When Amitabh Bachchan made his debut in the low-key Saat Hindustani in 1969, Richard Nixon was elected the President of the USA, Indira Gandhi was ensconced in the Prime Minister’s office and India was a young nation still finding its feet in the world. In the ever-changing landscape of the Indian film industry, Bachchan’s career has been witnessed by more than three generations over five decades. India’s ‘Angry Young Man’ is now the ‘Grand Old Man’ of the film industry but neither his relevance nor his star value has lost its shine. As Amitabh Bachchan turns 80 on Tuesday, he is known by different generations for his different avatars.
Some know him as the ‘angry young man’ who questioned the establishment, and others know him as the humble host of a TV show that promises to reward one’s intelligence. He is known as the man who united the country in prayer when he suffered a near-fatal punch during a film shoot, but he was also the man who was mocked for trying to play characters that were meant for younger men in the 1990s.
On his 80th birthday, here’s looking back at the best of Bachchan and how he has defined entertainment over each decade and, in turn, has been defined by it.
The 1970s – The rise of the ‘angry young man’
Amitabh Bachchan was once asked by Farhan Akhtar to choose his favourite film out of his entire filmography and in a rare candid moment, the actor said the film that was closest to his heart was Yash Chopra’s 1975 film Deewaar. Written by Salim-Javed, Deewaar cemented Bachchan’s position as the number 1 superstar of the time. The tag of the ‘angry young man’ that had become associated with him after Zanjeer was completely owned by him now. The writers Salim-Javed, in the years since, have spoken about the socio-economic make-up of the society of the 1970s and the angst that led to the creation, and the eventual acceptance of this character. And Bachchan was the right man for the job.
The famous monologue in the temple – ‘Aaj khush toh bahut hoge tum…’ has been copied innumerable times in the decades since but despite the many iterations it has seen, comic or otherwise, the sanctity of Bachchan’s performance here remains intact. His Vijay, who has been established as an atheist throughout the film, questions God for all the injustices that have led him to this point. The dialogues by Salim-Javed here are such that during a live show in Raipur to promote KBC, Bachchan, while reciting the monologue again, broke down after he performed. In an earlier chat with Farhan Akhtar on Anupama Chopra’s show The Front Row, Amitabh revealed that he did not dub for that scene because he felt that he would not be able to recreate “the choked voice” that he needed here. “The whole time I was wondering what I would do and how I would do it and I still don’t know if it’s been done to perfection,” he said.
It would be unfair to talk about the 1970s and not discuss the many other brilliant performances he gave during this decade. His ‘angry young man’ act in films like Sholay, Trishul, Muqaddar Ka Sikander, Kaala Patthar, made him so popular that a French producer named Alain Chamas dubbed him as “not just a star, but an industry.” When Bachchan was bedridden with jaundice in the year 1976, shootings for many films was stalled for days and producers lost lakhs of rupees, but no one could afford to replace him.
While he is mostly remembered for reflecting the zeitgeist of the era, Bachchan balanced the scales with the many Hrishikesh Mukherjee films he did during this decade. His first hit film, Anand, where he played a strict doctor, had him standing shoulder to shoulder with the then-superstar Rajesh Khanna. Subsequent films like Abhimaan, Chupke Chupke, Mili, explored a side of Bachchan that was otherwise unseen. Mukherjee once told Filmfare that other directors reduced Bachchan to a “stuntman”. His wife, actor Jaya Bachchan too, in an interview with Simi Garewal, said that Bachchan’s performances were at their best when he worked with Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
The 1980s – When the country united to pray for his life
Amitabh Bachchan’s ‘angry young man’ avatar was still going strong in the 1980s but the star was well aware that he only had a few years left to make the most out of this character. He once joked in an India Today interview in the early 1980s that his critics could start calling him “the angry middle-aged man” if he did not pivot with his choices. “I never wanted to be this successful and I know that one day what happened to the others will happen to me. But now that I have reached here, I wouldn’t like to fall if I can help it,” he told the publication.
It was perhaps the knowledge of the changing trends that Amitabh took up Yash Chopra’s Silsila in 1981, which was easily one of his best performances in the entire decade. Silsila still feels like a big publicity stunt that was pulled off by the famed filmmaker with a casting coup that would have been unimaginable by anyone else. While the gossip magazines loved talking about the Amitabh-Rekha affair, Silsila gave the audience a front-row seat into what they thought was their real life. In Yasser Usman’s biography on Rekha, Yash Chopra was quoted as saying, “I was always on tenterhooks and scared (during the making of Silsila) because it was real life coming into reel life. Jaya is his wife and Rekha is his girlfriend; the same story is going on. Anything could have happened because they are working together.”
Bachchan’s brooding shayar Amit was nowhere close to a perfect man. His flawed morality, and his love that’s fighting in the face of duty, were all challenged. In a significant scene, where he tells Rekha’s Chandni that he has been waiting for her all his life, the audience was left rooting for their love even though he was dutybound to someone else.
Another memorable performance that Bachchan gave in this decade was in Ramesh Sippy’s Shakti where he starred with Dilip Kumar. In what was seen as another casting coup of the time, Sippy, who was known for making Sholay, managed to bring the two stalwarts in the same frame as he cast them as the warring father-son on opposite sides of the law. Amitabh and Dilip were at their finest in the scene that had them break down and then comfort each other after Rakhee dies. In a 2013 interview with Filmfare, Dilip Kumar recalled that he was impressed “by the way Amitabh held the scenes where he had minimum or no dialogue and the camera was focussed on him.”
While his films were continuing to do well, Amitabh Bachchan faced a major crisis when he had a near-fatal mishap on the sets of Coolie. He was shooting in Bangalore at the time and was flown to Mumbai’s Breach Candy Hospital. Crores of people around the world sat with their fingers crossed as they prayed for his well-being. Jaya’s father Taroon Coomar Bhaduri wrote in the Illustrated Weekly of India in 1989, “There he lay on a bed with multiple tubes stuck into his body, cheeks hollow and stubbled, eyes sunken.” Till date, Amitabh Bachchan celebrates August 2 as his second birthday as this was the day when he was saved, thanks to the doctors, and to those who prayed for him.
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The 1990s – The struggle begins again
The 90s were not the best decade for Amitabh Bachchan as the star struggled to regain his sheen. Caught between being a businessman and selecting scripts that were meant for much younger heroes, Bachchan was trying to get back in his element. Tinnu Anand’s Agneepath helped him rediscover his angry persona that was loved by millions for over a decade but apart from this memorable film, there wasn’t much that worked in Bachchan’s favour through this time. Agneepath also fetched him his first National Film Award.
As the decade went on, Bachchan’s star persona was starting to come into question as he chose films like Mrityudata, Laal Baadshah that had others wondering about his strange choices. “I have always told producers, let me play my age. But, a. there are not many roles that have an ageing factor in them, and b. the format of Hindi cinema is such that the producers I have been working with insisted that I could do this,” he told Vir Sanghvi as he discussed his film choices. With ABCL, his production company, trying to make inroads into the business, whilst also trying to become the one-stop shop event company, he faced some public losses. In the same chat with Sanghvi, Bachchan confessed that he wasn’t the best businessman. “I am not a businessman. I never have been. I have problems dealing with money,” he said.
He went on a five-year hiatus from acting but even when he came back, the results were not what he had hoped and by the end of this decade, his company went bankrupt. He needed some serious help on the career front, and with his finances as well, and the man who rescued him was Yash Chopra. “I had a huge financial failure in the corporation that I began. It went bankrupt and it bankrupted me,” he said at the India Today Unforgettables stage in 2016. He continued, “I went to Yash ji and said I am without a job. I need it.”
The 2000s – Kaun Banega Crorepati and the resurgence of Big B
This was the decade that gave us the gift that continues to give – Kaun Banega Crorepati. In 2000, Amitabh Bachchan became one of the first stars to venture into television with Kaun Banega Crorepati, and this show, as many would say, changed his life. In an earlier interview with indianexpress.com, Siddhartha Basu spoke about Bachchan’s association with the show and said, “Amitabh will always be the ABC of KBC.” The famed quizmaster said that the idea of having Bachchan on television had the audience in frenzy. The show brought him to people’s living rooms every single night and in the kind of euphoria that no one had seen since Doordarshan’s Ramayan days, streets would go silent as the clock struck 9. The show changed the game for Bachchan, who now kicked off his new innings with his new look.
During the show’s 1000th episode in 2021, Bachchan, in a rare emotional moment, recalled the circumstances that led him to take the show, “People would warn me that moving from the big screen to the small screen would harm my career. But circumstances compelled me to take this on. You see, I wasn’t getting any films at that time, but after the show premiered, the kind of reactions I received made me believe that the world was with me.”
Yash Chopra’s Mohabbatein released soon after the launch of KBC and resurrected Bachchan’s image on the silver screen too. Shortly after that, Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Ravi Chopra’s Baghban, Vipul Amrutlal Shah’s Waqt The Race Against Time made him the go-to father figure in movies and these roles put him in the center of the plot. Amitabh was also seen in films like Kaante, Aankhein, Bunty Aur Babli, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, Nishabd, Cheeni Kum, Sarkar, Black and Paa, and the audience was back to believing that he was still the biggest star they had ever seen.
The 2010s, 2020s – The omnipresent Bachchan
The next decade saw Bachchan work in umpteen films and not every one of them was chosen with utmost care. But when he appeared on screen as Bhaskor Banerjee in Shoojit Sircar’s Piku, it was obvious why no one else could have played that role. Sharing screen space with the late Irrfan Khan and Deepika Padukone, Big B was excellent as the mildly annoying father who is struggling with his health issues but continues to be stubborn. The highway scene where his and Irrfan’s characters are arguing over an apparently suspicious knife had the viewers convinced that even a mundane conversation could seem interesting if it was done by skilled artists. Bachchan won another National Award for Piku.
Kids of the KBC generation have seen Amitabh as the face of many brands and campaigns and while it might be a norm today, this wasn’t always the case. In fact, Bachchan had revealed in a 1999 chat with Vir Sanghvi that he found doing commercials very “awkward.” and had even refused to so any ads when he first came to Mumbai. “There were opportunities then, too, when ad agencies approached me. I was offered Rs 10,000 for an ad, which was huge money since I was earning Rs 50 a month doing radio spots. But I felt doing an ad would take something away from me and I just resisted the temptation,” he had said. He added that he was ready to drive a cab to make a living but was absolutely certain that he did not want to work in ads. He first started doing ads when ABCL was in a financial crunch but in the last couple of decades, Bachchan is the one of the most popular faces when it comes to celebrity endorsements.
Fans of Bachchan love him for his different avatars. While some are still cherishing the memory of his rugged hotness from the 1970s, some have always seen him as the elderly man who puts strangers on ease on the hot seat. Generations before you have known and admired this man, and generations after you will continue to do so.