The Bachchan phenomenon

Brand Bachchan

Print edition : October 18, 2013

Displaying a creation by Karan Johar and Varun Bahl at the the HDIL India Couture Week in Mumbai on October 7, 2010. Photo: PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP

Amitabh Bachchan. Photo: PTI

A "Deewar" scene painted on a wall in Mumbai on the eve of Bachchan's 70th birthday. Photo: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP

In the film "Paa", in which his son, Abhishek Bachchan, plays his father. Photo: The Hindu Archives

100 years of Indian Cinema

CRITICS call him destiny’s child. He was there at the right place at the right time, they murmur. There could be a grain of truth in that. But the larger truth is that Amitabh Bachchan has carved out his own destiny, his place among the pantheon of silver screen gods and goddesses. Yes, many summers ago, in the late 1960s when the well-known writer-director Khwaja Ahmed Abbas was on the look out for the cast of Saat Hindustani, he chose Tinnu Anand, later to be a noted director-actor, for a particular role in the film. But it ultimately went to Bachchan.

That was Bachchan’s introduction to Hindi cinema. The film failed, as did a handful of others he acted in. Until Zanjeer came . The scriptwriters Salim Khan-Javed Akhtar came up with the story of an angry young man for the Prakash Mehra film. The director had his eye on Rajesh Khanna, who was the heart-throb of millions at that time, for the lead role. Salim-Javed had their reservations. Into the fray came Dev Anand. However, things did not work out. Dharmendra? He was too busy for Mehra. Ultimately, Zanjeer came Bachchan’s way. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

His baritone, his unique way of dialogue delivery, his height, and his ability to convey a lot with his eyes and body became part of his identity. In film after film, Bachchan was expected to play the angry young man taking on the establishment, giving voice to the voiceless.

With India then in the throes of urbanisation and cities struggling to cope with the ever-increasing avalanche of young men shifting from small towns and villages, Bachchan’s larger-than-life portrayals endeared him to the masses. When he blared against a corrupt regime, unemployment and poverty, it struck a chord. That all this came dressed up as entertainment made the fare more than palatable.

Film-makers such as Manmohan Desai and Mehra carefully crafted Bachchan’s on-screen image and reaped dividends. The success of films like Zanjeer, Sholay and Deewar ended the hegemony of Rajesh Khanna, who until then could not put a foot wrong. It also meant that Dilip Kumar gracefully retreated from the scene as his own films, notably Bairaag and Sagina, did not do well at the box office. Shammi Kapoor graduated to doing character roles. Even a well-rounded actor like Sanjeev Kumar had to be content with the tag of a thinking man’s actor.

Bachchan was everybody’s darling—his presence ensured that the masses turned up for the first day-first show. Even mediocre films of his like Suhaag, Mahaan and Naseeb collected good money. And for close to two decades, Hindi film heroines vied to be seen in the same frame as Bachchan. From Jaya Bhaduri to Hema Malini and Zeenat Aman to Rekha, Sridevi, Jayaprada and Meenakshi Seshadri, every heroine’s resume was considered incomplete until she had acted as Big B’s love interest, even if the role was minuscule. When a Bachchan film was released, the rest of the cast was reduced to sidekicks; he towered over the hoardings, the posters, and the rushes.

For cinegoers, indeed, Bachchan was at the right place, at the right time, saying the right things. For him they happily left their brains behind. The most abiding proof came when the masses lapped up Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony. As the name suggests, the film was a screaming advertisement for communal amity delivered in a manner desirable for the frontbenchers. The director, though, took it a step further with a sequence where the heroes’ mother has to be given blood. The three sons lie on adjacent beds even as the doctor pumps blood out of their bodies and straight into the mother’s! It was an outrageous idea that the masses happily lapped up. That was Bachchan’s hallmark. He could make the implausible appear not just plausible but inevitable and desirable!

A little before Desai’s film, Yash Chopra had come up with Deewar. The film set in stone the story of two brothers going their divergent ways. It cemented Bachchan’s image as the angry young man, often on the wrong side of the establishment. Though fellow hero Shashi Kapoor had the equal support of the director, it is Bachchan who is remembered to this day. Incidentally, yet again, the director initially wanted Rajesh Khanna to play Vijay, the role Bachchan did in the movie. Nobody has forgotten the timeless dialogue: “Mere paas maa hai.”

From the 1970s to the 1980s and beyond, Bachchan ruled the box office like never before. His predecessors like Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar had their own strong following, but when it came to the box office nobody commanded as much a following as Bachchan. When Chandra Barot’s Don was released in the late 1970s, the queues of cinegoers outside an Old Delhi cinema hall went on for kilometres. Much like the case with Sholay earlier, where with each passing week, the film’s demand increased.

The most clinching proof of Bachchan’s unprecedented fan following came with Coolie, the Manmohan Desai film, during the shooting of which Bachchan had an almost fatal accident. Millions went into prayer mode. When the film was released, cinegoers came to the halls out of respect for the hero. And the cinema halls made hay, happily pointing out the exact sequence during the shooting of which Bachchan had got injured.

With Namak Halal, Lawaaris, Mard, Sharaabi and Aakhri Raasta, he rewrote the box-office grammar. Black marketeers had a field day. And competition vanished. Rajesh Khanna took to acting in multi-starrers, Dharmendra and Shatrughan Sinha had to wait for Bachchan’s leftovers, Jeetendra looked to south Indian film-makers, and Vinod Khanna kept away from the industry. Dilip Kumar, when he did come back, did so as an ageing hero, one who still commanded respect but could no longer run around trees or bash up the villain. Dev Anand was reduced to a caricature of his charismatic self. Bachchan was numero uno. The likes of Mithun Chakraborty and Govinda for a brief while challenged him. Their bluff was soon called.

Bachchan was no longer just destiny’s favourite child. He had indeed crafted his fate. Of course, his best was yet to come. Though occasionally through films like Anand, Abhimaan and Silsila he had proved he could do soft romantic or emotional roles with ease, he was almost always a prisoner of his action hero image. It changed when Bachchan made a comeback as the senior hero. Following the debacle of films like Lal Badshah and earlier Toofan, Jaadugar and Ajooba, Bachchan realised he would have to reinvent himself to stay relevant to the new generation. He ably did that, coming up with films like Paa, where he played a 12-year-old boy; Cheeni Kum, where he played a man his age but one who is in love with a much younger woman; and others like Sarkar and lately Satyagraha. He is no longer the main hero but one who plays a pivotal role in the films. Now as much in demand on television as in films, Bachchan continues to defy time.

What is more, he retains the simplicity and the humility of yore. Speaking to this correspondent recently at the launch of a book on his films’ posters, he said, “I am happy that people want me even at this age, that film-makers still want me…. I may not be happy with all the jobs I do, but I am nervous about every new venture, be it a film or a television show. It is important to be nervous. That way you give your best. You are not smug.”

Indeed, he is far from smug. Forever reinventing himself, forever pushing boundaries, Bachchan has scoffed at all the norms of cinema. Now, it is the turn of television, where he is set to make his acting debut later this year. He still retains the same nervous energy. “Every day I am apprehensive before facing the camera. I rehearse my lines for hours. We all try to reach a situation where we become so natural that the camera doesn’t exist for us. I don’t know if I have been able to achieve it.”

Television viewers will soon find out for themselves.

Ziya Us Salam