This is the busiest Amitabh Bachchan has ever been. Picture a typical day in the superstar’s life. He’s just back home from shooting the whole morning. Without a moment’s rest, by noon, wielding a broom like a cricket bat he’s off to a Swachh Bharat (Clean India) photo-op. Come evening and it’s time for a magazine cover shoot or TV commercial/endorsement. (He’s still the most saleable advertising force in India). No night offs, either. It could be a high-profile get-together at the Ambanis’ tonight or the numerous power award nights that never fail to recognise the greatest Bollywood star of our time.
In between, Bachchan somehow manages to squeeze time for movie promotions, make periodic visits to temples, pen a blog post, manage social media and send a letter to his granddaughters. One can imagine his life unfolding like a thriller with breathless timeline reminding him every moment of having so much to do and so little time in which to achieve it. And he does this all with clockwork precision.
As Big B celebrates yet another birthday (he turns 74) – which may give the impression of a very public celebration what with thousands of fans thronging the star’s Juhu mansion as has been an abiding tradition for years but in truth, it’s just another day in the actor’s life – it’s worth asking what keeps him ticking.
For over forty years, Amitabh Bachchan has gone from the lanky untouchable to star to superstar and now, megastar. If our parents identified and empathised with his onscreen character Vijay raging against the system in the Emergency era with Zanjeer, Deewaar, Trishul and Shakti and his poetic, professor avatar in films like Chupke Chupke, Kabhi Kabhie and Silsila the millennials know him as a genial host from Kaun Banega Crorepati whose friendly smile and humble nature turned the concept of demigod-like celebritydom upside down. Or as the loveable man-child in Paa or maybe as Deepika Padukone’s bowel-obsessed, grouchy dad in Piku.
To truly understand Amitabh Bachchan as a phenomenon it’s important to understand the qualities he represents. In today’s India, he stands for success, inspiration, modesty, family values, traditions, good manners, learning and most crucially perhaps, a celebrity who doesn’t give ‘celebrity’ a bad name. Of course, Bachchan achieves all this by being doggedly private and letting the public side of his personality do the good work.
Of all the top stars, he remains by far the least controversial though it would be a mistake to think that controversy doesn’t hound him. In fact, as a superstar, he’s like a sitting duck. Every once in a while he does face the backlash, last but not the least being the recent open letter he sent to his granddaughters. Well-timed, it was pointed out accusingly, to the release of Pink. What Big B saw as heartfelt and well-meaning was slammed as patriarchal and sexist by some feminists.
Critics also deride him for his ever-changing politics. Like his father, the great poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan whose proximity to the Nehru-Gandhi family is an open secret, Big B joined Congress at Rajiv Gandhi’s behest. But the Bofors scandal swore him off politics, though not of political leanings it seems. Soon, he was in dalliance with Amar Singh and the Samajwadi Party. It’s telling that he’s rumoured to be close to the BJP now. Cinematically, he was once the poster boy of subversive, vigilante methods of the 1970s Angry Young Man. Those films were not overtly political but contained a socio-political subtext. On the contrary, the contemporary Bachchan has no place for politics on screen.
Maybe, it’s not so much his politics that’s evolving as the man himself. Topicality and the desire to be relevant is one of Bachchan’s key strengths. He has adapted to the needs of the time faster than anyone of his generation. When the time was right, he switched to social media. He mingles with young people. He works with new talent and complements them well. By the same token, new directors dream of collaborating with him. While many of Bachchan’s colleagues who were big stars of their time, such as Vinod Khanna, Dharmendra or the late Rajesh Khanna, have been consigned to public memory Bachchan has only grown stronger. Despite his notoriously hammy B-movie phase in the 90s Bachchan never receded into a butt of joke or a source of amusement like Dharmendra or Mithun Chakraborty. It’s nothing if not an illustration of his durability as an actor and brand.
Every decade, there’s a new Amitabh Bachchan built on the ghost of the previous decade’s Amitabh Bachchan. A user on Quora, a popular online question-and-answer platform, explaining as to why Bachchan is “such a big deal” in Bollywood writes, “He has been able to re-invent himself every 10 years to keep up with the changing times. In the 70s he was the angry young man. In the 80s he was the full masala package, doing crude comedy, songs and dances, and masala fight sequences, and kick-ass dialogues. 90s was the worst decade, I believe, because he did not re-invent himself, and continued to stick to the 80s persona even while he was getting older and the audience was looking for something else. The 2000s saw him come back very strongly playing older characters.”
So, Bachchan in a sense is the oddest of all beasts – a shape-shifter who is more of an idea than an icon. Box office wise, he may not have the best track record of late but he’s also not someone we are ready to do without. Not yet.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai. He also paints.)