Memorable on-screen rivalry

Filmmakers have always had a tough time when they cast two rival stars in a film. The face-off, however, has also resulted in landmarks in cinema, says M. L. Dhawan

There has been a furious debate as to who outdid whom between Amitabh Bachchan and Dilip Kumar in Shakti
Rivals make peace: There has been a furious debate as to who outdid whom between Amitabh Bachchan and Dilip Kumar in Shakti

In Arth, even critics could not decide who was the better of the two: Smita Patil or Shabana Azmi
In Arth, even critics could not decide who was the better of the two: Smita Patil or Shabana Azmi

THE tradition of histrionic one-upmanship is as old as cinema. When two titans are pitched against each other in a film, competition between them is inevitable. No matter how committed the two actors are to the betterment of the film, their inborn insecurities come to the surface when they face each other on the screen.

Sometimes even the most mature and level-headed artistes turn petulant and go to the extremes to prove their superiority over their rival. There have been instances when filmmakers had a tough time while trying to cope with the whims and idiosyncrasies of two equally important stars.

When Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor were signed together for Mehboob Khan’s Andaaz in 1949, it was seen as the casting coup of the decade. Though Mehboob Khan orchestrated a delicate balance between the principal characters, Dilip and Raj used every trick in the trade to steal a march over each other. The talented cast gave its best to make the film a success at the box office, but after Dilip’s far from pleasant experience with Raj, the two colossuses never worked together again. Raj offered Dilip the role finally played by Rajender Kumar in Sangam, but he declined the offer.

When Subhash Ghai signed Raj and Dilip for Saudagar, he was warned by the trade pundits of the danger that lay ahead. During the making of the film, Ghai tickled the giant-sized ego of ‘Janni’. He managed to get the best out of both by pep-talking constantly to the two veteran behemoths. Hats off to the deft handling by G.P. Sippy of the cast and crew due to which all principal actors in the film came up with their career-best performances in Sholay. While debutant Amjad Khan essayed the role of Gabbar Singh with elan, it was Sanjeev Kumar in the role of Thakur who stole the thunder with his smouldering eyes. His controlled rage and a furious demeanour overshadowed Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra’s performances. The release of Ramesh Sippy’s Shakti in 1982 started a furious debate in the film Press as to who outdid whom between Bachchan and Dilip.

As a cancer-stricken patient in Anand, Rajesh Khanna was a delight to watch. Decidedly he had an edge over Babumoshai, played poignantly by Bachchan, but by the time they appeared together again in Hrishida’s Namak Haram, the equations had changed. As a livid capitalist breathing fire and brimstone, Bachchan smothered Khanna’s restrained portrayal of a conflict-ridden proletarian.

In Yash Chopra’s Trishul, the scene in which Amitabh divulges the bitter truth of his illegitimacy to his father — Sanjeev Kumar — and wards off the repentant father’s overtures of long-overdue affection remains a landmark in cinema on a par with the best in the world. Sanjeev Kumar and Bachchan gave their all to make the scene memorable without trying for one-upmanship. Theirs was the height of creative camaraderie.

In Aandhi, despite a formidable performance by Suchitra Sen, the attention of the audience could not be deflected from Sanjeev Kumar’s brilliant performance of a supportive husband.

In Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth, even critics could not decide who was the better of the two — Smita Patil or Shabana Azmi. As a wife whose illusion of domestic bliss comes down crashing, Shabana recorded every nuance of her character in minute details while Smita played a mistress bent on wrecking a perfect marriage with her neurosis. Smita rose above the restrictions of playing a unidimensional homebreaker.

The most anxiously monitored celluloid combat was between Jaya Bachchan and Rekha in Yash Chopra’s Silsila. Chopra resolved the conflict between the rights of a woman as a wife, Shobha (Jaya), and the claims of a beloved, Chandini (Rekha), by giving an upper hand to the spouse. For obvious reasons, much fireworks were expected between the two on and off screen rivals, but in the scenes where Rekha and Jaya face each other, the classes as well as the masses applauded the display of histrionics by both. In Bimal Roy’s Devdas, the two women — Paro (Suchitra Sen) and Chandramukhi (Vyjanthimala) — are opposite poles socially and tempramentally but are complementary in the sense that both love the same man.

There is a scene when they cross each other’s path. Paro is framed in her ‘palki’ and Chandramukhi is trudging a muddy path. They do not utter a word, but their eyes do all the talking.

Rivals on the screen are expected to work towards bringing the film close to script-dictated perfection. The duel under the arc lights sometimes proves suicidal for filmmakers. Some of the two-hero or two-heroines projects become casualties of their ambitiousness.