Amitabh Bachchan @80: How a man of such imperfection came to matter so much to so many – Scroll.in
As much as we admire and aspire to virtuousness, Bachchan’s characters more accurately captured the reality of what it is to be human.
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I don’t want to rehearse the history of that love affair: what everyone saw and sees in the Big B, the pivotal moments of his career, lows and highs of his reputation.
This is not an essay about Bachchan or his mines of artistic talent, but about how I (and likely many others) have known him: how a man and persona of such imperfection, even folly, came to matter so much to so many..
It was Bachchan who alerted me to the power dynamics that govern the media.
The first time I saw my name in print outside of a school publication was a letter to the editor of our local weekly Indian community newspaper, India-West.
I was in ninth grade, and I wrote in a fury because, after a long hiatus, the superstar Amitabh Bachchan had starred in a film, Shahenshah, and India-West’s reviewer had unsparingly panned it, unfairly I thought then (probably fairly I realise now).
After this letter, I drew a rather magnificent pencil sketch of Bachchan.
Looking back, I now realise that Amitabh Bachchan’s warnings about the mainstream media struck a serious chord with me..
I remember writing another letter to India-West, defending Bachchan’s late 1988 release, Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswati against an unforgiving review..
The world’s biggest movie star, and the kindness of India-West’s editor, helped a teenage brown girl in America begin to understand the power of her pen, of print, and of dissent in print.
Bachchan’s letter sits framed next to my desk..
It accompanies another memento that is beside me, whatever I write: a framed snapshot from December 1991, of me with Bachchan in a hotel lobby in New Delhi.
The familiar eyes, a little tired, a little weary, carrying some burden that we don’t see in his films, a very soft and almost ordinary looking man.
I must have asked someone there to take the picture.
I must have been too nervous and intimidated to say or ask much.
I met Bachchan, so I saw that he is real.
At the same time, meeting such a person, making them real, almost always deflates the myth.
These two are the sum-total of my real-life interactions with Mr Bachchan.
But the real-life presencing is as nothing next to the imaginative presence of Bachchan in my life..
I first saw Amitabh Bachchan in a film in 1978, when I was five, and my parents drove us to Berkeley, California, from our home an hour away to see Don on the big screen in which he has a double role as an underworld don and his clueless lookalike, Vijay.
I didn’t know what a “don” was, and Bachchan was addressed as “Don” in the film, so I concluded that this was his name.
On a wall-mounted TV screen, the film Muqaddar ka Sikandar was playing.
The name of the film was complicated to my five-year-old ears.
I recognised Bachchan and exclaimed, “Don!
Don!” My father explained that his name was “Amitabh Bachchan,” another unwieldy mouthful.
It was my introduction to the concept of an actor playing roles and to the world of what I will call Bombay films.
(“Bollywood” feels too contemporary and derivative; “Hindi movies” doesn’t sit right either, as the “Hindi” in these movies is not the official “Hindi” promoted by the Indian government but akin to the Hindustani, Urdu, or khari-boli that most people across the north (and in Pakistan), speak.) These were stories about people who looked like us, that we could watch in the US and feel connected to the home from which we had been uprooted..
Bachchan was also my introduction to underworlds and rebellion against them as I grew up feeling marginalised in white America.
So familiar, in his voice, movements, and expressions, that he feels like family..
If the early years gave us the smoldering anti-hero, whose taciturnity touched even his romance films like Kabhi Kabhie (1976), and the awkward, overthinking middle-class man of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films, the eighties showed us the garrulous romantic “Amit” of Silsila (1981).
And, always, from Sholay (1975) to Muqaddar Ka Sikandar to Bemisal (1982), there was the Bachchan who could bear anything, who could sacrifice anything in the name of friendship.
For those of us in the diaspora, especially, Bachchan gave us a way to be proud of our brown skin in white societies, his characters embodying the resilience, sensitivity, will to rebellion, and loveableness of brown people..
Whatever Bachchan’s own patriarchal behaviour in real life, children of all genders dealing with the various kinds of rejection that patriarchy entails could look to the pain that his characters experienced in their often orphaned or impoverished childhoods..
Virtually everyone who has written about him has remarked that Bachchan is not conventionally handsome: he doesn’t have the fair and chiseled good looks of the Punjabi leading men that long defined male beauty in Hindustani films – Dharmendra, Rajesh Khanna, the Kapoors.
But this quick dismissal fails to account for the physical appeal he undoubtedly exercised – the height, high cheekbones, intense hooded eyes, strong jawline, thick hair, and full lips that audiences clearly preferred.
If men imitated him – his hair, his dance moves – he remained available across genders, not least through his own gender-bending movements and expressions.
When I was a child, my cousin-sister Sameera, just two years older than me, was the best Bachchan mimic I knew..
And in the classics, we would often see him emerge from childhood, with the “child-role” of Bachchan frequently played by the lanky and wide-eyed Mayur Raj Verma.
Where earlier film heroes were typically virtuous in an almost uncomplicated way, the darkness of Bachchan’s characters was often rooted in childhood trauma (Zanjeer, 1973, Shakti, 1982, Deewar, 1975, Trishul, 1978)..
As much as we admire and aspire to virtuousness, Bachchan’s characters, whatever their over-the-top heroic antics, more accurately captured the reality of what it is to be human: deeply, and often everlastingly flawed, but nonetheless loveable and forgiveable..
As a man, then, Bachchan was at once lover, father, brother, and self for his viewers.
I suspect that it was also Bachchan’s films that inspired my turn to smuggling as my initial dissertation topic as a historian-in-training – a topic that has remained important to my teaching and research interests.
It was not so much because he evaded taxes, but that he violated the protective policies of the day that strove to make India truly independent, that he prioritised personal progress over the nation’s..
Bachchan could inhabit such liminal moral and cultural spaces with elan, whether as the cop or coolie who defied smugglers, or as the underworld don himself..
Harivansh Rai Bachchan had drawn from Persian and Urdu traditions in developing his poetry in Hindi, which he helped to make an official language as a Special Officer in the Ministry of External Affairs of independent India.
A key moment that had made me feel at home in my early career as a historian was when I found, read, and cited the elder Bachchan’s book, W.
Bachchan was with me; my grandparents’ anticolonial India was with me..
After all, in Bachchan’s greatest hits, he was the body translating the vision of India authored by the screenwriting duo Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, another artist descended from a lineage of anticolonial and progressive poets and activists..
Indeed, the figure we know as Amitabh Bachchan contains multitudes.
The symbol of secular India, he played the Muslim coolie, the Christian orphan, the Afghan warrior, the often caste-less Hindu everyman Vijay, the poet, the smuggler, the cop, the doctor, the tycoon, the pickpocket, with equal conviction.
While at the same time, in “real” life, cozying up to those who threaten that vision of India.
Today, he is cozy with the Modi government, despite its fascism, its bigotry, its violation of the ethos of Amar Akbar Anthony and every other film about brotherhood and humanity in which Bachchan has starred.
Looking from the outside, Bachchan seems to lack spine, when it comes to politics and his finances.
Is there an inner Amitabh Bachchan, or is he merely a charismatic vessel of imaginary men?.
In his films of the early seventies – Abhimaan (1973), Sanjog (1971), Gehri Chaal (1973) – he frequently played hapless, grey characters, unheroic heroes who lacked agency itself.
Two of his lesser-known films of that time were notably titled Majboor (1974) and Bandhe Haath (1973)..
(And in an echo that provides some measure of Bachchan’s inescapable cultural presence, my first encounter with my husband included a conversation about him.).
It was their children who eagerly embraced a member of their generation, Bachchan, and the more complicated moral graph he projected.
Perhaps because the values that midnight’s children, particularly those bearing the wounds of Partition, actually practiced – their pragmatic postcolonial willingness to make the necessary compromises with conscience for the sake of prosperity, despite the lessons of anticolonialism – found redemptive expression in his films depicting characters helplessly constrained by circumstance..
In other films, Bachchan did have agency, but acted poorly (Saudagar, 1973, Deewar, Namak Haram, 1973).
Then there was the spate of films in which he had outsize agency, capable of heroically taking on castles of evil singlehandedly, willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of principle – the eyes full of pain and truth of the elderly David in Aakhree Rasta.
The haplessness was palpable in his romantic films, too, like Kabhi Kabhie and Silsila, where he is a man buffeted about by fate, his love frustrated by this or that circumstance..
Perhaps it is this long record of cultivating our empathy for such flawed humanity that makes it possible for Bachchan himself to get away with what looks like spinelessness in someone with so much personal clout.
At the same time, without us even realising it, he was essential to framing the vision on which those protests are based: from the secular brotherhood of Amar Akbar Anthony to the eternally intransigent warrior against the state to the epitome of sacrificial friendship and love in Sholay..
Bachchan is postcolonial India, and humanity, in all its incarnations, from the most noble to the most disgraceful.
Bachchan, like that India, is the comeback kid.
Although he stars in seemingly countless films now, at times in impressive roles, this flood of work has not displaced or outshone the films of the seventies and eighties, with all their plot weaknesses, shoddy production, at times embarrassing self-mimicry, and dated feel (Yaarana, 1981?
He seems to retain some unchanging core (is this his long spine?) – his home, his family, the legacy of his poet father – which endows him with an aura of idealism and gravitas that keeps him, and us, reassuringly rooted in the era of nascent independence..
And somehow the fact of his feisty Punjabi mother liberates him from that clan to belong to me and perhaps all South Asians, including those most wronged by the Indian state whose lines he seems so willing to toe in real life..
Bachchan, and those who authored his roles, gave us the forms with which we imagine protest, the causes in whose name we protest, and the objects that we protest.
He is like the father who gives us our ideals and then requires saving himself – like many of the fathers in his films.
Like many born in the sixties and seventies, I cannot disavow Bachchan any more than I can disavow my Indian past, my parents, my own wounds and follies..
In recent years, as hate has intensified in India and the US with the advent of Modi and Trump, I turned instinctively to Bachchan’s old films, easily available on YouTube now.
In them, I found an old dream of a pluralistic India preserved, as well as childhood memories of entertainment that helped us cope with the unbelonging of immigrant life.
Even the films in which he was an antihero were ultimately about ethical conduct, as the titles of lesser-known films like Zameer (1975) and Besharam (1978) make plain.
In the end, Bachchan is the source of too much of what I know and have known about human beings – the furniture of my mind – as is Javed Akhtar, author of so many of his most-recited dialogues.
If Bachchan was merely a puppet fulfilling the imaginative inventions of Salim-Javed or directors like Manmohan Desai, he transcended the limits of puppetry and inhabited imagination itself.
He is under all our skin – both source and reflection of the hapless masculinity that shapes so much that is troubling about India today..
Even though in his more recent movies, Bachchan has shed some of his everyman persona, including the episodic queering that ironically strengthened his embodiment of Indian masculinity, the explosive early decades continue to define the Bachchan we feel we know.
In a horrifying trend, the Hindu Right has now reached its tentacles into Bombay’s film industry, with an enormous impact on the plots, characters, and politics of new films..
One clings to the hope that Bombay will still produce films inspired by the values that animated Bachchan’s early innings: inter-faith fraternity, anti-statism, the power of industrial labour struggles and farmers’ protests, and moral redemption.
At the very least, the revival and recalling of his classic films in these days around his 80th birthday has helped extend their life into our present.
And so, despite doubts and disappointment, I choose to remember the generosity with which a powerful movie star encouraged a young brown girl in California to use her pen to draw what she loved, to reach the ears of the powerful, and to dissent without losing faith in people..
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