Being Amitabh Bachchan
Amitabh Bachchan was never meant to be irrelevant. In spite of 13 straight flops before his breakthrough solo hit, Zanjeer (1973), the actor wasn’t written off or even relegated to inconsequential roles. It was only in the mid 1990s that the audience and Bachchan briefly lost each other. Following the release of Khuda Gawah (1993) the actor hit a midlife crisis of sorts and forfeited films for half a decade and his identity crisis upon his return with films like Mrityudaata (1997), Bade Miyan Chote Miyan (1998) Kohraam (1999), and Lal Baadshah (1999) didn’t help. But since the year 2000 or Mohabbatein (2000), and Kaun Banega Crorepati the significance of Amitabh Bachchan only increases with the passage of time.
There have been many long relationships that Hindi cinema has enjoyed but none fall in the same league as the one it shares with Bachchan. Lata Mangeshkar might have been around for longer and Dilip Kumar continues to be the thespian but it’s not the same when it comes to Bachchan. The only time this relationship suffered a pang of uncertainty was in the years following his self-inflicted exile. In 1992, Bachchan turned 50 and no one knew anything about the future. For two decades Bachchan was the hero but as the 1980s inched to an end, the one-man industry was running out of breath. The burden of being Shahenshah (1988), Toofan (1989), Jaadugar (1989), and Ajooba (1991) was perhaps a little too much to handle.
Most actors become successful, many become memorable, some become unforgettable and a few become legends … but there could only be one Amitabh Bachchan. There isn’t any other actor in the world that wins a Best Actor award the year after being awarded a lifetime achievement award. But with nothing left to prove he ended up becoming his own victim. Something had to be done and hence, he stopped for a while and grew a beard. Having seen a Marlon Brando fall to the unmentionable pits and resurrect himself in The Godfather (1972), people believed the beard was an indication of things to come.
The middle years are the worst and even Bachchan didn’t have an idea of how devastating they could be. He returned sans the beard and things got worse. By definition ‘return’ means getting back and Bachchan did what he was good at – playing a character that had made him what he was. At 55 he still wanted to be the angry young man. It wasn’t that his audience wouldn’t recognise him as anyone else; maybe Bachchan had forgotten being anyone else. For three years Bachchan believed in the likes of K.C. Bokadia and Mehul Kumar that he was the Mrityudata and Lal Baadshah but at 58 his mind, rather than his body gave up on him. If Mohabbatein gave him an opportunity to be a character and not an image, Kaun Banega Crorepati made him realise that acting one’s age is perhaps the most challenging role.
The Supporting Actor Filmfare for Mohabbatein might have been his third in the category but it was as important as the first one he got for Anand (1971). Somewhere the wheel started a familiar journey and since then he has done over 60 films.
Today, at 70 Bachchan is more visible across mediums and formats than he ever was. He does films, hosts’ television shows and endorses just about everything from yellow-pages websites to cement. Every now and then, he teases us with performances like Khakhee (2004) or Cheeni Kum (2007) to remind us of how it used to be but makes us endure a Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag (2007) or The Last Lear (2007). When did Amitabh Bachchan go from being someone who could do everything to someone who wouldn’t stop at anything? It is sad to see an icon reduced to someone who is willing to sell the benefits of a house cleaning liquid and yet, we want him to engage us. What is it about Bachchan that makes us want more of him? There isn’t any simple answer to this besides that he is Amitabh Bachchan.
The last time when Bachchan failed us, he became irrelevant. There wasn’t anyone he could blame but himself. Now that we are over the middle years in our relationship it seems like it’d be senseless to expect a different reaction from Bachchan. So it’s the films that must engage him in a manner befitting his persona. How we would have loved to see a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film with the everyman avatar of Bachchan Ver. 2.0. But as that isn’t possible, one would gleefully settle for an Anurag Kashyap, a Dibakar Banerjee or a Vishal Bharadwaj experiment with Bachchan. For that matter, Bachchan in a Shyam Benegal or a Yash Chopra minus Shah Rukh Khan would do just fine. Is someone listening?
Amitabh Bachchan turns 70 on October 11.
Born a cinephile and a close observer of society, the author is an award-winning documentary filmmaker/writer. He is a regular contributor to leading Indian publications and is currently working on his first book. Find out more about him here.
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