Deviyon, sajjano Bachchan @ 80

The reinvention of Amitabh Bachchan followed a well-timed shedding of the superstar aura, writes R Krishnakumar
Last Updated 15 October 2022, 06:30 IST

There is something inherently tragic about being a fan in denial. Especially so, when people you grew up with and shared your unconditional adulation start to move on. Even when left to defend the indefensible, the fan keeps the faith. Giving up is not an option.

The critical and commercial failure of ‘Mrityudaata’ (1997), a generic, fan-service drama, is very likely to have left the millions who loved Amitabh Bachchan at this strange point of transition. Bachchan – still India’s biggest movie star – was making a comeback, five years after ‘Khuda Gawah’. The Khans were already on the rise and the mighty Bachchan’s box office mojo in the 1990s, barring in ‘Aaj Ka Arjun’ (1990) and ‘Hum’ (1991), was on the wane. This was not really make-or-break for Bachchan, then aged 55, but there were points to be made; for the fan, this was pitched as a reassertion of the superstar’s rightful place, at the top.

The reboot period in Bachchan’s filmography stretched over four years, without that one big solo hit. This was no comeback. The star was still doing essentially star things, with middling results. The actor even seemed to have lost his thing for comedy. Something had changed.

These four years, marked by utterly forgettable outings like ‘Laal Baadshah’ and ‘Kohram’ (both 1999 releases), also saw Bachchan shift to characters closer to his age. With ‘Sooryavansham’ (1999), ‘Mohabbatein’ (2000), ‘Ek Rishta: The Bond of Love’ (2001), ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham’ (2001), and ‘Baghban’ (2003), he firmed up a necessary, though largely uninspiring, screen transition to the towering-patriarch stereotype.

It, however, was an important career choice that helped him make the switch, from angry old man to venerable senior citizen. It was a changeover that made the shedding of star trappings a lot easier.

Bachchan who at his peak played by the trade manual was now open to working with the new and untested. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s underrated thriller ‘Aks’ (2001), though a box office failure, was a slickly staged crossover that tried to bring the actor home, while nodding to the star.

Two 2002 releases – Vipul Amrutlal Shah’s heist thriller ‘Aankhen’ and Sanjay Gupta’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’ adaptation ‘Kaante’ – effectively established his second turn as a solid character actor who gets top billing amid younger, popular stars.

Rajkumar Santoshi’s 2004 thriller ‘Khakee’ had the definitive Bachchan performance of this phase. It showed us what the actor was capable of when there was no star baggage to drag along; the film was also a rare success in presenting him as an old, cornered man who still fit the mainstream male-lead sensibilities. Ram Gopal Varma would later mine this compelling actor-star template in his The Godfather-adaptation/fanboy tribute, ‘Sarkar’ (2005). The actor’s TV host turn with ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ in 2000 is widely considered a point of reinvention but as an actor, ‘Khakee’, in many ways, shaped Bachchan 2.0.

The decision to go prolific – the actor who turned 80 on Tuesday has never had a year without a release since 1995 – did add many duds to his CV but more work also meant a better shot at landing good work. Some of his acclaimed recent performances, including in ‘Piku’ (2015) and ‘Pink’ (2016), have also come as highs that broke the clutter of the ordinary.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Black’ (2005) had him in his second – after ‘Agneepath’ (1990) –National Award-winning performance. In one year, 2007, Bachchan could play an ageing royal guard in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s ‘Eklavya’, a lover grappling with guilt in Ram Gopal Varma’s ‘Nishabd’, and a London-based chef in R Balki’s rom-com ‘Cheeni Kum’.

There is an interesting contrast here in Rajinikanth who has extended his box office dominance significantly longer than Bachchan but at 71, is being challenged at his own game by younger stars and appears in no mood to return to the actor he was.

The adaptation was, arguably, easier for Bachchan because there was greater self-awareness about his abilities as an actor, which helped him take considered career decisions, because he was more accessible to writers and filmmakers who knew what was left underused. It was easier, also because he made the shift at the right time.

That three of Bachchan’s four National Awards – the most won by an actor – came in the second half of his career, that he is working with the likes of Shoojit Sircar, Sujoy Ghosh, and Nagraj Manjule should leave the fan at a better place.

Bachchan’s pro-establishment positions have set off criticism of his politics. His overexposure in selling brands has erased star mystique, of the kind Rajinikanth – he, still, does not do commercials – built his exclusivity on. The actor, however, has steered his career admirably well, smoothly transitioning from being the most adored movie star of our times to a formidable performer who still has much to offer.

Around his 80th birthday, there was familiar chatter about a biopic but all of that appeared to stop at one question – who will play Amitabh Bachchan? Like all true screen icons, he has shaped generations of actors and inspired fan-mimics in millions but none close enough to be a replacement.

(Published 15 October 2022, 05:56 IST)

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