The aura of Amitabh

star power

The aura of Amitabh

In the year 1982, as a 16 year old in Lucknow, I lost my appetite. My mother had to force-feed me. I was hooked to television and radio news, not sparing any bulletin in the day. I prayed at the temple everyday on my return from school. But I was not the only one.

Prayer meetings were held in every nook and corner of the country and my black and white television showed serpentine queues of anxious people outside the Breach Candy Hospital, Mumbai. A phenomenon was fighting for his life. He was Amitabh Bachchan. And this was the impact of the stardom of Amitabh on a young and impressionable mind. And millions wanted their favourite star to recover. Time had stood still.

One got a glimpse of frantic film celebrities lining up at Breach Candy Hospital. I remember former prime ministers, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, cutting short a foreign visit, to pay Amitabh Bachchan a visit. Such was the charisma and fan following of the man who was referred to as “a one man industry”. No other Hindi film actor had captured the collective consciousness of people in the manner Bachchan had. This surge of emotion across the country when Amitabh met with an unfortunate accident on the sets of Manmohan Desai’s Coolie was unprecedented in independent India’s history of popular culture.

Amitabh, born to Teji and Harivansh Rai Bachchan, the eminent Hindi poet, worked in Calcutta where he dabbled in theatre and realised acting was his true calling. Bachchan soon landed in Mumbai. In 1969, his debut film was Mrinal Sen’s National Award winning Bhuvan Shome as a voice artiste, followed by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas’s Saat Hindustani, that portrays the heroic story of seven Indians who struggle to liberate Goa from the Portuguese colonial rule. The year 1969, when Amitabh made his debut, was also the year Rajesh Khanna’s Aradhana was released and Khanna was declared a superstar. While one climbed the peak of stardom, the other had already reached its foothill. This makes the year 1969 crucial in the history of Hindi cinema.

That Amitabh Bachchan has ruled the marquee for close to two decades and even today he is Hindi film’s most charismatic star is a well-established fact. But the making of this “superstar of the millennium” was a rather arduous journey not without its more than fair share of struggles and brickbats.

After his debut, Bachchan came out with a number of flops to his name. His looks were not that of a conventional, good looking, Hindi film hero the audience was used to. He is certainly no Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor or Rajesh Khanna. Therefore, not as a hero, but as a supporting actor, Amitabh established his acting credentials with Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s masterpiece Anand, in 1971. Dr Bhasker Banerjee’s character not only won him awards, but makers took notice of Amitabh who otherwise had had a listless run of films. Amitabh in his own words has acknowledged Anand as his big break since he got an opportunity to work with superstar Rajesh Khanna. The seeds of the brooding Bachchan were sown. Bhasker Banerjee of Anand was an angst-ridden fatalist. Perhaps, writers Salim-Javed made a mental note of the actor and zeroed in on Amitabh two years later for Zanjeer.

The year 1971 was also the year when Indira Gandhi, a close family associate of the Bachchan family, was seeking re-election on the card of her populist slogan, “Garibi Hatao”. Mrs Gandhi got a landslide victory. India also went on to ‘liberate’ Bangladesh in the war against Pakistan in 1971. The euphoria of the country was however short-lived. The charismatic Indira Gandhi’s regime began to lose its sheen and there was a growing sense of discontentment and anger in a young India which was just 25. Nehruvian polemics had either not delivered or subverted by the ruthless and pragmatic, real politic approach of Indira Gandhi. A simmering anger amongst the people was palpable. Rajesh Khanna’s stardom was fast becoming a casualty of his temperament. It is rumoured that a spat with Salim-Javed provoked the writers to declare that they will create a new star, with a new persona. Hence, “The Angry Young Man” was conceived by Salim-Javed.

The angry young man

Zanjeer, penned by the writer duo for Prakash Mehra, was offered to several actors who turned it down. Prakash Mehra needed an intense face for the role and Amitabh Bachchan was shortlisted at Salim-Javed’s behest. Released in 1973, Zanjeer became a runaway hit and Bachchan announced the arrival of his stardom. Inspector Vijay Khanna, Amitabh’s screen name in Zanjeer (Vijay became Amitabh’s most popular and frequent screen name after this), was an angry, brooding, intense character who took on the corrupt system/society represented by Ajit, the hooch smuggler. Ajit epitomised all that was “bad” in our society and politics. The incorruptible and brooding Bachchan took on the system. Despite being a revenge drama, Amitabh’s angry young man in Zanjeer represented the angry middle class of an increasingly frustrated country.

A star was born. Two other significant releases of Amitabh Bachchan in 1973 were Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan and Namak Haraam. Abhimaan was a marital drama, where Bachchan portrayed a jealous husband who is upset with his wife’s increasing popularity as a singer. Namak Haraam was a story of two friends and once again brought together Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh, but for the last time. It is popularly believed that Amitabh’s portrayal of the rich spoilt man was appreciated a lot more than Rajesh Khanna’s proletariat and author-backed character.

Amitabh, with Namak Haraam, was comfortable in the saddle of stardom. Khanna himself declared Bachchan as the future superstar. Both films had Amitabh refining and underlining his angry persona. Then came Yash Chopra’s Deewar in 1975 and Bachchan was anointed as the next megastar for good. Romantic Khanna had been displaced and Salim-Javed had successfully created a ‘new star’ with a ‘new persona’.

The simmering anger of Vijay Verma (Amitabh Bachchan) in Deewaar, the grouch on the face, with the lower lip dominating the upper, and intoxicating eyes mesmerised the audience. The country was under the spell cast by Bachchan. The apathetic society tattooed “mera baap chor hai” on young Vijay Verma’s arm and this became the motivation for Amitabh’s character to turn a complete antihero. Vijay Verma of Deewaar was an atheist and a law breaker who was ‘living in’ with a cabaret artist. None of this was done by a protagonist ever before in Hindi films.

The society had ostracised Vijay in Deewaar for no fault of his and the marginalised Vijay hit back by breaking all its norms. This was the perfect framework for the ‘angry young man’ to blossom and make a connect with the audience. Vijay, meaning ‘victory’, was the most-suited screen name which a battling, angry underdog could have for the audience to identify with Amitabh’s struggle in his films.

In the same year, Indira Gandhi imposed ‘emergency’. This was seen as a desperate attempt on the part of Indira Gandhi to keep political control amidst growing disenchantment. And Amitabh’s Vijay in Deewaar was the melting pot of this frustration. It is ironical that one of the closest friends of the Gandhis so successfully represented the anger against the idea of what India had become under Indira Gandhi’s prime ministership. And Amitabh never looked back.

Weaving celluloid magic

There was a deluge of films after Deewaar. Trishul, Kabhi Kabhie, Amar Akbar Anthony, Naseeb, Muqaddar Ka Sikander, Chupke Chupke, Milli, Mr Natwarlal, Khoon Pasina, Hera Pheri, Namak Halaal, Laawaris, and of course, Sholay. Every film that Amitabh touched sent the producers laughing all the way to the bank. Yash Chopra, Ramesh Sippy, Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra and Hrishikesh Mukherjee were some of the filmmakers Amitabh regularly worked with and churned out blockbusters. The bass voice, the height, the eyes coupled with anger, or brilliant comic time, as the case may be, had Amitabh have complete control over all the strings to pull the audience the way he wanted. Whichever rasa, if it was Bachchan, it was lapped up by the people.

However, there were three major casualties of Amitabh’s stardom: the heroine,the comedian and Hindi film music. Amitabh was expected to occupy screen space from the first frame to the last, this left very little for the heroines to be of any consequence in his films. They were marginalised most of the time, with a few exceptions. This was certainly the most lopsided phase of gender bias in Hindi films. Bachchan came, he saw, and he conquered the lady.

Hindi films had seen some of the most formidable comic talent in Johnny Walker, Mehmood, Asrani et al. Amitabh, with his brilliant comic timing, wrote their epitaph. When all that the audience wanted was Amitabh, who is a natural comic actor as well, there was no need for a comedian upon his arrival. Hindi films bid them goodbye.

The film music was predominantly romantic. Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Raj Kapoor and Rajesh Khanna owed their stardom to the songs they sang and danced to on screen. Songs were of no use to the angry Bachchan, with occasional exceptions like Kabhi Kabhie or Silsila, but then they were not youth-oriented, bubbling love stories.

And then came 1982. Amitabh was critically injured in an accident on the sets of Manmohan Desai’s Coolie. The country came to a standstill.

Not just close to 60 crores were riding on one single man, the heartthrob of millions was caught between life and death. The ‘reel’ hero had collapsed much to the country’s shock. Prayers followed and I must confess that words cannot capture the atmosphere of gloom across the country at that time.

As if his audience had decided to fight the gods along with him and get him back to where he belonged, the silver screen. It was not an actor or a star battling for life, it were the hopes, the aspirations and the love of millions which was at stake and the gods had no choice but to give in. The only time such a pall of gloom had descended on the entire country was when Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984. Pop icons for sure have incomprehensible impact. Coolie obviously became a blockbuster. Manmohan Desai chose to freeze the shot in which Bachchan was injured, and a caption appeared as well.

With Indira Gandhi passing away, Rajiv Gandhi, who was thrust into politics after the death of his brother Sanjay, summoned his close friend Amitabh Bachchan to take on the powerful Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna from Allahabad. Amitabh defeated Bahuguna with the largest margin ever. But politics turned out to be Amitabh’s waterloo. Mired in controversy and scandals, Amitabh quit politics in 1987. By then, the crucial time of his film career was lost. There was an unceremonious lull in the life of India’s biggest star. He was clearly grappling with midlife crisis of his own making.

Some interesting films like Mein Azad Hoon came his way, but Amitabh’s second innings were far from taking off. A technical wizard, Mukul Anand, with a track record of decent films, took fancy for the aging monarch. Bachchan parked his faith in Mukul’s tech-savvy vision and came with Agneepath in 1991, one of Amitabh’s finest film. This was followed by Hum and Khuda Gawah. These were largely stand-alone efforts in a phase of Amitabh’s career which was largely littered with inconsequential films.

Then Amitabh made another commercial blunder. He launched Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited (ABCL) in 1996. The product that the Corporation was to sell was ‘Amitabh Bachchan’ himself. Set up at the peak of free market reforms steamrolled by Finance Minister Manmohan Singh in the Narasimha Rao government, Bachchan putting himself as a brand was seen as an epitome of commodification in a neo-liberalised India, and a sign of things to come.

This was no surprise because during his heydays in the 80s, Amitabh always referred to himself as any other product in the market which comes on the shelf to be sold and made profits from. Clearly, no other movie star in India had seen such unprecedented stardom. The Corporation was either an idea ahead of its times for a new India emerging from the shell of Nehruvian economy, or was just badly planned and managed. ABCL sank like Titanic, and Amitabh was in debt.

A new dawn

Bailed out in the course of time by his political friends, there was an actor, an artiste at the core, hungry for good work to satiate his appetite for acting. Shah Rukh Khan was the new superstar of neo-liberal India, with his debut film Deewana in 1992, the year economic reforms were introduced. The Bachchan era was over, as the new generation took over. Amitabh was in a phase where he could play interesting characters and experiment, something he had refrained from doing for most part of his first innings. In Bachchan’s own words, worthwhile films had dried up and he walked up to Yash Chopra and told him, “I need a job.” And Mohabbatein happened. A romantic film where for the first time two superstars from two generation were pitched opposite each other.

The success of Mohabbatein gave a thumping start to Amitabh Bachchan’s second innings. This was closely followed by his first ever television show, Kaun Banega Crorepati, and Bachchan had clearly reinvented himself. “9 baj gaye kya?” — the tagline of the show’s promos, captured the imagination of the TV viewing audience, and the rest, as they say, is history. In 2000, the year Kaun Banega Crorepati and Mohabbatein happened, Amitabh was also declared “superstar of the millennium” by BBC.

Mohabbatein was followed by some sterling characters and performances in the kind of films with which Amitabh had not been associated before. Aks, Black, Sarkar, Nishabd, Khakhee, Cheeni Kum and Paa are some of his most appreciated performances in this phase of his career. It has been 15 years since, and the septuagenarian continues to be the Shahenshah of Hindi films, as he is fondly called. His latest outing Piku being one of the brightest feathers in his illustrious cap.

Films, television, brand endorsements, social cause, Amitabh Bachchan is truly a superstar for every season. And one is sure there is more of the best, yet to come from Amitabh.

Believe it or not...

There’s a temple dedicated to Big B in the Ballygung area of old Kolkata — the Bondel Road Temple — where a banner screams ‘Jai Amitabh Bachchan’! Walk into the temple and what do you see? An ornate green chair, just like the one in his movie Aks, on which are placed a pair of sandals, like the one he wore in Agneepath, and a portrait of the actor himself. Decorated with film posters and Bachchan memorabilia, this ‘temple’ has the head priest reciting ‘Amitabh Chalisa’ everyday. Frequented by the superstar’s fans regularly, this ‘temple’ comes alive on two days of the year — October 11 (his birthday) and August 2 (the day he recovered from his life-threatening accident).

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