The tallest tower of Indian cinema returns to television with high drama
Nineteen sixty-nine is the year that everything changed, or so history tells us. It was a pivotal time, the year of the moon landing, the Woodstock music festival, the end of the Vietnam War, and the beginning of the breakup of the Beatles. Closer home, too, there was a lot going on: the Indian National Congress was split into two, the Indian Space Research Organisation was formed, and the first Rajdhani Express was flagged off from Delhi to Howrah. It was a momentous year in another way as well, though not as obvious at first. A young, aspiring actor who worked as an executive at a freight company boarded a train from Kolkata to Mumbai, and a flop film that marked his debut, Saat Hindustani, was released later that year.
In 2014, it will be 45 years since Amitabh Bachchan has been in our lives. He will turn 72 this October. When he turned 70 in 2012, there was a barrage of fond tributes and attempts to examine his stardom and our devotion to him. At least two generations of Indians have grown up with his movies, and no other actor has shaped our relationship with cinema as much as he has.
Bachchan, however, has always been more than a star to us, and our relationship with him has held through his good times and bad, through our good times and bad. “If all Indians had to group together and write a narrative for India,” says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan, “it would be the story of Bachchan.”
In an email interview to Open, Bachchan, who has often spoken about the freedom he has found with age, explains his ubiquity. ‘My age does not invite the more popular young roles that most viewers wish to see; that is obvious and natural, so the onus of responsibility that usually falls on the lead is perhaps reduced. There is no freedom as such, there is a larger diversity of roles that present themselves, and that is challenging to an artist.
For the moment, a few [film] makers have been kind enough to offer me some projects… but they are not easy to come [by]!!’
July saw the debut of his first fictional TV show, Yudh. As soon as the series finishes its run in the middle of August, the eighth season of the crowd- pleasing Kaun Banega Crorepati will be back on air. He even manages to slip in with regularity during ad breaks on his own shows. Advertisers consider him a safe bet and he endorses so many brands that it’s difficult to keep track. None of this precludes his presence from the big screen. This year, he was seen in the socio-political comedy Bhootnath Returns, playing the part of a moralistic elder who takes on the system. Last year was low key; he had just one movie, the rather uninspired Satyagraha, which was cobbled together from headlines of the Anna Hazare movement, apart from a cameo as a Jewish gangster in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, a part that he clearly relished more than the wise patriarch he played in Prakash Jha’s film.
Next year, Bachchan will be seen in two theatrical releases, Shamitabh with his long-time collaborator R Balki, the adman-turned-director who has drawn some of Bachchan's best performances in recent times (Cheeni Kum and Paa), and Piku with Shoojit Sircar. The latter’s last film with Bachchan, Shoebite, never saw the light of day, but the two have worked together on the Gujarat Tourism campaign, and the actor has brought the director on board as a creative consultant for Yudh.
Sircar is a self-avowed fanboy. “I am only writing films for him,” he says over the phone. “Of course, like most directors my age, there is an element of hero worship. But it is his dedication and child-like hunger towards his craft that gets you addicted to working with him. Besides, he is the only actor with whom we can experiment and yet feel safe knowing that he can carry a film on his own.”
It is not just Bachchan’s film and television appearances that ensure his visibility; he has his diary packed, juggling many other things. Over the past few weeks, he has been busy with promotions for Yudh, and shooting for Balki’s film and KBC, apart from signing on as Maharashtra’s horticulture ambassador, attending a UNICEF conference on polio eradication, promoting his son’s team Jaipur Pink Panthers in the Pro Kabaddi League, unveiling a new smartphone for a brand he endorses, and all the while updating his blog and Twitter accounts, taking out time to engage with fans and stay accessible on social media.
Just how does he do it? Keep up his almost superhuman pace? Film journalist Anupama Chopra shares a story: “Once in an interview, he told me how he stays up till two in the night to blog and is up the next morning at six to hit the gym. I asked him when he sleeps. He replied with deadpan Bachchan humour, ‘Through interviews of course’.”
‘It is more than more these days…,’ wrote the actor in a recent blog post, ‘but determined we stand… undetermined we shall break’. For someone who is famously reticent in interviews, it is on his blog that glimmers of his real self emerge. ‘More than more’ is perhaps why he keeps up his frenetic pace. It may be the one and only crack in his armour, the fear of slowing down.
In Yudh, Bachchan plays the eponymous character, Yudhisthir Sikarwar, in a role that he has honed to perfection by now, that of an ageing patriarch— world-weary but idealistic, fighting the good fight—or, as some observe, being an older version of the Angry Young Man. His only vulnerability is his own mortality, which may be true of the actor himself.
Bachchan explains his character: ‘Yudh is the short form of Yudhishtir, the name of the main character, and he is the owner of a construction company, a business man. He is divorced, and has remarried, has a daughter from the first wife and a son from the second. His first wife has also remarried. He faces competition from other business companies; he has family issues because of his past and he suffers from a debilitating disease, which could be life threatening. His character therefore becomes extremely complex when he has to contend with all these on a virtually daily basis. There is politics and politicians involved too. It gave me a very wide graph to play this character, which is why I chose to do it.’
“The title says it all,” according to Ribhu Dasgupta, director of the series. “It is a story about a man caught in a psychological battle with himself and his health, an emotional battle with his family and a corporate battle with his rivals. It is his journey in the backdrop of a city where construction is booming, very much like how Noida was 10 years back. Yudh is a vulnerable man with high morals and integrity and a strong emotional chord.”
Its broadcaster Sony Entertainment Television took a calculated risk in backing a show like this. Says Gaurav Seth, the channel’s head of marketing, “With KBC we found that he has universal appeal that cuts across age groups and categories. We are hoping that Yudh will have a longer lasting impact on television. The one thing with Mr Bachchan is that he appreciates the big numbers of TV more than any other star. And, he is responsible for single-handedly transforming television in India.” The show, supported by a cast-and-crew coup in Anurag Kashyap, Shoojit Sircar, Kay Kay Menon, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Sarika and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, has received a lot of attention but not much acclaim. The show’s setting—the industrial grime of Ghaziabad—is imaginative, the sets and treatment are realistic, but even diehard Bachchan fans cannot get past the uneven pace and occasional plot loopholes. Bachchan’s performance as a man fighting his demons— he has Huntington’s disease, a fractured personal life and disagreeable business rivals—is flawless, but it’s not something we have not seen him do before.
It is in his interactions with his daughter Taruni (stage actor Aahana Kumra in a remarkable debut) and his henchman Anand (played with finesse by actor Zakir Hussain) that some of the show’s best moments are to be found. These scenes, which set out to humanise him, end up having the opposite effect, and yet that is precisely why they work. When Bachchan appears on screen towering over his stocky lieutenant or young daughter, we are reassured that we are in the company of a higher presence, someone who exists on an exalted plane; it’s a reminder of why we have not given up on the show.
The promos for the new season of KBC, tell us exactly why we repose our trust in Bachchan. The first promo shows him quizzing a young girl of the Northeast, and the second has a young Hindu man from a Muslim neighbourhood— both foster the idea of inclusion, of a greater Indian identity. These promos could not be more timely, given the angst these days over the idea of nationhood. Although the message could have sounded cheesy and overdone for a game show, it is rendered believable by Bachchan’s benign presence: “Yahan sirf paise nahin, dil bhi jeete jaate hain.” Indeed, it’s not just about winning money, but hearts as well.
The journey of KBC (which first aired in 2000) from a quiz show with prize money to a symbol of changing middle- class India has been extraordinary. Ever since Bachchan made his return to the show in 2010—three years after Shah Rukh Khan’s disastrous interlude—as its kindly, humorous and credible host, the show has steadfastly reflected all the things we’d like to believe of ourselves. Education and information as a currency, the rise of small town India and the importance of family values, all steered by a man who has overseen many transitions of India. This is a man who reflected the anxieties of the 70s and 80s, even the shifts of the 90s to an extent, and then recast himself as a symbol of propriety in keeping with the demand of the times.
Is Amitabh Bachchan boxed in by his own image? In the early 2000s, he turned the fortunes of the television industry around, took risks with experimental movies like Boom, Aks, Nishabd, Sarkar and even the ill-fated Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag. This was an actor free of the ‘onus of responsibility’ that he tells us about. He embraced his advancing age like no other star before, and that became the secret to his longevity. His physical bearing has closely reflected the stages he has gone through. Now, as he gets more firmly ensconced in the role of the patriarch— which he plays with aplomb in real life as head of the Bachchan family—along with the thick spectacles and distinctive beard, he often has a sage-like shawl around his shoulders in appearances both on and off the screen. As Shiv Visvanathan says, Bachchan reflects the four stages of man in Hindu tradition. We find him now in his ascetic ashram, the final stage, his years of trying new roles behind him. Yet, he, of all actors in Hindi cinema, has the ability to rewrite his own script.
Director Prakash Jha has spoken of Bachchan’s appetite for acting as a ‘bhook’, a hunger that is rare for someone his age. Could he not, then, have been better used as a star? Some of it could be attributed to how he is perceived by filmmakers. Most new-age directors he works with—like Anurag Kashyap, creator of Yudh, who has even made a film on Bachchan fandom, Bombay Talkies—were fans before they were directors. It comes naturally to them to place him on a pedestal. “The character Vijay/Jai remains part of his star text and is easily evoked today,” as film scholar Rachel Dwyer says, “It’s up to the directors, do they want to pay tribute or do they want to try something new?”
We find Bachchan pondering the question of how best to use him in an interview he gave a newsmagazine in 1984. Back then, he had replied with a touch of conceit that now seems surprising, considering the air of modesty that he wraps as tightly as his shawl around himself these days, saying that he’s crucial to commercial cinema and the masses love to see him. “I also feel that not making the best use of me after casting me is a criminal waste—for me as well as for those involved in the film’s making.” Are directors listening?
Thirty years on, asked when and where he is happiest, he responds with his usual flair for understatement. ‘I enjoy the thought of being in front of the camera,’ he says.