Amitabh Bachchan turns 77 today. As usual, there will be nation-wide birthday celebrations. Thousands of fans, as is the wont, will descend into the precincts of his suburban Mumbai home with flowers, gifts and messages. At some point, as is also more or less a ritual now, the lanky legend will make a swaggering filmi-style entry in a crisp kurta and shawl – very much an image of an ageing patriarch, as though ‘Anand’s Babumoshoi’ has grown old and settled into a quiet academic life – or sometimes, a modish tracksuit, to greet his devotees. But it’s Amitabh Bachchan we are talking about whose life is a far cry from ‘quiet.’ Perhaps the word doesn’t even exist in his dictionary. Five decades on, Big B is busier than a bee, never pausing to reflect on how the years have treated him. Well, they have treated him swell. Fine, thank you. Reflection is a job best left to others, the chroniclers and pundits. Bachchan’s vocation is to march on, gloriously, in order to feed the desires of millions of audiences who still want a piece of him and can’t seem to get enough even after all these decades.
2019 is a special year for Amitabh Bachchan, as he made his debut exactly fifty years ago in KA Abbas’ Saat Hindustani, essaying the role of one of the fiery revolutionaries in a film that was Bollywood’s rare effort to sympathise with the Portuguese situation in Goa. It’s fitting that poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s young son plays an Urdu shayar in his first film but in his next, ‘Reshma Aur Shera’ (1971) it feels so wrong that director Sunil Dutt reimagines Bachchan as a mute. You take away the one thing that would define AB for the rest of his life – his magnificent, so-instantly-recognisable baritone? The voice that has turned out to be his most remarkable gift? The voice that has sold millions of consumers everything from cola to jewellery? The voice that has uttered such boomingly iconic lines as, ‘Aaj mere paas building hai, property hai ..’, Hum jahan khade ho jaate hain line waheen se shuru hoti hai’, ‘Tumhara naam kya hai, Basanti,’ ‘Don ka intezar toh gyarah mulko ki police kar rahi hai’, ‘I can talk Inglish, walk Inglish’, ‘Rishtey mein toh hum tumhare baap lagte hain,’ ‘Vijay Dinanath Chauhan … poora naam’ and countless others?
Brooding leading man
From a mute to relatively reticent, it was at least some progress for Bachchan in Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer. Here, he spoke less, brooded more. Speaking only when spoken to. “Jab tak baithne ke liye na kaha jaaye, sharafat se khade raho,” he orders the do-gooder Pathan Sher Khan (Pran), kicking the chair on which he is about to sit. Sher Khan spends the rest of the film exhibiting not only pure ‘sharafat’ (decency) but also remaining firmly loyal by Bachchan’s side, through thick and thin. The song, ‘Yaari hai imaan mera,’ is a celebration of their friendship – one of the defining images from the legendary Pran’s career.
But Zanjeer belongs more to Bachchan than Pran. Pran is a necessary accessory while Jaya Bhaduri, who was to marry Bachchan right before his sharp rise to Bollywood’s winners’ circle, plays his love interest in Zanjeer, appearing in the film’s worst number, ‘Chakku churiyan tez kara lo.’ Even the peripatetic, lowest-bill street-side performers, dancing on ‘Deewane hai deewano ko na ghar chahiye’ with Bachchan and Bhaduri viewing the performance from their window and internalising it, got a better song. Zanjeer played a key role in turning newbie AB into a bona fide star. Yet, it is one Amitabh Bachchan vehicle that was not designed for him. One story goes that Dharmendra was the original choice but he was busy, so the film got delayed and its future remained uncertain for a long time. If writers Salim-Javed are to be believed, Dharmendra had owned the script for a time. Another scuttlebutt has it that the maverick Raaj Kumar, who was, in fact, a cop before his foray into movies, was offered Zanjeer but he didn’t apparently like the smell of the director’s hair oil! Yet another grapevine has it that he suggested Prakash Mehra to shoot the film in Madras instead of Bombay but the filmmaker refused to toe the line. Even the eternal romantic Dev Anand had, reportedly, said ‘No.’ “Thank you for giving up ‘Zanjeer’,” Jaya Bachchan told Anand at the release of the latter’s memoir, in 2007.
The ‘colossus’ goes on
According to lore, Bachchan had made up his mind that if Zanjeer flunked he would bundle back to hometown Allahabad. Forever. The newcomer had already given a record number of flops and perhaps, had had enough of the hardship. But his fortunes were soon to change. In a twist worthy of Salim-Javed, Zanjeer unshackled Bachchan from the long chain of duds and disappointments. More than anyone else, its runaway success took its leading man by surprise. As the close-lipped cop Vijay, Bachchan’s performance flew in the face of all that was going on in that era. Rajesh Khanna was a huge star and his romantic musicals in which he appeared in his trademark kurtas, head bobbing and sparkling smile that sent women into a tizzy, were the order of the day. But Bachchan’s resident-disruptor came in and changed the landscape completely.
Hits like Deewaar, Trishul and Shakti further cemented the ‘Angry Young Man’ brand, the avowed atheistic anti-hero and his timely vigilantism that emerged as an antithesis to Rajesh Khanna and the singing-dancing lover-boys who had ruled Hindi cinema until then. Five decades on, Zanjeer remains a Hindi cinema classic, visited and revisited often by fans and academics alike in the hope of shedding new light on the Bachchan mania. Bachchan’s raw and gripping performance, as he seeks revenge (Ajit) for his parents’ death helped by wingman Sher Khan and Mala (Jaya Bachchan), remains the chief highlight of Zanjeer but also of AB’s career. Both the film and the performance are unmatched to date. Remakes of the film have been attempted in Hindi and other languages, most recently featuring South star Ram Charan but the original Zanjeer enjoys a touchstone rep.
Bachchan himself, the Vijay of the 1970s who became a metaphor for political unrest and anti-establishment ethos of the Emergency era, has dominated the scene like no other, outlasting other icons of their time to become arguably the longest-serving superstar of his kind in Indian cinema. If he was the ‘law’ in Zanjeer in subsequent hits like Deewaar, Amar Akbar Anthony and Shakti he showed a disturbing tendency to flout the law or have a total disregard for it. But the masses loved him and his unconventional ways to secure justice. Because the odds were stacked against him. Because people felt his anger against the system was justified. “It is tempting to say that Amitabh Bachchan is not simply a man of the times; he symbolises the times,” declares Sidharth Bhatia, in ‘Bollywood’s Top 20: Superstars of Indian Cinema.’ In the uncertain times and ever-changing landscape, Big B is the only constant, Bhatia suggests. As the author puts it aptly, “Young pups have come and even gone, but Bachchan, the colossus, goes on forever.”
‘Amitabh was great as Vijay’
Govind Nihalani, maker of Ardh Satya and Dev on the ‘Vijay’ phenomenon
‘I think somewhere there must be something in Vijay that caught the imagination of a whole generation. I am not a psychoanalyst to analyse things like that. But does it matter? The whole country was angry. Now, what for? Only why in cinema and other things it came out? I can’t answer that. But the fact is that somewhere, as a country, we failed – that the promise which we thought Independence brought to our lives was not coming through. We failed the post-Independence generation. They felt a sense of betrayal, in the sense that happiness, the sense of justice and sense of dignity was not coming through. It was a period of great transition for us as a nation. So, somewhere there was something unexpressed which was finding these little eruptions. Vijay was a part of this eruption. I felt that Deewaar and other Vijay films were well done and that kind of expression was coming in for the first time in Hindi cinema but now, looking back, I thought a little more of understatement would have helped. Of course, the whole thing was conceived in the form of melodrama. Nothing wrong with melodrama. It’s a perfectly understandable format. Vijay was a very major element in the evolution of Hindi cinema. The emergence of somebody who represented the unexpressed anger of the society and one should say that Amitabh’s contribution in creating that character was great. Several other films were also made where the hero was an angry person but the way Amitabh Bachchan did it, nobody else could manage that. The contribution of Salim-Javed and Amitabh – that combination worked extremely well.’
(As told to Shaikh Ayaz)