And in 1978, he was on top of his game. The highly enjoyable Kasme Vaade came out, but, more importantly, the mega-hit and insta-classic Don premiered. Shah Rukh tried to mimic the glories of 1978's Don with his own 2006 remake but almost everyone agrees the original was better.
Don is a world of hipster 1970s disco, Austin Powers-sans-irony-style crime capers, and many 1970s stars. It features a labyrinthine, absurdist story where all it takes is some betel leaf (and reversing the film) to be able to jump up backwards into tree branches. It has car chases, vague allusions to organized crime (consisting mostly of people exchanging briefcases in remote locations), and this one totally awesome part where a former tightrope walker, now with a limp, manages to shuffle his way across a telephone wire hundreds of feet above a busy Bombay intersection with his two kids in tow. How is this done? Some would say cheap blue screen technology, but we like to think it's a little thing called Magic.
I am Don!
Enter Bombay, in all its bustling, car-horn glory. Enter Don (Amitabh Bachchan), the pinnacle of criminality. Vaguely alluded to as being a Goan Christian (whatever that implies), Don leads a life of criminal luxury. He's the boss of a criminal organization that has been, apparently for quite some time, narrowly eluding the cops. It's not hard to catch Don, Don informs us, it's impossible. Yet despite his leadership responsibilities, he's not above exchanging the suitcases himself - inevitably this leads to considerable personal risk, but nothing a few exploding suitcases can't take care of (we wonder about the goods, though!). Anyway, after one meeting-cum-explosion, Don finds himself on the wrong side of a police car chase. They tear through the streets of Bombay in a number of improbable and recycled shots (they crash into that white car, we swear, three times!) until eventually Don is cornered. He disappears into a river and then reappears, badly wounded, in the police chief, D.S.P. D'Silva's (Iftikhar), car. There, he reminds us he'll never be caught, and then dies.
OK, not really. In a stroke of outrageous genius, D'Silva realizes he can plant a mole in Don's organization. Since he was the only one to witness the crime boss's death, all he need do is go into Bombay and pluck out an Amitabh Bachchan lookalike. Then no one except he and the lookalike will know there's a mole. Sounds impossible? Not so, D'Silva soon finds Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan, again), a betel leaf-chewing, slum-dwelling, salt of the earth type who likes to sing, dance, and take care of stray orphans. When D'Silva proposes Vijay work undercover for the police, Vijay only agrees after D'Silva promises to educate the orphans, Deepu and Munni, in a top-rated international school.
Enter the subplots. First, there is Roma, sister to a recently-killed employee of Don's. She's bent on revenge and, after training in the arts of ninja, as well as getting a bit of an androgynous haircut, she infiltrates Don's gang to kill Don, who is now actually Vijay. (Confused?) Meanwhile, the orphans' father turns out to be none other than Jasjit (the inimitable, the wonderful PRAN!), the former criminal-turned-circus-performer-turned-criminal-again who Chief D'Silva shot in the leg long ago. Jasjit is just getting out of jail and he too is bent on revenge. So both Vijay and D'Silva, the only two who know about Vijay's identity, are now in mortal danger. Much excitement!
And much excitement does follow. As well as hilariously enjoyable songs, twists, turns, fashion statements, and numerous references to 1970s Bollywood. But overall, as Prof. Lugendorf says:
There is no apparent patriotism here and no piety; no weepy mothers, barely even any families— most of the characters are unmoored urban types. I don’t think there’s any Real Point either, apart from pyoor phun, and showing that all good things start with “B” (Bombay, Banaras, bhang, Bachchan), except possibly paan.
The prof knows more than we do about South Asian culture, but we did notice things which seemed Significant, or at least culturally interesting. For example, during the phenomenal Khaike Paan Baranas Wala, there's a lot of talk about the Poor Man (in this case, Vijay) becoming the sacrificial lamb for police crackdowns and general societal reform and development. A cynical jab at social workers and Do Gooders? A nostalgic cry for the Good Life, back in ruralia and away from the awful, smoggy city? Who knows! Don is not meant to be questioned or thought about too much. It is meant only to be enjoyed.
In contrast, Bachchan's typical terpsichorean style is about as basic as it gets, a sort of blue-eyed Punjabi variant on one of Zorba the Greek's "hoop-hah" strut 'n' shrug routines. But when he dances, Amitabh Bachchan is a great actor. Decked out in what looks like a gaucho outfit in Don (78), prancing and preening next to the staggering Zeenat Aman (India's answer to Claudia Cardinale), he looks less like a performer working through a carefully choreographed routine than a man enjoying himself, and enjoying life.
-Film Comment, 2005