Sunday, October 16, 2011

Amitabh Bachchan-An Untimely Requiem

I am posting one of my earliest attempts at writing an article (written somewhere in 1998). This deals with Amitabh Bachchan, mega star of Hindi Film Industry commonly known as Bollywood. Amitabh has ruled the industry for more than four decades and continues to be a hot property. This article treated the superstar as an old story. He was struggling for a comeback and finding it extremely difficult at the cusp of young and mature. He had taken a long break and when he came back things were not the same. He gave a string of flops and was written off (I- a diehard fan, was also shaken). BUT his work in last thirteen years on its own is an enviable repertoire for any actor. He established mature roles in Hindi Films, redefined television, and appeared in countless advertisements and is still going great guns. His performances in Black, Paa, Baghbaan and Nishabd are his best ever. Creativity is easily the sure-shot way of keeping anyone young.
Here goes the requiem that was not to be.
As requiems for the fading angry old man are no longer muted, we can safely start a discussion on the legacy of Amitabh Bachchan. No other actor of his importance has ever survived a series of embarrassments against very few monumental performances. The superstar ruled over Bollywood for more than two decades and continues to be the highest paid actor. The icon has essayed the cinematic sensibilities of an entire generation. His contribution ranges from reshaping of Hindi film hero to creating a superstar system to corporatization of film industry. Moreover, broad contours of his significant legacy are already well-formed. Only addition can be development of strong character roles for the mature Superstar. With Lal Badshah and a series of other movies set to be released this year, Amitabh Bachchan is far from over – in fact, threatening to rise a la Phoenix from the ashes of superstardom.
It is said that every form of art is a mirror to the social currents and in a way a response to the social undercurrents of a given society, set in a specific timeframe – cinema is no exception to the rule. In the decade of 70s, the discontent with the society at large and the yearning to revolt against it was ensconced in every young heart. And when the ‘angry young man’ hit the screen with an intensity and ferociousness, hitherto unknown in Indian cinema, the audience naturally went delirious. Amitabh had arrived – and the ‘halo’ followed soon.
The angry young man of Zanzeer onwards radically redefined the stereotype screen hero – setting off a ‘chain’ reaction. Moti Lal, Ashok Kumar and Dilip Kumar had brought realistic heros to the Indian cinema. They gave him the mannerism and the style that was capable of carrying the complexities of a multi-layered screen performance. In a sharp contrast, Amitabh Bachchan brought out the rebel and maladjusted aspect of this protagonist. His brooding intensity was accepted, as the predecessors like Dulip Kumar and Guru Dutt had already sensitized the audience to the inner hell of a sensitive person. What was new then? The new hero hit back with a vengeance, instead of wallowing in self pity. He sought redemption not by self adjustment only. He tried and succeeded in changing the rules of the game. Deewar’s Vijay was analytical, but never apologetic of his outlaw status.
He made being uncomfortable with the system acceptable. Guru Dutt did this earlier and Ghalib personified it much earlier. Amitabh Bachchan did this by shifting audience gaze to the turmoil inside his characters. In films like Deewar, Kala Patthar, Trishul and Agni Path, screens were blazing in the fire of his inner hell. However, this rebellious defiance was tempered by an inward yearning for ‘normalcy’, even when his characters had perfect justification for their deviant personalities.
While Deewar’s smuggler wanted to ensure his mother was not angry with him even while dying in her lap. ‘Laawaris’ wanted a respectable life and legitimacy ‘Shakti’ son confessed that despite all his efforts he could not hate his father. ‘Sharabi’ also craved for his father’s attention. He persuaded his audience to sympathies or even idolize his deviancy. This palpable conflict of rebellious postures and decent human values prepared the ground for present day performances of Amir Khan in Rangeela, Ghulam and Shahrukh Khan in Baazigar and Darr. Shahrukh has carried the experiment further by delving into deeper deviancy.
Amitabh Bachchan’s versatility brought to the fore the concept of complete hero once again, after Dilip Kumar. He evolved from brooding action hero to comedy, and dancing roles to pure romantic roles. His light moments in Amar Akbar Anthony, Sholay, Dostana and Namak Halal are among the finest renderings of comedy in Indian Film history. His violence has a style of its own, which helped him to maintain his sharp edge in the face of super action of Ajay Devgan in Major Saab. His pure dance numbers are part, of celluloid folklore, which by the Big B’s own admission, had been inspired by that great dancer of yesteryears – Bhagwan. Don, Khuddar, Lawaris and Pukar were unadulterated fun in rhythm. Only Dilip Kumar and to a certain extent, Sanjeev Kumar had displayed versatility of a similar range.
Amitabh Bachchan’s powerhouse talent and towering screen presence enabled him to carry many an epic story on his lanky shoulders. Deewar, Muqaddar Ka Sikander and Trishul exemplify the genre of epic. Dil Wale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Hum Apke Hain Kaun and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai are big movies, but they are episodic in nature. These films deal with small time frame and a single emotion, with straight forward story telling. Films like Deewar, Muqadder Ka Sikander and even Laawaris or Shakti dealt with one full life time and a multitude of complexities of characters. Sweep of these films incorporated full life time and a multitude of complexities of characters. Sweep of these films incorporated full evolution of the characters. Childhood played a central role in shaping the rebel. Death scenes were key to the enigmatic character of the protagonist and had a crucial role in the box office collections. Unfolding of the epics made it difficult for the audience to hate the bitter hero, these epics required larger than life screen presence and a colossal talent. Amitabh Bachchan provided both in ample measure.
Amitabh Bachchan as the leading celluloid icon has left many imprints on the psychological profile of Indian youth. There are some interesting fads perpetuated by the superstar. He rescued love for one’s mother from being an unmanly characteristic. His style of addressing his mother was perhaps the most masculine gesture in his repertoire of understated machismo. Mother always a focal point of Indian collective soul, was groomed into a fashionable masculine mannerism. Mother figure in his movies was perhaps the most important defining prop for the development of his character. She was embodiment of his moral conflicts, only person whom he owed any explanation to. She was the anchor in the stormy, virulent sea of his troubled soul. He made mother fixation an acceptable part of stylistic repertoire of The Indian male.
With growth of fame and financial stakes, his character started becoming subservient to his mannerism and voice modulations. His gigantic screen image started to overshadow his characters. Even the National Award winning performance in Agnipath was rejected by viewers as the trademark dialogue delivery style was experimented with. However, he never degenerated into self-parody and his performances retained a spontaneity and verve. There is a distinct ‘Amitabh persona’, but the actor was never just the bundle of his stylistic tricks. Many actors declined into caricature of their own style, Dev Anand before him and Nana Patekar after him depict the sad story of sheer wastage of monumental talents. Shahrukh also possess some seeds of this downfall but he is displaying survival intelligence.
Amitabh Bachchan can be credited with creating a real superstar system in the Hindi film scenario. The Dilip-Raj-Dev triumvirate was great, but Amitabh Bachchan’s mega popularity resulted in a very focused dependence on one factor or art of film-making-the star. Never before the film makers considered their job finished after signing their hero. This is one very important reason why Amitabh Bachchan has worked in large number of films only half supported by script, music even direction and other cinematic props. After Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Prakash Mehra, Yash Chopra and Manmohan Desai, only Mukul Anand could give him some directorial support. This is not absolving him of blame of choosing wrong films because as a superstar he could have his pick. At the same time it also augments his talent credentials. He flourished even with rubbish and his performance was never criticized. His status remained intact, despite a series of embarrassingly shoddy films. This crippling dependence can be seen as Amitabh Bachchan’s dubious contribution to the film industry. But the logic of market has created an awareness that superstar system was an Amitabh-specific phenomenon. Now, any star’s drawing capacity has to augmented by other elements of cinematic presentation.
Amitabh Bachchan might fail to redefine him self. No director might measure up to the task of rescuing the most gigantic symbol of Hindi cinema. However, he has already created a legacy which is here to stay. While shying away from the phenomenon of superstardom, he managed to personify it. Therein lays the significance of Amitabh Bachchan – the phenomena.

-Dhiraj Singh

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