This is the story of an actor called Amitabh Bachchan. It is the story of a millennium star who ruled show business for four decades. It is the story of a son born to a great poet, Dr Harivansh Rai Bachchan, who enthralled many generations of readers.
He was born in Allahabad, explored opportunities in Kolkatta and finally confessed that his heart belonged to Mumbai and films. Those days KA Abbas was casting Saat Hindustani and on the look out for fresh faces and Amitabh was one of the seven debutants. The year was 1969.
The forthcoming journey should have been easy. It wasn’t. His early days were filled with struggle and hardships. He hopped from studio to studio knocking on producers’ doors but people slammed doors on him, said he was too tall, and awkward. There were times he was turned away from the gates because he looked too ordinary and lacked charisma. His well wishers advised him that he should forget about films and try for a career in the radio. He did. But he was rejected in the very first audition, told his baritone and pauses were not suitable for All India Radio.
Those were difficult days. He spent many anguished nights sleeping hungry on the Marine Drive parapet. He heard about filmmaker Hrishikesh Mukherjee casting for Guddi and later Mukherjee nearly finalised him as the hero. But on learning that he was not a debutant, the director replaced him with Samit Bhanja. Mukherjee later cast him as the second lead in Rajesh Khanna starrer Anand. The year was 1970.
He was appreciated as an actor in Anand and Parwana but producers said he was only good for second lead roles. He was the last choice of filmmakers (Pyaar Ki Kahani or Reshma Aur Shera) and the only time heroines agreed to star opposite him was when they had the dominant part (Sanjog and Bandhe Hath). His detractors openly poked fun at him and wondered why he did not pack his bags and return to Allahabad.
He almost did when writers Salim Javed watched Bombay To Goa and recommended him to director Prakash Mehra. In 1973, Zanjeer changed the course of his destiny and media heralded him as the Angry young man. He was the new action hero but there was a snag. It is a prerequisite of mainstream cinema that unless the actor sing-n-dance and woo the heroine, he is no hero and Amitabh had yet to prove that.
His rivals sneered at his unconventional looks, said his romantic scenes lacked tenderness and filmmakers were reluctant to deviate from his action image. After Abhimaan which was jointly produced by Jaya and him, Yash Chopra gambled with Kabhi Kabhie and broke the jinx. In the coming years he proved as an all round entertainer who could not only sing and dance but also laugh/ Amar Akbar Anthony and cry /Muqaddar ka Sikandar.
His every new release escalated box-office figures and trade pundits described him as a phenomenon. He was the undisputed number one and producers realised it was time to offer the lion his share. He was the first actor to be paid his fees in territories, the first star to stage musical shows abroad and perfect them to the standards of Madonna and Michael Jackson, today a trend with superstars and lucrative business for event companies.
In the same decade, he fought elections from the Allahabad constituency and won with a thumping majority. He took a break from films and temporarily joined politics. He returned with Tinnu Anand’s Shahenshah released amidst political controversies. But public euphoria triumphed over petty politics and Amitabh emerged a bigger hero spelling bigger business.
In early 90s he took yet another sabbatical and launched an American channel TV Asia, followed by his own company ABCL now recognized as AB Corp. His comeback film Mrityudaata had a historic opening but crashed the very next week. Critics and fans were outraged and filmmakers stumped by his career choices. He accepted their dismay, accepted he was getting on in age and out of place in the archetypal roles like Lal Badshah.
For his company he experimented with a music album Eir Bir Phate and also commercial ads like BPL and Mirinda and was condemned for both. Later, every single star followed into his footsteps. All of them shot stray albums, shot commercials, endorsed brands and nobody protested. The reigning superstars followed his career moves and when the time was ripe demanded a share in territory revenue but not all of them were favoured.
He was fifty-seven when Mohabbatein was released in 2000. It’s a time when most actors hang up their boots and retire but Amitabh was re-inventing himself. The dogmatic principal Narayan Shankar had flashes of the angry young man, only this time, Shah Rukh Khan was the rebel and Amitabh the patriarch. This was also the year Amitabh anchored Kaun Banega Crorepati on television so far an option of only failed careers and the response was euphoric. Not only did the show alter television history but transformed Amitabh’s persona and popularity forever.
He was inundated with varied commercial offers – brand endorsements, musical and fashion shows and of course films. He embraced them all and worked overtime to revive his company. He restored his finances and repackaged his image. Today, he is the only actor at sixty plus to have the opportunity to play all kinds of roles- He played a psychopath/Aks, a schizophrenic/Aankhen, a criminal/Kaante, a cop/Khaakee, a leader/Sarkar, a common man/Viruddh, a ghost/Bhootnath, God/God Tussi Great Ho and an actor/The Last Lear. His films have addressed corruption, crime, age, adultery and Alzeimers and in the coming months the canvas gets bigger/Aladin and more complex /Paa.
A career spanning forty years and 167 films is no minor achievement and cannot be a mere coincidence. Some attribute his sustaining power to his extraordinary talent. Only a good actor can survive as long as he has and he has proved his expertise in different roles and different genres. Others say his mega stardom is his fortune; he was the chosen one to be at the right place at the right time and favoured with opportunities. And finally, some also say that his success is a result of his disciplined behaviour, his hard work and professionalism.
In all probabilities it is a combination of all three for Amitabh Bachchan is a combination of various identities. He is the poet’s son and essentially an artiste by temperament. He came to Mumbai to follow his dream and become an actor. Destiny transformed him in to a superstar, then a millennium star that reigned four decades and redefined rules of show business. Today he is loved and revered by millions but his heart belongs to the sensitive actor. All he craves for is to do better and better roles for the actor is never satisfied.
Somaaya has been a film critic and columnist for 30 years and is an author of nine books which includes Amitabh Bachchan-The Legend/ 1999 and Bachchanalia-The films & Memorabilia of Amitabh