Monday, October 10, 2016

Amitabh Bachchan: Enduring Excellence

Amitabh Bachchan is having an unbelievably successful late innings. His post KBC output is no less than the body of work during his angry young man days. It can be argued that later phase surpasses the earlier period if we take critical acclaim and contribution to cinema as yardsticks. His National Award winning performances, mostly, fall during the late phase and he has taken more risks to enhance his vistas and, more importantly, stay relevant in a totally new era with vastly different cinematic sensibilities and attention span. By any means, Nishabd, Black, Chinni Kum, Paa, Piku and Pink are path breaking movies creating new avenues for the medium and harnessing the thespian’s considerable star power in the service of his acting prowess. 

  A successful second innings by a great artist can really be rewarding. Henry Matisse took his creative journey forward virtually from his sick bed with his cutouts and murals in The Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence. Clint Eastwood will be known more for the work in his late seventies and eighties when he developed a telegraphic leanness of cinematic delivery as a director. He has not only given many Oscar worthy films but also created a niche for gritty, spare storytelling which has spawned a successful genre of such films. Currently his Sully is running to rave reviews. As mentioned somewhere else, advanced age can resolve many inhibitions and free an artist to experiment. A senior artist, though a carrier of a historical baggage, is often free from the worries of building a career and has better understanding of opportunities that his or her field provides. The wisdom of experience and accumulated star power can put the actor in a position of more deliberate and conscious choices of films. 

Given these advantages, we should see late flowering more often. However, it is not so common due to various factors. Commercial constraints keep the dominant trends of film making in sync with the lowest common denominator which favours youth and existing cookie cutter approach to film making. Aging stars often find it difficult to get author backed roles and are forced to take less central so called ‘character roles’ . General trend is, and Amitabh Bachchan also suffered this in 1990s, is ‘ muscular memory’ output. It goes like this.  The actor sleepwalks through the film. Due to innate greatness or ‘muscular memory’, broad parameters of the basic movie are usually in place and it has some signature flashes of genius. But this work fades in comparison to earlier works which were less of products of practice but of genuine inspiration supported by indefatigable craftsmanship. Soul simply does not shine through. Admirers of the artist get into nostalgia mode and start celebrating diminished sparks that remind them of the original fire – their own and that of the artist. Robert De Nero and Bruce Willis in Hollywood stopped caring about the quality of films that they were picking. De Nero, arguably the best actor of our times has reduced himself to B grade films and deploys his considerable acting muscles for cheap laughs and stereotypical thrills. Nearer home, Rajnikant (a massively under utilized actor) too is not able to break free from his astronomical image. His every new film is brand exercise in milking strong points of his star persona. He, unlike Amitabh, has not leveraged his influence to break the mold. Not that he is failing, he continues to manage his fan base with great success. But he is not expanding cinema. 

Amitabh Bachchan too was trapped in image and habit of staying in safe hands. He relied heavily on a set of directors. Initial phase of Bangali senior directors like Hrishikesh Mukherji was taken over by  Yash Chopra, Prakash, Mehra, Manmohan Desai,  Mehul Kumar, Tinu Anand etc. His choice of films deteriorated and he struggled to give a good film during 90s though he was shining as a star and giving hits like Hum, Shahanshah and attempts at reinvention like Agneepath and Main Azad hoon. His main achievement was to stay afloat as the reigning king of Hindi films. Future researchers will marvel how he survived so many embarrassing film choices (Indrjeet, Jadoogar, Toofan, Insaniyat etc come to mind). Even in his heydays, it was difficult to defend Amitabh Bachchan in any serious discussion. His mass popularity made serious cinephiles of those austere days angry. His unabashed pandering to populist tastes was very easy to attack. While everyone agreed about his talent but there were many who did not consider him to be great actor, Bachchan was for them, nothing more than a self-parody. An amalgamation of   his exaggerated mannerism, never allowing (I find that unfair) his star persona to be subservient to the character he was playing. To top it all he took a sabbatical for half a decade, a very long time in pop culture where memory is short and fads move quickly.

His return was painful, to say the least.  No lover of cinema can read the list without grimacing with  pain and sadness -Mrityudata , Major Saab, Lal Baadshah, Sooryavansham,  (not a bad outing), Hindustan Ki Kasam, Kohram and Bade Miyan Chote Miyan. Even yours truly wrote a requiem for the superstar in 1997, a very painful moment for someone who knew only one superstar. His frustration and financial loses (ABCL was a great concept which simply did not work) led Amitabh to his old director Yash Chopra, asking  for work! Yash Chopra, one of the more intelligent interpreter of emotions, who gave him Deewar, Kabhi Kabhi, Trishul, Silsila and Kala Pathar, reinvented him as senior, aged father figure in Mohabatain. This Aditya Chopra directed vehicle created a space for the second innings and showed the film world possibilities what this maga talent could offer. Meantime success of KBC introduced him to millennials and made him a contemporary for a generation who only knew him as a tall figure from earlier times. Another favourable development was rise of new crop of directors who were taking Hindi Cinema beyond 90s. Someone, recently accused Rajesh Khanna of destroying the golden age of cinema by making every other branch of film a hand maiden of star system. Gradually story writing, lyrics, even production design took back seat in the scheme of producing a film. Film maker’s work was supposed to be substantially over after signing a bankable star. Days of strong teams of Navketan, Raj Kapoor’s talent bank, respectable poets writing for movies were over. Amitabh did little to help the matter, But that was about to change. Ramgopal Varma personally and through his disciples created a new band with fresh perspective. Bhansalis, Gowarikars were rising with Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar firmly in place. Yashraj studio created an eco system for newer talent. Multiplex system, digital production and availability of legitimate finances pushed new film makers to create new sensibilities.   With this backdrop, Amitabh was ready for a new innings and he was being hugely intelligent about it. 

There was, despite strings of duds, a huge reservoir of influence and star power that Amitabh Bachchan enjoyed at that time. Buoyed by a little push by Chopras, TV and other factors, he started cementing his new persona as an aged actor, experimenting with age appropriate roles. After Mohabattain, Amitabh acted in Aks, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Aankhain, Kaante and Boom. All these films with exception of Aks (a personal favourite) gave decent business and created a climate for tailor-made role for the aging superstar. He gave a solid hit in Baghban and attained the status of a benign patriarch of Indian values which came handy for his flourishing advertising career.

 Amitabh was everywhere. An early adapter of social media, he was fully aware that stardom, no longer had the luxury of mystery and seclusion.  He broke the legendry decision of not featuring in advertisements and has since managed an extremely successful career as model for widest possible array of products, a testimony to his credibility and pull.  

Under reliable directors like Govind Nihlani and Rajkumar Santoshi he kept in touch with his action persona as police officer in Dev and Khakee. Veer Zaara, Lakshay, Deewar etc kept him busy with reasonable success. Then, in 2005 came Black

Black gave him Filmfare, National and every possible award for the year and resoundingly announced that Amitabh was ready to take risks to test his limits.  His stubborn irascibility in the backdrop of a hazy foreignness gave him a canvas to paint. He performed a complicated role that even needed a kissing scene with his student. The scene in any lesser hands would have been a disaster but both Amitabh and Rani Mukherjee lent full pathos, dignity and compassion to the moment that it deserved. It was a lyrical portrayal of many inaccessible emotions. The film very successfully reached to the depth of its difficult subject and created one of the path breaking moment in Hindi cinema.  This mold breaking was turning into habit for Amitabh. In Kabhi Alvida na Kehna, he took on the role of a philanderer with deep sense of respect for women and morality, never an easy balance to strike.

Nishabd tested even Amitabh. He had to convey yearning, vulnerability and conflict in almost taboo circumstances. This Movie needed Amitabh as only he could have taken on the nuances of the forbidden love in its full sinful splendour. His grand personality made it believable that a vivacious 18 year old could desire a 60 year old father of her friend. Amitabh relished the opportunity to portray the beauty of losing everything in love. Complexities of this doomed situation created new emotions and delicious pains in his character. In the hindsight, saving this gem of movie from falling into the realm of sleaze was a great achievement. Though the movie could not go the whole hog on the path of such difficult relationship, but Amitabh realized the character fully to bring out the depth and plausibility of his situation. One of the definitive performances on Indian screen. 

This was followed by Cheeni Kum where he so successfully tackled romance with Tabu whose father in the movie was younger than him. Bereft of taboo dimensions of Nishabd and powered by guilt-free atmosphere and powerful performance by both the leads, it was a mature love story with a lighter aspect. Amitabh was not only stylish but was in full sync with a late life lover. Jhoom Barabar Jhoom and Last Lear took the experimentation further. Bhootnath, God and  Aladin were forays into comedy that always came easy to the megastar. His following among children is enviable. Paa was another landmark role with another National Award. Piku brought alive very believable demanding father and another National Award for the thespian. Teen and Pink are recent successes which saw him succeed in different roles. 

What lies behind this longevity? Sociological explanation of India of 70s and 80s, series of directors, transition of mushy, romantic days of a declining Rajesh Khanna are worthy explanations. However, a bigger part lies in the talent reservoir of this awkward looking actor with some undefinable arresting quality. Amitabh Bachchan is a complete package. He is superb in action, comedy, romance and clean cut family emotions. He even has a famous unique dance style and has given Filmfare worthy songs. It wasn’t so common when he appeared on the scene and not many of his contemporaries were so versatile.  Amitabh has economy of movements of an assured star. Despite a bombastic nature of many of his roles, he carried the day with his smouldering inner fire. A coiled presence which surprises with fluid, stylized expressions. This inner smouldering quality has allowed him to play with silences. His famous baritone is his forte but to me, his felicity with the silences and ability to emote with eyes are more potent histrionic weapons in his arsenal. He has many very posh distinctive style ingredients in his acting but all those famous mannerisms serve the needs of his characters. His being Amitabh Bachchan makes his Piku’s father and Sarkar’s don more potent. Persona of Amitabh is amplifying these characters not dominating them. Such an actor can never become a caricature of his own image, despite having an extremely strong style set. Arguably, Nana Patekar and to a certain extent, Rajnikant and even Shahrukh Khan could not be fully successful in avoiding a self-parody trap. 

Over a period of time many actors gather star power and influence to alter their medium. However, not many are inclined or lucky enough to use that star power to lay down new rules of the game. Dilip Kumar pulled Hindi cinema (along with Motilal, Ashok Kumar and Balraj Sahni) from the hyper stylized, Parsi theatre type of acting. Rajesh Khanna brought rockstar hysteria to films and showed how romance can be a vehicle for myriad emotions. Amitabh came and embodied the angst of youth of his time. He made being angry and dissatisfied fashionable. He turned being a mommy’s boy into ultimate machismo. He married romance, action , comedy and social message in a never before alchemy of popular appeal, art and commercial success.  But he took the medium to a different level in his second innings. He took risks and broke taboos. He wrote the new script of Hindi film lead who was old, often not in control and ready to be heroic in the least flamboyant ways. This led him to playing Alzhimer patient, constipated curmudgeon, wheel chair bound chess player, old man falling in love with much younger ladies, son to his son and an old sleuth in Feluda mode. All these are walking on new terrain created by an extremely talented and influential superstar who  rose above his comfort zone and chose to rewrite the script . What was once a survival tactics has now become a defining point of onward march of cinematic narrative in India. Herein lies the genius of Amitabh Bachchan. Happy Birthday sir.

- Dhiraj Singh

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