Amitabh Bachchan

Amitabh Bachchan: Enduring icon

Print edition : January 31, 2020

Amitabh Bachchan receives the Dadasaheb Phalke Award 2018, conferred for his contribution to the Indian film industry, from President Ram Nath Kovind at the Rashtrapati Bhawan in New Delhi on December 29, 2019. Photo: Indian Presidential Palace via AP

Although the film career of Amitabh Bachchan, recently conferred the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for lifetime achievement, peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, it was what he accomplished post-2000 that deserves greater credit.

In years gone by, watching an Amitabh Bachchan film was a celebration of life. Men and women, young and old, thronged cinema halls like there was no tomorrow. When he spoke, the villains were left speechless, and the audience sat mesmerised by his baritone. Few others could have enacted the memorable dialogue (“Jao, pehle usko lekar aao, jisne mere haath par ye likh diya”) in Deewar or the long monologue in Baghban the way he had. When he danced, the viewers danced along with him. He was not a trained dancer but had evolved a style uniquely his own.

Bachchan was all this and much more. He was consistently better than the films he starred in; he was almost always without peer when it came to multi-starrer films. And he was in a class of his own when it came to romancing headstrong heroines or besting the villain in the last reels.

Surprisingly, Bachchan’s career did not start off on a positive note. For the first five years in the film industry, after his debut in Saat Hindustani in 1969, all he had to show on his resume was a small but important role in Anand (1971). It changed with Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer (1973), a film that chiselled Bachchan’s image as the “angry young man”.

The film came to him almost by fluke. The role was initially offered to reigning stars Rajesh Khanna, Dev Anand and Dharmendra, all of whom turned it down. Finally, the scriptwriter Salim Khan prevailed upon the director Prakash Mehra to cast a relative newcomer whom he had seen in a fight sequence in another film. Mehra agreed. Bachchan was signed. The rest is history.

Zanjeer not only broke the hoodoo of flops for Bachchan but also opened the floodgates of superhits. With films such as Sholay, Deewar, Chupke Chupke and later Kabhi Kabhie and Muqaddar ka Sikandar, Bachchan became the undisputed king of Hindi cinema. His slick act in Chandra Barot’s Don (1978) was something viewers had not seen before. When he did a cheeky “Apni to jaese taese…” in Lawaaris (1981), the audience responded with gusto. When he played a drunkard in Sharaabi (1984), the box office overflowed with sympathy. The audience could not have enough of him in Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), where he stole the thunder from Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor. The film is remembered for its epic scene in which blood is transmitted from the three brothers directly into the veins of their mother, played by Nirupa Roy. The scene stretched credibility, but such was Bachchan’s charisma that nobody objected.

Along the way, he formed a formidable partnership with both Desai and Mehra. When they helmed a film, they thought of Bachchan first. After Zanjeer, Mehra worked with Bachchan in films such as Hera Pheri (1976), Muqaddar ka Sikandar (1978), Lawaaris (1981), Namak Halal (1982), Sharaabi (1984) and Jadugar (1989), with each film reaping gold at the box office.

Likewise, Desai worked with him in Parvarish (1977), Suhaag (1979), Naseeb (1981), Desh Premee (1982), Mard (1985) and Ganga Jamuna Saraswati (1988), and each of the films left its mark at the turnstiles. The film that was most talked-about, though, was Coolie (1983), during the shooting of which Bachchan had a life-threatening accident in a fight sequence with the actor Puneet Issar. Cinemagoers across the country prayed for his recovery.

When the film released, the scene came with a ticker informing viewers that this was the shot where Bachchan had got injured. As for Issar, he was consigned to B-grade films for a long while as big directors steered clear of him.

Indeed, from 1973 to the end of the 1980s, there was only one hero whose touch turned a film into gold at the box office. When a Bachchan film released at the cinemas, no one else dared to release their film at the same time. Often, for three weeks after the release of a Bachchan film, no big-banner Hindi film released at cinema halls. No cinema would be willing to take a Bachchan film off the screen either until it had been milked to the full.

Equally significantly, each of his films arrived without another Bachchan starrer following in its trail for the next few months. This trend continued for more than a decade, changing only towards the end of 1980s when films such as Toofan, Jadugar and Main Azad Hoon followed in quick succession in 1989. Such was his magic, his charisma, his awe.

Angry young man

In film after film, Bachchan sold dreams. Almost always, his roles were larger than life. He played the angry young man, the unemployed youth from small-town India who came to lord it over the metropolis. He was a one-man army, a man whom the system could not corrupt, a man who had started from scratch and pushed his way up.

It was a story the common man could relate to, more so in the 1970s and 1980s when the issues of corruption, unemployment and urban migration had begun to raise their ugly heads. Predictably, the men who had migrated from smaller towns and villages to big cities became Bachchan’s biggest fans. It was they who formed the “first day, first show” crowd for a Bachchan film. They decided the fate of his films. They raised him to the status of an icon.

And an enduring icon Bachchan was, as the conferment of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for lifetime achievement suggests. Interestingly, though his career peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, it was what he accomplished post-2000 that deserves greater credit. That was when he transcended beyond being a tremendously popular star to a brave actor ready to tap new frontiers in the genre. For instance, he worked with Aditya Chopra in Mohabbatein (2000) even if he was no longer the only hero, yielding space to Shah Rukh Khan in the film. As he did in Aks (2001), Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s film that was ahead of its times, and Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001). Here was a man into his sixties, still being the prime attraction of cinema.

Even if he could no longer be the angry young man of Shakti or a romantic hero of Silsila, special roles were written for him, which ensured he remained a pivotal figure, such as Ravi Chopra’s Baghban (2003) which talked of the helplessness of an old couple in the sunset of their lives. His best though came in Black (2005), a film which the redoubtable thespian Dilip Kumar claimed deserved an Oscar. Not to forget Paa (2009), where he played a character with a genetic disorder and which won him the National Award for the Best Actor.

Incidentally, some 20 years before Paa, he had dared to experiment with Agneepath (1990) where, as a mafia don, he modulated his voice brilliantly. The high-risk strategy for a man known for his baritone won him the National Award for Best Actor, proving in the bargain that stars could be fine actors too. Bachchan no longer was a prisoner of his image.

He was willing to let go of the past and embrace the new age. Bachchan experimented with his looks, characters and directors. Some, such as Paa or Cheeni Kum, were successful; others such as Nishabd, 102 Not Out or Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag, a remake of Sholay, were not. But he did not fail for want of trying. The same streak took him to television, where he continues to host the hugely popular show “Kaun Banega Crorepati”.

Of course, there has been criticism that Bachchan has not always stood up for issues in real life, that he has preferred to be politically correct rather than speaking the truth to the powers that be. People have also alleged that he has not always been appreciative of his co-stars’ acting talent. In fact, Sridevi, the lead heroine of the 1980s, once pledged not to work with him as heroines did not get roles of substance in his films. But that proved a minor quibble. Bachchan kept his counsel and concentrated on doing what he did best: acting. This earned him the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, apart from four National Awards and 15 Filmfare Awards. He has also been the recipient of the Padma Shri (1984), the Padma Bhushan (2001) and the Padma Vibhushan (2015), besides the Knight of the Legion of Honour, France’s highest civilian award.

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