"Do you remember me?" asked a tall young man who had just walked into the theatre where I was mixing a documentary, "my name is Amitabh Bachchan."
I had met him years ago when he was a callow, gangly youth, appearing in his first film, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas' Saat Hindustani. In his white pyjamas and light brown khadi kurta, the not yet illustrious son of writer Harivanshrai Bachchan looked like a typical middle-class product, perhaps just out of Tagore's Shantiniketan.
But it is not the middle class that has made Amitabh Bachchan what he is today. It is the pleb, the lumpen proletariat which has taken him to the pinnacle of fame. With all the popularity he has with the wide-eyed boys and girls from schools and colleges, if one of his films does not click with the lumpen, it is a flop.
But it is not the middle class that has made Amitabh Bachchan what he is today. It is the pleb, the lumpen proletariat which has taken him to the pinnacle of fame. With all the popularity he has with the wide-eyed boys and girls from schools and colleges, if one of his films does not click with the lumpen, it is a flop. And he has not had many flops, after Zanjeer (1973) he never looked back. He became the hero of the seventies, the saviour of the film industry, the guarantor of the health of the box office. His illness in 1982 brought out the enormous regard in which he is held by a vast mass of humanity.
Millions of boys and girls prayed for his well-being. Thousands of people thronged the gates of the hospital where he lay fighting for life. Like all his fights, he won this one too. After his recovery, he had to give repeated darshans to the crowds below like an emperor of old, or a prime politician of today, assuring his people that he was alive and well and would continue to pour his blessings upon them. It was as if his devotees snatched him from the jaws of death, making 1982 the year of Amitabh Bachchan. No other film star in the world today commands a following as wide and as devoted as his.
The way Amitabh reintroduced himself to me was not without significance. Along with the simplicity and humility, there was a comment. He knew he was talking to a camp follower of the 'New Cinema' and promptly pointed out the great divide that separated us. Weakly I assured him that I knew who he was, but that, and the fact that I had actually seen a number of his films, paled into insignificance before the force of his assertion of the separation of 'New Cinema' and 'Mass Cinema'. It had a basis in fact that both of us knew and could not brush aside.
The sixties belonged to Rajesh Khanna, the romantic hero woing lovely maidens and showering love upon them. The macho figure of this period, continuing from the late fifties, was without malvolence, a sort of "male Zeenat Aman who only had to bare his hairy chest to have the women go gaga." His body was rugged but his face benign.
Acting talent has seldom made a film star as great as Amitabh. Popularity of that order calls for the capacity to represent certain large forces in society and to meet the wish-fulfilment needs of the masses. A star must be a symbol of the aspirations of the people, whether consciously held or buried in levels below the threshold of the conscious mind. The sixties belonged to Rajesh Khanna, the romantic hero woing lovely maidens and showering love upon them. The macho figure of this period, continuing from the late fifties, was without malvolence, a sort of "male Zeenat Aman who only had to bare his hairy chest to have the women go gaga." His body was rugged but his face benign.It was another aspect of the romantic which yielded ground first to the more mellow romanticism of Rajesh in the sixties, and finally to Amitabh Bachchan's image of brute force and wild comedy. There was more than a touch of the middle class there and of the mood of hope in industrialising India in the second decade of the country's Independence. The seventies became more cynical. People had seen the face of greed in at least some of those who were to deliver them from their poverty. The goodies had begun to abound, so near and yet so far from the pockets of the poor. The country had already made enormous progress, but not, enough to meet the pent-up, and now rapidly rising expectations of a population burgeoning with better health and lower mortality. To many therefore, honesty began to seem the virtue of fools. Nobody was going to give you what you did not grab. It was stupid to cast longing glances at motor cars swishing past while you were trudging home in the rain. The thing to do was to take it with the power of your fist.
In Deewar (1975), Amitabh has an honest police inspector brother, while he himself has turned against the law and made himself rich. In a typical encounter between the two, the law breaker asks the upholder of the law, "I have everything, what, have you got with your honesty?" The answer he gets is the other side of the same coin. The brother says, "I have mother."
In a typical encounter between the two, the law breaker asks the upholder of the law, "I have everything, what, have you got with your honesty?" The answer he gets is the other side of the same coin. The brother says, "I have mother."
For in Indian cinema, the mother is the holy cow of tradition. The family lives on the milk of her kindness of which she gives lavishly, keeping nothing for herself. She is the ideal wife grown up, chastened by the beatings and burnings and the knowledge of who is the master, but fortified by the oppression she has in turn inflicted on her daughter-in-law. Both of them are hound in fact by the same serfdom, but are made to fight each other by forces beyond their ken.The seventies no longer adored women, but asserted openly the right to treat them as chattels. In many parts of the country, women were molested, raped and burnt for dowry with greater impunity than ever before, defying the newspapers which angrily reported them every day. All this in spite of a Constitution which guarantees the equality of all its citizens. Perhaps the constitution is now seen by many as a dangerous thing. It had been framed by a Western-educated leadership which had persuaded the provincials to accept it. Now they were waking up to the dangers of secularism, democracy and equality which was-making the low castes, the tribals and the women demand minimum wages and equality before the law. So began the great feudal backlash in the major part of the country. Along with the taming of women it included Harijan baiting and the struggle to perpetuate bonded labour—all better achieved with more freedom from the central government, the guardians of the Constitution. All over the country, a struggle began between the avant garde of the English-knowing middle class and a large section of the rest — which included the lumpen, the feudal landlord, and the illiterate but rich contractors and shop keepers in the urban sector, the battle-ground of the cinema.
The seventies no longer adored women, but asserted openly the right to treat them as chattels. In many parts of the country, women were molested, raped and burnt for dowry with greater impunity than ever before, defying the newspapers which angrily reported them every day. All this in spite of a Constitution which guarantees the equality of all its citizens.
That is the measure of the great divide between the 'New Cinema' and the 'Mass Cinema'. The former is largely the creation of the Central Government with a thrust from some State Governments, not all of whom, blinded by the flash bulbs of private ceremonies, knew what they were doing. The protagonists of the New Cinema have come from the vanguard of the English-knowing middle class and are champions of the constitutional goals. Their films fight superstition, decry the oppression of minorities, of women and the working classes, and criticize the new rich and the corrupt politician. The other idealises the provincial macho flexing his muscles in aid of what I have called the great feudal backlash. Its films are mostly sponsored by the blind upholders of tradition. The obscurantists made good use of the new cynicism of urban youth in the grip of unemployment and inflation and expanding but poor education. The mass cinema's macho cult, its worship of the mother and its placing the family above State gained wide following. The pre-dominant theme of the seventies was revenge, and it was wreaked regularly by Amitabh Bachchan in an astonishing continuum of massive box office hits. The State is not the shepherd who will keep me from want; the individual must grab, and dispense summary justice, springing to the defence of family honour. The family is the bastion of tradition, the means of continuing it unsullied by modern ideas. With money in the pocket and the image of Gopal in the family shrine, the crusader must do battle to save the country from new-fangled ideas of democracy and equality of men and women (the industry is however careful not to alienate any section of the audience by preach-ing anti-secularism or defending the high castes.
The romantic hero is a thing of the past. The macho does not not adore women or woo them; they roll at his feet of their own accord. He has time for dalliance, but not for marriage. Marriage is business. It brings dowry money; it is the perpetuation of the line. In Silsila Amitabh's dalliance is with Rekha but his marriage with Jaya must triumph in the end, despite the public dishonour it brings upon the latter in more ways than one. For the family must prevail over all, and tradition preserved for posterity. In fisticuffs in aid of the family, Amitabh is unmatched; Bond-like, he wins against overwhelming odds, thrilling his audiences who would dearly love to wreak vengeance on the forces that keep them from the goodies. Except for some directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee (where the sensitive half of him sought refuge in gentle roles with acting opportunities), Amitabh's films are films of violence.
As an actor, Amitabh fell flat before the artistry of Kulbhushan Kharbanda is Shaan (1980), leading to the failure of the multi-million film. To some extent, the same was true of Shakti, where he encountered the superior acting talent of Dilip Kumar. If he had to face someone like Saeed Jaffrey playing a well-written role, he would surely meet his Waterloo.
But representing a social force is not all. A star must have charisma, which comes more easily when you have the assurance of knowing exactly what the public wants to see. You must be a performer who has his finger on the pulse of the audience. As an actor, Amitabh fell flat before the artistry of Kulbhushan Kharbanda is Shaan (1980), leading to the failure of the multi-million film. To some extent, the same was true of Shakti, where he encountered the superior acting talent of Dilip Kumar. If he had to face someone like Saeed Jaffrey playing a well-written role, he would surely meet his Waterloo. Compared to such artists, his acting vocabulary is limited to some standard tricks and is thereby mannered. But when he plays the country bumpkin in Namak Halal and makes a travesty of Saint Meerabai's song Pag ghunghroo bandh Meera nachi re, he does so with the force of a bulldozer ploughing through a mass of absurdities. His is the art of the superb cabaret performer who connects with his audience at every move. With this, he combines a great comic flair. He sings like an amateur, his scale absurdly low for a male voice, but with tremendous aplomb. He dances like an untrained genius with an instinctive feel for what will work. Had he had the training, he could have been a Gene Kelly, raising mass entertainment to the level of art. In Kabhie Kabhie, he is cast against type as a poet, but manages to bring it off. His immense verve carries him through, whatever the level on which he operates.
Lately, since his illness, Amitabh has sent art signals to the 'New Cinema'. In 1973 when he told me he was Amitabh Bachchan, his big time was just beginning, and he had no intention of dallying with the uncertainties of 'New Cinema'. Has he peaked in 1982 with his illness, and the only way left downwards? If so, who will represent the dominant social force of the eighties? What are these forces? What new wish-fulfilments is the need of the hour? No new hero is yet on the horizon. There is a vacuum in the film industry. It is an uncertain moment, fraught with flops and dangers ahead unless Amitabh, when he resumes after his recovery, comes back to the fold and delivers as before—or a new hero emerges.