When Prakash Mehra‘s Muqaddar Ka Sikandar was released in 1978, it was an immediate sensation. According to Box Office India, it is the biggest Diwali blockbuster of all time. People queued up outside cinemas overnight to grab tickets that were selling out like hotcakes. The songs by the likes of Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, and Hemlata were leading chart-busters of the time. They are still a major factor in why the film is fondly remembered even today. However, the film itself is at least as good as the songs, if not better. In many areas, Kader Khan‘s screenplay and the cast’s performance both supplement and surpass the songs in their emotional “affect.”
Muqaddar Ka Sikandar is part-musical, part-action, and the rest is a chaotic, heady romance. Kalyanji-Anandji‘s music and Anjaan’s lyrics are an integral part of the film, rather than simple plot breakers.
Placing Muqaddar ka Sikandar in a cultural loci
The film struck a chord somewhere; that level of intense brooding combined with soul-stirring songs and existential acts. Was the affinity on an individual level or a cultural level? It’s a chicken-and-egg problem, how much of cinematic ‘culture’ is shaped by reality – and vice versa. How much of oneself one sees (or projects) on films. All we can hope to provide is an approximation.
The ‘70s in India were marked by turbulent events and confusing socio-political upheavals. The glaring failures of the promise of a post-independent India had exploded into Bollywood’s own take on the “angry young man” archetype. A type best epitomized in Yash Chopra’s timeless classic, Deewaar (1975), and its simmering anti-hero, Vijay. On the other hand, India was asserting itself as a secular, progressive nation by winning the Bangladesh Liberation War. It was also aligning socialist ideals with more pragmatic ones, holding its own through newer stages of the Cold War. The result was a certain kind of intellectual cosmopolitanism in cinema, especially centered around Bombay.
In Deewaar, we see an anti-establishment, rebellious angry young man doomed by the betrayal of fate and circumstance. In Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, we see a more conformist, but severely maladjusted angry young man crippled by his own emotional reach and unstable identity. Whereas Vijay’s aggression in Deewar often finds projection outwards, Sikandar’s expressions are more inwards. However, there are still flashes of rage despite his fragile temperament. When he confronts his arch enemies, for instance, or the old curio-store owner who had mistreated him in the past. There is also an obvious influence of Devdas on this film. But Muqaddar Ka Sikandar has a more diverse mosaic of themes, tones, and characters than Devdas.
Synopsis and cinema (Muqaddar Ka Sikandar)
Much like the film, the character of Sikandar is a product of that confusing, exciting era. As a young orphan roaming the streets of Simla, we see his overtly dramatic behavior which markedly stands out from his impoverished existence. While there is no inkling in the film that the young Sikandar is a lover of cinema, his behavior is clearly written with cinematic filters in mind. His coping mechanism from the harshness of a penniless, identity-less, loveless urchin existence seems to be to randomly switch into lucid fantasies. Even while he is awake, even as everything around him is in a normal flux. He doesn’t have a name, doesn’t know who his real parents are, what his religion is, and he never finds out.
For a short time, he works for a rich but insensitive widower (Shriram Lagoo), whose young daughter Kaamna ‘Memsaab’ treats him with kindness and sympathy. This leaves an indelible mark on the young orphan. He impulsively follows them from Simla to Bombay. While in Bombay, a poor woman called Fatima (Nirupa Roy) tasks pity on him and adopts him, bestowing him with the name ‘Sikandar,’ after her own deceased son. He also meets his adoptive kid sister, Mehroo. A misunderstanding, however, causes Kaamna to suspect Sikandar as a thief. Her father humiliates Sikandar and they throw him out of their mansion. Fatima dies from a long-standing illness, leaving Sikandar to look after his sister. At the cemetery, an old fakir (Kader Khan) teaches him to embrace his loss and to laugh in the face of grief.
Muqaddar Ka Sikandar: A glimpse into Sikandar
The feeling that perhaps he is a bad omen who hurts everyone he loves seemingly haunts Sikandar. Even though he makes it big in life, he still doesn’t have an integrated sense of self. His psyche is shaped by a definitive lack of where he comes from, or what his destiny is. He is both surprisingly attuned to his surroundings while being shockingly detached at the same time. The ‘bar fight’ scene where he befriends the down-on-his-luck lawyer, Vishal (Vinod Khanna), is both funny and illustrative of this aspect. Much like his actions at the bar, he seems perplexed by what role he is supposed to perform in life too. Is he expected to be defiant or compliant? Selfish or sacrificial?
Muqaddar Ka Sikandar has several intertwining themes, combining high-wire drama with grounded realism. The main story revolves around a love triangle between Sikandar (Amitabh Bachchan), Kaamna (Raakhee), and Vishal (Vinod Khanna). Sikandar has obsessively loved Kaamna since childhood. She is the only person who showed him some kindness when he was an orphan. His entire existence from then onwards starts revolving around her. His very sense of control over his own life and fate (“Muqaddar”) seems to well from that spring. Even as he sees her as a person in her own right, he still idealizes her to unrealistic heights. He refuses to address her by her real name, choosing instead to call her by the honorific he used as a kid (“Memsaab”).
The conflicts of love in Muqaddar ka Sikandar
His vision of her is confused enough in his mind that he does not see her worldly, pragmatic desires. Kaamna falls for the empathetic self-made man in Vishal who dreams small but cares big. She bonds over his sunny personality, choosing him over the nihilistic Sikandar and his grandiose, self-destructive ego. It is fairly clear to perceptive viewers from Kaamna’s cutting remarks that, on some level, she recognizes his affection for her even without really knowing it. She admonishes him at one point, “sapne chhoriye, aur haqeeqat ka samna kijiye” (forget dreams, and face reality). Kaamna appears to have confused feelings about his sentiments, but she values her own survival enough to realize (rightly) that loving Sikandar would be a roller-coaster to annihilation. Something that befalls the unfortunate courtesan Zohra (Rekha), who accepts her dismal fate after a violent tussle with herself.
It would be amiss to not mention Rekha for her standout performance in the film. She is a supporting character here, but there can be no Muqaddar Ka Sikandar without Rekha. After all, this is the film that truly propelled her to stardom. Her Zohra exudes that combination of vivid sensuality with a raw vulnerability and dignity. Her speech to Vishal on the subject of ‘pretense’ and ‘self-deception’ is one for the ages. One may retrospectively see Zohra as essentially a test run for Rekha’s career-defining role in Umrao Jaan three years later.
For his part,
Sikandar embraces a tragicomic, conflicted manner of moving through life. He can be quite funny at times. With quips like, “Ishq humne bhi kiya hai, lekin aap ke ishq karne ka dhang hi kuch nirala hai.” (Even I have loved, but the way you do it has something quite unique about it).
His good friend Pyarelal (played by comic artist Ram Sethi) asks him how is it that the elusive Zohra fell in love with him at first sight. He immediately answers: “Hum toh khud doobey hue hain, aur itne doobey hue hai ki hum par humdardi ki nazar dalnewala khud hi doob jaata hain.”(I am myself drowned, that too to such an extent that someone who gazes at me with sympathy, themselves drown).
We see such translucent attitude and expressions throughout the film which indicates that, on some level, he is aware of how his identity revolves around a fantasy, a fixation. This, in turn, makes him something like a fantasy himself.
Delirium and cinema
His hypersensitive nature also makes him extremely sore about an emotional wound he still cannot recover from. Especially since it was at the hands of someone he held a deep affection for. He is “bonded” to her in his mind, through a sense of trauma as well as understanding. Yet, he cannot fully forgive her either. The downfall in Kaamna’s fortunes along with his own meteoric rise elicits both a sense of retributive relish and shameful guilt from him.
The original hurt where Memsaab had called him a “thief,” while untrue, still plays into his mind. It takes the form of a ‘truth’ he doesn’t know how to fight, an image against which he constantly measures himself. So he cannot be fully happy with his own prosperity. He still feels unworthy of her, as though he is still symbolically ‘guilty’ of stealing Kaamna’s fortunes. A classic Gatsby set-up of a self-styled hustler pining for an aristocrat who has fallen on hard times.
To be fair, Kaamna is not just an entitled aristocrat. Her name signifies that elusive touch of intense desire, but her personality is both spontaneously proud and down to earth. She has her own share of pain and is much more layered than a stereotypical “spoiled child.” She presents herself as a modern, professional woman earning her living by doing what she loves. There is something aspirational about her. Something simple and kind behind her affable but cold bearing.
The perpetuating cycle
The film uses Sikandar’s delirium as a cinematic form at key moments. In these moments, the audience along with the doomed hero transitions into a dream/nightmare state from reality – only to realize later that it was all a dream. Fantasy – and the many layers of it – is a constant preoccupation in Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, both as a subtext and actual text. After each cathartic cycle, and every shattering shift ‘back to reality,’ another cycle of euphoria and dysphoria begins anew. Until the audience – like Sikandar – has had enough. There is a constant state of self-absorbed drama in both his demeanor and behavior. For someone like Sikandar, with that potent combination of angst, rage, and melancholy – it can only end one way.
The glass door (Muqaddar Ka Sikandar)
While the climax is still some ways off from it, the ‘cabaret scene’ is in some sense the most intense segment in the movie. It is where everything finally comes to loggerheads. Yet, the entire devastating ‘confrontation’ happens as just another imaginary ‘concoction’ inside Sikandar’s head. He switches into a drunken delirium where he fantasizes about the deaths of the two people dearest to him. When he swaps back to reality, Sikandar is horrified by his own morbid imagination and pent-up rage. He cannot trust himself anymore, neither as a sane person nor as a “good” person. He actually has to touch the glass door he had “shattered” in his dream, to ascertain he is inside reality this time around. (This may remind us of a previous scene where Sikandar deliberately burns himself with a cigarette to confirm he is not ‘dreaming.’)
The glass door stands on the borderline of his love and hate, dreams and reality, violence and guilt, and finally – life and death. It is also a separation of ‘class,’ reminiscent of his childhood experience when he is kicked out of the mansion and forced to watch through the window as everyone else joins in the celebration.
The glass partition is a symbol of not fully ‘belonging’ (despite his later status), bringing back that subtle comparison to Gatsby. The partition’s unbroken state actually breaks his own delusion. He is mortified by the psychotic implosion in him. It is because he knows from his own life what the fallout and reach of his negative emotions are. Even if it’s inside his own mind. He is a typically “quiet” sort. Much of his overblown ego comes from self-abnegation rather than aggrandizement. Yet, the sudden outburst of this mostly internal rage is highly explosive and frightening.
Zohra offers him a shot at a ‘real’ connection but he has already burnt that bridge. We see that he is unable to ‘choose’ reality, even as he recognizes it. Somehow he is still stuck replaying that childhood traumatic separation from his beloved. The ‘beloved’ here is an ‘ideal,’ it is not a real person. It is through his inflexible projection of Kaamna of that non-existent ideal ‘Memsaab’ that Sikandar self-sabotages his own existence. In the actual world (depending on Sikandar’s mental state), the beloved’s “position” is occupied by his mother, his sister, his mentor, his two best friends, his mistress – and in the end, even the villain. It is the flawed denial of his own self that drives much of the tragedy in this film. He realizes – only too late – that what he truly desired was understanding, not ideal love.
Identities lost and newfound
Despite his heartbreak and complex history of victimization – inflicted by both others and his own self, it is Sikandar’s sense of responsibility that wins out in the end. His positive values (however compelled) win over his darker traits. Yet, even as he performs these duties, he is also acutely aware that with Zohra’s suicide, Kaamna’s abandonment, Mehroo’s marriage, and Vishal’s innocence – there is no longer any fixed identity for him to hold on to. His adoptive mother, the only person to ever accept him critically and unconditionally, is long gone by now. With the death of his mentor fakir ‘Baba‘ in the cemetery scene, the last straw has also snapped. He doesn’t have any strength left anymore to turn to new people, to add new meanings to his life.
In a poignant scene, he confesses to Vishal, “haqeeqat toh yeh hai ki naa koi Memsaab hai naa pyaar hai, sirf ek tasveer hain.” (What the truth is that neither is there any ‘Memsaab‘, nor even there is any love; what is there is merely an image.)
He is trying to conceal the truth here for his friend’s sake. Yet, this concealment is also a moment of honest reflection for him – as he looks beyond the deceptive “tasveer” (image).
In the end, the person he ironically turns to for any comfort is the film’s charming but lethal antagonist, Dilawar (Amjad Khan). Such an explosive contest between these two flawed, conflicted characters can only end one way (which it does). It is a tragic end. Still, Dilawar in his cynicism does offer some repentance and redemption for the both of them – for how they both mistreated Zohra in their own selfish ways. In the end, Dilawar is almost thankful to Sikandar for doling out what he believes to be a fitting justice. So is Sikandar.
The ending is overwhelmingly dramatic, even by the standards of a Bollywood tragedy.
Yet it makes a certain kind of sense if we filter it through Sikandar’s own overblown,’ musical’ vision of his life. Of the blurred lines between fantasy and reality. His life comes a full circle as he lies bleeding to death; he realizes that, emotionally, he is still stuck at the moment when his mother had adopted him. He was projecting that irreplaceable loss as ‘love’ all his life – a void he was trying to fill with liquor, fights, and unrealistic fixations. By this time, those fantasies too have vaporized like a mirage.
In his final moments, Sikandar has almost a hermitic detachment from the desires and delusions that have defined him so far. He segues into fond, distant, but ‘real’ memories of his mother and the fakir whom he had neglected in favor of his obsessive delusions. He passes away contented with the feeling that he has led an intense if imperfect life to the best of his abilities, carrying an empty and broken heart.
Homosocial masculinity (Muqaddar Ka Sikandar)
While it broadly falls in the masala film – a genre that rose to prominence in late 1970s Bollywood, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar is a more sophisticated, polished specimen of its ilk. It mostly has a masculine perspective running through it. The tone, however, is more on the sentimental, mellow, and melancholic side rather than an action broiler of the Laxmikant Pyarelal or Ramesh Sippy variety. Few reviews have even commented on what they perceived as homoerotic undertones in the film.
The contemporary critical lens has a tendency sometimes to project close male friendships as erotic in nature due to a lack of adequate queer representation in Bollywood. While it can be sometimes erotic, that’s not always the case. At any rate, contemporary audiences did not see it that way. What struck more of a chord was probably that the masculinity represented in the film is a codependent, non-competitive one, shown in a much more intimate light. This positive reinforcement was a welcome relief from the toxic expectations of masculinity, while also contending with its inevitable shadow – especially in matters of romance and sex.
Sikandar recognizes Vishal’s down-to-earth suave appeal and readily concedes he is no match for him in matters of the heart. For his part, Vishal is baffled by Sikandar’s sadness and amused by his over-the-top, idolatrous displays of love. He even calls him out on it, “Bhai, tu ne aaj Laila-Majnu, Shireen-Farhad sab ka record tod diya.” (Brother, today you’ve managed to break the records of all mythical lovers like Laila-Majnu and Shireen-Farhad.)
Even the volatile villain Dilawar displays moments of genuine kindness and reflection. In such a tender film, Sikandar’s emotions are already through the roof. One can only imagine what that must be like. Which makes his later pain all the more palpable because Sikandar is contending not with one, but dual abandonments at once. That of the image of an idealized beloved (around which he has woven his identity), and his actual best friend. Funnily enough, the same applies to Pyarelalji who loses his best friend Sikandar to Vishal halfway through the movie. Sadly, Pyarelalji is not the hero of the film, he is too well-adjusted for that. So he embraces his fate with bathos instead of pathos. Food for thought?