February 28, 1992

The Amitabh phenomenon

Print edition : February 06, 2015

Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra in a still from the film "Sholay". Photo: The Hindu Archives

AMITABH BACHCHAN. The man behind the mystique of megastardom, whose 86 films in the last two decades have fed the fantasies of millions the world over, remains an enigma.

The larger-than-life superhero, who fought evil from the boiling cauldron of hell itself, was through the 1970s and the 1980s virtually a one-man industry on whom Hindi cinema depended to make megabucks, and even to survive.

But, for the “phenomenon” these 20 years were no pastoral picnic—he faced a press boycott, nearly died during the shooting of an action scene, contracted an incurable nerve disease, and made a disastrous political foray. He continued regardless, making a spectacular comeback.

Amitabh’s box-office records can be described only in superlatives. Producers and distributors seem to believe still that “even a flop with Amitabh’s name on the marquee is a good enough grosser”. Each of his films remains a money-spinner for the first two weeks. In the  1970s and the 1980s, he was hailed as the one-man industry upon whom Hindi cinema depended not only to make its highest stakes ever, but to survive through lean times. An accident or illness to the “phenomenon” meant a major crisis—a choking of financial circulation to the whole structure. It has also been acknowledged that the Amitabh appeal stemmed somewhat the industry’s initial downslide caused by the video and cable television depredations.

His image of the “angry young man” had viewers reeling under the magic of neorealism, where dream and daydream coalesced in a brave new world. The myriad manifestations of Amitabh’s no-holds-barred rebellion offered a blissful release to the repressions of a whole generation. The star became a cult figure of radical dynamism, of iconoclastic change. He was no stranger to the seaminess of street life. His idealism rose not from birth or class, but from action. His avatars recurred in shanties and ghettos, in the underworld dens and among the dregs of humanity. There he battled with the predators of the concrete jungle for survival—his belligerence hiding a tender heart, family virtues, human kindliness. He was the ultimate good man, often turned bad by circumstances, whose atonement came through self-sacrifice—often unto gory, long-drawn death.

So from Zanjeer through Deewar, Sholay, Mukaddar ka Sikandar, Shahenshah, Inderjeet, Agneepath and Akayla, to Khuda Gawah, the Amitabh archetype continues to reflect variations on a simplistic mould, magnified to a brilliant potency; it has now become part of the collective psyche of a nation of filmgoers. It was the perfect antidote to the dystopian nightmare of modern mechanistic existence, especially in the less cynical times of the recent past. Amitabh individuates his roles with the utmost confidence and conviction. He makes the unsubtle seem subtle, touches the crass with class, makes melodrama credible. Certainly, no other Indian actor had the speaking eyes and spellbinding voice to infuse nuanced suggestivity into stereotypical situations. His finesse did not alienate his characters from the masses. Rather, Amitabh’s leashed intensity, of a kind unknown to Hindi cinema before, electrified the viewer. He also charmed with that streak of comedy, which he displayed from time to time ( Parvarish, Chupke Chupke, Amar Akbar Antony). As director Govind Nihalani puts it: “Give him the corniest line, he makes it acceptable.”

Besides the staple fare of athletic, tear-jerking razzmatazz, Amitabh provided arresting performances of a kind where the star made way for the actor. True, there has been no masterpiece or bravura show, but Amitabh’s high-calibre histrionic skills were evident in the middle-of-the-road ventures in which he participated ( Anand, Namak Haram, Abhiman, Mili, Saudagar).

Actor Jeetendra once exclaimed that Amitabh was the No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 of Indian moviedom.

Fixing a meeting with Amitabh is a much simpler task than you anticipated. He himself suggests a convenient time and place.

As one moves away from a descending group on the staircase the accompanying photographer hisses, “There!”

Who? Where?

A tall form detaches itself and comes forward, names you, and, “ Frontline?”

Amitabh is unhurried in dealing with questions, as if he has all the time in the world to answer them.

Born in 1941 to parents of different religious, linguistic and social backgrounds, Amitabh had a liberal upbringing in a conservative milieu. “My father [Dr Harivanshrai Bachchan] is from a poor traditional Uttar Pradesh family, my mother [Teji] is a Sikh from Karachi with a rich, aristocratic background and an education to match it. Theirs was one of the earliest intercaste marriages in Allahabad, so I have had a good blend of the East and the West from childhood.” With an esteemed Hindi poet for his father, the young Amitabh grew with literature and scholarship around him. He developed a passion for music and painting. There was discipline and adherence to the Indian cultural ethos in lifestyle and attitude. But there was also freedom of choice in education or profession.

The upper-class training through public school in Nainital, university in New Delhi, and a first job as a business executive in Calcutta were hardly a preparatory ground for aspirations to stardom, nor were the dabblings in amateur theatricals in school and college qualification enough. But guided by brother Ajitabh into a talent-spotting contest, Amitabh found himself in Bombay among countless star-struck youngsters.  Amitabh seemed an unsuitable candidate indeed—lanky, gawky, withdrawn to woodenness, his looks so unusual as to be deemed ugly. Reportedly the big guns of the industry laughed at his photographs and screen tests. “Horse-faced”, was the kindest comment. And heroines shied away from the tall, gangling youngster.

How did he rough it out during this phase of rejection? Did he attempt to obtain an outlet on the stage? “Any newcomer has to be prepared for hardships. I would be a hypocrite if I said that glamour and money were not in the mind in the choice of career. But initially it was just to be putting one’s interest in a sphere where one could work with total absorption. Films provided a natural progression to a wider audience than the stage. Also the medium attracted me by the great scope it offered for experimentation.” After a long pause Amitabh betrays some emotion as he exclaims, “I am surprised that you think the struggle and the humiliation are over for me now. They are not. If you are a failure, you are rejected. And you struggle to live up to your previous success, or undo your previous failure.”

The unique face and personality caught the attention of radical film-maker K.A. Abbas, who was looking for newcomers for his Saat Hindustani. Hearing of his unusual name, he asked if the youngster was the poet’s son. “He would not sign me up until he got a written letter of consent from my father, whom he knew personally!”

Of course, the raw recruit was very nervous before the camera. “But these apprehensions are there even today. I worry about whether the shot is going to be all right, if I can improve upon it. You know, I don’t think the anxiety is more or less at different stages. There is just one great constant fear throughout a film actor’s career... yes... absolutely....” For a moment the listener can see it reflected in the distant eyes.

It is a well-known chapter of Indian film history beginning with the release of Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer in 1971 which turned Amitabh into a goldmine—besieged and exploited by many prospectors including himself. Violence, vengeance and terror smouldering in the Salim-Javed dialogues and refracted through the Amitabh flamboyance fired the imagination of a whole nation as nothing had ever done before. Were the actor’s angry outbursts so terrifyingly real because they bore some resemblance to his own perceptions at that time? Some in-felt response? The answer is a definite, decisive “No, what I was and actually am is something that should be left to me.”

He has nothing new to say about his political experience except to admit that it was an emotional decision. “When I found that I was inept at the political game, I quit, rather than impose my inadequacy on the voters.” There are no comments on the national scene either—past and present—because “I am no longer in politics”. His cryptic abruptness reveals distaste for the subject. It is also easy to see that he has not recovered from the Sriperumbudur calamity.

When he was elected Member of Parliament, the actor had commented on the irony: “One who had provided escapism to the masses had now to fight against the very reasons for which he had provided the escapism.”

How does it feel to be moving constantly back and forth between illusion and reality as an actor does? “I do not know if it confuses me, but it certainly must be doing some damage somewhere. It certainly drains you of energy.”

How does he regain that lost energy? “Through quiet contemplation.” When? “At home, sometimes on the sets. You do not have to be alone to do that. You could be achieving it while I am doing an interview with you as we are doing now. I think actors are best trained to shut out the world because at the snap of a finger we have to switch from smiles to tragic pathos—and before thousands of watching spectators on outdoor locations. They shout and scream, they get tough and violent—but you still have to perform the most romantic scene with your leading lady. It requires a lot of grit and professionalism to execute your task to a degree of perfection. It is great mental training to switch everything off—make that crowd non-existent—and just concentrate on what the scene demands of you....”

“Shot ready, sir.”

The enigma lives on.

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