An Evening in Coney Island, 1918
It was 1918. The ‘War to End All Wars‘ was in its final leg, American President Woodrow Wilson made his famous ‘Fourteen Points‘ speech and in India the luminous mystic Sai Baba of Shirdi breathed his last. This was also the time when organised crime in the United States reached feverish peaks, so much so that much-loved cartoonist and illustrator Hergé depicted the anarchy in his Tintin series of comic strips.
Frankie Yale, one of the more enterprising gangsters that were fast gaining ground in violent America, opened up a bar in Coney Island, Brooklyn and called it Harvard Inn. The title was ironic since it mostly attracted shady characters and mobsters. The joint had a successful run and Yale was seen more as a successful businessman than as a gang-lord. Yale was hiring tough youngsters from the streets to help manage the more unsavoury side of a restaurant business like his. One of them was 19-year old Alphonse Gabriel Capone, son of Italian immigrants.
As always, Alphonse was waiting on tables when Frank Gallucio, another illustrious hoodlum of the time, stepped in. Gallucio was accompanied by his girlfriend Maria and his sister, Lena. Alphonse couldn’t take his eyes off Lena. Though she seemed way out of his league, he thought he will take his chances, and asked her out. Lena brushed off his advances, but Al was no ordinary goon, a fact that all of America was going to vouch for, in the next decade.
Al stepped up to her and whispered to her sweet nothings about her posterior. Lena turned to her toughie old brother. Frank lunged at Al with his knife and slashed his face, leaving a deep wound across his left jaw. That’s how Alphonse Gabriel Capone a.k.a Al Capone acquired the name he deeply loathed – ‘Scarface’.
Scarface – from pages to screen
Al Capone went on to become the most notorious mobster America had ever known. Chicago became the base of his operations. His raids, assassinations, street wars and rise through the ranks was closely watched by a young lad called Maurice Coons. Like other kids obsessed over toys, postage stamps and trading cards, young Maurice obsessed over gangsters, and Capone in particular. By the time he was in his 20s, Maurice had compiled a substantial amount of information about organised crime and their inner workings.
Around 1929, Maurice Coons published a fictional account of Capone’s rise through the ranks. He wrote it under the pseudonym Armitage Trail, and called it Scarface. Little did he know that his book was to set in motion a sequence of stories and characters that would eventually lead to Vijay Dinanath Chauhan, at the turn of the century!
Scarface (the book) talks of a boy named Tony Guarino who kills his way to the top of the underworld, his favourite tommy gun in hand. But destiny catches up with him and eventually he gets shot down by his own brother Ben Guarino, a cop. Sounds familiar? Deewar was always considered a precursor to Agneepath, but not quite like this.
The book inspired Paul Muni-starrer Scarface (1932), which became one of the most significant pre-code gangster films. It also became Paul Muni’s calling card. The lead character of Tony Guarino was changed to Tony Camonte, and the brother’s character was done away with (though there still was a cop named Guarino). The film depicted many real-life events with startling detail, like St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Writer Maurice Coons aka Armitage Trail died of a heart attack, days before the release of the film.
Exactly 50 years later, Al Pacino watched a screening of the film in downtown Los Angeles. Pacino was so taken by the film and its premise that he called up his manager Martin Bregman, who also happened to be a producer. The impossibly prolific Sidney Lumet – fresh from directing Paul Newman’s The Verdict – was hired to direct the film. He introduced a refreshing approach to the lead character. The Cuban migration of 1980 was fresh in people’s minds, and the protagonist Antony Camonte now became Antonio “Tony” Montana, a Cuban émigré to the US. But due to creative differences with the producer Lumet was swiftly replaced by Brian DePalma, with Oliver Stone attached to write the screenplay. What resulted was a berserk, profanity-laden, delightfully crazy gorefest that defined a generation.
Agneepath (1990) was heavily inspired from Scarface (1983). Allegedly. The mother, the sister, the dinner scene, the restaurant scene, the girlfriends, and…the telephones. Let’s explore.
The connections between the book and the three movies (1932 version, 1983 version, and Agneepath) is breathtaking. In the book, the mother is almost non-existent. In the 1932 film, she warns her daughter Cesca to stay away from Tony: “Tony no love you like he make you believe. All the time he smile on top but what he thinks…He got a lot of tricks!”. In the 1983 film, Tony Montana’s immigrant mother is disgusted by her son’s descent into crime and how it shows badly on the immigrant Cuban community. She throws him out of the house when he comes visiting, forbidding the sister Gina from having anything to do with him. In Agneepath, the ideological differences are very clear and are foreshadowed in an early scene where little Vijay bumps into his mother while running into the house. She quips: “Vijay! Hazaar baar tujhse kaha hai, zara dekh ke chala kar. Jaldbaazi mat kiya kar!”, in effect reprimanding him for moving ‘too fast’. Eventually, when he takes to a path of crime, she is ruthless in her admonishment of his evil ways: “Apne haath dho le Vijay!” and in a scene seemingly mirroring the one in Pacino’s movie, VDC storms out of the house.
In the book the sister appears only in the concluding part when she tries to poison Tony for murdering her beau Mike Rinaldo, also Tony’s henchman. In the first Scarface film, Cesca literally drives the climax of the movie. She aims a gun at her brother – holed up in his room, surrounded by police – for killing her husband Guino Rinaldo, his man Friday. Until she realises how similar they are: “…you’re me. And I’m you. It’s always been that way.”, and chooses to fight along side her brother, only to succumb to a stray bullet, seconds later. In the ’83 remake, the almost incestuous nature of the relationship comes to the fore in the climax where Gina is tired of Tony obstinately hindering her romantic liaisons, egging him on to take her for himself if he saw no other man to be worthy of her. In Agneepath however, Neelam is the dutiful arm-candy-sister, only once protesting her mother’s scolding of Vijay. She falls for Krishnan Iyer, her ‘bodyguard’ but gets just a mild slap on the wrist from her brother, who eventually accepts their relationship.
There’s a special mention in the book of ‘gun girls’, femme fatales who helped assassins get away with murder by hiding the weapon on their person. Tony romances and settles down with one of these gun girls, the fiery Jane Conley, who eventually becomes instrumental in his downfall and death. In the 30s movie, she’s toned down to a gold digger named Poppy who has no qualms shifting her loyalties at the slightest opportunity. In the remake, Michelle Pfeiffer turned out a critically acclaimed performance as the neurotic and edgy Elvira – but the character lets herself be exploited by one mobster after another. Agneepath completes the process by making Mary (Madhavi) an absolute doormat. The only instance where she shows any semblance of agency is when she refuses to give birth to a baby (who she didn’t want to be a part of Vijay’s criminal empire), a rebellion Vijay promptly crushes.
And then of course there’s the telephones. In the 1932 movie Tony is accompanied by this bumbling but fatally loyal sidekick Angelo, who could never make peace with the telephone and its evil machinations. Half the time he couldn’t get what people were saying, and always struggled with the word ‘seckertary’ while introducing himself. The telephone is a recurring motif in the 80s movie too, with Tony Montana almost ripping the phone off with his bare hands when the sinister Alejandro Sosa threatens him on a call. Again, Agneepath completes the loop. VDC’s mentors, the four goons, sit in an office surrounded with phones, which keep ringing incessantly. They’ve been plotting his assassination when VDC walks in on them, taking them by surprise. The shock is writ large on their faces and he says, “Ye saala idhar telephone ka ghanti bahut bajta hai…galat cheej banaya telephone. Udhar se aadmi sochta kuch hai, bolta kuch hai, karta kuch hai…jaise tumlog!”. Later in the film, he comes back to that office, now empty (VDC by now has killed Usman and Hasmukh Bhai) but phones still ringing. He answers one of them, says “Main andha dhanda bhi andhere mein nahi karta. Baat karne ka hai toh saamne aane ka, saamne. Samjha?” and he throws the telephone on the wall, as the camera moves in on him.
Little did Vijay, seething in anger, know that his fiery path began way back in 1918, in that shady joint in Coney Island.
Bonus – Agneepath Fun Facts:
Vijay Dinanath Chauhan was born on 7th May, 1953 at around 7 pm, a whole 10 years 2 months 21 days and 8 hours younger to Amitabh Bachchan himself – assuming Agneepath released on 16 February 1990, 11 AM!
Although everywhere (including this blog post) Amitabh Bachchan’s character has been referred to as ‘Vijay Dinanath Chauhan’, he is a Maharashtrian ‘Chavan’, and this is how it was originally spelt in the credits of the film: