His partnership with Amitabh Bachchan, which yielded six successive hits between 1973 and 1984, earned him an entry in the ‘Golden Directors’ list which included his peer and great rival, Manmohan Desai.

On Prakash Mehra's 10th death anniversary (the producer-director-lyricist died on 17 May 2009), we take a look at 10 films that defined the man who redefined commercial Hindi cinema.

1. Hasina Maan Jaayegi (1968)

The film that started it all for Prakash Mehra was, ironically, a misfire. Having started out as a production controller, Mehra made the shift to the director’s chair in 1968 with this Shashi Kapoor-starrer. Mixed identities, a romantic triangle, high melodrama, were all part of this wacky commercial film. Sadly, the audience did not take to it too well. The film did only middling business at the box-office, but it sowed the seeds of a career that would change the direction of commercial Hindi entertainers.

2. Samadhi (1972)

While Prakash Mehra is best remembered for his association with Amitabh Bachchan, his first two films saw Shashi Kapoor and Dharmendra in the leads. In Samadhi, he offered Dharmendra a double role — as father and son — in a tragedy that was two films in one. The story of a dacoit seeking redemption, with action, drama and one superhit song, was definitely as commercial as it got.

The film worked with audiences, particularly with RD Burman’s chartbuster ‘Kaanta Laga’ doing the magic. With this, Prakash Mehra had begun to find the elusive formula to create a commercial entertainer.

3. Zanjeer (1973)

This was the film that hit bull's eye. A young and angry Amitabh Bachchan. An even angrier script by Salim-Javed. While many consider it the hallmark film of the era, Zanjeer was a dud on the opening weekend. Only later did the rage of Amitabh Bachchan spread like wildfire.

Prakash Mehra said in an interview with the website rediff.com back in 1998, “The film was released on May 20, 1973. Though the film clicked in Calcutta, it did not do well for the first four days in Bombay. I thought then that the film would flop... But after four days, when the booking for the second week began, I happened to pass through Gaiety-Galaxy theatre in Bandra. There was a huge rush at the advance booking window. A five-rupee ticket was being sold at Rs100.”

This, then, was the film that set the Prakash Mehra template — good music, sparkling dialogues, and an ordinary man fighting heavy odds.

4. Haath Ki Safaai (1974)

While this film might not be the greatest in Prakash Mehra’s filmography, it stands out for the fact that this is the only film that earned Vinod Khanna a Filmfare acting award. A story of two con men who are also long-lost brothers, the film was a bit all over the place. While audiences gave it a miss, it earned Khanna the Filmfare award for Best Supporting Actor.

But the film did not quite have the elements that could draw the crowds in, starting with the main cast. Also, it was released in the same year as the blockbusters Kora Kagaz (1974) and Roti Kapada Aur Makan (1974), which probably explains its short-lived fame.

5. Hera Pheri (1976)

Before Priyadarshan launched Paresh Rawal into the stratosphere as Babu Bhaiya, the title Hera Pheri was used by Prakash Mehra for another hilarious comic caper. Interestingly, after the immense success of Zanjeer, this was the film that reunited Mehra with Amitabh Bachchan. It unearthed the comic prowess of the actor who was being typecast as the angry, laconic rebel.

While there is little to say in terms of plot, the film’s moments of comedy are magical. The chemistry between Bachchan and Vinod Khanna, rivals on and off the screen, makes for a scintillating watch. Bachchan went on to hit the comedy jackpot with Manmohan Desai's Amar Akbar Anthony the very next year. But to Prakash Mehra goes the credit of unearthing the comic strain in the superstar.

6. Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978)

Amitabh Bachchan and Prakash Mehra hit gold with this brilliant film. With its angst, simmering romance, and high tragedy, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar was a blockbuster. The sight of Amitabh Bachchan riding a bike singing 'Rote Hue Aate Hain Sab' became one of the iconic moments of the 1970s.

The film also marked the rise of a certain Kader Khan, who would go on to script some iconic dialogues for Bachchan. The music from Laxmikant-Pyarelal was the icing on the cake for Mehra.

Muqaddar Ka Sikandar earned nine nominations at the Filmfare awards in 1979, but, sadly, went home empty-handed. It did become the highest grossing film of the year though.

7. Laawaris (1981)

If proof were needed of Prakash Mehra’s prowess, he provided it with Laawaris, in which he put Amitabh Bachchan in drag and still churned out a hit. The film’s ‘Mere Angne Mein’ song is one of the iconic moments of Bachchan’s career, when he took comedy to absurd levels.

Moments like Bachchan beating up villains while speaking multiple languages and the very proletarian ‘Apni Toh Jaise Taise’ song that thumbed its nose at the rich were pointers to Prakash Mehra’s keen understanding of the audience.

8. Namak Halaal (1982) 

Despite the accusations of playing to the gallery that dogged him, Prakash Mehra’s films also had a strong emotional undercurrent. More often than not, it was that of friendship. In Namak Halaal, he used the Amitabh Bachchan-Shashi Kapoor chemistry to the utmost. Bappi Lahiri’s fantastic musical score and Kader Khan’s dialogues upped the magic to make the film the year's biggest grosser.

Hilarious, dazzling and entertaining, the film had some of the most iconic moments of Amitabh Bachchan’s film career. One of which was the fantastic ‘I can talk English’ speech. Needless to say, the film retains its entertainment value even today.

9. Sharaabi (1984)

A certainty of Prakash Mehra’s films was sparkling one-liners. After Salim-Javed, it was Kader Khan who took up the mantle, and quite brilliantly at that. Sharaabi was one such occasion when the veteran actor-writer gave Bachchan the line ‘Moochein hon toh Nathulalji jaisi’.

The film was the sixth consecutive hit by the Mehra-Bachchan duo. Although it was a lot deeper and more dramatic than some of the others, Sharaabi did go on to become a platinum jubilee hit. It also won Bappi Lahiri a Filmfare award for Best Music. 

10. Zindagi Ek Juaa (1992) 

Of all the films in the list, this one is a dud. It only deserves inclusion for being the most experimental Prakash Mehra film. By the late 1980s, Prakash Mehra’s techniques were failing to make an impact on a changing audience. And with Bachchan’s star also fading, the director chose to invest his energies in some experimental stories. While Jaadugar (1989), with Bachchan, is too poor to be mentioned, Zindagi Ek Juaa was an improvement.

The story revolves around a common man who turns to drug smuggling out of necessity, only to find that his love, life, and child have been wrecked by the habit. Serious, and contemporary, the story lacked any of the sparkling Mehra traits — great music, catchy dialogues. While Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit did their best to keep the melodrama going, it was almost the last flicker of the candle of Prakash Mehra’s filmography.