By the time you read this, a new movie starring Amitabh Bachchan is in theaters. called Byeit shows him as a fatherly figure, the kind we know: gray hair, rimless glasses, surrounded by family and friends, dealing with the ups and downs of life.
So what, you may ask. Why is that remarkable? Simply because the one and only Bachchan, who turns 80 this week, is still at work. He’s still a top star. Given his busy slate, with movies slated to release at regular intervals, it’s pretty clear he has no intention of saying goodbye to us anytime soon. No goodbye, just ‘hello viewer, I’m back again, to seduce, to entertain’.
Bachchan is still the Big B, and just as busy as his much younger co-stars, if not busier. His contemporaries are retired or deceased. His long running TV show Kaun Banega Crorepati is in its 14th season. Then there are the advertisements, broadcasts from public services and private companies, and presence of print media and television. His social media accounts are densely populated by his doings. At an age when most people have hung up their boots, Bachchan is tireless, non-stop.
How did this man, who entered the Hindi film industry along with Saat Hindustani in 1969, ensure that he is still a factor to reckon with in 2022? What is the secret of its enduring appeal more than half a century later? That question can have multiple answers. But from the perspective of an old film critic, Bachchan still important because he spoke for us, and to us many years ago, in movies that became iconic even when they first played in the rickety movie theaters of the 1970s.
He was an unstoppable force of nature, leaning in that buttoned shirt against a closed godown door and beckoning the bad guys to do their best, teaching a redhead Pathan in politeness, walking slo-mo towards us like the mountains of barood exploded behind him when he jumped out a giant easter egg and burst into a wonderfully silly tune, and so many other unforgettable scenes. I welcome you to add yours here.
With his height (too tall, some said scornfully, the nickname “Lambu” had to work hard to travel from mockery to affection), and his unconventional looks (not handsome enough, others said), he wasn’t like the pretty boys who were masters of Hindi cinema at the time. In the era of the sleek Rajesh Khanna with his neat guru kurtas and crumpled smile, Bachchan was the classic crumpled disrupter we’ve been waiting for. Inside for the first time Hindi cinema, we welcomed an anti-hero with open arms; the only other superstar to come after him, Shah Rukh Khan, had to open his arms to take us in. But by the time of SRK, India was a different country, liberalized, ambitious, where sanskaar (tradition) once and for all bagaawat (rebellion).
Bachchan was the OG as far as a rebel-with-a-cause went. Once he got going, with the immortal troika that came out in ’74-’75 – Zanjeer, Sholay and Deewaar – he changed every line of engagement. His unsmiling face with the long sideburns, the anger that shot out of the screen, those explosive movements: he moved the needle so resolutely that he became the only imprimatur of Hindi cinema after 1975, a time when India began to recover from the mistreatment it suffered during the Emergency.
The people needed both a deliverance and a cleansing, and Bachchan was an example of Vijay or victory of the common man. Created by writers Salim-Javed using the zeitgeist, the Angry Young Man’s heady fury became our own, a powerful weapon to push back against the inequalities piled upon us by a crumbling, corrupt state.
After his near-total reign in the ’70s, when Spring’s action provided the home of lazy comedy and everything else in between, too many of his films may have oscillated between indifference and downright bad. Too many of them may have gotten attached to slushy scripts and assembly line products that only existed to jump on the Bachchan Bandwagon. He may have had a difficult period as a parliamentarian (1984-87), where his reputation, along with his powerful friends, was tarnished. He may have been at the helm of an ambitious production house, Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited (1996), which failed. He may have been out of our sight for a while. But he’s the only one of his time who reinvented himself and came back roaring. This time to stay.
As someone who’s watched nearly every movie he’s made, I sometimes feel like his rage got so much attention that his comedic chops were lost in broad-stroke burlesque. And I can safely say that none of the younger directors in the last ten years have managed to create a role that breaks out into today’s Bachchan persona. Switching between the benevolent or authoritarian patriarch seems to be the only option for these filmmakers who use both velvet gloves and reverence to cage this actor who is an eternity, who was once phenomenal and now is forced to do more of the same.
How about breaking free and letting him be? No one can have a dialogue like he can, and that voice, oh, that voice, is still as powerfully seductive. How about an all get out comedy? How about a late-stage romance? In his heyday, Bachchan was sexy off your socks. He still is. Not a young spirit that sears the throat, but a soft wine that enters easily and settles in our crevices. Is there anyone brave enough?
In his last appearance, Brahmastra, he was Raghu the Guru, one of the mighty weapons that the mythical universe of the film devised in the fight of good against evil. This may have happened in 2022. But those who have followed him since he arrived in Hindi cinema know that in his best work he played an important role in eradicating the bad guys.
The residue of those years still reverberates in cinematic memory and our viewing DNA. As Bachchan, who has worked with past leading ladies like Waheeda Rehman to punch new stars like Alia Bhatt, continues to stride across the screens that have morphed from the raw single screen of thousands to the swish multiplexed hundreds, he has become a continuum, our reminding of the time that was, and the promise of a time to come.
Amitabh Bachchan is still a work in progress. And if that’s not something to celebrate, then I don’t know what is.