Monday, October 31, 2011

BOB DYLAN AT 70: ONCE MORE FOR A SIMPLE TWIST OF FATE



Voice of Bob Dylan has finally gone kaput. This is from no less an authority than Wall Street Journal. Well, maybe so. But part of the fun with stalwarts is there teasing promises of resurgence. This voice- “the voice of a rogue ageless in decrepitude” has for long been making insidious forays into the landscape of music and stomping various strands of art forms into its own image. Bob Dylan, who turned 70 on May 24 continues to tour for almost one third of the year to a rousing reception. The artist, as he enters eighth decade of life, has been described aptly as “the Methuselah of righteous cool” but he has been much more, a master of disdain now, a bard of decay only to surprise as a voice of longing for romance later. The elderly statesman of music has collided with forms ranging from folk to glam rock and many in between and has left them richer, altered forever. In every endeavour he opened new gates and redefined what can be treated as art. Dylan the unquestionable ‘poet laureate’ of the rock started with folk and transcended the form by owning it. He lent poetic nuances to the protest movement that was shrieking around him in early sixties. He was the reluctant hero who was seen as the voice of his times. Since then he has been conducting a ceaseless and successful campaign to break one rock archetype after another. From sincere country folk singer to protest singer to rock & roll star in its all shimmering razzmatazz to religious evangelist to witty old man to wistful singer of lost love, Dylan has been leaving his followers stranded in his astonishingly varied footprints during his half a century long career.
Only a pure artist will work with such a matter-of-fact fury to dismantle the image which may potentially throttle his growth as an artist. Bob Dylan tasted extreme fame at an early age and has been centre of adoration of millions since his 20s. He is supposed to have said “Just because you like my stuff doesn't mean I owe you anything.” He was the pioneer among the breed of real artists who refused to be defined by their audience. His disrespect for his followers’ expectation may look arrogant but he is about staying true to his creative urge and communicating it with relentless invention. In one of rare attempts to explain himself he said “I don’t want to get harsh and say I don’t care. You do care, you care in a big way, otherwise you wouldn’t be there. But it’s a different kind of connection. It’s not a light thing.” Critic Jonathan Letham wrote in 2006 “Puncturing myths, boycotting analysis and ignoring chronology are likely part of a long and lately quite successful campaign not to be incarcerated within his own legend. Dylan’s greatest accomplishment since his Sixties apotheosis may simply be that he has claimed his story as his own.”
Bob Dylan’s towering musical presence should not be allowed to obscure the fact that he is primarily a songwriter. He made his breakthrough as a singer-songwriter who expanded the limited confines of folk protest singing. His first album ‘Bob Dylan (1962)’ contained only two originals. With his exquisite sense of timing Dylan forged a career that was both timely and transcending. He saw the pointlessness of singing other people’s song and tapped his own poetic reservoir. Answer came “blowin’ in the wind”. His next album ‘The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)’ was torrent of poetry which was both accessible and elusive at the same time. "Blowin' in the Wind”, "Masters of War” soon acquired anthem like status. "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" fell directly on collective psyche of a generation for which nuclear holocaust was a palpable possibility. Immediately he was lapped up as the official balladeer of the civil rights movement. ‘The Times They Are a-Changin (1964)' had plain but haunting protest songs like "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and the title track. Young Dylan added poetry and panache to the folk idiom. He enriched the simpler form and made it appealing to those who had taste for a bit of complexity. His stinging nasal voice lent authenticity to his great songs. Heightened social consciousness of 60’s allowed him to retain the popular base despite an uppity taste in lyrics.
In ideologically charged atmosphere this popularity bred fanatic rigidity among some of Dylan fans, for whom his symbolism was bigger than his music. But the ‘Napoleon in Rags’ had just started to carve his musical identity. His craving-driven musical journey had no place for straitjackets of adoration or even the constraints a genre. In ‘The Times They Are a-Changin' itself, we find one of the better break-up songs ”Boots of Spanish Leather." He gave a teaser for moving towards sonic density by excellent sniggering ballads full of lilting sway of seducer like "Spanish Harlem Incident" then showing his lurid sensuality in “It Ain't Me Babe”. Followers of a clean-cut voice of zeitgeist were beginning to get confused but majority were rubbing their hands in glee.
Summer of 65 was nigh. It was the apogee of rock when in the course of one and half years Dylan came out with “Bringing It All Back Home” (March, 1965), “Highway 61 Revisited” (August), and the double album “Blonde on Blonde” (May, 1966). This was the time when Beatles were unleashing “Help” (August, 1965), “Rubber Soul” (December, 1965), and “Revolver” (August, 1966). Blessed were those who were young during this orgy of pure talent. With ‘Bringing It All Back Home (1965)’ Dylan stayed acoustics but the other side was electric. Howls and cheers rose in unison. However the musician was on a feverish roll to notice all that. He was busy creating magic. This is how ‘Rolling Stone’ Magazine describes the album “On the electric first side, Dylan sneered his absurdist, word-drunk rambles over lean, jittery garage rock, brimming over with wild humor, while side two had four brain-frazzling acoustic ballads that made The Times They Are a-Changin' sound like kid stuff.” ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ consolidated his reputation as poet of the rock with “all doomy menace and hallucinatory wit, packing a career's worth of rock & roll innovation into each of the nine songs. ” The album had "Like a Rolling Stone," a #2 hit in 1965. Later it was voted the most influential song ever. Poet was in full bloom in ”Tombstone Blues," "Ballad of a Thin Man," and the epic , complex "Desolation Row." The Juggernaut rolled on and came ‘a surreal fever dream of a record’, double-vinyl ‘Blonde on Blonde.’ The record concluded the coronation of the king of rock. 15 months preceding Blonde on Blonde, witnessed the most intense burst of creativity any rock & roller has ever had. Such good deeds don’t go unpunished.
A ravaged, burnt out Dylan went and crashed his motorcycle and managed to get away to straighten himself up. Many were sceptical about the excuse. That was July 29, 1966. He came back to album making with ‘John Wesley Harding (1968)’ that had gems like "All Along the Watchtower" (more famous as cover by Jimi Hendrix). 1969 had ‘Nashville Skyline’ with his honey-dipped, smoking free voice. "Lay Lady Lay" was a pleasant reminder that the master was at helm. These were the precursor of his first stay in the “valley of suckdom”. Indifferent Albums and a collection of writing received lukewarm response. He was selling well, continuously giving good songs but they were sporadic and hidden deep in ordinary albums. His Pat Garrett soundtrack had the hit "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." Than out of nothing came resounding affirmation of his genius in the form of a perfect album ‘Blood on the Tracks (1975)’. Starting with "Tangled Up in Blue," the album had iconic meditations on lost love ("Idiot Wind", "If You See Her, Say Hello"). It was great comeback but was followed by long average performances in late 70’s and 80’s a period that saw more downs than ups. He turned to occult and evangelism starting from Street legal (1978) to a brief return to form in 1983's Infidels. He was active, touring and recording but signs of decline were there as efforts were not comparable to anything Dylan. However there was third wind in store and came a proper masterpiece in ‘Time Out of Mind (1997). The Album” shocked the world because it didn't even echo past glories—it was a ghostly, beautiful new sound, yet another side of Bob Dylan.” Opening song ‘love sick’ informed the world that Dylan had a new trick up his sleeve for his battered voice. It was a new sound world weary, down with sceptic sneer but given the right treatment, capable of transmitting devastatingly condensed emotions. He completed the hat-trick of masterpieces with Love and Theft (2001) and Modern Times (2006). In 2001 he was honoured with Oscar for original song for Michel Douglas starrer ‘Wonder Boys’. The song ‘things have changed’ captures the craving aimlessness of mid-life crisis with uncanny accuracy and without sacrificing the seductive appeal of a loser. These late achievements are the testimony of his enduring genius, his self reinvention. He showed that he is a student in search and service of music and all his ordinary creations should not lull anyone as they may turn out to be stepping stone in the journey that is Dylan.
It is easy to say that his best work came before his motorcycle accident in 1966. It is said that he achieved more in five years between the age of 20 and 25 than in 45 years after that. It’s a tempting proposition as in those years; arguably, he mattered to more people in the deepest possible way than anyone else in the history of music. He reprogrammed the trajectory of popular music. Took people to folk and protest singing then transcended them by infusing the forms with new sensations. Lent intellectual credibility to rock& roll. He laid down new rules about what can be sung, written or played and how. He lifted the floodgates and showed the possibilities for artists to come. His ‘protest songs’ have been venerated as idioms of consciousness and slipped into language almost as clichés. While all this is true, Dylan is not Dylan just because of those five years. He is not just the ‘last moving target of the dream that was ‘60s rock’, he is the chronicle of musical sensitivities 60s onwards. Jimi Hendrix may have been a more pungent tornado of creativity or Jim Morrison was more seductive ‘Satan’s Seraph’ but they did not stay on the stage long enough. Saga of Dylan has been defining in its longevity and continued vitality. Cultural landscape needs patient carving and Dylan had the time. First five years may have been apocalyptic in proportion but real detailing have come in the years that followed. Blood on Tracks, Three Masterpieces of this millennium and an Oscar and all other not so triumphant albums are part of the journey that by proxy is the journey of popular music.
The poet explorer with his battered rasping voice has been diligently continuing on his path of finding and refining his voice. Even his defeats are uplifting as they were his brash confrontation with the impulse of resting on past laurels. Dylan has continued to surprise with varied hues of his rich musical persona. There is a monk like persistence in his search for the creative voice. This search has taken him to different musical turfs and has never lapsed into monotonous selling of nostalgia. Not for nothing he has been called ‘rock's longest-running font of vitality.’ We quiver in anticipation for one more summer in Neverland.

“Only a fool in here would think he's got anything to prove
Lot of water under the bridge, Lot of other stuff too
Don't get up gentlemen, I'm only passing through
People are crazy and times are strange
I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range
I used to care, but things have changed”
-From Bob Dylan’s Oscar winning ‘Things have changed’

-Dhiraj Singh

Sunday, October 30, 2011

BOB DYLAN AT 70: ONCE MORE FOR A SIMPLE TWIST OF FATE

“Only a fool in here would think he's got anything to prove

Lot of water under the bridge, Lot of other stuff too

Don't get up gentlemen, I'm only passing through

People are crazy and times are strange

I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range

I used to care, but things have changed”

-From Bob Dylan’s Oscar winning ‘Things have changed’

Voice of Bob Dylan has finally gone kaput. This is from no less an authority than Wall Street Journal. Well, maybe so. But part of the fun with stalwarts is there teasing promises of resurgence. This voice- “the voice of a rogue ageless in decrepitude” has for long been making insidious forays into the landscape of music and stomping various strands of art forms into its own image. Bob Dylan, who turned 70 on May 24 continues to tour for almost one third of the year to a rousing reception. The artist, as he enters eighth decade of life, has been described aptly as “the Methuselah of righteous cool” but he has been much more, a master of disdain now, a bard of decay only to surprise as a voice of longing for romance later. The elderly statesman of music has collided with forms ranging from folk to glam rock and many in between and has left them richer, altered forever. Compete post is here http://modernartists.blogspot.com/2011/10/bob-dylan-at-70-once-more-for-simple.html

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tintin by Spielberg

Spielberg has brought Tintin on animation. It is a cause for both excitement and apprehension - not necessarily a bad condition.
Spielberg is a Modern Master and his association will make things interesting. Indiana Jones and Tintin are soul-mates. And if we assume that last Indian Jones was never made, Tintin’s arrival in Hollywood augurs well.
The Film’s team promises to bring the ‘Tintinish quality’ in its screen attempt. They are using ‘performance capture’ technique- an updated version of PolAdd Imagear Express. Spielberg is at pains to assure that results convey the real spirit and feel of the comics. It is to be seen. He should be very careful as feelings bordering the religious fanaticism are involved and any sacrilege will be reacted against brutally.
Godspeed to his efforts in taking one of the most enduring cultural icon from the Comic Pages forward.
Excellent round up by Time magazine can be seen at

-Dhiraj Singh

Monday, October 24, 2011

KEVIN SPACEY: MORAL AMBIGUITY AT ITS SLEEKEST

"Whether a character does good or bad things doesn't interest me," Kevin Spacey insists "it's whether there are ambiguities." He is good at tackling ambiguities and turning them into something arresting on screen. But he is definitely better when these moral ambiguities tilt towards negative. ‘Kevin Spacey has made an art of portraying a gallery of morally ambiguous characters ranging from the mildly shady to the all-out murderous’ says his introduction on Internet Movie Database. There is no doubt about his versatility. He is good in almost any role and can adapt very fast to the changing requirement of his role. He can portray vulnerability and redemption (Father of Invention, K-Pax) confused bravado (American beauty) and deep cynicism (Shrink), however, his natural home as a screen actor is malevolent pathology. In other roles he is superb, even Oscar worthy, but his magnetism is at its unparalleled best when he is gallivanting in the dark territory with his amoral smirk. For all his Father of Invention type roles we can go for a Michael Douglas in Wall Street 2 or even in Solitary Man. His cynicism can any day be topped by a Jeff Bridges (remember how he fishes out his goggles from the garbage in Crazy Heart). However, when he his portraying some deep pathology with restrained but unmistakable glee or treading the ambiguities of a guilt-free charlatan he is beyond compare. Murderous malevolence is the most becoming of this superb actor.
Every great actor is good at playing almost everything but his or her greatness lies in few selected zones where he is in full sync with his brilliant core. Al Pacino’s restless showmanship, menace or his exasperation, Di Niro’s pin-pointed rage, Michael Douglas’ lovable rogue, Brando’s rebellious surliness come to mind. They are good or even great in other situations also but here they are at home, hitting the sweet spot of their limitless talent. This is applicable to Kevin Spacey also. An actor of ‘chameleon like versatility’ Spacey has excelled in many difficult characters but one feels like going to his rogue gallery the most. His John Doe in Seven, his Verbal Klint/Keyser Soze in Usual Suspect, morally ambiguous cop in LA Confidential and middle aged desperado in American Beauty are his definitive performances. Rest of his repertoire is great but should not be allowed to pollute the above selection where he is in the league of his own.
Spacey embodies intelligence in his eyes and voice. Glee with which he amalgamates sleekness and naked brutality is pure star quality. He is often a scene stealer with “quick tongued sarcasm and casually sardonic” dismissal of the minions. "Seven" is a film that is heavy on detail of its construction. It is dependent on the impact that is created by the killer who is brought onscreen with only half an hour to go. “Instead of being simply the quarry in a chase, he is revealed as a twisted but articulate antagonist.” Importance of the character can be gauged by the fact that the actor playing the killer (Spacey) is not identified by name in the ads or opening credits. This was an onerous built-up for a, then, lesser known Spacey provided that the film had sublime Morgan Freeman and hard-hitting Brad Pitt. The role was tailor-made to plug into the font of his appeal and core of his innate brilliance. Result was pure electricity on screen. John Doe’s smirks, restraint, glee, intelligence of eyes and voice and quick tongued sarcasm and casually sardonic all came together to weave a defining portrait.
Kevin Spacey has all the right to be outraged by this branding or straitjacketing. He has done wide ranging work in films and has done it well. Furthermore, this 1959 born star decided to take up a full time position of Artistic Director at Old Vic in 2003 and in all likelihood he is committed to the theatre till 2015 in that position. Seriously, an American Superstar at the helm of Old Vic-that G-spot of the theatrical universe, a custodian of the legacy of Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Maggie Smith. When he went there, the old glory was fading. It was without its own company and a unifying vision. To be sure, Spacey was panned and initial lows were rattling. The opening production of an unknown Dutch play, Cloaca, and new Arthur Miller play, Resurrection Blues gave enough fodder to the critics to butcher the new Artistic Director. However, tide was turned when his appearances on stage in The Philadelphia Story and as Shakespeare's Richard II improved the theatre's fortunes. In Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten in 2006 “Kevin Spacey's theatre delivered an hour that was worth crossing the country for: a duet between Spacey and Eve Best unmatched for intensity elsewhere in the London theatre.” He brought famous names to Old Vic such as Altman (did not work out well) and Sam Mendes, His director in American Beauty (hailed as masterstroke). In Richard III he is getting rave reviews. He is emerging as leading voice of funding for artistic efforts particularly theatre. He is encouraging young talents. He is propagating Theatre among youth. Some seats are reserved as cheap tickets for the students in Old Vic. He taught Contemporary theatre at Oxford. No wonder he is slightly peeved by being slotted as portrayer of bad characters only.
He is squeezing in films through his busy theatre schedule but indifference of choice is telling. Horrible Bosses, Father of Invention, Shrink or Casino Jack may have their moments and Spacey never gives a below par performance but they were average movies and bad vehicle for his talent. He has kept his foot in the Hollywood opening while making it big in the world of theatre but he really needs something big in films. In fact, when asked, is there really nothing left in the cinema that excites him? He is on record "Well, I keep waiting for Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese to call me..." That will be something. Till that time his appeal is distilled in the malevolent smirk of a sociopath.

"Sam Rogers, played by a splendidly world-weary Kevin Spacey. Sam oversees the sales force that has been peddling the bad securities, and he must now carry the bad news upstairs, through several more layers of company hierarchy. NYT review of his latest outing is at http://movies.nytimes.com/2011/10/21/movies/margin-call-with-zachary-quinto-review.html

-Dhiraj Singh

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

MARLON BRANDO- LESSONS IN DEGRADATION


Marlon Brando should have died like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain or James Dean - in the tornado like blitzkrieg of a dazzling genius. Stamping the world with one’s unique talent and changing it forever. Then leaving the world letting romance of death to create an unending portrait in popular iconography. But that was not to be. Brando had to live till 80 simmering in tantalizing possibilities of that one more come back. Marlon Brando- the defining icon of cinema acting, pioneer of new grammar of acting and a blazing wastage of monumental talent. He has impacted notions of acting, characterization and what constitutes plausible portrayal radically. He was responsible for rescuing cinema (at least Hollywood Cinema) from the theatricality of mannered acting and clear-cut style utterly devoid of nuances and, in most cases, realism. He burst open on the scene in 1947, aged 23 as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams's play ''A Streetcar Named Desire'' directed by Elia Kazan. The standing ovation lasted half an hour. The play was about Blanche Du Bois played by Jessica Tandy. She was universally admired. But it was Brando’s performance as “Stanley Kowalski, later repeated on film, provided one of our age's emblematic images, the defining portrait of mass man--shrewd, vulgar, ignorant, a rapacious threat to all that is gentle and civilized in our culture.” Our standards for performance, our expectations of what an actor should offer us in the way of psychological truth and behavioral honesty, were forever changed.
He realized himself for sure, but such treats were rare and painfully episodic. Five-six great performances in the career spanning six decades alongside a cesspool embarrassments is a painfully thin foundation for such a towering figure of the cinematic history. His is a saga of mismanagement of self and success. His very few unforgettable performances are pitted against a slew of rubbish- films chosen with relentless disregard for their suitability. This potpourri of slap dash, insensitive junk include Désiree (1954); The Teahouse Of The August Moon (1956) Sayonara (1957); The Young Lions (1958); Mutiny On The Bounty (1962); The Ugly American (1963); Bedtime Story (1964); The Saboteur Codenamed Morituri (1965) Appaloosa (1966); A Countess From Hong Kong (1967); Candy (1968); The Night Of The Following Day (1969); The Nightcomers (1971); Superman (1978); The Formula (1981); Christopher Columbus (1992). Then we have smoldering performances in sleek packages like Streetcar, The Men, Zapata, On the Waterfront, The Fugitive Kind, The Chase, The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris to remind us that behind all the self-loathing and self parody lurks a major cultural figure.

Born in 1924, "Brando was the child of alcoholics." He was brought up in Nebraska and Illinois by cultural wannabe mother and abusive father. One should not be too inclined to give much importance to the psycho-analytical explanations of his personality and acting foundations. “The world is full of children of alcoholics who did not become Marlon Brando.” Brando dropped of military school, at the age of 17 and moved to New York, where his sisters were living. He went through his acting apprenticeship and first bit roles, leading to his Broadway appearances in "I Remember Mama" in 1944 and Maxwell Anderson's "Truckline Cafe," directed by Harold Clurman, in 1946. 1947 was, of course, the year of Streetcar.
World conspires to bring down grand personalities to the level of mundane manageability. Some capitulate and carve a decent career- examples can be Clarke Gable and even Paul Newman. Some like Brando go down fighting. Eccentric greatness and survival intelligence are uneasy bedfellows. This need not be so. There is a third category too. Names like Picasso and Bob Dylan come to mind where non-conformity, breaking of new vistas and unbridled genius were accompanied by a long and productive career of continuous reinvention. It is difficult to romanticize the failings of Brando. Grandeur of Marlon Brando’s persona is not based on a petulant self loathing mal-adjusted personality. He is an icon-perhaps the most influential actor because of his ability to find new ways of communicating brutality, beauty and vulnerability in one frame. He is great because he never failed to fascinate- even in his trashy movies.
A naturally charismatic actor, Brando brought a new authenticity to acting. In Europe this task was performed by the directors but in most of the film cultures this was happening and some actors were leading the way. Brando was the purveyor of this realism in Hollywood. “His naïveté and brooding melancholy — that made millions of strangers enshrine him as a symbol of a new, rebellious generation, sick of the correct poses and posturings of the past and committed to an unvarnished authenticity and emotional truth.” Apart from this pioneering influence Brando, due to his magnetism was seen as the most eligible vehicle for the new method school. Boy geniuses are often tasked with this kind of responsibility. Bob Dylan was also thought to be the leading light of the protest song movement. However, often, these titans are too big for the straitjacket that cult expectations put on them. Their ‘betrayal’ of the fervent followers is often traumatic. Continued success is the only cure of this uncomfortable situation. Dylan evolved and Brando floundered on this count. He was redeemed only when he was asked to carry another dubious mantle at the fag-end. Last Tango in Paris can be seen as mainstream entry of explicit films which were lurking in art-houses or late night grind houses. Brando was the ultimate respectability they could have expected. Last Tango along with Godfather is the reasons that Brando iconography remained intact.
For all his pioneering greatness of Brando would have been relegated to trash-heap of history if these two immortal performances had not come to remind people the true mettle of the icon. His legacy was reinforced by these late hurrahs. Both these performance are volcanic in their affirmation of his gigantic talent and sublime in their understated grandiosity. Affable menace and undercurrent of mental torture accentuated his Oscar winning Godfather performance. Don Corleone was stately, generous, cruel even vulnerable simultaneously. His mannerisms, understated dignity and just-below-the surface violence are pleasure to watch. In Last Tango too he is able to deploy most appropriate histrionic tool with minimum of efforts. This effortlessness is a sign of a true master. These performances make us even sadder for the wasted years.
His legacy is the most important reason for his iconic stature. In the words of Jack Nicholson Marlon Brando had a gift that “was enormous and flawless, like Picasso….was the beginning and end of his own revolution.” But he ends by saying "He (Brando) gave us our freedom." This freedom was inherited by many including Nicholson. The list goes on- James Dean, Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio among the most prominent ones. Ryan Gosling is reminding critics of Brando with his method play and deprecating remarks about the profession of acting. Hollywood cinema has that unmistakable dividing line –before Brando and After Brando. He is the signpost, howsoever ravaged, against which every traveler has to pay respect. He shied away from revolution but the revolution continues in his name.

-Dhiraj Singh

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.
AMITABH BACHCHAN – AN ENDURING LEGACY OF THE REEL LIFE ‘ BADSHAH’
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