It has been an abiding regret with me that I was not old enough in the seventies the decade Amitabh Bachchan ruled the world of cinema to understand the magnitude of the Big B phenomenon, to be part of the crowd that thronged his films. In 1979, when India Today termed him the 'one man industry' I was barely ten years old and having recently arrived in New Delhi from a small township in Assam, I hadn't even heard of India Today.
Again in 1982-83, when he hit a purple patch with the success of Khuddaar, Namak Halaal and Coolie, I was in Shillong, where films came a long time after their release all over the country. I had just an inkling of the kind of hysteria he could generate during his battle for life after the accident on the sets of Coolie. An elderly lady who lived next door came everyday to our place on her way back from the temple and with tears in her eyes would tell my mother about having offered prayers for Bachchan's recovery.
I discovered Bachchan in 1984, the year the Big B took a sabbatical from films to join politics at the behest of Rajiv Gandhi. Cable TV was still unheard of and Doordarshan was the only avenue for films on television. Bachchan's films were few and far between, often limited to only one film in the entire year. So when Faraar was shown on TV it was celebration time as was the rare Bachchan song aired on the ubiquitous Chitrahaar.
During this period, Bachchan's absence from tinsel town, the video boom and a string of big budget multi-starrers which bombed at the box office made a host of theatres opt for re-releasing old Bachchan films. And most of these films Mr Natwarlal, Shaan went on to do better business than the new releases. Theatre owners opted for a strategy of releasing his well-known films in the main shows while the morning shows were generally reserved for his smaller, relatively untalked-of films.
At 16, I was probably just the appropriate age to appreciate the angst of Deewar, Trishul and Zanjeer and I often returned home with an anger directed at all forms of authority, carefully cultivating an image of a wronged loner. At the same time, the morning shows screening films like Manzil, Do Anjaane and Saudagar revealed a different facet to the actor. His everyman roles in these films made him seem like a close relative, a benevolent young uncle rather than the superstar he was.
A little older and in the throes of life's first crush I watched Muqaddar Ka Sikandar and my starry eyes, on the verge of tears, discerned in his unrequited longing for his beloved 'memsaab' my own story of floundering amorous yearnings. Or for that matter as he called out 'Sakhi' to Rakhee in Bemisaal, in an unforgettable intonation, he launched my own adolescent search for someone I could call by the name. People who swear by films like Deewar and Zanjeer as his finest performances and generally run down his ability as a romantic lead do him a great injustice.
Bemisaal is undoubtedly his most accomplished performance for the sheer complexity of the role, with its shades of the lover, the loner, the gregarious flirt and yes, probably the most subtle representation of his ubiquitous 'angry young man'. One only needs to look closely at his smaller films to discern the range he is capable of. The repentant playboy of Jurmana, the husband in Do Anjaane which probably boasts of the most memorable drunk scene of his career, and the tumour-afflicted fugitive in Majboor are veritable showcases of his talent as an actor. Not that any actor who delivers films as diverse as Deewar, Kabhi Kabhie and Amar Akbar Anthony in three consecutive years needed any other proof of talent.
What endeared me most to Bachchan of these films was the fact the he so eloquently conveyed emotions without ever seeming to try. He did not have to rave and rant to convey his anger. His eyes sufficed and his flawless baritone would do the rest. A case in point is the scene in Kala Patthar where he confronts a thug (Sharat Saxena) who brandishes a knife. Bachchan simply looks at him and intones deadpan, "Tu to gaya Dhanna." (You are a goner, Dhanna). And you knew the man has had it. And if he was the larger-than-life entertainer in the Manmohan Desai films, he punctuated these with the man-next-door roles in the films by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. The star and the actor jelling well enough not to encroach into each other's territories.
Those were the days when Bachchan was relatively inaccessible to the media. Information on the man and the star was not forthcoming. But all this was to change, and I am yet to understand if the change was for the better. As he began to feel the heat following the suspicions of his involvement in the Bofors tangle, he opened up to the media. To my delight, film magazines fell over each other in coming out with 'specials' on the man and the star.
For the first time, I had access to the fact that in the eleven years since 1973, when Zanjeer was released, only three of his films (Alaap, Imaan Dharam and Faraar) had failed to recover their investments. Films like Shaan and The Great Gambler which were written off as flops at the time of their initial release, went on to become successful when re-released. In fact, some of his films made more money on re-releases than many a hit film starring other actors. It delighted me to learn that of the fifteen top grossers in the history (at that time) of Hindi films, as many as six starred Bachchan in the lead. And it seemed a matter of personal pride to know that in a particularly golden streak in 1978, five of his films Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, Trishul, Don, Kasme Vaade and Ganga Ki Saugandh were released in the span of two months and each went on to become a jubilee hit.
Armed with the facts and figures of the box office performances of his films, the stories of his legendary professionalism, I would slug it out with any friend and acquaintance who dared cast an aspersion on the man. With the data I had on me I inevitably came out trumps. When they talked about the poor quality of some of his films (Mard) I only had to point out his rare charisma which catapulted some real clangers to box-office glory. And when people carped about his financial duds like Alaap, I always had the trump card of his performance which no one could argue about. That invariably brought people to talk about his involvement in Bofors which I pooh-poohed with the comment that character assassination is a favourite Indian pastime. I lost a few friends in the bargain but as long as I had Bachchan and his films everything else was dispensable.
Shahenshah marked his return to films post-politics. And also marked the first chink in my blind devotion. The media had gone to town with the impending release. The hype was overwhelming with reports of Bachchan being so impressed with the film that he had seen it close to 70 times. So when I saw the film, my first taste of the Bachchan draw in live, I was filled with a sense of disappointment. His next films did nothing to assuage the sense of being letdown. In fact there was probably no sight more tragic (discounting the abominable 'Mere Angne Mein' in Laawaris) than Bachchan on screen with a crocodile on his back in Ganga Jamuna Saraswati, as though saddled with deja vu. For the first time I could not come up with arguments to counter those who were beginning to write him off. I felt betrayed, as though Bachchan owed me a better deal personally.
I wonder whether I had grown up or whether his films had become smaller? Because none of his films in this phase came remotely close to my expectations and the hype they generated. There were the odd sparks in Agneepath and Main Azaad Hoon but something was amiss. His return after another five-year break following his misadventure with ABCL and beauty contests was even more disappointing.
Somewhere down the line he seemed to have lost that endearing connectivity. The entertainer had overtaken the actor. In his post brand-entity image he seemed to have suddenly become inaccessible and distant. His performances, particularly the anger seemed forced and unlike the subtlety of the past was loud and jarring. Major Saab is a major case in point where he simply barked out a one-note performance devoid of any vocal nuances. And what could have been sadder than watching him try to outpace Govinda in Bade Mian Chote Mian.
In his avataar as a TV game show host, he seems to have re-discovered his touch, his ability to connect with the masses. Unlike those who have made rather uncharitable comments about his fling with television, I have nothing against it. He is a performer and it is a job that pays him well. If we as individuals are free to take up work we like, there is no reason why Bachchan should be judged any differently.
For me what counts is the kind of film he delivers and that is what has been disappointing with unfailing regularity. To say that he is the strong point or the only good thing in mediocrities like Mohabbatein, Ek Rishta or Aks is a hoary clich้. He is the strong point of any film he acts in. Period.
Over a decade and a half have elapsed since Amitabh Bachchan first held me spellbound and I realise that the spell is a lot weaker than it was then. I know it will never be the same again. That is the price one pays for growing up. Yet, even now, when a film starring Amitabh Bachchan is ready for release, there is a something in me that tenses up. I invariably find myself hoping for its commercial success and uttering a silent prayer: "Lord, let this be the film that restores in my heart what once was." That ultimately I think is the magic called Amitabh Bachchan.
This article was published in HindustanTimes' pastforward section. I saw almost all Amitabh's movies.. but I donno.. I feel them as little too melodramatic. The one I really liked is Anand.