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April 30, 1997


The Big B Stumbles

Sharmila Taliculam, Syed Firdaus Ashraf, Suparn Verma

Amitabh BachchanMrityudaata has flopped. The big vehicle that marked the return of superstar Amitabh Bachchan dropped 50 per cent on Friday, one day after its release.

Vinod Mirani, editor of film trade magazine Super Box Office officially pronounced it when he said, "The film is a flop... The first week itself there were no advance bookings... The cinema halls were empty." He gloomily predicted that the end of Amitabh's newly resurrected career was nigh.

Bachchan, the biggest star produced by the Indian film industry, had hoped to make a mark, appearing in a film after five long years. Though he repeatedly refuted claims that Mrityudaata was his comeback vehicle, most experts had no other word to describe it.

To be fair even what was meant to be his swan song, Khuda Gawah, proved a lame duck. But when he decided to come out of retirement, producers jostled each other in the queue outside his door. Mehul Kumar was lucky enough to get first crack at Bachchan. Or was he?

The director himself thinks the flop theory is part of a big conspiracy. He has perhaps not visited those nearly empty cinema halls with Amitabh at one end and the projector room assistant at the other and many generously vacant seats in between. So he says the film is not a dud. "It has not yet completed one week. Give it some time and then we will decide about it being a hit or a flop". Unless, of course, the film is withdrawn before the week runs out. Mehul Kumar is certain a lot of negative publicity is being generated to ruin Bachchan.

Mirani pooh-poohs the conspiracy theory. "I don't think that there is any such group that wants to ruin this film. It's all humbug. The fact is Amitabh Bachchan is no longer popular." Bachchan, he says, has been convincing people for a long time that he is not a superstar. The people apparently believe him now, says Mirani, adding that things would have been different had Bachchan kept low for five years instead of shaking a leg with a bevy of London leggies in his Aby Baby album while lauding Indianness in ads by BPL.

Amitabh, Dimple The main reason the film failed, says Mirani, is because the people do not expect Bachchan to do this kind of role any more. "It just did not suit him. He also looks very old in the film".

The people worst affected by a film's failure are the distributors. Distributor D N Chaturvedi of ABC Films (which will distribute Rajiv Menon's Sapnay) says he won't touch a Bachchan film now. "I had an offer for Bade Miyan Chote Miyan, but that went to somebody else. I think the God Almighty saved us". He felt none of Bachchan's films will do well now.

Mehul Kumar hasn't lost faith though. He will be be directing Bachchan again, in his own production, Aiye Watan Tere Liye this time. "My film will do well, I am sure" says the man who produced and directed like Krantiveer and Tirangaa.

Says Komal Nahta, film critic and editor of the trade guide Film Information, "Any film which is declared a hit collects more than 100 per cent in the first week. And Mrityudaata is far below that..."

Complaints about the film range from the role of a rebel Bachchan has persisted with to the preachiness of Mrityudaata.

Prakash Pange, executive producer of MKD Productions and former assistant editor of Trade Guide, says, "Amitabh Bachchan must play a role of character actor rather than of an angry old man... He must do roles like Ashok Kumar played in his latter days..." He lauded Bachchan's role in David Dhawan's upcoming Bade Miyan Chote Miyan though. "I saw one reel of the film. It is hilarious. I am sure that this film will be a super hit."

Mehul Kumar's films tend to reactionary spouting from every available pulpit. "Too much preaching is not good, says Chaturvedi. "You should have good songs and young people acting and dancing."

Mehul Kumar Bachchan's first big film Zanjeer gave him the image of an angry young man. Mrityudaata is not too different.

The strategy of the Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited failed, says Mukul Anand, who directed Bachchan's previous bomb, Khuda Gawah. Anand says Bachchan's image was drawn up by his company. "ABCL should realise that by making people believe that Bachchan is playing his age, it's not going to help. ABCL has to... realise that Bachchan requires an different image."

There's also the factor of the 'A' certificate attached to Mrityudaata. Both Kumar and Mirani feel it was uncalled for but don't think it had any effect on the film's lack of success.

"I agreed to the 'A' certificate because I did not agree to the cuts demanded by the censor board. The continuity would have been lost," says Mehul Kumar a trifle petulantly.

There is no rush outside Eros Cinema where Mrityudaata is playing in Bombay. Says a local tea vendor, "We thought that Mrityudaata will be a silver jubilee. But I don't think the film will run more than two weeks. The film has a boring start and ends with senseless violence. Except the song of Daler Mehendi nothing interested me in the film." Amitabh Bachchan

Prakash Mehra, who directed Bachchan's first hit, Zanjeer and, later, Muquadar ka Sikandar, Namak Halal and Laawaris, understands the viewpoint, a result of the changing times.

"Today people want to go and relax in the theatre. They have their own tensions. They don't want to see the story of their lives again in theatres... Amitabh has to be extra cautious in future...

According to Mukul Anand, "This is the start of a new career for Amitabh. He has to start from scratch and make a new image."

Maybe, or maybe its a wee bit late now.

'It is sad to see a middle-aged man trying to recapture the panache and elan that was his trademark in his heyday'