At 72, he is going on as strong as ever. Is he a superlative actor or just a great screen presence with an outstanding voice? How many good films, how many wrong choices has he made? A hard appraisal of a 45-year career of ups and downs, peaks and embarrassments.
Shamitabh directed by R Balki (Cheeni Kum, Paa), releases today. The story involves an ego clash between two performers, one played by Dhanush, the other by Amitabh Bachchan, who will be seen as a frustrated drunkard whose baritone is the soul of the film. The film’s promising trailers have made me curious. And, I am sure I am not the only one.
Acting with the same zest like he did when he was in his late 30s, Bachchan, now 72, will be seen in two more seemingly powerful films this year. In Wazir, directed by Bejoy Nambiar (Shaitan, David), he plays a wheelchair-bound chess player alongside the hardworking and gifted Farhan Akhtar in the role of an ATS cop.
Piku directed by Shoojit Sircar has him in the role of a Bengali middle class person. It is the story of a father-daughter relationship, with Deepika Padukone playing his daughter and Irrfan Khan her unlikely love interest. The casting will keep the viewer interested, the Irrfan-Deepika pairing a clear suggestion that the film has something different to offer.
How Bachchan has been able to sustain his momentum well after his contemporaries have fallen off the map is a question we must not ask. What is evident from his choice of roles in the last one decade and a more is that he has acted in several offbeat films. Some haven’t worked. Others have made emphatic statements of his range as a superb actor. The Bachchan we have seen during this period is, quite simply, a free, different, man.
During his days as a superstar, the actor had delivered numerous box-office monsters. Among them were disasters, which had clicked because his mere presence as the Angry Young Man would decide the fate of the film. The word ‘competition’ had lost its meaning, not the ideal manner in which a film industry ought to function. But the fact is that it did.
But near-immunity from failures and Bachchan stopped being inseparable friends a long time ago. Even if he is part of the star cast, fiascos like Buddah Hoga Tera Baap and Ramgopal Varma Ki Aag, which deserve to fail, do. The Khans have been sharing most part of his lost kingdom for quite some time. Others like Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn and the much younger Ranbir Kapoor own their respective fiefdoms. Bachchan’s biggest strength is that his fans are present inside the territories of every younger star. They enjoy his screen presence, love his voice, and accept that he is the man among the boys. That list of boys might include the star they love most.
He has appeared in big-budget multi-starrers in recent years, but in supporting roles specially written for him. That is not surprising, since producers and directors too realize that, while his impact on the masses has diminished, denying its existence is outright fatuous. That any assessment of the top 10 popular modern-day stars has to include his name demonstrates his hold over the audience even today.
Many success stories have a direct connect with the era in which they are written. So is Bachchan’s. Had he been a product of modern times, he might have been compelled to relinquish his power well before he did. Because of the viewer’s exposure to a variety of films through satellite television and the now-old-fashioned video cassettes that made way for VCDs and DVDs, most stars have become increasingly insecure about the fate of their films. Being a one-man industry in such an environment would have been infinitely tougher. If at all that happened, undisputed dominance for several years would have been even more difficult. Instead of topping the box office charts like it did way back in 1979, a film like Suhaag would have tanked.
Operating in an era in which avenues for enhancing the viewer’s knowledge base were practically non-existent, why Bachchan stayed ahead of the others for so long is easy to understand. Because of his acting skills, his height and voice made a lot more impact than they otherwise would have. If his drunken monologue in Amar Akbar Anthony could make viewers gravitate to theatres time and again, it was because he had the charisma and capability to steer a lengthy scene with absurd dialogues even if he spoke to a mirror with no other actor on the screen.
Action scenes in which his long legs were used to good effect by directors like Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra allured the front-benchers, with zealous fans flinging coins at the screen to express their admiration. At the same time, his mere presence in scenes in which he had to act with his expressions alone revealed the finesse of understatement which also appealed to connoisseurs of commercial cinema.
Younger viewers who didn’t experience Hindi cinema during his days at the top might have seen Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna in which he plays the character of Sexy Sam, a womanizer who dresses up in garish outfits that are an assault on the eyes. In one telling moment, Sam shares the dining table with his daughter-in-law (played by Rani Mukherjee) and Shah Rukh Khan who are in an extramarital affair.
There is a close-up which captures the face of Sam who has sensed what is going on by observing the couple’s uneasy behaviour at the table. There is a hint of a smile on his face, an ‘I-know-it’ look in his eyes. Even in a role which requires an over-the-top performance, this one is a classic Bachchan moment in which he needs to bring out the actor in him. This, he does.
Directors queue up for him because they seek such moments from a man who is also blessed with the natural ability to pull off any role with his larger-than-life screen presence. Naseeruddin Shah is a great actor, but he never had what it took to become a superstar. Sanjeev Kumar was another great actor who invites comparison, but he didn’t have an all-conquering screen presence either.
That Bachchan has both is what has kept him in the business after Kaun Banega Crorepati not only redefined the reach of satellite television but also helped him make a comeback. His look and voiceover in Wazir’s trailer and his intriguing messages about his role in Shamitabh tell us why sedate retirement isn’t going to come anytime soon. The actor in him is still on the prowl, searching for a memory that’s more indelible than any other in Hindi cinema.
Most contemporary writings on Bachchan are flawed since they combine acknowledgment with neglect. While Rajesh Khanna was the first ever superstar and a one-man demolition man during his brief reign, Bachchan is described as the Angry Young Man who dislodged Khanna and stayed where his predecessor did for much longer. If that is an acknowledgement, the neglect originates in the tendency to ignore several smaller films in his youth and also his body of work after his return to limelight, an equally if not more critical aspect of his career.
Viewers who had seen him during his uninterrupted rule return to the memories of his blockbusters of the 70s and a part of the 80s. Others introduced to his work much later view him as a star who is usually a ‘character actor,’ an inanity which suggests that those in supporting roles play characters while male and female leads play who they are in their films as well. Occasionally, he also plays the male lead, which at his age is truly special.
Dilip Kumar is seen as the ultimate guide to acting by film-watchers who grew up watching his movies. Most viewers whose staple diet was Bachchan’s films insist that the man with a divine baritone is the best. Kumar inspired many actors, and Bachchan is one of them. Being a fine actor himself, he developed his own style because of which imitation was never on his agenda. Kumar worked with better directors, and as a result, got an opportunity to act in more good films than Bachchan. The latter, on the other hand, has had some spectacular moments simply because he has been around for so long.
When Bachchan was a huge star and Shakti was released in 1982, a leading film magazine created a layout which showed two kings from a pack of cards in an article which talked about the ‘confrontation’ between Kumar and the former who had worked together in the film. One card had Bachchan as the king, but the face on the other was Kumar’s.
In Shakti, Kumar played a righteous cop and Bachchan, his son who joins a criminal. Since his father had refused to compromise on his principles and protect his kidnapped child, the boy turns into a rebel when he grows up. The criminal he eventually works with was the unlikely man who had helped him escape from the clutches of his ruthless boss, an act of kindness he never forgets.
Shakti didn’t have an outstanding story. It didn’t find commercial success but went on to become a cult film with time. But for the onscreen appeal of the two main actors, this would have never happened. Pretty much the senior actor, Kumar’s was an author-backed role, implying that he had most of the excellent lines. While he did most of the talking, Bachchan’s character had to respond with body language and facial expressions very often. Both of them performed equally well, and that is the way future will judge their acting in the film.
Just as nobody compares Balraj Sahni to Sanjeev Kumar any longer, the comparison between Bachchan and Kumar will cease with time. Kumar, as one said earlier, has acted in more good films. Bachchan has experienced the transition from being a pure star to a performer in experimental films which has exposed him to a wider range. As time goes by, he too will be mainly remembered as a fine actor for whom stardom was an accidental acquisition.
Some of his more powerful roles from his early years will come up for more scrutiny than they now do. Anand was arguably the best film Rajesh Khanna ever acted in. But Bachchan as the doctor was superb, a role that is seldom discussed although everybody seems to be familiar with “Babumoshai”, which is how Khanna’s character addresses him in the film. As an affluent person who sends his best friend (Khanna again) to become more powerful as the trade union leader in Namak Haraam, he made a strong statement of his qualities as an actor and a star.
In the hilarious comedy Chupke Chupke, he eclipsed Dharmendra who had a distinctly bigger role. Jaya Bachchan as the girl suffering from an incurable ailment ruled in Mili. But Bachchan as her alcoholic neighbour was almost as powerful. By 1975, however, he’d already had some path-breaking films like Zanjeer, Deewar and Sholay. Such is their collective impact that many other films have turned into footnotes, which is not what they ought to be.
Right from Toofan and Jadugar to Teen Patti and Department, he has acted in some of the worst films ever made during each phase of his career. This has happened because of two factors. Earlier, he had tried to extend his career as a hero but failed. However, his bad films made in recent years show that he is a bad judge of scripts. After every second Bachchan release, many reviewers wonder what made him choose the project. The fact is, he always has. Now, it is too late to change.
His performances as the lead have resulted in a lively Cheeni Kum, a weird Nishabd or, when he gets a meaty role, either Sarkar which used his star appeal in a way few films have or an outstanding film like Paa. In Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black, he pushed the envelope as an actor and delivered. In Rituparno Ghosh’s The Last Lear, he played a retired actor in Shakespeare’s plays. Neither Ghosh nor Bachchan’s best, the film made entirely in English allowed him to venture into unexplored territory. His five-minute appearance in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby was one of the most hyped cameos ever. A few moments after he appeared on the screen, it was easy to understand why.
A superstar without a rival for the longest period, an actor who has excelled in several small-budget and lesser known films while diminishing the relevance of the female lead and music during his heydays, a major star-actor for years: that makes him a survivor unlikely anybody the industry has seen. We will see comparably good or better ‘pure’ actors. We will come across new superstars, all of them driven to the top by their star power, who need not be good actors. But, Hindi cinema won’t see another actor-superstar like Amitabh Bachchan ever.
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