by Gautam Chintamani
For forty years no other actor has influenced Indian audiences as much as Amitabh Bachchan. But what makes it more remarkable is that while it’s hard to imagine Hindi cinema without the presence of Bachchan, this is a reality that almost happened. Zanjeer (1973), Namak Haraam (1973) and Sholay (1975), the three films that contributed the most in the making of Bachchan, could have very well featured someone else.
What’s more intriguing than the thought of these films shaping some other actor’s destiny is what would it be like if Amitabh Bachchan did not exist as we know him?
Legend has it that Dev Anand would have gone ahead with Zanjeer had Prakash Mehra agreed to include a few romantic songs to suit his image. Raaj Kumar on the other hand couldn’t stand the fragrance of the Mehra’s preferred brand of hair oil and chose to pass the role.
Mehra tried Dharmendra but finally settled on Bachchan who was recommended by Javed Akhtar. One half of the duo that scripted the film, Akhtar was convinced about Bachchan when he saw the then newcomer in the climax of Mehmood’s Bombay to Goa (1972).
Zanjeer might have introduced the Angry Young Man but it wasn’t till Namak Haram that it became Bachchan’s calling card. Rajesh Khanna was initially offered the role of the rich brat Vicky, which Bachchan eventually portrayed, but when the superstar decided to play Somu the part was rewritten. In the initial drafts it was Vicky and not Somu who dies in the end and when Khanna picked Somu even the death scene was swapped. Like Anand (1971) Bachchan found a new lease of life as an actor in Khanna’s cinematic death.
Zanjeer and Namak Haram could have been lucky breaks but even luck outdid itself when it came to Bachchan’s tryst with Sholay (1975). Planned as the biggest film of its time, Sholay had the potential to change Bachchan’s life forever and he lobbied hard for a shot. He had impressed Ramesh Sippy enough but the canvas of the film was so large that the director wanted to make sure everything was perfect and Sholay could have very well featured Shatrughan Sinha, who was a bigger draw than Bachchan back in the day.
It was during a party to commemorate the success of Sippy’s previous film Seeta Aur Geeta (1972) that in spite of running high fever Bachchan hobnobbed to ensure he was in front of Ramesh Sippy’s eyes every time someone mentioned Shatrughan Sinha. When the star made an entry post midnight, Bachchan was convinced that he had lost Sholay but luck had something else in mind and the rest, as they say, is cinematic history.
What would have happened if there were no Amitabh Bachchan?
To put it simply, the concept of a hero in Hindi cinema would be something else. Bachchan’s filmography, especially in the first decade of his career, forms a chunk of the best Hindi cinema had to offer in the 1970s. The brilliance of Bachchan lies in the fact that he featured in films that were extremely escapist and even with his hero being unapologetically commercial he garnered enough critical respect. But his biggest achievement in spite of being a star was that he somehow managed to keep the actor within him alive.
He was open to experimenting right from the word go with films like Parwana (1971) and Saudagar (1973), a gem of a performance, or Namak Haraam; he could balance a Kabhie Kabhie (1976) at the same time with a Hera Pheri (1976) or Adalat (1976), he could play the affable glorified sidekick in Chupke Chupke (1975) as easily as he could play the comedian as a lead in an Amar Akbar Anthony (1977). His ability to stand out in the slew of multistarrers throughout the early years of his career is what made him unique but the more he stood out, the tougher it became for him.
Somewhere along the way Bachchan stopped experimenting and started shying away from multi-starrers or even two-hero starrers. He dominance as Number 1 to 10 in Bollywood might have wiped out all competition but the biggest victim it claimed was Bachchan himself. The more lonely he stood the more vulnerable he became and the burden of being Shahenshah (1988), Toofan (1989), Jaadugar (1989), and Ajooba (1991) was perhaps a little too much to handle.
After a self-imposed sabbatical of sorts when he turned 50, Bachchan tried to be the same old angry young man at 55 when he returned to films. It wasn’t that his audience wouldn’t recognize him as anything else; maybe Bachchan had forgotten being anyone else and he failed us. For three years Bachchan believed in the likes of K.C. Bokadia and Mehul Kumar that he was the Mrityudata (1997) and Lal Baadshah (1999) but at 58 his mind, rather than his body gave up on him.
It’s ironic to think that it’d take Bachchan as much time in the wilderness as it did for him at the top to realize that a phase of his life was over. If Mohabbatein (2000) gave him an opportunity to be a character and not an image, Kaun Banega Crorepati made him realize that acting one’s age is perhaps the most challenging role.
After forty years Bachchan’s good outweighs his ills. The last time when Bachchan failed us he had only himself to blame for becoming partially irrelevant. But Amitabh Bachchan was never meant to be irrelevant and this time around it’s the younger crop of filmmakers that seem to be failing him. Bachchan has done over 60 films since his return and while he reminds us occasionally of how it used to be with a Khakhee (2004), Black (2005) or Cheeni Kum (2007), he also makes us suffer a Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin (2002), Deewaar: Let's Bring Our Heroes Home (2004), Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag (2007), or a Teen Patti (2010) to name a few.
It’d be senseless to expect Bachchan to do something other than what he did in the early 1990s when it comes to reinventing himself. Bachchan is a good actor who charmed us to become the brightest star and you know the deal with stars- they can’t function without us. It’s up to the younger filmmakers to challenge him and engage him as he engaged us. Where is this generation’s Mukul Anand? Where is the present day Agneepath (1990)? How we would have loved to see an Hrishikesh Mukherjee film with the everyman avatar of Bachchan Ver. 2.0. It’s not like some younger filmmakers haven’t experimented with Bachchan but what the Anurag Kashyaps, the Dibakar Banerjees or the Vishal Bharadwajs need to do is to imagine a role for Bachchan and not the vision of Amitabh Bachchan they grew up with.