Amitabh Bachchan turns 75: How the veteran superstar established a strong south Indian base
For some it was Zanjeer. For a few it, was Deewar, maybe Don. For many, it would be Sholay. For me it was Mohabbatein.
No, these are not answers to ‘name your favourite Amitabh Bachchan role’ but a list of his films, which people saw for the first time in a movie hall in South India. Yes, it took me the turn of the millennium to watch Mr Bachchan on the big screen. Forgive me Big B fans, I was busy growing up with my own superstar and Ulaganayagan, but that does not compare to the sheer might of Amitabh Bachchan, as he turns a glorious 75 today.
Unlike the rest of India, the south always had its home-grown superstars. Though Anand and Aradhana made Rajesh Khanna a household name in Tamil Nadu, it was Amitabh Bachchan who made his firm mark in South Indian cinema, with his brooding countenance and deep baritone in Zanjeer (also because MGR starred in its remake Sirthu Vaazha Vendum).
Tamil Nadu, in the mid-70s, had more room to accept a Hindi star because Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth were just emerging actors then, Sivaji Ganesan had progressed to donning older roles and MGR had become the Chief Minister.
Initially, Tamilians identified an Amitabh Bachchan movie with its Tamil remake as Sivaji Ganesan acted in a few of them (Majboor became Naan Vaazhavaippean, Namak Haram became Unakkaaga Naan and Muqqadar ka Sikkander became Amara Kaviyam). By the '80s they saw Bachchan as this action-star whose movies had Kishore Kumar belting out some great numbers.
A decade later, Big B had become India’s first superstar, where a film like Mard ran for more than a hundred days even in Chennai. It is important to note, however, even then the Bachchan moniker only came second to that of Rajnikanth, Kamal Haasan, Chiranjeevi, Mammooty and Mohanlal.
It is interesting to delve deeper on the south connect to Amitabh Bachchan's career. His first successful solo-hero film Bombay to Goa was a remake of the Tamil original Madras to Pondicherry, both directed by S Ramanathan, thus establishing a strong south-Indian base to his illustrious career.
In 1985, three prominent stars of India starred in one film, though not in the same frame. The film was Giraftaar and the three stars were Amitabh Bachchan, Kamal Haasan and Rajnikanth. Giraftaar was seen as Bachchan’s bid to gain a better fan-following in Tamil Nadu as he played elder brother to Kamal Haasan and bosom friend to Rajinikanth, with Madhavi as his wife.
By then, both Rajinikanth in Tamil and Chiranjeevi in Telugu had built their hero-images on a string of Bachchan remakes, so the symbiosis was complete.
The do-gooder hero mantle went from MGR to Rajnikanth who leaped from one Bachchan super-hit to another in the 80s – Thee (Deewar), Billa (Don), Velaikkaran (Namak Halal), Dharmathin Thalaivan (Kasme Vaade), Mr Bharath (Trishul), Padikkathavan (Khudaar). Dostana was perhaps the one AB film to be remade with Kamal Haasan as Sattam.
Living in Madras, I had only seen the Tamil remakes first. By the '90s, I had seen the Hindi originals and understood that Rajinikanth took the Big B route to create his star-base.
In 1985, Andha Kanoon released to a thundering success for Rajnikanth, whose mutual admiration with Mr Bachchan is legendary. This also brought Big B closer to the Tamil audience. Also, other than Jeetendra, whose films were mainly south remakes of family dramas, it was Amitabh Bachchan who starred with many south-Indian heroines – Hema Malini, Rekha, Madhavi, Jayaprada, Sridevi (Khuda Gawah happens to be my favourite) right up to Radikaa who played his sister in Aaj ka Arjun (remake of Prabhu’s Enn Thangachi Padichava), Ramya Krishnan (Bade Miyan Chote Miyan) and the late Soundarya (Sooryavamsham).
When the Khans gained popularity across India, Amitabh Bachchan stepped onto a different throne. His gamble with politics, ABCL and crumbling box-office status notwithstanding, the actor and artiste in Amitabh Bachchan took new flight when he played the patriarch in Mohabbattein. The younger India accepted him and the word ‘re-invent’ now had only one name against it: Amitabh Bachchan.
He could’ve remained in his cocoon but he took his reality check right on his chin and made such a grand re-entry that its echoes are heard with thumping applause as he turns a splendid 75. Amitabh Bachchan paved the way for a new lease on life for people above 60 and remains an inspiration for what glories age can see if one retained a passion for one’s calling in life.
He never let himself be typecast nor would he play yet another dad on-screen. The last 17 years have seen him be son to Abhishek and Vidya Balan in Pa and an eccentric Bengali Dada to Deepika Padukone in Piku, who is way different from the father he was to Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. He is a lawyer (Pink), a criminal (TE3N) and a dreaded don (Sarkar).
Amitabh Bachchan’s second innings includes his television hosting for Kaun Banega Crorepati, which sees its ninth successful season this year. This game show single-handedly made him ‘accessible’ cutting across language barriers, endearing him furthermore to all of us.
In this second innings, Bachchan was also able to cross the line of being second to our own superstars and has come to be as dear to his fans in Tamil Nadu as he is to the rest of the country.