For more than four decades, Amitabh Bachchan has reflected the changing realities of the average Indian man.
I was 12 years old when I heard Amitabh Bachchan—as Bhaskar Banerjee— deny the death of his only friend in Anand (1971), a blockbuster of a movie that explored the relationship between a doctor and his patient.
“Anand hasn’t died,” cried Bachchan. “Anand can never die.”
Bachchan’s monologue, in a voice sagging with grief, remains etched in my memory because it conveyed to me the pain of losing a loved one when I was only beginning to understand the tragedy of death.
Bachchan—or Big B—as Indians fondly call him, enacted the role of a young but gloomy doctor who meets a cancer patient—Anand—brimming with joy and love. He invites the man home, thus seeding a friendship that teaches him how to live, laugh and love. Bachchan’s no-nonsense gait, the compassion in his voice, his bashfulness in the company of women, and his grief towards the end of the movie—all colluded to create a persona that reflected the psyche of the average Indian man of those times.
The 1970s also saw the country facing political, social and economic turbulence under Indira Gandhi’s regime. Disillusioned and frustrated, the Indian male cheered the emergence of Vijay Khanna—the angry young man of Bachchan’s Zanjeer (Shackle, 1973). His iconic role as an upright police officer at loggerheads with the state urged the man on the street to fight injustice. Bachchan shot to fame as the angry hero in Zanjeer and later that year, he appeared in Saudagar (Trader, 1973) as Moti, a wicked palm sugar vendor, who betrays an older woman for a younger one. Bachchan’s Moti made me wary of love. His intense portrayal of the shallow side of the Indian man reflected a myriad of emotions and created the perfect anti-hero.
Bachchan revealed the pitfalls of an illicit relationship to my young mind as he struggled with societal expectations in Silsila (Series, 1981), a family drama that saw Bachchan—as the dashing Amit Malhotra—neglect his wife to woo back his former love, who is married to a friend. Bachchan’s brooding eyes reflected the guilt-ridden mindset of earlier times when a man would stay on in a marriage because he was committed to it. Romantic love meant little and divorce was a stigma. A confused teenager at the time, I didn’t know who to root for—the weeping wife, the gloomy girlfriend, the brooding Bachchan or the hurt friend.
Yaarana (Friendship, 1981) took me on an emotional roller coaster, as I watched Bachchan play the role of Kishan—an orphan with a golden voice, who is whisked away to a big city by his best friend, Bishan. Kishan soon rises to be a singing sensation and becomes a pillar of strength for his friend, who is cheated of all his wealth by his scheming family. Bachchan’s lack of guile as a village boy stood in direct contrast with his charisma as a singing superstar in a big city. I watched this metamorphosis with my mouth open. Bachchan exuded the flamboyance of a city-bred Indian of the 1980s and merged it with the humility inherent in many men from rural India. He made me fall in love with Kishan—the orphan—and held me in awe as Kishan, the superstar.
Growing up in Mumbai, I had heard enough stories about the Mumbai underworld—that mysterious, dangerous, nefarious beast—which apparently controlled all of Mumbai. I listened to Father tell stories of gangsters who were glorified by those who knew them. Bachchan’s Agneepath (The Path of Fire, 1990)—which earned him a national award—brought home the story of Vijay Dinanath Chauhan, a young boy who is forced to relocate to Mumbai after his father falls prey to the evil ways of a drug dealer, who sees him as a hindrance to his trade. Vijay grows up to be a gangster and is ultimately killed after he avenges the death of his father. Vijay’s eyes reflect the angst of a man who has nothing to lose. His swagger hides his soul from those who brand him a goon but finally, half-dead on his mother’s lap, he assures her that he isn’t a bad man.
My idea of the underworld was first shaped by Hindi movies, which are melodramatic and exaggerated versions of reality sometimes, but Bachchan’s Agneepath lent credence to my belief that men were driven to violence by politics or poverty.
Bachchan became virtually bankrupt after launching his own company in the mid-1990s, but just when I thought he had faded away, I saw him on television hosting the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
Months later, he donned the role of a conservative patriarch—who yearns for his estranged son—in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gum (Happiness Sometimes, Pain at Other times, 2001). Bachchan’s intensity brings to the fore a whole range of expressions without disturbing the egoistical shell in which the vulnerable Yashvardhan Raichand lives. His silence in the face of dissent exhibits the turmoil he is in as his ego refuses to bow before paternal love. I sensed a similar sobriety in the portrayal of Debraj Sahay—an eccentric teacher who struggles hard to help his student succeed—in Black (2005). Sahay’s little student senses the world through him, but he doesn’t sympathise with her disabilities. He ignores her tantrums, admonishes her and finally revels in her independence. Sahay abandons her one night, as she demands physical intimacy from him, only to seek her again as age obliterates his memory and all he is left with is a hazy image of little Michelle and her home.
Bachchan sashayed through the role of Samarjeet aka Sexy Sam with one of his coolest performances ever in Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (Never say Goodbye, 2006). Progressive and open-minded, Samarjeet stood in stark contrast with the traditional Yashvardhan. Bachchan breathed life into Sam, an Indian widower who misses his dead wife and masks his distress by over-indulging in wine and women. When he realizes that his daughter-in-law has a secret lover, he refuses to judge her for it. Sam, with tears dampening his wrinkled face, requests her to leave his son so they both find their true love elsewhere. From the Amit Malhotra of Silsila—who couldn’t free himself for love—to Sam, who acknowledges forbidden love, the Indian man has indeed come a long way.
Bachchan has acted in over a hundred movies and explored a vast range of emotions central to the character of the Indian male. From his first movie, Saat Hindustani (Seven Indians, 1969) to his latest venture—Piku (2015)—in which he portrays a selfish, feminist father obsessed with his bowels, India’s Big B has defined the Indian man like no one else can.
Photo: Courtesy of Jitendra Dadhich, Mumbai.