Continuity demands incessant reinvention. A body remains a body because the cells work overtime to regenerate themselves. Amitabh Bachchan understands the cultural wisdom of biology. He is the only perennial star in the Bollywood firmament who remains himself because he reinvents the self. The magic of Bachchan is not that he is seventy but that he is seventy in a way only an Amitabh Bachchan can be.
Think back on him as a gangling beanpole of a man, fresh out of Kirori Mal College, and a stint as a corporate executive. All he had was a voice made in acoustics heaven. The body was reedy, the hair needed touching up, his fingers were like forceps. Yet in that moment of acting, he became galvanic. Bombay to Goa (1972) and Saat Hindustani (1969) were forgettable and forgivable beginnings, followed by Zanjeer (1973) and Anand (1971) which kickstarted the first incarnation of Amitabh Bachchan the star.
He was the first angry young man, a legendary figure who effaced every other hero. In comparison, Rajesh Khanna appeared effeminate, Dharmendra, a trifle rustic. In his screen presence, anger and violence forged identity. He embodied the bitter truth of modern India: Goodness as a virtue was not sufficient to prevail.
Bachchan’s acting was imbued with a Shakespearean intensity, a tragic flair built on contradictions. He was the son who never won his mother, the criminal on the wrong side of the family. He was Karna, wronged by family and society, desperate to gain legitimacy and acknowledgement. Sholay (1975) — which I saw 16 times — is an all-time classic, the greatest B grade film ever made. If Gabbar gave it character, and Dharmendra lightness, it was Amitabh who gave it poignancy, a dream of love never to be consummated. For all its fast-paced action, the movie has a taste of loneliness.
But more so, as MFHussain once pointed out, Bachchan was the first genuinely urban hero. He was a city man and could play a full repertoire of urban roles from shoeshine boy, coolie, cop, paan wala, and smuggler — lowly occupations he endowed with an essential dignity.
His marriage to Jaya Bachchan, the Guddi Girl, added both a touch of domesticity and romance. An Indian hero can be truly an Indian hero only if he can swing his fists and burst into a song. His affair with Rekha was a utopian idyll that had to remain incomplete to remain a romance.
Amitabh Bachchan’s popularity, kneaded by his friendship with the Gandhis, made him powerful. He could not resist the temptation of politics and succumbed to the lure of an electoral victory at Lucknow. But success also exposed his weaknesses. A body blow to his solar plexus brought him to death’s edge. He was too urbane and urban for electoral politics. His business enterprises were amateur, ill-thought ventures. The genius of Bachchan lay in the fact that even his mistakes had a sense of drama, and cemented his fan following. When he returned to the top, a star once again, all of India shared in his phoenix-like success.
After a long stint in exile, Amitabh returned with a different style in a different medium. He was older, flabbier but at ease in his new role as the host of Kaun Banega Crorepati? The style was different so was the message: Information is the solution not violence.
The new Amitabh is hospitable, avuncular, nurturing. No mistake is too stupid, no answer unwelcome. Arriving at the right answer becomes a conspiratorial moment of joy after the agony of ‘Lock Kiya Jaye?’. This is the information revolution at its friendliest, with Amitabh as its guide, compere, and mentor. His body is aging, but now conveyed a maturity, a new rhythm. Instead of anger, he conveyed a new joy and ease, a sense of invitational laughter.
The perennial Amitabh seemed to advertise everything from cement to foot cream, bringing to each the right authority and comic twist. The one unaesthetic oeuvre in the lot was his advertisement for Gujarat as a tacit legitimation of Modi. The man who defied Thackeray cannot be an ambassador for Modi.
On screen, Amitabh was now more than a hero, he was presence. He had become protean with movies like Black (2005) and Paa (2009). He could dance with Aishwarya in Kajraare, play the remote father, the aging gangster, and evoke all his septuagenarian vulnerability acting alongside Tabu in Cheeni Kum (2007). An aging Bachchan was catalysing films and inventing new possibilities. In an era where the Indian male was drying up at sixty, Bachchan argued that life needs to be invented anew at sixty-five. He made aging an enjoyable ritual, an invitation to life and living. Amitabh became a toast to every tomorrow.
At 70, Amitabh is the actor as real-life hero, content in his family, satisfied with his career, ready to begin anew. His goatee beard is a trimmed white, his hair tinted grey, his eyes reveal a full life. Seventy is not a time to retire, but to face life’s ever new surprises. And no one knows this better than Amitabh Bachchan.
Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.