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'Varsetile' Amitabh Bacchan symbolises crass materialism that has governed Bollywood

By Harsh Thakor* 

On October 11, superstar Amitabh Bachhan turned 80. He still rocks and rules Bollywood after five decades, standing at the top of the pedestal, with no other star even close to his longevity. No star has equally fired the imagination of the Indian public or penetrated through their hearts. He defined or advertised Bollywood more than any actor ever.
Yet it is regretful that this icon has failed to be charitable or serve social causes, and leaves no stone unturned in multiplying his wealth through advertisements. He is a manifestation of the crass materialism or narcasm that governs Bollywood. At any cost he sells himself to endorsements to make money. He has never raised his voice against any social injustice, corruption etc.
Amitabh has virtually played a role as a mascot for the corporates and has been master as a manipulator. Unlike Amir Khan he has never raised his voice against oppression on minorities, nor has he cared to favour any people’s struggle against poverty or protested unjust wars. He was virtually unmoved by the recent farmers struggle in Delhi. In his time Dilip Kumar took up many a social causes.
Amitabh has rarely enacted social roles, like even Shah Rukh Khan did, or many other Hollywood stars. He expressed harsh words for firms like ‘Slumdog India' and hardly had much to say about Satyajit Ray. Whatever spirit of rebellion he manifested against the social system on the screen, he extinguished it in real life consistently, serving as mascot for the establishment.
I would fail to recognize the Amitabh of today with that of the 1970s, virtually looking like two persons. However, the essence of the soul remained intact, like life taking another form. I can't forget choreographer Shiamak Davar describing the Big B, walking and his projection of him, as the ultimate epitome of self-discipline.
Amitabh was not the most talented of actors or conventionally good looking, but his very demeanour captured the hearts of the public. No Bollywood artist matched Amitabh's discipline, perseverance or endurance. He was one of the very few stars who always obeyed the director, never entering into clashes, like fellow stars. Every ounce of energy was invested by Amitabh to give justice to the character he was enacting.
Even when the wind was blowing his way, he never got carried away, and put he every inch of effort in the character of a role assigned. Few stars ever appeared more clinical or being groomed in an acting school. In deep depth he imbibed the language of the audiences. To quote Javed Akhtar, “Even at the age of 80 every shot for Amitabh is his first shot of his life, with his career depending upon it.”
No doubt, Amitabh does not possess the natural talent or intensity of Dilip Kumar, Sanjeev Kumar or Raj Kapoor, or acting skill of Nasiruddin Shah or Balraj Sahni. What propelled him to the very top of the table was his sense of perception, intelligence, discipline and hard work.
Great stars like Rajesh Khanna, Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan ruled Bollywood like emperors, but ultimately stuck to cultivated mannerisms as superstars, instead of remaining consummate actors. Amitabh, in spite of being a brand, consistently immersing into the skin of the role.
With mastery, Amitabh adapted himself to different times unlike anyone. In spite of not being as lively or possessing a joie de vie as some superstars, he is still versatility personified. In the modern times only Nasiruddin Shah has surpassed Amitabh as a pure actor, and Amir Khan has come within touching distance of him. As a pure actor Nasiruddin Shah places Amitabh in the highest league.
Amitabh has had many hits in film with co stars like Dharmendra, Shashi Kapoor, Shatrugan Sinha and Vinod Khanna. He exhibited high skill in blending with other stars, enabling them to flourish in their roles. In his lifetime Amitabh expressed respect to legends like Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Waheeda Rehman, Nutan, Sanjeev Kumar and Rajesh Khanna. He held directors like Guru Dutt, Gulzar and Yash Chopra in great esteem.
Amitabh gave his first flashes on the Bollywood screen in late 1960s and early 1970s with roles ranging from an angry rebel to a romantic lead. In spite of lacking conventional charm he was buoyancy personified in films like ‘Zanjeer’, and manifested virtuosity in 'Sat Hindustani'. As an inspector in ‘Zanjeer’ he exhibited conviction and vengeance at its superlative height. Even when he underplayed he bubbled in his own right, exhibiting restraint even when expressing conviction.
In ‘Anand’, as Babu Moshai, although mellowed, Amitabh gave very fine acting performance with cancer patient, like boat unruffled in a storm. With surgical craft, he handled a dying Rajesh Khannna. In ‘Namak Haram’, in most clinical manner, he portrayed how friendship and chain of events transfuse a complete change in an individual. In ‘Bombay to Goa’ in most natural style he carried a romantic lead.
Amitabh even gave a highly nuanced performance in ‘Saudagar’ as a seller of gur. In the very tune of the character he illustrated the base of feudal culture. In ‘Majboor’ he exuded grace and balance playing a role of man chasing the real assassin of a person he is claimed to have killed. He even overshadowed Dharmendra, in enacting vengeance in that film.
Amitabh sold himself as brand in Bollywood, which denied him revealing his prowess in art films or in true character roles
As Jai in 'Sholay' Amitabh exhibited prowess in projecting an introvert character in love with Radha enacted by Jaya Bahaduri, with most subtle expression, and his death scene ranks amongst the most heart touching in Bollywood. In 'Deewar’ he brilliantly projected the transition of a common man turning to crime, as a result of circumstances, portrays transition from dock worker to a smuggler, being in the very skin of the character. In 'Amar Akbar Anthony’ (1977) he displayed great flair in enacting comedy as a streetsmart bootlegger, giving a new perspective to his acting.
Amitabh in 'Kabhi Kabhie’ exhibited subtle or poetic romanticism in youth and a high degree of sensitivity in middle aged role. In ‘Trishul’ his intensity and thirst for revenge for the fate of his abandoned mother goes beyond the limits. In a double role in ‘Don’ he surgically contrasted a professional criminal from a street vendor. In ‘Roti Kapda or Makan' as part of an all star cast with complete conviction he illustrated a person frustrated with evils of social injustice. In ‘Kaala Patthar’, again as part of a star cast, he championed the cause of miners’ welfare, giving essence to the role of miners staging a rebellion.
It was in 'Adaalat' where Amitabh scaled acting intensity, sensitivity or skill, in regions rarely penetrated. His performance in his death scene even surpassed that of ‘Sholay.’ With articulate skill he portrayed what transformed him into a smuggler. In 'Muqaddar ka Sikander' he championed morality and portrayed love in a most subtle manner.
In the 1980s Amitabh had to adjust to a time when violence had reached a height unscaled. In ‘Coolie’ he was almost killed in an accident, in ‘Agneepath’ ‘Shahenshah’ and ‘Desh Premi’ he projected the pulse of the time, carrying the mantle of justice .With great malleability he cast the character of vengeance in ‘Shahenshah.’ His best performance of the 1980’s was in ‘Sharaabi’, when he enacted an alcoholic in the trance of deep love, giving shades of the great Dilip Kumar in drunken scenes. With skill of a painter he illustrated how circumstances transform or victimise an individual and the state of man in flux.
Amitabh dabbled in politics, standing by Rajiv Gandhi in November 1984, in Allahabad, winning 68% o votes cast. However, in 1987 he bid farewell to politics, after his name was defaced in the Bofors scandal. There was a powerful trend of Amitabh’s films going downhill in the mid 1980s, lacking the punch of yester years. It is ironic that in 1990 after 21 years, he was the recipient of the best national actor award for ‘Agneepath.’
In later years, it is hard to envisage any other actor doing better justice to the role of teaching a deaf and dumb girl in 'Black' based on the story of Helen Keller, where Amitabh expressed intensity of coal burning -- one of the most articulate exhibitions of acting skill in Bollywood. In 'Cheeni Kum' with subtle nuances he enacted the role of chef entangled in a love affair. In 'Baghban' with great sensitivity he manifested virtuosity. In 'Mohabattein' he enacting a principal, he literally makes the students tremble. In ‘Sarkar’ (2005) he played a don in politics, impersonating Bal Thackeray, penetrating the very soul o the character.
In ‘Paa’ he took emotional sensitivity to a melting point, touching the very core of your soul. His sheer energy transcended boundaries unparalleled. Playing a witty 12-year-old boy suffering from the rare genetic disorder called progeria, which ages children rapidly. Here, he reverse-aged himself in the sense that he was playing someone with the physical age of a 70 plus person but the mental agility of a twelve-year-old. In ‘Piku’ with high craft, he portrays eccentricity of person, perpetually troubled by constipation. Possibly e saw the better side of Amitabh’s acting in his later years not being cast as a hero.
Amitabh sold himself as brand in Bollywood, which denied him revealing his prowess in art films or in true character roles. Many of the roles he played were reminiscent of a brand. Even when enacting common man characters like in ‘Coolie’, he had to dance to the tune of projecting a star rather than the life of a real life person. We saw much more of Amitabh the star, instead of the actor. Crystallised as a legend, it is sad that the Indian public turned him into a demi-god.
---
*Freelance journalist

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