This year’s Dadasaheb Phalke Award has gone to Hindi cinema’s greatest star. Dilip Kumar was perhaps the better actor, Raj Kapoor the greater showman, Dev Anand more charming and Rajesh Khanna was better at romance.
The younger audience may have identified more with the Khans. But for 50 years, Bollywood has not had a shahenshah as charismatic as Amitabh Bachchan.
The thespian did not always have it easy. He made his film debut as a voice narrator in Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (1969). But in those days, Bachchan’s baritone had few takers. And his tall frame was deemed too awkward for the romantic parts.
Bachchan was first noticed in the K A Abbas film Saat Hindustani (1969). In his memoirs, Abbas recalls telling “the tall young man… in a way we have no heroine in our film”. One of his early films, Anand (1971), got Bachchan a Filmfare award for the Best Supporting Actor. But this Hrishikesh Mukherjee film was all about Rajesh Khanna, the philosopher’s stone for every producer then.
This was the time when the Dilip-Raj-Dev trio were on their way out, but still held some sway. And there was jubilee Rajendra Kumar as well. However, these were also times when ideals and morals were put to question. Bollywood needed a hero who was a rebel but introspective, abrasive at times yet with a palpably tender side. Inspector Vijay in Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer (1973) was the prototype of such an “angry young man”.
From Saat Hindustani, Anand to Zanjeer, Deewar and Sholay to Hum and Shahenshah to Black, Paa, Piku and Pink this century, Bachchan’s tinsel journey, in some ways, encapsulates Bollywood’s changing moods.
He defied life-threatening injury, came out of bankruptcy, held his own amidst generations of younger actors and at times, even defied the conventional. But Big B, who came to Bombay after giving up a princely job in a private company, never found the muse to be less than larger than life.