‘Aaiye, vaataanukulit kamre mein baithtey hain,’ (come, let’s sit in the airconditioned room) boomed the famous baritone. Looking up, we saw the Tall Man standing in the hallway. There he was, towering above everyone else. And true to what we’d heard, he came out for the interview on the dot of 4 pm, as scheduled.
This was 2003, and Amitabh Bachchan was just beginning to enjoy his second innings in the movies after having sorted out a rather messy financial situation. Over the next two hours, we got a peek into the mind of India’s most famous filmstar — Bachchan spoke freely about how he was enjoying the fact that he alone was no longer responsible for a film’s box office success, how he could change his look (white wig, the signature goatee etc) with every movie and not worry about what the audience would think anymore. Clearly, this was a new Amitabh Bachchan, in step with the times. The Shahenshah of Cool, as it were.
Indeed, few in Indian cinema can boast of having reinvented themselves in the way Bachchan, who celebrates his 70th birthday today amidst great fanfare, has done. Having resurrected himself financially from a disastrous foray as a film entrepreneur — and more importantly having paid off all his dues to the banks — Bachchan got himself ready for the 21st century, helped, of course, by the insanely successful TV show Kaun Banega Crorepati and friends like Yash Chopra who continued to believe in him.
Today Amitabh Bachchan is back at the pinnacle of success — as an actor, a brand ambassador, a model peddling everything from cement to pens. And for his legion of fans, it is hard to imagine a world when Amitabh Bachchan did not dominate their collective consciousness. Millions of those who have grown up in the 70s on a staple diet of Bachchan hits have seen the man laugh, cry, croon, romance and thrash up baddies with consummate ease and, what is most important, make all that eminently believable and cool. Whether it was Anthonybhai and his famous drunken act in front of the mirror in the runaway hit Amar Akbar Anthony, or the shy professor in Chupke Chupke, or the iconic Vijay in the cult classic Deewaar, Amitabh Bachchan was what his fans paid to see. And even a 22-reel movie lasting a good three hours would have audiences begging for more: one could never have enough of him.
What makes Amitabh Bachchan such an everlasting icon?
To an extent, a lot of Amitabh Bachchan’s success can be attributed to the manner in which he adjusted to the changing times. While he burst into the scene as the Angry Young Man in the 70s with Prakash Mehra’s superhit Zanjeer, reflecting the angst of the youth of the time, he essayed parts which often reflected the anger and frustrations of the day. Bachchan was also able to straddle the potboiler genre and the more realistic cinema of directors like Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee with ease. In analysing Bachchan, one should never overlook the fact that despite his humungous hits, he did keep engaging with the less commercial cinema continuously through his career. So for every larger-than-life part he played in commercial films like Don and Trishul, there were roles in films like Alaap, Jurmana or Bemisal, films which established Bachchan’s credentials as an actor who could handle most parts deftly. Those credentials were, perhaps, best in evidence when Bachchan bagged the National Award for his brilliant characterisation of a village boy turned gangster out to avenge the violent death of his schoolteacher father in the Scarface-like Agneepath. Bachchan’s version of the protagonist Vijay Dinanath Chauhan is unmatched to this day, despite a recent remake from the same production house.
But being human, Amitabh Bachchan did make his share of mistakes. Movies like Lal Baadshah, Ganga Jamuna Saraswati, Toofan and a clutch of similarly forgettable films did disappoint his fans. That phase, clearly, was Bachchan’s worst when he was at his lowest both as an actor and in terms of his financial situation. However, his by-now-legendary comeback came once again when the time was just right for it: audience tastes were changing, there was a new breed of directors ready to cast him in different roles and experiment with the cinematic language. And Bachchan, fresh from clearing up his problems, gave it his best shot. Movies like Black and the more recent Paa clearly demonstrated how much fun the new-look Bachchan was having as an actor. Even other films which may have met with indifferent results at the box office, among them The Last Lear and Armaan , showcase Bachchan’s versatility. From playing a genie in Aladin to a 13-year-old progeria patient in Paa, and a designer spectacles-wearing flamboyant widower in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, Amitabh Bachchan managed to reinvent himself successfully despite his larger than life image in Indian cinema, something other superstars like Rajesh Khanna failed to do and paid the price for.
As Bachchan turns 70, he continues to be India’s most famous and recognised star. The turnout at his birthday-eve bash on 10 October is evidence of the enormous clout and stature he still enjoys in an industry known to be fickle and notorious for forgetting those who have ceased to be successful. Bachchan knows this aspect of the industry only too well. After all, he has known failure too in equal measure.
And at 70 and sitting right at the top, he can now afford to flash that famous smile and look back with satisfaction at the manner in which he has lived his life.