77 cheers for the Big B!

As Bollywood’s towering icon turns 77 and gets ready to be honoured with the Dadabhai Phalke citation, Monojit Lahiri investigates the reason why he is the biggest ever

Actor Amitabh Bachchan
Actor Amitabh Bachchan

Monojit Lahiri

It was while watching a recent episode from his 11th edition of KBC, where with his trademark charm, wit & warmth, he mesmerised the participant in the hot-seat, studio audiences and zillions of viewers, that a familiar line visited the brain – “Hum jahaan khade hote hain, line wahan se shuru hoti hain!” It also simultaneously struck me, that if there is one oldie in the business who can yell – with total credibility and confidence – Buddha Hoga Tera Baap, it has to be Amitabh Bachchan! From ... Mr. Unlucky to Angry Young Man to One Man Industry in the 80’s to today’s Miracle Man, Bachchan’s journey as an inspired interpreter of the zeitgeist, remains both matchless and eventful. A triumphant celebration of faith in hope along with the ability to push the boundaries, fight off diverse challenges, overcome all odds, be moulded but not mastered by circumstances, invest heavily in aspiration and above all, remain mentally strong!

As all faithful Bachchan-watchers must know, he started out as Mr. Beanpole, courageously letting go a cushy executive position in a Calcutta multi-national [in the late 60’s] to throw in his hat in the Bollywood ring. He couldn’t have done it at a worst time. Gangly, lanky, with a pronounced Adam’s apple and limbs that went on forever, he wanted to gate-crash into a space totally dominated by chocolate heroes, led by the phenomenon, Rajesh Khanna.

Everything about him – not a Khanna, Kapoor or Khan – was wrong and despite a modest outing in the Rajesh-dominated Anand, Bachchan struggled hard & long. After a dozen flops and seriously wondering whether he was meant for this time, Serendipity arrived, in the form of Zanjeer – a film vetoed [thank god!] by every leading man of the day. It was this film that unchained him from insecurity and introduced a new sociological agent of change: The Angry Young Man! A fierce, intense loner who lets his fists speak for him. Mr. Cool of icy intelligence and physical assertiveness for whom means justified the end. Interestingly, this persona – unknowingly – unleashed two fascinating, far-reaching movements: One, the wave of the Revenge & Vendetta theme [Zanjeer, Deewar, Trishul, Kala Patthar] a plot structure where the motivation of the hero centres solely on violently settling old scores. Two, the Hero-as-an-Outsider totally bereft of any romantic alignments. It was a clear case of right time and right place when the Youngistan of the day were agitating against corruption, price-rise, unemployment, etc. Along with these Salim-Javed explosives, Bachchan soon widened his histrionic bandwidth to induct comedy, action, song-dance and romance into his repertoire. Now, he was a Complete Entertainer/Performer Package with biggies like Manmohan Desai, Ramesh Sippy and Prakash Mehra forever casting him as Hero No.1! When Bachchan juggled these masala movies with Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s charming middle-of-the-road stories, he successfully achieved the perfect blend of art and commerce.

However, nature has its way of pulling out the law of averages and what goes up must come down. Age, changing profile of audiences, the Khan invasion, misjudging some scripts, misadventure with both Corporate [ABCL] and political journeys had the star soft-focussed & on the back foot. Once again, after a nightmarish time – fortune favoured the brave and KBC zoomed him back into the limelight - this time in a different avatar: A warm, friendly Uncle, chatty, witty, charming and empathic, whose Computer-ji lock kiya jaye caught fire, pronto! Overnight a new & large, diverse, Pan-India audience cosied up to him and producers were quick to track his soaring brand equity. Recognising the need to change with the times, Bachchan re-invented himself to enthusiastically align with interesting, strong character roles. Be it Mohabattein, Bagbaan, KK KG, Bunty or Babli [who can forget his Kajra Re with Ash? Or the recent Piku, Pink or Badla, the man rocked and there’s no sign of stopping.

Interestingly, it is important to note that not a single actor of his generation – Rajesh, Shashi, Manoj, Dharmendra, Jeetu, Vinod, Shatru – are anywhere near his aura. They have either left the planet ... or the main frame. For a guy who started his career with Saat Hindustani [1969] when the Khans were around 4 years old and who for all these years continues to be held in awe, admiration & respect by each generation, must mean something very special. Dignified, classy, humble and articulate, the Big B is easily the finest Brand Ambassador for Bollywood ever. To be the face of [diverse, even bizarre?] brands, working with youngsters like filmmakers Shoojit Sarkar & Sujoy Ghosh and to constantly remain fresh, interesting & relevant, places the 77 year old icon in a different stratosphere altogether. Siddharth Basu – the creator of KBC – and someone who has worked very closely with the Big B offers his personal take on the screen. “The key to his longevity in the entertainment industry is a mix of many things really. His distinct persona and presence. His rootedness. His straddling the world of high culture with the common touch. His relentless drive for excellence and finally his single-minded devotion to his craft & work ethics”.

That’s the Big B! Happy Birthday. It just doesn’t get any bigger ... or better.

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Published: 11 Oct 2019, 7:00 AM