Three decades of triumphs
NEXT WEEK, Macmillan releases “Amitabh Bachchan — The Legend” in Delhi and Mumbai. The author, writer of this column, sums up the actor's career.
He was born to a great father and he understood this even as a little child.
His mother, Teji Bachchan said that he listened with his eyes and could recall the most mundane moment, in minutest details. Born on October 11,1942 in Allahabad, Amitabh went to St. Mary's Convent, for a couple of years, then the Boys High School and four years later, when his younger brother, Ajitabh joined the same school, undertook responsibility as the older sibling: It is said that he was a promising student, artistic and above average. Obedient in the classroom and energetic at the playground. From the very beginning, he was inclined towards theatre and participated in school plays. At home, he was often mischievous, but dependable during a crisis.
The brothers learnt early in life to guard their father's privacy. Dr. Harivansh Rai Bachchan was a professor at the Allahabad University and spent his spare time at home, behind the desk, writing. Mother Teji compensated for her husband's busy schedule. The brothers grew up without deprivations. If at all, a busting admiration of the fact that their father was someone very special. After completing school, from Sherwood College, Nainital, the family having shifted to Delhi as Dr. Bachchan joined the Ministry of External Affairs, Amitabh for a while enrolled in the Government College, Chandigarh. Later, when his admission to Kirorimal College was confirmed, he shifted to Delhi. Teji Bach han was not happy parting with her first born so easily, but her husband and she reconciled to the fact that it was only the beginning and with time, the kids would take on wings and fly. After graduation, Amitabh took up his first job in Calcutta and when his brother completed education, Ajitabh joined him as well.
The early days were marked by adventure. A lot of their colleagues in pursuit of a career, had landed in the same city and they would start their day early morning and wind up late in the evening, exhausted but optimistic. Amitabh went along the rigorous routine for almost three years and though there were no complaints, there was a restlessness within, he could not conquer. Introverted and anxious, he could not express his dream, but Ajitabh identified it and one fine day brought him the enrolment form to join films, printed in a film magazine. The application needed photographs of the candidate, so Ajitabh with his ordinary camera, clicked his brother standing beside odd props and sent the letter by post to Bombay. The eternally pessimistic Amitabh did not expect a reply, and it did not come. He was rejected in the preliminaries. But by now his mind was set for Bombay.
First, parents had to be informed in Delhi, then, a secure job to quit, for a gamble that may or may not work. Amitabh opted to be reckless, chose the less trodden path, said goodbye to old colleagues and boarded a train to everyone's destination of dreams, Bombay. K. A. Abbas launched him as one of the seven heroes in “Saat Hindustani”. The year was 1969 and going by the rave compliment Amitabh was besieged with for his debut performances, he hoped that opportunities would engulf him. On the contrary, as the months went by, the dream turned into a nightmare! Hopping from studio to studio and knocking on producers’ doors asking for a role, did not come easy to him. Too sensitive to seek financial aid from home and too proud to reveal his desperation, he spent anguished days and hungry nights, often sleeping on the Marine Drive parapet.
Film maker Hrishikesh Mukherjee spotted him and cast him in “Guddi” but when he learnt that he was doing “Pyar Ki Kahani,” a film in the South, replaced him with a newcomer, Samit Bhanja. He later cast him in the Rajesh Khanna starrer, “Anand”. The year was 1970 and on the evening of the release when Amitabh stopped by at his regular petrol pump to fill fuel, he was asked for an autograph. Unanimously appreciated for his quiet performance, “Anand” should have been a take-off point, but the actor was earmarked for a long eclipse. Eleven films followed and all of them bombed at the box-office. “Parwana”, “Pyar Ki Kahani”, “Reshma Aur Shera”, “Bombay Talkies”, where he worked as an extra, “Bansi Birju”, “Bombay to Goa”, “Ek Nazar”, “Raaste Ka Pathar”, “Sanjog”, “Garam Masala”, guest appearance and finally “Bandh Haath” which eventually broke the camel's back. The jinx broke with Prakash Mehra’s “Zanjeer” in 1973, a turning point in his career and life. He got married to co-star Jaya Bhaduri and a year later, came daughter Shweta while outdoor shooting for “Sholay” in Bangalore.
The angry young man persona lasted for over a decade. The film makers he worked with lent him different identities. Complex in Hrishikesh Mukherjee films, romantic in Yash Chopra’s, dramatic in Prakash Mehra’s and entertaining in Manmohan Desai’s. The new entrants in the arena borrowed shades of the multiple personality, often adding their own concoctions for a different flavour. There were times it worked, and times it did not. His rising stardom coincided with the decline of the then superstar Rajesh Khanna and gradually came a time, when the crown was no more in dispute. Amitabh had replaced all the Khanna camps and directors opting for him as their hero. It was a success his predecessors had never dreamt of and his successors coveted for. Trade pundits described the box-office phenomena revolutionary and his rivals cribbed that only his backyard was raining blockbusters every Friday.
The aura was overwhelming and all it needed was a prick to burst the bubble. It happened on the sets of Manmohan Desai’s “Coolie”. Shooting an action scene with Puneet Issar, the Villain mistimed his punch and the near-fatal accident ruptured the superstar's intestines. He was critical and created headline news when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, his mother's friend, visited him. Ravi Tandon’s “Khuddar” showing in theatres at that time, sold at an astronomical black-market rate. The hospitalisation lasted over six months and the entire country prayed for his recovery. Unknown people from remote places brought him holy threads, kept fast and undertook arduous pilgrimage for him survival. It is an obligation he has always acknowledged and made serious overtures to compensate. The compelling tragedy had serious repercussions on his severest critic. The warring media who had banned the actor, dropped their pride and accepted defeat. The generosity though temporary, was moving nevertheless.
Like it happens in his films, the hero recovered miraculously: Unsteady for a while, but gradually gaining foothold. Taking over the Manmohan Desai’s “Coolie,” he resumed shooting from the very same scene he injured himself. If there was fear lurking behind the mask, one would never know for his eyes did not reveal it. “Coolie” was his first postaccident release, the film freezing the frame where the hero hurt himself. “Coolie” ran for 75 weeks celebrating 50 weeks in all centres. Joining politics was an emotional decision. His childhood friend Rajiv Gandhi was distraught after his mother Indira Gandhi's assassination and needed people he trusted, around him. Amitabh was the perfect candidate. He fought elections from the Allahabad constituency and won a thumping victory, but the triumph came with a heavy price-tag. Ambitious politicians viewed him as a threat and embroiled him in vicious controversies, leaving him with little choice but to quit!
A reluctant politician to begin with, the poet's son had no appetite for the cesspool of corruption and the prodigal returned to his created isolation. Weighed down with the excess baggage, the superstar preferred to be in exile. But the muse beckoned and the angry hero, still the “Shahenshah” returned to the familiar canvas. K. Bhagyaraj’s unforgettable “Aalthri Raasta” in 1986 was well-crafted and tautly written with Amitabh in a flawless doublerole as the father and the son. The disillusionment set in sometime In ‘88 and not entirely due to his fault. The old guards he had been working with had turned complacent, taking success for granted. The rot set in with “Ganga Jamuna Saraswati” and except for a brief spark in “Main Azaad Hoon” in ‘89, the damage continued in “Jaadugar” and “Toofan”, directed by Prakash Mehra and Manmohan Desal, ironically once considered as directors with a Midas touch.
The icon needed re-inventing and the whiz-kid to wave the magic wand was the unique craftsman, Mukul Anand. Perhaps, someone up there knew that Mukul had little time and echoed drummers to the superstar. “Agneepath” in 1990, dwelling on the pain and the passion of the underworld. “Hum” in ‘91, about a criminal hiding in anonymity for the sake of his family and “Khuda Gawah” ‘92, a costume drama. The trilogy ended in a tragedy, Mukul’s untimely demise. If the event was more elaborately reported it was because the media was watching the megastar from closer quarters. In a surprise move in the early ‘90s, Bachchan lifted the ban on the press. Not to tell his side of the story, but to let bygones be bygones. The media, initially suspicious and therefore hesitant, when assured of his motives, surrendered to the truce, equally keen to end the bitter long silence!
The honeymoon lasted till every reporter from every publication of small and big cities, had a piece of the superstar's pie, alias interview. The cease-fire proved that the media cannot make or mar a star. He survived the peak of his career without them and the entire tribe put together could not salvage “Ajooba”, “Indrajeet”, “Akayla” and “Insaaniyat”. After “Khuda Gawah” in ‘92, Bachchan took a sabbatical. He said he was reviewing his career, refuelling the actor. It seemed a reasonable argument. The actor had not had a break since ‘73 when “Zanjeer” became a hit and later ‘82, when confined to the hospital after the accident. In the interim, filmmakers and writers visited him with proposals and returned confused by his sllence. It was around the same time, he launched TV Asia, followed by the announcement of his own Corporation, AB Corp. It was the best thing to happen to him, also the worst.
Came a phase when the dark clouds only multiplied. His comeback film “Mrityudaata” bombed at the box-office. His maiden album, “Eir Bir Phate” ridiculed and his experiment with commercial ads like BPL and Mirinda, universally condemned. Absorbing it all like a sponge and postponing post-mortems till the storm subsided, the lone ranger continued with his assignments. Some good, “Sooryavansham,” some bad, “Lal Baadshah” and some controversial, “Major Saab”. End of the year, the actor completes three decades before the arc lights. The sole survivor of his contemporaries, he is the only one at 58 to play centre-stage and get his market price.
Recently voted as the millennium star by the on-line BBC opinion poll, his career graph is an unique example without parallel. The first to stage musical shows on the scale of Michael Jackson, the first to lend his voice to film scores and the first complete entertainer to croon, dance and humous, he has been a pioneer of many trends and genres.
Next week he commences shooting of Aditya Chopra’s “Mohabbatein” and Rakesh Mehra’s untitled venture. It is no minor achievement to still generate curiosity and be in the reckoning when his son is making a debut in the same profession.
Abhishek Bachchan is a proud son. He is born to a great father and he understood this even as a little child.