Celebrating Bachchan!by S M M Ausaja October 11 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 19 mins, 53 secs
It’s his 79th birthday on the 11th October, and S M M Ausaja writes that It’s not easy to chronicle India’s most famous and popular celebrity on whom reams and reams of information is available across platforms.
If you look back to his five decades in the industry, the march may be awe inspiring, but it’s a story of highs and lows, struggles and success, where a rare match of talent and luck sustained the journey. The unstoppable juggernaut catapulted an ordinary actor struggling at the box office to mega-stardom, carving out a national icon as it progressed. It’s not that everything he touched turned to gold, no. But amidst a bunch of projects, at any period of his career, there was always a gem or two that reaffirmed his talent and complimented his popularity.
Let’s go linear to understand the man, his success and why he remains the biggest star to emerge out of the Indian film industry. His parents were settled in Allahabad when he was born. His father a noted poet and lecturer at the Allahabad University, mother a social worker with avid interest in theatre and cinema. Amitabh’s Hindi diction was naturally groomed, and his interest in performing arts was apparent in his school plays where he excelled.
Public schooling in Sherwood at Nainital till Senior Cambridge made him expand his vistas to mastering English, Shakespearean plays, and boxing (Naseeb gave a glimpse of that)! The theatre continued all through his graduation days in New Delhi, and even during his Calcutta stint as a corporate executive. And yes, the doyen of theatre Prithviraj Kapoor didn’t see much potential in him when approached to guide him in performing arts! Kapoor wasn’t the only one, many luminaries failed to see any spark and that includes Saawan Kumar, the first director to screen test him in 1968 for ‘Mirza Ghalib’ (a project he was planning) in New Delhi. The cinematographer told Kumar “this boy is so lean and tall, it’s difficult to fit him in the frame without cutting off his head or feet!”
Though Mrinal Sen did acknowledge the potential in his voice and used it in Bhuvan Shome (1969) – although the same voice was rejected by All India Radio authorities earlier – it was littérateur, producer/director Khwaja Ahmad Abbas who actually noticed potential and decided to include Amitabh in the cast of Saat Hindustani, his under rated film on national integration that eventually won three national awards. It was a role being essayed by Tinnu Anand, however, Anand got lucky to get the opportunity to join Satyajit Ray and left the project and Bachchan got lucky to approach Abbas at the right time. Essaying poet Anwar Ali ‘Anwar’ of Saat Hindustani meant understanding nuances of Urdu poetry, acquiring an impressive Urdu diction and imbibing mannerisms complimenting the role. Abbas groomed Bachchan personally, winning the latter his first national award..
The first box office recognition was Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s film Anand, but the credit for its success went to Rajesh Khanna. Yet the viewer could glimpse the actor’s potential due to the film’s success and therefore a wider pan-Indian reach, which couldn’t happen with Saat Hindustani, as the film (Black and White film in the era of Color) didn’t have any box office potential for the distributors to promote it. In Anand, the latent anger of Dr Bhaskar Banerjee touched a chord with the viewer, and this anger/angst sustained itself in most of Mukherjee films with Amitabh, most notably Mili, Alaap and Bemisal. The famed struggle of Amitabh in the early 1970s wasn’t for lack of projects (he signed more than a dozen films in three years), it was for box-office success.
The post Anand phase was difficult. Filmmakers like Tarachand Barjatya, Manmohan Desai, Mohan Sehgal and Kundan Kumar are a few of the many names, which were vocal in their pessimism for the actor’s potential. Add to this a string of flops like Bansi Birju, Raaste ka Patthar, Ek Nazar, Sanjog and Bandhe Haath – the going was tough indeed.
There were few who stood by him in this rocky period – Mehmood’s family for example. Mehmood and his brother Anwar Ali not only supported him in this phase but also got him many roles, including in their own production Bombay to Goa, and in N C Sippy’s Anand and Parwana. It was a fight sequence between Amitabh and Shatrughan Sinha in Mehmood’s Bombay to Goa that impressed the newly successful writers Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar (Salim-Javed). Their new script Zanjeer was ready and it had an action hero as a protagonist. Many top stars like Dev Anand, Raaj Kumar and Dharmendra had declined it for one reason or another. Salim-Javed recommended Amitabh to producer-director Prakash Mehra.
The credit for not only recognizing possibility in Amitabh (even after 10 flops) but also risking his investment (he was also the film’s producer) goes to Mehra. Mehra made Zanjeer with complete conviction, doing full justice to Salim-Javed’s riveting script, and letting the latent anger of Anand and Parwana to explode on the silver screen. A superstar was born labelled ‘Angry Young Man’ – and though he did diverse roles across his career thereafter, the ‘anger’ remained a leitmotif.
Zanjeer zoomed past the golden jubilee, ending Bachchan’s worst ever career phase in terms of success. The year 1973 was auspicious. He delivered his first Golden Jubilee hit in May, married his heartthrob Jaya Bhaduri in June, and delivered the cult classic Abhimaan in July! Bhaduri, an actress in top form, matched Bachchan’s intensity in both films - some moments of the two in these films remain their finest ever (Sholay and Mili later in 1975 elevated this intriguing chemistry further). The Bachchan triumph didn’t end at Abhimaan in 1973 - he followed it up with two more classics; winning laurels from critics for a stellar performance in Sudhendu Roy’s Saudagar in October and wrapping up the year with Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s brilliant Namak Haraam. Namak Haraam did focus on Rajesh Khanna, but Amitabh tilted the balance this time with a splendid performance..
Bachchan’s stock zoomed to dizzying heights post marriage. Hits, megahits, classics kept his mega-stardom in blossom. What needs to be understood is the contribution of the people who sustained his upwards success graph. The primary name among all is that of his brother Ajitabh Bachchan, who not only initiated the first Saat Hindustani role, but also did his first photo shoot in Calcutta - the photographs that were sent to producers, and even to the Filmfare-Madhuri Talent contest were all shot by Ajitabh. Later on of course, it was Ajitabh who managed his career brilliantly - with great care and affection, always being in the background and letting his brother bask in the glory.
Among directors, it’s well known how directors like Prakash Mehra, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Yash Chopra, Manmohan Desai, Ramesh Sippy, Rakesh Kumar, Tinnu Anand, Mukul S Anand, Ram Gopal Varma, R Balki, Shoojit Sarkar and Sujoy Ghosh have contributed to his repertoire. And then there have been directors who just did one/few films and yet made an impact – Jyoti Swaroop, Mehmood, Narendra Bedi, Sultan Ahmed, Ravi Tandon, Manoj Kumar, Ravi Chopra, Dulal Guha, Chandra Barot, Basu Chatterjee, Ramesh Bahl, Raj Khosla, Vijay Anand, Shakti Samanta, Raj Sippy, Prayag Raaj, T Rama Rao, K Bhagyaraj, K C Bokadia, E V V Satyanarayana, Vipul A Shah, Apoorva Lakhia, Rituparno Ghosh, Shaad Ali, Prakash Jha, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Karan Johar, Aditya Chopra to name a few.
Similarly, for his scriptwriters, the media needs to look beyond Salim-Javed for Amitabh’s success. Indeed Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar contributed to the biggest success stories of Bachchan, yet there were many who contributed immensely and are rarely acknowledged. For example, Prayag Raaj, KK Shukla, Kadar Khan (immortal dialogues of Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra films), Inder Raj Anand, who delivered three of the Bachchan’s most memorable lines from (i) Kaalia - “Hum bho who hain jo kabhi kisike peechhe nahi khade hote hain, jahan khade ho jaate hain, line wahin se shuru hoti hai!”, (ii) Mard – Jo mard hota hai, usko dard nahi hota memsaab” and (iii) Shahenshah – “Rishte mein to hum tumhaare baap hote hain, naam hai Shahenshah”.
Vijay Kaul, Laxmikant Sharma, Gulzar, Dr Rahi Masoom Raza, Nabendu Ghosh, Rajendra Singh Bedi, Bimal Dutta, Akhtar ul Imaan, Wajahat Mirza, Vrajendra Gaur, Gyandev Agnihotri, Satish Bhatnagar, Manish Gupta, Sachin Bhowmick, Madan Joshi, G R Kamath, Santosh Saroj, Rumi Jaffery, Aatish Kapadia, Jaideep Sahni, Juhi Chaturvedi, Saumya Joshi – these names have made immense contributions to the Bachchan magic, in fact each of their association deserves a stand-alone feature.
Similarly there are cinematographers like Peter Pereira, Jal Mistry, W B Rao, KayGee, Jayant Pathare, Pravin Bhatt, N Satyen, Ravi K Chandran, Anwar Siraj, A Vincent, Nariman Irani, S M Anwar, Sudeep Chatterjee, Natrajan Subramaniam, P C Sriram and many more who presented the superstar to the viewer complimenting the latter’s expectations.
Then there are playback singers, music directors and lyricists who created immortal melodies – Mohd Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh, Sudesh Bhosle, Mohd Aziz, Shabbir Kumar, SD Burman, R D Burman, Laxmikant Pyarelal, Kalyanji Anandji, Bappi Lahiri, Shankar Ehsan Loy, Khayyam, Rajesh Roshan, Anu Malik, Amar Utpal, Aadesh Srivastava, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi, Anand Bakshi, Javed Akhtar, Prayag Raaj, Anjaan, Gulshan Bawra, Yogesh, Sahir Ludhiyanvi, Sameer Anjaan, Indeevar. Who can forget poster designers like Diwakar Karkare, D R Bhosle, S M Pandit, C Mohan, Studio Link, Rahul Nanda. Also, celebrity photographers like Dhiraj Chawda, Girish Shukla, Jagdish Mali, Raghu Rai, Umesh Vyas, Gautam Rajadhyaksha, Dabboo Ratnani, Jayesh Sheth – each has contributed to sustain the Bachchan journey. Let’s also include choreographers P L Raj, Kamal Master, Saroj Khan, Vaibhavi Merchant and Farah Khan for giving us immortal visual melodies. Many names I couldn’t include due to space constraints, but technicians, producers, co-stars and crew members are all important in their own way for this saga..
The seventies were spectacular, it rained hits and blockbusters - Majboor, Roti Kapda aur Makan (1974), Sholay, Deewaar, Mili, Chupke Chupke (1975), Kabhi Kabhie, Do Anjaane, Hera Pheri, Adalat (1976), Amar Akbar Anthony, Parvarish, Khoon Pasina (1977), Kasme Vaade, Ganga ki Saugand, Don, Trishul, Muqaddar ka Sikandar (a career best output in 1978), and Kaala Patthar, Mr Natwarlal and Suhaag in 1979! But the victory march wasn’t easy, Amitabh faced a nasty press ban post-emergency in 1977 that was imposed due to a misunderstanding within the film press that he is instrumental in initiating some media curbs ordered by the Indira Gandhi government. His proximity to the Gandhis led to this perception. The ban lasted almost a decade and waned gradually after his fatal accident on the sets of Manmohan Desai’s Coolie in 1983. However, the press ban surprisingly didn’t impact the actor’s box-office power, in fact it gave him an enigmatic aura that enhanced his appeal. Producer/distributor Gulshan Rai had famously remarked, “Amitabh holds the No.1 to No.10 positions, the rest of the stars start at No.11 onwards”!
Amitabh sustained his popularity all through the eighties, though there was turbulence towards the end. India Today’s first Bachchan cover story released on 1st May 1980 was titled “One Man Industry”! The box office was generous – Dostana (1980), Kaalia, Naseeb, Laawaris, Anusandhan and Yaarana (1981), Satte pe Satta, Bemisal, Namak Halal, Desh Premee, Khuddaar and Shakti (1982), Coolie and Andhaa Kaanoon (1983), Sharaabi (1984), Mard and Geraftaar (1985), Aakhree Raasta (1986) and Shahenshah (1988).
Amitabh’s accident on the sets of Coolie in Bangalore had jolted the nation as he lay in the hospital for two months fighting for life. National newspapers reported his illness updates daily on the front page as people cutting across religious and regional boundaries prayed for his recovery. Manmohan Desai froze the shot in the film and it emerged the biggest success of 1983. Amitabh plunged in politics after the assassination of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, an emotional decision to help his friend Rajiv Gandhi. He won the Allahabad Lok Sabha seat in December 1984 with a landslide victory margin of 188,000 votes. However, he soon realized that politics is not his cup of tea. Forget the opposition, he was targeted within his own party by its local leaders in Allahabad as they obviously felt insecure of their own future. Then there were various allegations from the opposition in the form of Fairfax and Bofors deals. It was the time when he barely got positive press. Consequently he resigned in 1987 to clear off the allegations, as the film press began to question his star power.
In testing times, the next release was Tinnu Anand’s Shahenshah, an ambitious fantasy flick with visual flair, iconic dialogue and a costume “even Zorro might envy” to quote an India Today feature. It was expected to hit the theatres by the end of 1987, but the release date got postponed several times leading to the press interpreting it as nervousness on part of the producers..
Eventually the film released on 12th February 1988 to serpentine queues across the country. The record smashing opening, the craze for Amitabh’s superhero costume and a silver jubilee did silence the critics but only temporarily. Amitabh had opened a new vista in the eighties – his stage shows abroad with Kalyanji Anandji. They were globally successful shows and broke several theatre records besides winning the actor tremendous applause across the globe. The first big show was released as a Vinyl LP record titled “Live Tonite Amitabh Bachchan“ and was awarded a Platinum Disc by Polydor within weeks.
Amitabh’s popularity dipped in the late eighties after the success of Shahenshah. The press went hammer and tongs after him, supported by the V P Singh government targeting him over the Bofors scandal. Bachchan was fed up of refuting allegations and eventually sued a Swedish newspaper in a London court for slander. The newspaper was the source of many unsubstantiated news capsules in India on Bachchan’s alleged involvement in the Bofors deal. Much awaited Amitabh films like Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi, Toofan, Jaadugar, Main Azaad Hoon and Agneepath failed to stir the box office. Some of them merely scraped through and recovered investment but were labelled ‘flops’ nevertheless. The Illustrated Weekly of India shockingly carried a cover story ‘Finished!’ penned by a noted critic of the Times of India. It’s only after Amitabh won the London case on Bofors allegations that the tide turned - Aaj Ka Arjun and Hum resurrected the superstar at the box office, but it wasn’t enough. Ajooba, Indrajeet and Akayla could barely sustain themselves at the ticket window. And, the critics were back in full form.
The nineties posed the toughest challenges for the superstar. Though opinion polls did indicate that he remained the most popular star in the industry, the actor took a conscious sabbatical. Post the release of Mukul Anand’s epic Khuda Gawah, his last hit in 1992, Amitabh stopped signing films. He began investing in media (TV Asia in particular), formed Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited (ABCL, now AB Corp) and began a stint in the corporate world with film production, distribution, events and music. For the first time he started endorsements beginning with a series of advertisements for BPL. Unfortunately most of the moves didn’t work. Miss World, an ambitious ABCL event incurred losses and generated controversies, Amitabh’s comeback film Mrityudaata tanked. Music label BigB didn’t generate enough hit albums. Only Bombay and Bandit Queen distribution worked, and a couple of films like Tere Mere Sapne and Major Saab to some extent.
The press wrote him off. Star & Style addressed him as ‘ex-superstar’ in gossip columns. Amidst numerous box office turkeys – Lal Badshah, Sooryavansham, Kohraam, he made it to the cover of Outlook magazine in a feature ominously titled ‘The Fading of an Icon”! The only saving grace amidst all round doom was the success of Bade Miyan Chote Miyan - a potentially amusing storyline saturated with double entendres, two double roles, and a brilliant Kadar Khan cameo, co-produced by Bachchan’s trusted Man-Friday Sheetal Jain. The film released the same day as the Shah Rukh Khan – Karan Johar blockbuster Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Yet the Amitabh-Govinda film surpassed the opening week collections of the SRK film! It’s only in the subsequent weeks that the latter raced ahead in collections. Another news that raised eyebrows towards the tail end of the millennium was Amitabh’s glorious win in an online BBC poll for ‘Star of the Millennium’. The decade therefore ended on a positive note. The tide turned in the new millennium..
Son Abhishek, groomed for stardom, made an impressive debut with Kareena Kapoor in J P Dutta’s Refugee. Mohabbatein and Ek Rishtaa clicked at the box office and Amitabh Bachchan reinvented himself from a larger-than-life invincible hero to an amiable, jovial, sensitive reality show host with Siddharth Basu’s Kaun Banega Crorepati on Star Plus, penned by the talented R D Tailang - a show that made history with its consistent success with Bachchan in the lead across all seasons in its two decades run. Two “me-too” shows immediately took off on rival channels in a bid to displace the Bachchan-generated TRPs – Anupam Kher’s Sawaal Dus Karod Ka on Zee TV, which offered the ultimate win of 10 Crores, ten times the KBC jackpot, and Govinda’s Jeeto Chhappar Phaad Ke on Sony. Both couldn’t dent the original.
Amitabh also lent his voice as the narrator for Aamir Khan’s Lagaan in 2001 – the year’s biggest hit, and Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham emerged as the year’s second highest grosser. The following year Bachchan delivered two hits, Vipul A Shah’s riveting thriller Aankhen, and Sanjay Gupta’s slick crime flick Kaante. In 2002 Bachchan was back in the press as a formidable icon. The naysayers quietly ate their words and joined the chorus. His 60th birthday made national news – India Today’s cover, a special commemorative supplement in The Times of India, and a classy party at Juhu’s JW Marriott, where the who’s who of the country was seen partying with the Bachchans!
In 2003, Bachchan won hearts with a virtuoso performance in Ravi Chopra’s blockbuster hit Baghban, although there were comparisons with Ravi Tandon’s Zindagi (1976) and Mohan Kumar’s Avtaar (1983), which had similar plots. Yet Baghban was unstoppable at the box office, a special mention is needed for its melodious numbers penned by Sameer and composed by Aadesh Shrivastava, two of which were in Amitabh’s voice. In 2004, two Bachchan films hit the jackpot – Rajkumar Santoshi’s Khakee and Yash Chopra’s Veer Zaara (special appearance). The year 2005, like 1978, was the luckiest one in his new millennium journey with four smash hits in a row – Shaad Ali’s Bunty aur Babli, Ram Gopal Varma’s Sarkar, Vipul A Shah’s Waqt and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black! Two of these hits were Abhishek Bachchan films. No stopping for Bachchan in this phase.
In 2006 again he delivered two hits – Karan Johar’s Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna and Deepak Sawant’s Ganga (Bhojpuri). In 2007 he delivered brilliant performances in Ram Gopal Varma’s Nishabd, Rituparno Ghosh’s The Last Lear and Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s stunning cinematic work Eklavya - The Royal Guard. The critical and commercial jackpot, however, was R Balki’s Cheeni Kum. In the following year (2008) Amitabh was seen in two super hits – Vivek Sharma’s Bhootnath and Ram Gopal Varma’s Sarkar Raj. And finally in 2009, as Auro in R Balki’s Paa, Amitabh won hearts and swept all awards that mattered! Paa remains a landmark of his career. One could see him inhabit his part, creating a character that lives and breathes in viewer’s mind..
The last decade has also been interesting. Amitabh’s performance in Ram Gopal Varma’s briskly paced Rann (2010) about news channel politics is still talked about for obvious reasons. In 2011, the action-comedy Bbuddah Hoga Terra Baap clicked on sheer nostalgia value as Amitabh was presented with shades of his previous roles. In 2012, his rendition of Tagore’s ‘Ekla Chalo Re’ from Kahaani made waves, so did his appearance in the title track of Rohit Shetty’s blockbuster hit Bol Bachchan. In 2013 he won international praise and applause of his role in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, his first Hollywood role. In 2014, the sequel to Bhoothnath, Nitesh Tiwari’s funny, engaging and spirited Bhootnath Returns hit the bull’s eye with the kids flocking to theatres. In 2015, R Balki’s Shamitabh and Shoojit Sarkar’s Piku got him immense critical acclaim, the latter emerged a hit and swept awards for the megastar. In 2016, Ribhu Dasgupta’s Te3n and Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink won him laurels in reviews, and the latter being more successful, won several awards.
In 2017, Ram Gopal Varma’s Sarkar 3 couldn’t salvage itself at the box office unlike the first two acclaimed prequels. The following year, Amitabh and Rishi Kapoor teamed up once again after 27 years and created magic with Umesh Shukla’s 102 Not Out (2018). Sujoy Ghosh’s taut thriller Badla (2019) was another success story for Bachchan, a film co-produced by Shah Rukh Khan’s company. In 2020, Shoojit Sarkar’s Gulabo Sitabo became the first Bachchan film to release on Amazon Prime without a theatrical opening due to COVID-19 restrictions. Bachchan’s get-up for this film, as well as his nuanced performance won him generous praise. This year’s Chehre remains Bachchan’s last big release.
In a career spanning 52 years, Amitabh Bachchan has won numerous national and international awards and honors, has consistently won Best Actor opinion polls in the media, defying generation gaps. On the social media he is among the most followed Indians worldwide with genuine followers. Since the political debacle in the late eighties, having known and experienced political witch-hunt of a ruling regime, he has remained clinically apolitical and has not expressed his opinions publicly even on the most widely discussed issues.
Over the years he has weathered star-rivalries (Vinod Khanna, Shatrughan Sinha, Jeetendra, Anil Kapoor, Mithun Chakraborty and Shah Rukh Khan were compared in different phases by the press), accidents and illnesses, government harassment, nasty media, flops, investment losses and gossip. But he has somehow managed to remarkably sustain the love and affection of millions. He has erred several times on several issues and career moves, but don’t we all err? He matches pace with time and keeps himself updated on technology. Imagine, he is among the first stars to venture into NFTs at a time when most stars half his age, don’t even know about the basic concepts of this trade. Call it a quintessential bond of talent and luck, or call it destiny, Bachchan remains matchless even at 79, with no competition on the horizon..