MOVIES | AMITABH, 60FEEDBACK
Age is just a number for Amitabh Bachchan
Second acts are a rarity in the ruthless street theatre of Bollywood, where an attempted comeback often proves to be the comeuppance for the filmstar.
Amitabh Bachchan is that rare star who not only orchestrated a thumping return to centrestage after a voluntary five-year-long hiatus from the screen in the 1990s. He also managed to ride out a subsequent career slump (Mrityudaata, Lal Baadshah) and bounce back, smoothly navigating the hairpin bend from 'write-off' to 'right-on.'
As Amitabh greets his 60th birthday October 11, the buzz surrounding him still resounds. After proving to be the incomparable compere of television's Kaun Banega Crorepati he has also reasserted his position (with Mohabbatein, K3G, Ek Rishta and Aankhen), as one of the most bankable stars around.
A Karan Johar, Juhi Chawla or Manoj Bajpai still talk of the experience of working with him in reverential tones while a Gracy Singh flutters on about being exceedingly nervous when having to shoot with 'him' for Honey Irani's Armaan.
Bachchan's contemporaries like Rajesh Khanna and Jeetendra (both born in the same year as Amitabh) and even younger stars like Vinod Khanna, Shatrughan Sinha and Rishi Kapoor may have long given up on the rat race. Amitabh is still in the front lines, shouldering mega films and charging a post-millennial salary.
However, this amazing reversal of fortunes is only the latest in a series for Amitabh.
The superstar has had a charmed existence when it comes to delivering blockbusters at the box-office, in earning unprecedented popularity and all but mapping the screen hero's identity in the 1970s and 1980s. But Amitabh's life and times are a catalogue of crises, and the actor's subsequent juggling of risks to affect an almost miraculous turnaround.
Possibly, his ability to never say die stems from the fact that Amitabh never had it easy. He did not have the molten looks of a matinee idol when he first entered the film industry in the late 60s. High gloss Shammi Kapoor musicals were the order of the day then. After leaving his cushy executive job in Kolkata, Amitabh came to Mumbai armed with a driver's license because as he says, "I could always run a taxi and earn a living."
Fortunately, the elder son of noted Hindi poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan and former alumnus of the prestigious Sherwood School, Nainital, didn't have to do anything so drastic. He started off as a character actor in Anand (he was merry protagonist Rajesh Khanna's brooding friend), Saat Hindustani (he was one of the titular seven), Reshma Aur Shera (he muted the boom and essayed the role of a mute), and Parwana (he pre-dated the Khalnayak-Baazigar era and played an obsessive lover who commits a cold-blooded murder).
These character roles may not have turned Amitabh into a sensation but the good notices he got stood him in good stead, especially when his initial films as a hero didn't get off the ground. Son Abhishek who is facing a dry streak at the box-office can take consolation from the fact that even Amitabh's early films like Ek Nazar, Bansi Birju, Raaste Ka Patthar and Bandhe Haath flopped at the box-office.
But star girlfriend Jaya Bhaduri believed in Amitabh as did writers Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar who were instrumental in the actor bagging the role of a angry cop in Prakash Mehra's Zanjeer. When Zanjeer was released in Mumbai, May 11, 1973, it was a career-igniting performance for Amitabh who proved he could, with few lines but eloquent silences, illuminate the churning of his soul.
Amitabh's brooding personality helped further his screen image. After the through-the-roof success of his subsequent films like 1975's Deewar and Sholay, Hindi cinema saw the birth and the subsequent two-decade-long preponderance of a radical new hero -- laconic, intense and often violent.
The first major hiccup came in Amitabh's life when he had to counter a near-fatal accident while on the sets of Coolie. He was about to turn 40. But with a remarkable outpouring of public support he battled with a threatening disease like myasthenia gravis two years later and returned to films an even bigger star.
Soon thereafter, a costly misstep into politics resulted in Amitabh having to recoup lost ground in filmdom as well as defend his reputation. Amitabh grimly cut his losses and continued with his life.
At 50, Amitabh was still a national figure of admiration when he shocked many by taking an unprecedented holiday from the screen after Khuda Gawah (1992); only to return in a new corporatised avatar, charging an unprecedented Rs 30 million and playing the hero in such insipid fare as Mrityudaata and Major Saab.
He then saw his ambitiously scaled but idealistically helmed Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited production house dream disintegrate, and was faced with a heap of debt. Amitabh doughtily battled on, bravely gambled with his image and signed on for a game show on television, a medium considered infra dig by many.
Hosting Kaun Banega Crorepati was seen as a sign of desperation, but it proved to be Amitabh's saving grace as his genial hot seat manner proved a big hit and sent his stock shooting skywards once again. Amitabh slogged it out in films and commercials and extricated himself from the financial hellhole. As always, adversity unleashed the fighting spirit in Amitabh.
While Amitabh had never broken free from the angry young man image which had alchemised him into a mega star in his salad days, he had also never kowtowed totally to commercial considerations. He married Jaya Bhaduri and started a family as soon as he was successful; he played a romantic old man (for most of the movie) role like Kabhi Kabhie at 34 and he consistently worked with middle-of-the-road director Hrishikesh Mukherji (through seven films from 1970 to 1982).
Amitabh did expand his oeuvre to include light comedy in Amar Akbar Anthony, Don, Laawaaris, 'items' as they are dubbed in filmdom.
But he was careful to never shatter the carapace of his image.
Today, a rejuvenated Amitabh seems to have finally allowed his experimental side free rein, perhaps because he is not shouldering the success of a film single-handedly anymore.
It has unshackled him from pandering to expectations. Besides playing the petulant patriarch in Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar's films (Mohabbatein and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham), Amitabh has recently done starkly etched negative roles in Aks, Aankhen and in the forthcoming Kaante.
He is also working with first-time woman director Honey Irani in Armaan and is dipping his toe in avante garde cinema too with Kaizad Gustrad's Boom.
The actor who starred in four straight disappointments in 1999 -- Lal Baadshah, Sooryavansham, Hindustan Ki Kasam and Kohram -- is now on the wish list of established filmmakers like B R Chopra (Baghban) and Rakjumar Santoshi (Khaki) as well as the new brigade of Honey Irani (Armaan), Vikram Bhatt (Aitbaar) and Farhan Akhtar (Lakshya).
A wax imitation at London's Madam Tussauds and a temple in Kolkata are proof of his continuing success.
Age is now obviously just a number.
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