A remarkable scene in Yash Chopra’s Kaala Patthar shows a severely injured Amitabh Bachchan refuse anesthesia while being treated by a doctor (played by Rakhee Gulzar). She warns him that his wounds might have some sediments of coal and cleaning them will cause him unbearable pain. To which Bachchan’s angry young Vijay responds with dialoguebaazi – “My pain is my destiny, and I can’t avoid it.” The undeniable anger and grit at the root of this scene, is something that reverberates throughout the rest of the film as well.
Loosely based on the real-life disaster that happened in Chasnala (then Bihar, now Jharkhand) in 1975, the film fictionalised the story of the 375 victims dying because of the flooding of the coal mines. And because the film had not one, but three Bollywood ‘heroes’, it was hardly surprising that a majority of the film’s coal miners manage to survive.
Sharing a few pictures of the film’s worldwide premiere taking place in Wembley, London, Bachchan revived many beautiful memories of the film. The brooding Vijay with a past, the outlaw Daaku Mangal Singh (Shatrughan Sinha) and the friendly manager of the site, Ravi (Shashi Kapoor) – the film had all the ingredients of a mainstream Bollywood film. It also had ladies like Rakhee, Neetu Singh (a local hawker) and Parveen Babi (a journalist), who all had strong roles and not merely incidental to the story. Especially the Amitabh Bachchan-Rakhee Gulzar love story had an unspoken warmth to it.
Marking Yash Chopra’s fourth consecutive collaboration with Bachchan during the 70s, the film was ambitiously mounted. It seemed like the perfect product of a newspaper headline sprinkled with some mainstream Bollywood masala – where it was topical and yet consistently accessible and enjoyable.
In a time, where Bollywood has stopped making disaster film like Kaala Patthar and The Burning Train, this would serve as a reminder for a film made with the right proportions of ‘realism’ and ‘suspension of disbelief’. And these even managed to weave love stories and issues like social inequity into them. Maybe it’s the kind of film we should aspire to make once again.