Big B's secrets of survival, as his Bollywood career turns 50
Big B's career is all set to turn 50 this year. Reinventing his job profile constantly as a public icon has been the superstar’s steady success mantra over the decades
If Big B at 76 continues to be Bollywood’s biggest survival saga yet, the reason is perhaps inherent in his Twitter introduction line itself.
Bachchan manages to occupy fan mindspace despite all that he does on the screen lately, and despite the fate of his films.
He is a different brand of hero for the aam aadmi now, doling out knowledge for the youth as KBC quizmaster, and posting pop philosophy on Twitter, Facebook and his blog.
By now, Amitabh Bachchan’s self-introduction at the top left corner of his Twitter page has become a sort of social media legend. “Actor... well, at least some are STILL saying so!!” goes @SrBachchan’s assertion.
The statement would define all that the septuagenarian Bollywood icon has exuded over the decades, by way of image. There is humility and there is humour. There is the quiet reminder that he first and foremost earned his stripes as an actor before gunning for superstardom, in an industry where histrionic skills are not mandatory for success. The word “still” in all-caps, duly suffixed with double exclamation, could be an avowal of the trait a recent Amul advertisement so wittily toasted — Bachchan has survived and thrived in unpredictable showbiz over half a century now, despite the odds.
The moot question: What keeps Bachchan going strong even in his 50th year as an actor, while rival top draws of his generation have long faded away? Dharmendra and Jeetendra have practically retired. The late Vinod Khanna failed while trying to return in the 2000s, with forgotten roles in Koylanchal, Dilwale, Players and the Dabangg films.
For a while, Rishi Kapoor looked solid enough to survive the new age with character roles as varied as the ones he essayed in Do Aur Do Paanch, Agneepath and Kapoor & Sons. He has been done in by deteriorating health now.
Even younger contemporaries as Mithun Chakraborty and Govinda, who commanded mass hysteria at one point, can hardly match Big B’s stardom in 2019.
If Big B at 76 continues to be Bollywood’s biggest survival saga yet, the reason is perhaps inherent in his Twitter introduction line itself. Being an actor may be his first love and calling card, but the job is merely incidental for the Grand Old Man of Hindi mainstream now, after half a century in business.
Bachchan manages to occupy fan mindspace despite all that he does on the screen lately, and despite the fate of his films. He is Bollywood’s only superstar whose stature is immune to box-office consequences. Lately, his films may flop or succeed, but Big B’s stature remains unaffected.
This is primarily because, in the post Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) phase, the veteran has effectively morphed from just an actor-superstar into a super brand. Realising the legend of Vijay is only good for nostalgia now, Big B intelligently adapted to the changing notion of heroism. The Angry Young Man who ruled mass psyche in the seventies and the eighties has made way for a different breed of heroes, so Bachchan quickly found his niche as the wise old man of Indian television and the internet.
He is a different brand of hero for the aam aadmi now, doling out knowledge for the youth as KBC quizmaster, and posting pop philosophy on Twitter, Facebook and his blog. He has updated his screen image, too. In the eighties, it was cool for a reigning superstar to gyrate to chhed-chhaad wale gaane in Mard or Desh Premee. Today, A-list Bollywood is out rectifying such notions of machismo. It is about advocating a woman’s dignity now, as his lawyer protagonist does in Pink, or about endorsing the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign. Big B has switched job profile smartly.
That ability to adapt is perhaps best underlined in a tweet he posted not long ago. “It’s not the load that breaks us down. It’s the way we carry it,” goes the post, documented meticulously as ever with the label T3078.
The tweet is more than five-second soul curry. It reveals a significant thought process. If hysteria is a load that often breaks down demigods with ruthless precision, Bachchan has mastered the secret of dodging that hitch.
It didn’t come easy, though. If Bachchan today looks like B-Town’s maestro at reinvention, there was the phase of hiccups in the nineties, when his career hit a rough patch for the first time post superstardom. A slew of no-shows greeted Bachchan, now in his fifties. As he tried to reimagine his commercial image, there were big-ticket debacles such as Ajooba, Akayla, Lal Badshah, Sooryavansham and Kohram. The much-hyped launch of his production house, Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited (ABCL), came a cropper, and when the company tried foraying events management in 1996 by hosting the Miss World pageant, it courted controversy for non-payment of dues. Worse, Big B’s self-produced starrers, Mrityudaata and Major Saab, ended up costly mistakes.
Over the next decade ABCL would be re-launched as AB Corp, but the returns were far from magnificent. His brief experimentation with filmmaking pushed Big B to the brink of bankruptcy, and he made it known he would stick to acting.
Today, Big B restricts solo-starring duties to small films that ensure quick returns, as Piku, Pink, 102 Not Out or his latest, Badla. In the odd expensive outing as Thugs Of Hindustan (ToH), Big B is happy sharing spotlight with younger superstars such as Aamir Khan and Katrina Kaif.
The brisk opening of Badla, coupled by the success of Piku, Pink or 102 Not Out, and the dismal failure of ToH, says it all for Amitabh Bachchan. For the larger-than-life idol of yore, small is ideal as his career turns 50.
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