Busy with a Big B: At 80, Amitabh Bachchan is still as prolific as he ever was

From fashioning a cult of anger in 70s to doing everything everywhere all at once today, Bachchan's career has been sometimes bumpy but always interesting

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Ranjita Ganesan

Who made Amitabh Bachchan the ‘Angry Young Man’? Everyone tells that story a little differently. Director-producer Prakash Mehra had bought the script for Zanjeer but was struggling to find a male lead—Dharmendra had no dates, Raj Kumar was in the wrong city, Dev Anand was not convinced. Actor Pran called him, suggesting he watch Bombay to Goa. There, in Amitabh Bachchan, Mehra remembered finding his ‘Vijay’.

Writer Salim Khan maintained he was the sole creator of Vijay and, therefore, responsible for the legend of the actor who played him. Javed Akhtar, who co-wrote the screenplay and dialogue, recalled being the one who went to narrate the role to Bachchan, idle after a series of flops, because he had admired him in those flops.

Memory may be subjective, but it is objectively true that Bachchan’s turn as the unsmiling, avenging cop in Zanjeer changed his fortunes as well as the fortunes of Hindi cinema.

“A major talent like him could not have been stopped. He would have found his way, one way or another,” Akhtar said in an interview. “Like a river pushes its way through mountains, deserts and jungles.” Few metaphors do a better job of explaining Bachchan. Throughout the uneven terrain of his 53-year career in Hindi cinema, he has kept busy and stayed relevant, by dint of skill and thrust.

Rising above rejection is a recurring theme in Big B’s celebrity. How AIR (All India Radio) turned him down once is a story often retold to illustrate the point. He had to spend a couple of days on a bench in Marine Drive while struggling for an acting break.

Most directors did not give his portfolio a second look because he was “too tall” for the heroines. Although people saw potential, his first few film releases came up short. Such legends lent an authenticity to Bachchan beyond his public persona, and they help us understand what made him the icon he became. He was the 6 feet 2 inches tall underdog.

Writer-director Khwaja Ahmed Abbas was the first to cast him on screen in 1969, though Bachchan’s voice had debuted earlier that year in Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome. In Abbas’s nationalist melodrama Saat Hindustani, where seven Indians plot to free Goa from the Portuguese, the actor appeared as a young poet turned revolutionary.

Busy with a Big B: At 80, Amitabh Bachchan is still as prolific as he ever was

‘Poet turned revolutionary’ is also an accurate way to describe the trajectory of his subsequent roles. Until 1973, he played mostly staid characters, either a doctor (Anand) or an artist (Parwana). This was closer to his own reality of growing up in a refined, scholarly household and, later, earning Rs 1,600 a month at an executive position in a Calcutta firm.

After 1973, he swapped romance for rage. In the two decades that followed Zanjeer, he regularly played the rebel with a cause in Deewar, Don, Kaala Patthar, Kaalia, Coolie, Shahenshah, Agneepath and so on.

The Angry Young Man genre gave its predominantly male audience a new way of seeing Bachchan, and through Bachchan, a new way of seeing themselves. In a time of war, inflation and protests, it reflected the frustrations of the labour class, who were doing hard jobs in exploitative conditions in a corrupt metropolis, where the fastest way to rise was always outside the law. They embodied a sort of masculinity we now recognise as toxic, flattening the heroines so that Bachchan’s hero could shine.

Bachchan also edged out the prevailing ‘soft hero’ of that era. His overgrown hair, thick sideburns, and long legs—all the better for running from the law or kicking enemies—were a challenge to the beatific handsomeness of Rajesh Khanna and Shashi Kapoor. His characters had a style that was easy to mimic and feel an intimacy with.

There was the patterned waistcoat and gamchha look from Don, the denim on denim from Sholay, the chained arm sleeve that Shahenshah wore. For the first time, viewers had punchlines to take back with them: ‘Don ko pakadna mushkil hi nahin, naamumkin hai’ or ‘Aaj mere paas bangla hai, gaadi hai, bank balance hai, tumhare paas kya hai?’

Having a radio voice allowed Bachchan to make an entire language out of the word ‘hain’. In his utterance, hain could mean an interrogation, a smirk, a tickle, an emotional appeal. He used it to get away with barking questions at Shiva in a temple (Deewar) and Jesus in a church (Amar Akbar Anthony). Vocal command also made his comedy extra fluent—think of the ‘English is a funny language’ monologue in Namak Halaal, or the drunken discourse on ‘gandi naali ke keede’ in Hum.

Amitabh with Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, 1980s
Amitabh with Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, 1980s

On the other hand, the vigilante genre overshadowed more delicate facets of his early filmography: the comedies of error (Chupke Chupke) and emotional dramas (Anand, Abhimaan) directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and the intense romances (Kabhie Kabhie, Silsila) with Yash Chopra.

But like so many good things, Hindi cinema ruined the justice-seeking arc of Bachchan’s middle era with overuse. After the gore and ugliness of the eighties, people began wanting sweet cinema again. The days of Big B’s volatile antihero were numbered.

To make matters worse, Bachchan had gone through personal slumps in that period. He sustained a life-threatening injury on the sets of Coolie in 1982, and had mixed outings in politics and business. By the late 1990s, his production and events company ABCL, as well as his films, were tanking.

Did François Truffaut call Bachchan a “one-man industry”? It is one of those quotes that is difficult to verify but tempting to repeat. In any case, one-man industry is how Bachchan has operated over the past two decades. He has narrated Jodhaa Akbar and Krrish 3, sold Boro Plus ointments, endorsed Gujarat tourism, and appealed to the public for various causes. He has sung playback for Delhi-6 and Kahaani, and composed a song for Chup. He even blogs and microblogs, and posts regularly on Instagram.

The superstar has always privileged being busy over being picky. That is what walked him into films like Ajooba, Jaadugar and Laal Baadshah, but it is also what saved him from disappearing after the 1990s downfall. Although a comeback on television, with a game show at that, was considered rather controversial, the movie star did not shy away from it.

A last-ditch gamble, Kaun Banega Crorepati, revived his career and remains a steady gig 22 years on. He maintains the pace at which actors made movies in the 1970s and 1980s, doing an average of at least three films a year since 2000.

For today’s big filmmakers, raised on Bachchan’s cult-making movies, it is a bucket-list item to work with the superstar. His celebrity has taken even their small films to a worldwide audience. Young directors have reimagined his major works with new stars, leading to new versions of Don, Zanjeer and Agneepath. Rather than cast him as the family patriarch, directors are dreaming up novel characters for him to portray; it has perhaps made up for Bachchan’s unfussiness in choosing roles.

In Pink and in Badla, he appeared as the idiosyncratic lawyer who comes out of retirement to solve cases, in Jhund he played a football coach (Vijay Barse), and in Brahmastra, he was a retired superhero guru. All these decades later, young men may have continued to deliver angry punchlines in popular films of the southern states, as also in their Hindi remakes, yet Bachchan, it seems, has settled into a new avatar—the ‘Cool Old Gentleman’.

(Ranjita Ganesan is a Mumbai-based writer and researcher)

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines