Amitabh Bachchan at 75 Exploring his enduring popularity and why he remains India’s biggest superstar. One advantage Amitabh Bachchan, or Big B, has had over others is that he’s forever with the times. For years, he has embodied the classic Indian hero, inventing and reinventing, branding and un-branding himself miraculously as and when the need has presented itself.
At 75, when most stars are not even stars anymore and are relegated, in all likelihood, to lead a quiet retired life waiting for a timely revival, a second act, a comeback or a Lifetime Achievement renaissance, Amitabh Bachchan has no need for any of that. Think about it. This is a man, who at the very least, four generations of Indians are intimately familiar with and never, save for a brief interlude in the late 1980s and 1990s when his films flopped and ABCL went bust turning him from a human god into running gag, has Bachchan been out of the public eye. Except for the first three odd years of his career when he delivered one stinker after another, Bachchan has not known what’s it’s like to be down and out.
It’s hard to think that this very star who defined heroism and what it meant to be a classic Bollywood hero and spawned a generation of copycats (most famous being Rajinikanth who carved his Southern identity out of Big B remakes) was once dismissed as “too unconventional” to make the cut. Those were the days of pink-cheeked heartthrobdom of Rajesh Khanna. But, apparently, when Khanna saw Namak Haraam co-starring the two at a trial at Liberty cinema, he tersely announced, “Here is the superstar of tomorrow.” Hrishikesh Mukherjee – a common link between Khanna and Bachchan, between superstar of the present and superstar of the future – was witness to the scene.
Although Hrishikesh Mukherjee gave poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s son a Bengali Bhadralok makeover in Anand and appropriately cast him as a sensitive Bard types it was Prakesh Mehra and Salim-Javed who spotted the anger in the upcoming star’s eyes. 1973’s Zanjeer changed Bachchan’s fortunes. It displaced the hill station romanticism of the 1960s with cynicism and rage, perhaps mirroring the darker political mood intrinsic to the Seventies.
Bachchan became the one man who could don a pristine white Bengali kurta and pass off as a singer, professor and depressed alcoholic (Abhimaan, Chupke Chupke and Mili respectively) and at the same time, anchor Salim-Javed’s anti-Establishment figure into a universally acceptable celluloid anti-hero with daddy issues who, surprisingly, the audience cared – even, rooted – for.
One advantage Bachchan has had over others is that he’s forever with the times. In the 1970s, he was quick to give voice to the political gloom and social issues like rising unemployment and rich-poor divide. He knew his cinema was watched by Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians and he played and respected all faiths. For Muslims, he offered sops like the lucky-charm 786 badge and the Hajj song/qawwali, for Hindus he sang bhajans, for the sake of Christians he grew up in a Church and for Sikhs (his mother Teji was a Sikh) he donned the turban to save the nation. In his excitement, he even played Bobby Deol’s turbaned grandfather in one film (remember Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Sathiyo?), a task that could so easily have been left to the devices of someone like Dharmendra, Bollywood’s resident Punjabi. For those not inclined towards God, he also played a non-believer, refusing to enter a temple in Deewaar.
Now, the Vijay of Deewaar, in dotage, is free of all excesses and expectations. He freely experiments with his looks and roles. If he’s the constipated Bengali male of Piku (2015) on one side, he’s also the lawyer of Pink (2016) of “No means no” fame on another. Incidentally, even advertising has contributed to boosting the Bachchan myth. He appears in just as many ad films as he regularly does in feature films made by those very ad filmmakers! He’s a win-win for filmmakers. For, as a star, he appeals to audiences of all ages. A 75-year-old grandfather can watch Zanjeer, Anand or Deewaar and enjoy the masterful storytelling and relate to the seething anger of those Bachchan-starrers, his 45-year-old daughter-in-law can be sitting in another room and watching a rerun of Kaun Banega Crorepati and maybe, the youngest member of that family could be glued to her phone laughing along on the escapades of the wry man-child Auro in Paa.
For years, Bachchan has embodied the classic Indian hero. He has reinvented himself tirelessly and miraculously as and when the need has presented itself. Now, in the role of a benign grandfather, both off and on screen, Amitabh Bachchan continues to occupy the first seat in Bollywood winners’ circle. At a time when stardom is so fleeting and Friday-to-Friday, Big B remains the ultimate evergreen who refuses to slow down. That’s the reason why even though he has announced that he won’t be ringing in his 75th birthday today, who can stop the thousands of crazy fans who throng his Juhu home every year from celebrating it? The party is outside Jalsa and everyone’s invited.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai.)