Amitabh Bachchan: Better than the best

By Rauf Ahmad
Publication Date: 
Thu, 2002-10-17 03:00

Believe it or not, for the first few days of his life the first born of Teji and Harivanshrai Bachchan was called Inquilab Rai. It was 1942, a critical year in India’s freedom struggle. There were cries of Inquilab Zindabad all over Allahabad. And the Bachchans thought it appropriate to call their just born son Inquilab Rai. But the name lasted only a few days. On second thoughts, they decided that their son needed a more conventional name. So Inquilab gave way to Amitabh, meaning eternal light. The revolutionary streak, however, didn’t leave Amitabh. His contribution to Indian cinema and then Indian television have really been revolutionary!

Amitabh Bachchan’s early films gave no clue to the shape of things to come. His debut in a two-minute role of a pall-bearer in Merchant Ivory’s "Bombay Talkies" went totally unnoticed. Nor did his first film "Saat Hindustani" directed by one of his father’s acquaintances, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, make any waves at the box office, though it fetched him a national award. His next 10 films were duds too, including "Parwana," where, out of sheer desperation, he tried to play a villain. (Navin Nischol was the hero of the film). His performance in it did stand out as did the brooding character he played in Rajshri’s "Saudagar" opposite Nutan, but they led him nowhere. There was just one hit in that dismal first phase: Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s "Anand," where he had played second fiddle to Rajesh Khanna.

"Anand" had been an unexpected stroke of luck. Amitabh had accompanied K.A. Abbas to meet Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Hrishida was then casting for "Anand," a film inspired by his own friendship with Raj Kapoor. "I was paranoid about something terrible happening to Raj," Hrishida recalls. "And I wanted to make a film to get over that persistent feeling of fear." In Amitabh he saw his Babu Moshai. "It was his voice and the intense, brooding eyes that clinched it," remembers Hrishida. "I instantly changed my decision to cast Uttam Kumar as Babu Moshai. It was a risky decision, because in the film Amitabh, a rank newcomer, had to stand up to Rajesh Khanna, who was a rage in those days." But the gamble paid off.

The intense deep-set eyes and the brooding look led Hrishida to cast him in his next film as well. "Namak Haram" was based on Samuel Beckett, where Bachchan played Peter O Toole’s role. It was this character that did the trick in articulating the violent expression of anger.

It was a stage where protests were growing in the social milieu. A distraught generation was seeking a means of expressing its frustration and disorientation. It was just the time for a larger-than-life character, who could look out for himself and fight his own battles.

Amitabh was the man for the moment. The Angry Young Man. Amitabh believed in his ability to essay that role. "There seems to be a strong sense of revolt within me," he admitted. "Perhaps, it’s in my genes. I have seen rebellion in my father’s early writings. It influenced me a lot. When I tried to express anger on screen, it seemed to happen so naturally." Hrishida saw this anger burst in a brief scene in "Anand" where Amitabh chides an overexuberant Rajesh Khanna. "That’s when I realized the power and strength he could exude through his look and voice," he says. "And I cast him as an angry young man in ‘Namak Haram.’"

Javed Akhtar saw that anger simmer in a critical scene in "Bombay To Goa." It was the scene where Shatrughan Sinha slaps him, and Amitabh falls on the ground. "Even as he was getting back on his feet, he kept chewing at a piece of sandwich he had in his mouth," recalls Javed. "It was dramatic... absolutely fascinating. I went back and told Salim Saab that I have found the hero of ‘Zanjeer.’" But Amitabh himself was a bit skeptical about pulling off the character of the aggressive police officer in "Zanjeer," according to Salim. "Essentially because it was in vivid contrast to the introvert Babu Moshai he had been playing. Also the role had been rejected by stalwarts like Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Raj Kumar and Dharmendra."

At the same time, Amitabh didn’t want to let go of the film, because "he saw the immense potential in the script." His ability to judge a script, the duo agree, was amazing even at that early stage.

"Zanjeer," "Deewar," "Trishul." They established an archetype peculiar to Indian audiences. The diehard rebel who rose in anger against a cold-blooded establishment. He was no paragon of virtue either like the earlier heroes. He even resorted to violence to achieve what he thought was legitimate. His conflicts were not romantic like the ones faced by the heroes of an earlier generation. They were by and large social. Romance was not an essential part of Amitabh’s existence. His girlfriends invariably lived in the background like Raakhee’s in "Trishul." His macho image was always in command like in "Laawaris" or "Dostana," where he subjugated his women, at times crudely. The masses seemed to lap it up though! They seemed to readily accept the "functional existence" of the woman.

Beneath the veneer of anger there did exist soft spots, generally reserved for the "mother" and the "child". In some films he did everything for the mother ("Deewar") in some others he went all out to woo the child ("Mr. Natwarlal"). Of course, in the midst of all the mayhem he let loose, there have been cherished moments of tenderness and emotion which brought huge lumps to the sensitive throats. Like those eloquent moments of silence in "Sholay," the dramatic capers in "Muqaddar Ka Sikandar" and the emotional interludes in "Kabhi Kabhi."

"Zanjeer," incidentally, was Amitabh’s 13th film. Of his other 12 films, only "Anand" did well at the box office. But then in "Anand" he had only played a supporting role. In the next 13 years, right up to "Aakhree Raasta" (1986) he had only three ("Imaan Dharam," "Aalap" and "Faraar") real failures out of the 61 films released. An unprecedented record!

The awesome phase not only changed the face of the hero in Indian films, but changed the very pattern of filmmaking. Amitabh did almost everything in his films except playing the heroine. The comedian became redundant. So did many other ingredients.

For a while even music lost its prominence in an Indian film. "Deewar" and "Sholay," two of the biggest ever hits, had no great music. A Bachchan film, as Ramesh Sippy once said, ended up being a one-man Variety Show! And those who didn’t get Amitabh Bachchan to star in their films looked for clones. In fact, it virtually became a "one-man industry" as a cover-story in India Today chose to call it.

It was an incredible achievement for a man who had wondered how he would ever do the kind of things an Indian film hero did before the camera. "I used to spend most of my time watching film shootings at various studios. Once I watched Manoj Kumar shooting a dance number for a film called ‘Pehchan’ in Bombay. I felt perturbed and nervous just looking at him do those strange movements! That night I kept asking myself ‘Will I ever be able to do all this? Will I be able to prance uninhibitedly in front of so many people?’ That night I even contemplated returning home. But I stayed on."

The inhibitions did show in his earlier film. He almost got thrown out of "Parwana" because dance master Suresh Bhatt got very impatient with him. And the late Kamal Master, who choreographed some of Amitabh’s successful numbers, had actually got him replaced by Sanjay Khan in a film because he found his movements clumsy. "That day I decided that it won’t happen again. I would give my all to my dances. During ‘Don,’ I rehearsed at least 20 times for each shot and I would re-do each shot again and again," he had once remarked. The "Khainke Paan Banaraswala" number from the film became a rage. (The Asian Age)

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