Deewaar is, in one word, taut. From start to end, the movie is unrelentingly tense, tight, somber and serious but the seriousness of the film works for two vital reasons: the absolutely amazing, scorching and explosive under-acting by Amitabh Bachchan; and the screenplay and dialogs by Salim-Javed.
To say that Amitabh has acted really well in Deewaar is like saying Niagara Falls is a really big waterfall: it misses the enormity of the fact by several million gallons. To lovers of true cinematic acting (and yes, there are some such fans even in Bollywood), Deewaar offers a true, unadulterated, powerhouse performance unparalleled in Hindi cinema. There is no living (or dead, for that matter) actor who could have performed some of Deewaar's most muted and yet powerfully moving scenes -- scenes in which Vijay's silent anguish abruptly transmutes to violent eruptions, literally burning up the screen with intensity, anger, brutality, vulnerability and gritty resolve. To the small but fiercely loyal group of Amitabh fans, Deewaar is and will always be his best performance. To some of us, it defines the gold standard in Hindi film acting. It is Amitabh and only Amitabh who turned this movie from a typical over-the-top melodrama with great dialogs but no good songs into a gripping three-hour experience that leaves the audience mesmerized (and in an overwhelming majority of cases, crying uncontrollably as the end credits roll).
[true enough for me!]
As for Salim-Javed...apart from developing what is arguably the tightest script ever written for Hindi film, the pair should have gotten an award for the sheer number of quotable lines in Deewaar. Salim-Javed's script was also daring detour from the mainstream in more ways than one. Consider the oddities. The leading man has no songs in the movie. There is absolutely no comedy - no Johnny Lever or Asrani anywhere in sight. Meanwhile, the leading lady (played convincingly by Parveen Babi) is a hooker, who -- as the narrative explicitly insists -- has sexual relations with the hero. True, both characters' occupations entailed a set of moral values that are less-than-perfect by Indian middle-class standards, but the screenwriters still took an enormous risk by depicting some pretty bold scenes. Yet the power of the script was such that in the end, audiences were rooting for both characters with great sympathy and support. Finally, the leading man is an atheist (albeit superstitious). Not only that, one of the now-famous temple scenes has Amitabh clearly defiant and contemptuous towards God. Quite an audacious step, considering modern heroes are always shown to be terribly pious and god-fearing.
Finally, the most significant evidence of Deewaar's superiority is the fact that unlike other hit movies like Sholay and more recent ones like DDLJ, no one has ever dared to copy it. It is the one film whose magic other film-makers realized could not be duplicated. The confluence of extraordinary acting and a uniquely brilliant script cannot be converted into a formula and regenerated ad nauseam. In the end, that may be the biggest tribute Hindi cinema can pay to this all-time, genuinely inimitable classic.
First, a “deewar” is a wall, a separation. A wall stops communication, it creates two sides, it divides and opposes. You have to be on one side, or on the other, there is no in-between. That’s the mother’s tragedy: she cannot be on both sides. The wall rends her heart in two, and even when she chooses the “good” side, she can’t be at peace. The other half of her heart is on the other side. It rends the brothers’ hearts in two (remember when Ravi tells Vijay: “if the brother speaks, the brother will listen, if the criminal speaks, the police officer will answer”), it tears them apart intimately. Ravi doesn’t know whether his justice is right any more; Vijay cannot forget his enemy is also his brother. So: what is this wall? What is it made of? One might say that it is Education, the education Ravi has received (contrary to Vijay) which has enabled him to understand the moral and social codes in such a way that they have shaped his behaviour more deeply than his brother. But while this might be true, one feels it isn’t enough: you don’t need to have a degree to feel the difference between right and wrong. Has Ravi matured his sense of Justice, so much so that it has enabled him to build a system of values which Vijay doesn’t know exists? Perhaps. And hasn’t Ravi drawn from his religious faith an attitude towards humanity and society which Vijay’s “atheism” (see further down) can’t understand?
The wall between the two brothers might have been built because of these differences, but its reality, its materiality comes from what they have done, the choices they have made. Vijay has decided to band with the Bombay criminal underground; Ravi has found a job with the police. These conscious adult choices have taken them away from that comfortably youthful zone of life where other people (parents, normally) make decisions for you, and they are the ones responsible for what happens to you. But neither Ravi, with his pledge towards justice and truth, nor Vijay, who has become a smuggler, can go back now. They have become soldiers of two arch-enemy armies. On one side: truth, and the law: on the other: lies and crime. And the age-old unbalance: the good guy is poor, the criminal flourishes. So this is the wall: the decisions on which they have both built their moral and social personas. They have become the sum of these decisions. And these choices in essence repel one another.
The relativity of Justice
There is one moment in the film when Ravi is unsure about his mission of upholder of the law: his mother is ill at hospital, and is calling Vijay at her bedstead. He has surrounded the hospital with his men, so that his acknowledging that a mother has a right to see her son is contradicted by his policeman’s duty to arrest that son. He can’t help using that son’s need to see his mother as a trap to arrest him. So he experiences there a double standard: Vijay’s right, and his own right, which goes against Vijay’s right. His lawful right as a policeman contradicts Vijay’s natural right to meet his mother. Hence the crisis of confidence, and his wife tries to help him by reminding him of what Arjuna heard God whisper to him in an apparently famous scene taken from the Mahabharata, which opposes him to his brother Krishna  But he says he isn’t Arjuna, he is only a mortal.
Indeed on earth, Justice is only a human institution. One solution to the enmity that wrenches the brothers apart is a difference in the appreciation of what justice, and injustice, really are. Ravi believes in Justice to the point that he sacrifices himself to it. He is an idealist, a convert. For him, justice is a means to change society. He pledges himself to the police (when everybody knows how corrupt and violent it often is) and he believes in it as the armed hand of the law. Vijay on the other hand started in life first as a victim of injustice, which had been seared on his skin with his father’s humiliation. So when opportunity presented itself, he was ready to fight against exploitation and oppression. He rebels against an unjust system, but he does it because of his pride and his disgust. So he too acts in the name of justice. Only, he doesn’t rise to the level of principles. Once he has revenged himself, he is satisfied. He doesn’t care about the (Platonist) idea of justice, because he has suffered too much. Justice is probably an empty concept for him: as far as he can see, nobody respects it. This world belongs to the smartest. So depending on what experience of injustice one has had, justice will be different. For Ravi, it has the appeal of his moral aspirations; for Vijay, it is another name for revenge.
There is only one moment in the film, I think, when Vijay seems ready to renounce his selfish system, and that’s when Anita tells him she’s going to have a baby: he then vows to deliver himself to the police, and lead a life that his son wouldn’t be in a position to reproach him with. It is therefore clear that he harbours some notion of that universal rule of justice which applies to all men. But it takes a new beginning, a new life. As far as he himself is concerned, he’s too far gone in his moral rearrangement. And he won’t have time to put this wish into practice: he will die as a rebel.
These two fundamentally different options (like two magnets that each have two positions, one of hate, one of love) war in the brothers’ hearts because of another, greater force. What is brotherhood? It isn’t only having the same parents, even though this is essential. Siblings who share the same blood have something in common that children raised under the same roof, but without that bond, will never have: a commonality of origin, an intimacy which comes from nature, and goes beyond individuality. The mother is at that junction, and we’ll come back to her. But still, that would not be enough to fill the contents of that word: brotherhood. To be brothers (or brothers and sisters, it’s the same) completely, and as it were, everlastingly, you need to have gone through that all-important age of childhood together. You need to have grown together, to have been brothers or sisters in the past. You need to have drunk the same milk, eaten, fought and played together, slept together, lived the same life. Nothing will ever change that: my brother is that other person I have known when he knew me as a child.
The bond of brotherhood is strong enough to override many duties and obligations. And so what is tragic in Deewar is that the strength of its bond, its intimacy, is destroyed by a much more general and civilisational reality: justice. Vijay’s crimes had not destroyed brotherhood (Ravi at first refuses to take the case involving his brother, and Vijay comes to warn him of his clan’s intention to kill him, and urges Ravi to change posts), but justice will. Ravi first tries to fight against the sharp edge of the law, but in the end, it transforms him into its instrument to accomplish its necessary task (that’s the aim of the little episode involving the bread-thief he shoots down, and the scene at his parents, where he is “taught” what justice really means - there's an Gospel subliminal message there: real justice makes no distinction between people, it must apply to the rich and the poor alike, and if it is the justice coming from God, its truth will cut even through family ties). Ravi becomes the Law; his mission is to obey its grim and demanding orders. His only consolation is his mother’s support: “may the arm that shoots him be firm”.
The link between Mother India and Deewar is often made. What Deewar shows is that brotherhood feeds on a greater force: motherhood. Motherly love is the foundation of brotherly love. It was there at its origin, and is there after and always. The rivalry between the brothers takes place against the backdrop of their mother’s love for both of them. Vijay is more loved, but that’s only in keeping with the universality of motherly love. He is the one who has made her a mother, and he is the one who has suffered most. There is no injustice in her preference. When she sides with Ravi, she also expresses her motherhood perfectly: how can a mother condone crime? And her undying love of Vijay is also a testimony that a mother can never forget nor reject the life that has been born of her. Ravi and Vijay are united in their mother’s life and love. And when Vijay dies in his mother’s lap, wishing her to put him to sleep, he rejoins Ravi because she is their junction.
Cain and Abel
So Deewar is as much about Motherhood as about brotherhood. Still, because of Abitabh’s masterful embodiment of Vijay, the theme of the two brothers weighs perhaps more heavily. And for western viewers, the film has an archetypal flavour: we are reminded of the story of Abel and Cain, in which of course it is the villainous Cain who kills his brother. I can’t say that Yash Chopra had any such reference in mind, and I wish I knew more about Hinduism to be able to comment on this relationship from that perspective. But for me (and here I’m thinking of the famous last scene), Ravi represents God’s Angel (or perhaps Abel’s ghost?) chasing Cain away from the sight of God, and in the temple, the repentant Cain is there to receive God’s forgiveness. In the Genesis, Cain is the more human of the two brothers, the one who is the better delineated. He represents our humanity more accurately than his pale innocent brother. In Deewar too, Vijay-Cain has a stronger human impact than that of Ravi: he is more like us, with all our contradictions, all our imperfections. And I say this even though I stand in admiration in front of the character played by Shashi Kapoor: for there is a lot of human truth there too.
Atheism and love
The general assumption is that Vijay is an atheist, contrary to Ravi, who is a firm believer. I think this is not the case. I have just said that I don’t know much about Hinduism, and perhaps for a hindu, Vijay’s attitude towards religion must be considered atheistic, and (some add) superstitious (that docker's 786 plate which has protected him twice). But from a Christian perspective, I don’t think he can be said to be an atheist. He doesn’t want to take part in the temple ceremonies, yes, and he is critical of the faith. Also, of course, he doesn’t behave in such a way that would show a scrupulous respect of God’s order. First, his refusal to worship: this could mean that institutionalised religion doesn’t suit him. And then it isn’t because he rebels against an unjust social order, even to the point of becoming a mafia don, that he doesn’t believe in God. Let’s not forget that his entire attitude is dictated by humiliation and revenge.
A believer down deep
When his mother is ill, he goes to the temple to plead for her health. Is this superstition? For me, it’s faith. He believes it can work; he never evokes the possibility of the uselessness of such a step. What he criticises the deity for is having punished his mother, who is innocent of any crime. And he demands that divine justice be done. Director Yash Chopra grants his prayer, indicating that he too believes Vijay to be a believer. Later, when, mortally wounded, he crashes into the temple stairs with his car, and meets his mother inside, for me he’s not only coming back to her, but acknowledging (and even vindicating) his faith with her, and against an unjust order of things which this God stands for. His faith is not a formal, temple-going type of faith. But he definitely believes in supreme values, even if the dazzle of power and riches has blinded his eyes at some stage. Vijay’s love for his mother, and for his brother in spite of everything is also a form of faith. Can one truly love and be an atheist? Even rebellion can be a fundamentally religious attitude. And the fight against injustice is a religious attitude.
The proof of Deewar's classicism is the Greek Tragedy aspect in displays. We are led to witness the unfolding of an uncompromising drama which must finish the way it finishes. The triumph of justice at the end is coherent with the universe of tragedy, because hubris must be punished, but one has the chance to side with the hero who is the victim of the Gods’s wrath. It is just that he should be punished, but it is also just that we can exert our pity, and being punished, it is also just that he be reunited beyond death with the family he belongs to, and be given the peace he has not enjoyed in life.
PS: thanks to Daddy's girl for the screencaps; I had made a good selection of some myself, and a silly “something” occurred with my Capturing programme, and all I had left was twenty something black caps… I might one day do the job again!
 An interpretation of this scene is suggested by Suja in the Comments section below. Many thanks to her!