Twenty-five years after Indian Independence… Disillusionment had set in amongst the youth of the country. There was much corruption and unemployment and life was one big struggle. During this period in 1973, a film was released – Zanjeer. The film saw a new kind of hero, a hero who took the law in his own hands and fought the villain; a hero who successfully took revenge for his father’s gruesome murder; a hero whom people saw as their savior. The actor playing the lead role, till then a struggler with a string of flops behind him, was a tall, lanky not so young man, Amitabh Bachchan.
The son of the noted Hindi poet, Harivanshrai Bachchan, he was born in Allahabad on October 11, 1942. Educated at Sherwood School, he gave up his job as a freight broker for a shipping firm in Calcutta to move to Bombay in 1968. Months of struggle followed in the land of dreams for Bachchan before he got a break as one of the seven ‘Hindustanis’ in KA Abbas’s film Saat Hindustani (1969), based on the fight for liberation of Goa. Ironically known for his rich voice, he was rejected by All India Radio and even played a mute in one of his early films Reshma Aur Shera (1971). After some more flops; where he even played villain to Navin Nischol’s hero in Parwana (1971), Zanjeer finally happened. In his early films, like the Hrishikesh Mukherjee directed Anand (1970) and Namak Haram (1973) or in Saudagar (1973), he was presented as a brooding melancholic man drawn from Bengali Literary stereotypes and brought into Hindi Cinema by directors like Nitin Bose, Bimal Roy and Asit Sen. But Zanjeer changed all that.
With his tall and lean looks, Amitabh became emblematic of the new kind of action hero. Whereas his predecessors such as Rajesh Khanna and Dharmendra played romantic roles, Amitabh introduced the motif of the ‘angry young man’ to Indian cinema. This at a time in the mid-1970s, when domestic politics was in a period of great turmoil, student unrest was high, and the employment prospects for educated young men were bleak at best. In Deewaar (1975), which furnishes the classic example of the double in the Hindi cinema, he played the role of a mafia don opposite his honest policeman brother, played by Shashi Kapoor. It was a brilliant performance with Amitabh more than able to humanize the gangster and have people sympathize more with him rather than with his law-abiding brother.
This theme of ‘alienation’ is further explored in Trishul (1978), Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978), Kaala Patthar (1979) and especially Shakti (1982) where as the son of a strict police officer (Dilip Kumar), Amitabh takes to the life of high crime and smuggling. Bachchan’s persona in these films is often defined by two females: the melodramatic mother, often played by Nirupa Roy, who symbolizes the family and the ‘liberated’ woman as personified by Zeenat Aman (Don (1978), The Great Gambler (1979)), Parveen Babi (Deewaar, Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Kaalia (1981)) or Rekha (Mr Natwarlal (1979), Suhaag (1979), Silsila (1981)).
Though he played the ‘angry young man’ to perfection, Amitabh scored in all types of roles be it the sensitive romances of Yash Chopra (Kabhi Kabhie (1976), Silsila (1981)) or the unpretentious entertainers of Manmohan Desai – Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Parvarish (1977), Suhaag (1979) and Naseeb (1981) to name a few. He excelled in all types of scenes be it action, drama, song and dance or comedy and consequently his films began to be a ‘one man’ variety entertainment show. Take the comic drunken scene in Amar Akbar Anthony or the drag act in the Mere Angane Mein song from Lawaaris (1981) – they are pure repeat value ‘items!’
In 1982, he survived a life threatening accident on the sets of Manmohan Desai’s Coolie (1983), while shooting an action sequence with Puneet Issar in Bangalore. He was critically injured with much internal bleeding. He was rushed to a hospital in Bombay and it was touch and go for a while. In fact, he was supposedly even clinically dead for a few minutes. He then had to undergo a series of surgeries before he finally pulled through. The entire country was on tenterhooks with many undertaking pilgrimages for his life. More than 200 donors gave their blood for him as he recovered. When Coolie was released, the shot where he was critically hurt was frozen for a few seconds with a super telling is that this was the shot where he was injured. Further, Desai also decided not to kill him off in the climax as per the original script. Needless to say, Coolie was a super duper hit at the box-office.
In 1984, when at his peak as a star, he tried his hand at politics. Due to his enormous popularity, not to mention the close association he enjoyed with Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, and members of the Nehru family, he was elected to parliament with a huge majority from his home city of Allahabad. But his stint in politics did not last long and he was implicated in some scandals like the Bofors gun case that shook the country. He consequently gave up his seat in parliament, vowing never to be involved in politics again.
On the cinematic front, he continued to rule the 1980s as his angry young man, now older, took on the entire corrupt system in the country. He went on to win the National Award for his portrayal of an underworld kingpin in Agneepath (1990), while a fine performance here he even experimented with his voice, it did feel a bit like like Deewaar revisited. Following Hum (1991), he took a break from Hindi Cinema after Khuda Gawah (1992), having somewhere reached a dead-end as a successful commercial hero.
Five years later, Bachchan attempted a return to commercial Hindi cinema with the disastrous Mrityudata (1997), and the failure of his next lot of films meant he did not have the impact that he had in previous years. Further, his company ABCL with its mismanagement of the Miss World Event held in Bangalore was deep in debt. He was being written off, his epitaphs being written.
However, there was to be an amazing turnaround. By hosting the popular game show Kaun Banega Karorepati? (KBC), he not only came back with a bang but endeared himself to the generation of today as well. But there was more. The biggest feather in Amitabh’s crowded cap was being chosen as the superstar of the Millennium over such greats as Charlie Chaplin and Laurence Olivier and being selected as the first film personality from India to be immortalized at Madam Tussaud’s Wax Museum, London! And on January 26, 2001 he was awarded the Padma Bhushan for his contribution to Indian Cinema. After that there was no looking book and he became one of the busiest actors in Hindi cinema with roles specially written for him. For stereotypical Hindi cinema where actors, could only play father of the hero type roles, this was a major achievement. In films like Baghban (2003) , Khakhee (2004), Dev (2004), Bunty Aur Babli (2005), Nishabd (2007), Cheeni Kum and The Last Lear (2007), Bachchan showed how easily he can rise above any script and breathe life into each and every role he plays.
There have been the odd misfires like Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (2007) where his costume made more news than him and undoubtedly his nadir, Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag (2007), an atrocious remake of Sholay where he played the Gabbar Singh role immortalised by Amjad Khan. Although here it must be said that Ramu and his writers overkilled and shall we say overcharacterised the character in trying to make him the ultimate in terror – so you have the different eye colour, you have the scar on the nose, you have him in this weird wardrobe, you have him sprouting one-liners on Iraq and Al-Qaida, you have the sickly laugh, you have him playing tribute to his character in Sholay by playing the mouth organ, you have him playing with his tongue like a snake, you have him blowing ‘poof’ at Mohanlal, you have … oh well you get the picture. Even his National Award winning performance in Black (2005) had mixed reviews with some critics thinking it was the greatest performance of his career while others thought he was over the top.
Today, he is busy as ever and shows the same energy and enthusiasm for his work which is commendable and just when you think he has done it all, he continues to astound you with his performances like in Paa (2009) and still has films written around him – Bbuddah – Hoga Terra Baap (2011) and Shamitabh (2015) for instance. On the personal front, he is married to actress Jaya Bhaduri. His son, Abhishek Bachchan and daughter-in-law, Aishwarya Rai are actors too.
No two ways about it. Legends like Amitabh Bachchan come but once in a lifetime.