It was 2006. Amidst a deafening applause, a tall, dark and handsome old man walked up the stage to receive the Best Actor Award- Filmfare’s famed Black Lady statuette. The man - long regarded as the most influential actor in the history of Hindi cinema, had won that honor fair and square. When he started his acceptance speech by thanking his countless fans and friends who prayed for his recovery from a recent serious illness, I had a lump in my throat and my eyes turned misty.
Here was Amitabh Bachchan- the man who has been an integral part of my emotional world, my supreme hero whom I have practically grown up idolizing for more than last three decades. Seeing him win that award for Black was a happy moment but at the same time, the cloud of uncertainty hovering over his fragile health also made it a poignant reminder of inexorable march of time that kept taking a great career closer to the end than the beginning.
More than a decade later, the fabled career keeps going strong as ever!
As a school-going kid in the seventies, my expectations were simple - the hero should be dashing and bashing. Amitabh that I saw in earlier films like Anand, Saudagar, Sanjog and Abhiman was too meek for my liking. That was not my age to appreciate the intricacies of acting. Besides like million others I too was head over heels over the then superstar Rajesh Khanna, whose easygoing charm was too hard to resist. But that equation started changing from Namak Haram, where Bachchan’s negative portrayal surprisingly appealed more to me than Khanna’s author-backed central protagonist role. Then came the string of superhit films like Zanjeer, Majboor, Deewar, Sholay, Trishul and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar and my conversion into a hard-core Amitabh- fan was complete!
His Unique Appeal
Reanalyzing those childhood feelings, now I can surely say that Amitabh’s appeal was not just in his dashing- bashing way- for there were other heroes like Dharmendra, Shatrughna Sinha and Vinod Khanna doing the same kind of stuff and they were certainly better-equipped to do those macho roles. But still if Amitabh scored over them, it was because he brought a hitherto unseen reality and intensity into those ‘Angry Young Man’ screen portrayals. I could almost feel the heat of his simmering anger; I could almost feel the explosion of his screen-violence. Not only his action-scenes but even his emotional scenes made me totally empathize with him.
Films like Chupke Chupke, Amar Akbar Anthony and Mr.Natwarlal brought forth his amazing comic talent and it was such that the traditional comedian roles suddenly became obsolete. Here was a complete screen package- a hero who could do equal justice to action, emotion, drama and comedy. Even in his street-smart screen portrayals, he was classy and charismatic. The way in which he gave two distinct identities to his double roles in films like Adalat, Don and Kasme Vaade was something to swoon over.
Lovey-dovey romance was one thing he wasn’t too comfortable doing but then who wanted to see such soapy films in those days? So for me films like Kabhi Kabhie and Jurmana were just to be seen to complete my Amitabh film- portfolio. For me, he was Mr. Perfect who could do no wrong. I couldn’t wait to see his new film. The other actors simply didn’t exist for me.
An Amitabh- film for me was a guarantee of full scale entertainment where my superstar would woo the heroine, banish the baddies, dish out a zingy dance-number (My Name Is Anthony Gonsalves!), shoot off memorable dialogues (Main Aaj Bhi Fenke Huye Paise Nahi Uthata!) and make me double up with laughter (Daaru Peene Se Liver Kharab Ho Jaata Hai!). I still remember those animated discussions in the evenings where we school- friends would be going gaga over Amitabh’s one role or another! Even his off-screen affairs were somethings to be smug about! But then those were the school years!
The college years in the 1980s brought a more mature cinematic perspective and also for the first time, I found myself surrounded by some of Bachchan’s critics. The things they said about him were bitter and that criticism hurt- almost at a personal level. But still I could see validity in their objections. Bowing to box-office demands, my hero was now only too happy churning out repetitive roles, getting trapped into his popular larger-than-life screen image. True, there were moments of brilliance in each of his portrayals but the overall quality of his films was steadily dropping.
Gems like Silsila, Shakti, Bemisal, Aakhri Raasta and Main Azaad Hoon were now few and far between. Yes, he was still proving his entertainer par excellence tag in potboilers like Lawaris, Namak Halal, Satte Pe Satta, Khuddar and Sharabi but mediocre films like Kaalia, Nastik, Deshpremee, Pukar, Mahan, Mard, Geraftaar, Ganga Jamuna Saraswati, Toofan and Jaadugar were now piling up with alarming regularity.
This decade of 1980s had earlier seen him get almost fatally wounded on the sets of Coolie. That near-brush with death shook the entire nation. I was just one of his countless admirers praying fervently for his quick recovery. The depth of despondency of finding my hero on the real death-bed and the height of joy of watching him stage a dramatic recovery were indescribable.
Then, in the latter half of ’80s, he took a calamitous plunge into politics. There he just ended with both his hands full of controversies and had to quit it as a beaten man. That chapter left a bad taste in mouth. The Bachchan- era and aura were both faltering as the 1980s ended. I was almost losing hope in my idol.
Rise of the phoenix
Despite the initial successes like the National Award-winning Agneepath and Jumma Chumma-fame Hum, the 1990s were to prove even more disastrous for Bachchan. As if the horror-run of eminently forgettable films like Akayla, Ajooba, Indrajeet, Major Saab, Mrityudata and Lal Badshah was not enough, his much publicized ABCL concern ran into huge losses and made him a bankrupt man. By now, I too, like rest of the world, had almost written him off. Remember, I was an adult now- much more world-wise and cynical and for me, Amitabh was now a has-been, a legend who had self-destructed himself. But he was to prove me and the rest of the world wrong by a mile. He rose from the ashes like a phoenix!
The post- Kaun Banega Crorepati-resurgence of Big B-era in the new millennium has been nothing short of the eighth wonder of the world. Working day-in-and day-out in a multitude of movies, advertisements and KBC- episodes, the septuagenarian has not only recaptured his former glory but has attained a newfound respect for his never-say-die spirit and the dignified manner in which he handled his seemingly insurmountable crisis.
Today, an older, wiser head and a better understanding of international cinema have taught me to accept my superstar’s shortcomings. His choice of films has often left me bitter, baffled and bewildered. Looking back critically, I definitely feel that this gifted actor needlessly wasted much of his talent in many typecast roles- first as an angry young man, then as an all-in-one entertainer and later as an angry old man. He has already done so much in his career but he could have done much better!
Yet I never fail to get goose-bumps just watching him on screen and how could I ever describe my dream-come-true feelings after personally interviewing him! Literally I was in seventh heaven for next one week. No Khan or Kumar is ever going to be greater than Amitabh Bachchan- at least in my book. Commercial glory of his successful second innings in showbiz was never in doubt but there was this small nagging question about whether at an advanced age, in his white-bearded garb, he could ever surpass the histrionic achievements of his prime. With a series of wonderful performances like Black, Cheeni Kam, Sarkar, Paa, Piku, Teen and Pink he has emphatically answered that question in the affirmative!