on the actor's trail

Amitabh Bachchan was a part of my growing up years, which is why I will never watch ‘Sooryavansham’

The transformation of the angry young man into the smug patriarch is tragic for hard-core fans of the actor, who turns 75 on October 11.

For two days during the summer vacation of 1977, I stood in the advance booking line to buy tickets for Amar Akbar Anthony. I did not succeed. Such was the hype that people had lined up in the early hours, much before I sauntered in hoping to see Amitabh Bachchan as Anthony Gonsalves before everyone else. Despite being a multi-starrer with Rishi Kapoor and Vinod Khanna, both of whom could easily headline their own films, this was all about Bachchan.

While I did go home empty-handed and did not watch the film for several weeks thereafter, I did not mind too much. My time would come. Until then, I satisfied myself with the radio programmes on Vividh Bharati, those 15-minute advertisements for the film, full of dialogue, song snippets and Ameen Sayani.

The adulation for Amitabh Bachchan started with Bombay to Goa and gained momentum with Zanjeer. At that time, we did not even realise that there were two ‘chs’ in his name. For us, he was the bee’s knees and was always referred to in the rushed and compressed “Amitabachan!” The young Jamaal in Slumdog Millionaire, covered in shit and holding up the unsoiled photograph of his hero, gets the pronunciation right exactly as I remember it from my schooldays. This metaphor for the unsullied leading man of our youth is apt. By the time Sholay and Deewar were released, Amitabh Bachchan could do no wrong.

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I was in complete thrall of both man and image in the mid-1970s, as were many of my peers. We were just hitting our early teens and had the role model we were perhaps unconsciously searching for. The rebellious but upright angry young man channelised our angst at our school teachers, our parents and every authority figure around us. We were genuine fans, devouring information on Bachchan through the radio, though film magazines that we leeched onto waiting our turn at barbershops and exchanging gossip more made-up than real. Our eyes were willingly stabbed by the flashes of lurid, hand-painted, largely unsophisticated posters that were the norm at the time.

And, of course, we watched every Amitabh Bachchan movie that was ever released (and the whole back catalogue) on Doordarshan on Sundays, from Saat Hindustani to Bansi Birju to Ek Nazar to Raaste ka Patthar to his early Hrishikesh Mukerjee films. We watched in disbelief his villainous turn in Parwana and his rather wimpy presence in Reshma aur Shera, and cheered his herogiri in Hera Pheri and Khoon Pasina. We watched movies even if Bachchan had a blink-and-miss cameo, as in Kunwara Baap or Chala Murari Hero Banane. We watched him in some of the direst movies ever made in Hindi, such as Besharam (which seemed to have been scripted on the sets and has Sharmila Tagore covered in shoe polish in one scene) and Zameer (where it is unclear whether he is Saira Banu’s long-lost brother or love interest). We realised that some of these movies were drivel, but all we wanted was Amitabh Bachchan. The story came second.

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Reshma Aur Shera (1971).

Amar Akbar Anthony did change our perception of Bachchan as an action hero. This phenomenon has been described by several commentators before, but after his turn as Anthony bhai, Bachchan became “a one man industry” (a phrase apparently bestowed upon him by Francois Truffaut). As Anthony, he was action hero, romantic lead, and comic relief all in one. No longer the smouldering, brooding presence filled with self-righteousness and suppressed violence, Anthony was a chameleon and became whatever you wanted him to be as long as (to paraphrase Hobson) he was Amitabh Bachchan.

From this film on to this day, with few exceptions every film is a meta-film, a showcase for the variety show for the superstar he had become. Bachchan prefigures Rajinikanth, a hall of mirrors, with multiple reflections, all of the same person.

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Amar Akbar Anthony (1977).

It has been correctly said that the Bachchan phenomenon rang the death knell for several character actors, especially comedians who always had their fixed space in the multiple narratives and vignette-filled montages that structured most mainstream Hindi films. Every Bachchan film was so dominated by the colossus that he subsumed everything into himself. The poor fellows in their waning years turned to direction, such as Deven Varma, Jagdeep and Mohan Choti. The makers in turn followed into oblivion, tail between legs.

And yet, Amitabh Bachchan reigned supreme in the eyes of his fans. His films now were fan fodder and kept everyone satisfied. We knew that even when he acted in ensemble films such as Trishul or Kala Patthar, the focus was solely on the central performance. All the other roles existed, for better or worse, to prop him up.

But then, sometime between Coolie and Mrityudaata, something changed. It was as if Amitabh Bachchan had been kidnapped and replaced by a lookalike also called Amitabh Bachchan. His roles were tired re-treads of bombast and exposition, doing and saying things he really did not seem to believe in, dressed up in costumes that bordered on the ridiculous, like Laal Badshah or Toofan or the truly, truly atrocious Ajooba.

Whether this was due to the after-effects of the Coolie accident, the onset of myasthenia gravis, the Bofors accusations, the self-imposed exile of five years, or the abject failure of his company Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited and its attendant financial liabilities, the later films weaned us away from starry-eyed fandom with alacrity. For the first time we began to question what was willy-nilly handed to us. Had the great man lost his mojo?

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Ajooba (1991).

Amitabh Bachchan’s finest performance during this time, his swansong almost, was as a postman in an advertisement for the soft drink Mirinda. Here we saw the very best of Bachchan in under a minute – his commanding presence, his mellifluous recitation and impeccable comic timing as he reads out a postcard to a hapless villager from his wife with the news that she is leaving him for another man. Through rhymed verse and innuendo, we realise that the other man is none other than the postman himself. No tagline for an advertisement had greater weight: “Zor ka jhatka dheere se lage.”

With this delightful exception, our growing disenchantment with the one-man industry reached a tipping point with Mohabbatein, in which Amitabh Bachchan presented to us his newly crafted bearded look and unbridled patriarchal pig-headedness which, in an earlier and better time, would have been the domain of Rehman, KN Singh or Murad. Bachchan’s role was metonymous with all that was wrong in our increasingly conservative society. Was our disgruntlement a sign that we were growing up ourselves? A reaction against the decreasing space for inclusivity and cosmopolitanism – a space that was once occupied by Bachchan? Where did the rebelliousness go? Who was this dodgy daddy/uncle type figure who was borderline distasteful?

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Mohabbatein (2000).

Mohabbatein was not a one-off role. Bachchan seemed to find increasing comfort as a patriarch full of misogynistic bluster and self-righteousness. This was evident in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Waqt, Viruddh, and several other films. The outsider was now domesticated, assimilated in the mainstream, the upholder of some of the most venal values.

Around the time of his resurgence with the success of Kaun Banega Crorepati, we also saw Bachchan increasingly in print and on billboards and television hawking all manner of products from noodles and mango candy to cement and real estate. There was once an angry port worker who asserted, “Main aaj bhi phenke hue paise nahin uthaata.” Now it seemed to be all about “Bangla, gaadi and bank balance”.

It was not that we begrudged Bachchan his earnings from endorsements. We just questioned the products. Jewellery? Infant clothing? Hair oil?

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The Navratna hair oil commercial.

Yet, Bachchan continued to appear in a handful of roles that were challenging and enjoyable. Aks gave us glimpses of his former angry persona, while Paheli had a very interesting comic cameo. Perhaps the best of Bachchan’s current roles is Paa, which subsumes both his persona and his voice and shows us the potential of what he could have been if Amar Akbar Anthony had never happened.

On the other hand, we have to contend with his award-winning roles such as Agneepath, in which his stylised acting and exaggerated accent grates like nails on a blackboard, or the absurdly conceived mentor figure in Black, whose efforts at taming a deaf-mute girl consist of berating her by shouting at the top of his voice.

The later Amitabh Bachchan is a very real disappointment for an acolyte of the former Amitabh Bachchan. Not for us the appellations of Aby Baby or Big B: he is the once and forever Amitabachan. It hurts to see him play the roles that once would have ideally suited Om Prakash (Baabul, Piku). The movement from the daddy to the daddu roles may be a natural progression for an emasculated angry man, but it is disappointing to see him find such comfort in it. There is perhaps no sadder creature than a former fan.

Which why I may be the only Indian citizen who, despite its 24/7 ubiquity on all film channels, has not yet and will perhaps never watch Sooryavansham.

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Sooryavansham (1999).
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