There are thespians who often reshape our imagination. And this happens because such artistes come into our lives, through the big screen, with all the verve in them, with the energy in them, enough for us to look upon them as individuals who disseminate that certain happiness the common masses need in their listless lives.
And then there is the aesthetic aspect involved. Our appreciation of Dilip Kumar rests on the fluency he brought into his delivery of dialogue in all the movies where he had the leading man’s role. With that came the natural, for Dilip Kumar was nothing if not natural in his portrayal of all those roles in cinema. Much the same natural attitude came in the way Uttam Kumar carried himself in Bengali cinema.
As Amitabh Bachchan arrives at four score years of life, many of us who have watched him over the decades, on celluloid, realise too well that with him we have aged as well. Of course, we are younger than him by a decade and more. But he has been part of us. In his roles, all as different as they could be from one another, he has consistently conveyed to us the simple truth that he is one of us.
He has been an angry young man in the movies; his demonstration of a betel leaf-chewing humorist has resonated with many of us. And his part, with Dharmendra, in Sholay, the objective being to have the bad (played by Amjad Khan) bite the dust is even today an object lesson for us in the methods and the courage we can call forth in beating back the ceaseless villainy threatening our well-ordered existence.
Bachchan’s advent in the cinema world has been like no other. When he shared the screen with Rajesh Khanna in Anand, it was Khanna who dominated Indian filmdom. Kati Patang and Bawarchi remain stories we do not mean to forget, for it was romance Khanna exuded. And yet Amitabh Bachchan was soon to go beyond Khanna, shooting past everyone else in attaining the heights that were his, almost for the asking.
Bachchan needed that role in Shakti to test himself against Dilip Kumar. Raj Babbar would have been given the role, but Bachchan’s insistence that he get it pitted him, as the unhappy son -- for he felt he had been abandoned as a child by his father (in this case police officer Dilip Kumar) when the choice was between duty and paternal love -- in a difficult relationship with his law enforcer father. He acquitted himself well, though a more accomplished and ageing Dilip Kumar stole the show.
Bachchan has been a survivor. Rare has been the thespian, in India or elsewhere, who has remained in the public eye for so long. His vibrant presence, interspersed with dollops of humour, on Kaun Banega Crorepati, is symbolic of defiance -- defiance of age, of any sign of physical weakening. Or take his role as a grumpy, complaining father in Piku, and a Bengali father at that, constantly testing the nerves in Irrfan Khan and Deepika Padukone on the long road from Delhi to Kolkata.
Perfection is at work, as it is at work in Cheeni Kum, where an elderly but desirable Bachchan and a young, equally desirable Tabu, the latter infatuated with him and the former responding to the infatuation in dignified romance, is proof yet again of Bachchan’s unmatched versatility as an artiste.
In Baghban he is the aggrieved, neglected parent, along with Hema Malini, both recipients of the love of the non-son that is Salman Khan. Again, as he sings (in Kishore Kumar’s voice) ‘chhoo kar mere man ko / kia tu ne kya ishaara’ in Yaarana and gathers a lovestruck Neetu Singh in his arms, it is the romantic Bachchan who shines as we watch him on-screen.
And romance is in full blossom in Silsila, where it is the purity, scratched somewhat, of love he throws Rekha’s way even as wife Jaya Bhaduri waits for him in stoic patience at home. In Kabhi Kabhi, the song ‘kabhi kabhi mere dil mein / khayal aata hai’ (a Mukesh number) is reflective of a deepening of love between him and Rakhi. Romance glows in pristine form.
Bachchan’s life, in that unexaggerated way of referring to it, has reflected that of many who have struggled and are yet struggling for a foothold through the door of opportunities. There were many who at a point believed his reputation would be overshadowed by that of his father, the leading Hindi poet Harivanshrai Bachchan. In the end, both men built their separate career structures, happy in each other’s company. The son remains in awe of the father.
But Amitabh Bachchan’s foray into business did not bode well for him, as he soon learned. His entry into politics, defeating the veteran politician Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna at the Lok Sabha elections in 1984, shocked many. It was an early instance of showbiz getting the better of politics.
Going into politics out of deference to his friend Rajiv Gandhi, he soon found his reputation dragged into the mud over Bofors. He was clean, as the courts were subsequently to make it known. Seared by the experience, he never went back to politics.
As Bachchan rounds off 80 years of his life, it is his career as a public figure which continues to be the subject of endless fascination. His voice for so many of us, in the region straddling India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, has been a journey back to the times of Gregory Peck and Richard Burton, thespians whose impeccable delivery of dialogue in a voice rising from the depths of their being, was an added complement to their acting.
We grow old with Amitabh Bachchan. But, then again, we remain young -- for Amitabh Bachchan, despite the gusty winds and the pouring rain and the scorching summer and the pitiless winter, has not stepped beyond the glory that is breeze-driven spring.
(Amitabh Bachchan, pre-eminent Indian artiste, was born on Oct 11, 1942)
[Syed Badrul Ahsan writes on politics and diplomacy.]