Op-Ed: It’s Grave Injustice to Slot Amitabh As Just An Actor

Watching a short, two and a half minute long video posted by someone on Twitter recently, I was awestruck by the spring in the feet of the Birthday Boy who is celebrating his 76th birthday today: Amitabh Bachchan aka Big B. It was a scene from a film shoot. The septuagenarian actor, who has straddled the Hindi film world for over five decades now, was furiously puffing away on his nebulizer even as the make-up man gave finishing touches on his face before the shot. As soon as the make-up man was through with his job, the 76-year old ‘spring chicken’ half-walked, half-ran to the set for the shot! [At 58, how I wish I were half as fit and agile as the asthmatic man, who can give a ‘run’ for money to people a quarter of his age!!]

I am sure every Indian, at least those born before the 21st century, has his favourite Amitabh story. So, here goes mine. It was Seetal Shashthi day in 1975 and I had gone with my Kaka (paternal uncle), who was a post-grad student in Jyoti Vihar at the time, and his friends from Burla to Sambalpur to witness the celebrations. As was often the case during those days, partaking of the celebrations included the mandatory visit to the cinema theatre. So, there we were, five of us, at the Laxmi Talkies bang in the middle of the town, which was in the grip of Seetal Shashthi fever, to watch ‘Deewar’. Kaka’s friend displayed some amazing acrobatic skills to cut through the crowd and get the tickets. By the time we came out of the theatre, I had well and truly fallen in love with the man.

In the years since then, I have never missed half a chance to watch ‘Deewar’, in a theatre, on TV or on a video player. When ‘Deewar’ reached the Baripada, the small town where I studied, a few months after, it did not budge from the theatre for several weeks, each show displaying the ‘House Full’ board well before show time. During the two months or more that it ran in the theatre, I watched it four more times. By the time it left the theatre, I had memorized every single Amitabh dialogue in the film and reeled them off in one go before friends without stopping or fumbling!  Even to his day, I don’t switch channels if I happen to catch a glimpse of the film while channel surfing and watch it till the very end, ignoring protests from family members. I don’t think he has surpassed the performance in ‘Deewar’ in any film before or after, including ‘Zanjeer’, which set him firmly in the ‘Angry Young Man’ mould, when it comes to the sheer intensity of performance. The supreme confidence, the elegant gait, the majestic, log-legged stride, the baritone voice, the quiet rage that bubbles over in the iconic temple scene towards the end – all combined to give him a persona that has never been seen before or after in Hindi films. [When it comes to an individual scene, however, I rate the one in Praksash Mehra’s 1984 film ‘Sharaabi’ where he breaks into a sob after a longish monologue over the death of his dearest ‘Munshiji’ (Omprakash) as the best. I learnt much later that in a marked departure from the prevailing practice of the time in tinsel town, this particular dialogue was recorded on location and not dubbed in a studio, long before sync-sound came into being, to ensure that the intensity is not lost during dubbing!]

Of course, my ‘love-at-first-sight’ moment happened several years before – in 1971 to be precise – when I chanced upon Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s immortal ‘Anand’ at an open-air screening of the film in the Kali Mandir complex in Kharsuan, my native village now in Jharkhand, of all places during Diwali. Hindi films were just about the only form of entertainment for adolescents of my generation and I was lucky to have seen more than my share of them. But this lean, lanky man with a big, booming voice was not someone I had watched or heard about. Nor had anyone I knew. Even at that young age, I could make out that this man was cut out for much bigger things than a ‘side role’ in a low budget ‘noon show’ movie. This belief was further reinforced when I watched ‘Namak Haram’, another Hrishida flick with Rajesh Khanna as the co-star, a couple of years later. If ‘Zanjeer’ made him a phenomenon, ‘Deewar’, in my view, took him to the stratosphere as an actor. I remember Hrishida saying, after Amitabh all but stopped doing his kind of cinema and jumped headlong into the commercial circuit, ruing that ‘even 10%’ of his protégé’s acting ability had not been explored! I would go a step further and say that the whole range of his acting skills remains unexplored even now!

There is no point listing the qualities that have gone into the making of the actor called Amitabh Bachchan – his tall, erect frame, his baritone voice, the intensity of his expressions, a felicity with both comedy and tragedy, an amazing ability to slip into a character, whether a village bumpkin or a city slicker… you name it – because everyone knows them. However, calling him just an actor, in my view, would be a grave injustice to the man, who combines an amazing array of attributes that go into the making of a performer par excellence. I dare say he would have had a fairly successful career as a singer – though admittedly not as successful – had he chosen to become one instead of an actor. His rendition of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s immortal ‘Ekla Chalo’ number, which plays out as the credits roll out at the end of Sujoy Ghose’s ‘Kahani’, for me, establishes his credentials as a singer who could give tough competition to many established playback singers. I remember calling up a friend, shortly after that and on finding that he had his ‘Ekla Chalo’ number as his caller tune, fervently hoping that the friend doesn’t pick up the phone in a hurry so that I could listen to it a little longer!

His performance in Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) has set a benchmark that would be tough to match for all TV hosts. It is revealing that the producers of the show, after experimenting with King Khan as a host for a season, realized their folly and restored the real Badshah Of Bollywood, never to change him again.

There are several socio-cultural factors that went into the making of Amitabh’s persona. The fact that he was the son of a ‘proletariat poet’ with his bohemian ways (Harivansh Rai Bachchan) and a well-bred, upper class disciplinarian mother (Teji Bachchan) gave him just the kind of upbringing that enabled him to carry off roles of a man on the street and a man of the elite class with equal felicity while his amazing command over Hindi, despite his upper class, Doon school education, gave him an edge over other actors.

But more than his upbringing, it was his uncompromising efforts to be perfect in everything that made Amitabh what he is today. Take, for example, his rendition of Bombaiyya Hindi. It was not exactly unknown in Hindi films; even actors of the 1950s and 60s spoke in the Bombaiyya twang. But it was Big B, who made it the lingua franca of the country, with his rendition of it in films like Amar Akbar Anthony and ‘Agneepath’. The same goes for action and fight scenes in Hindi films. The ‘dhishum dhishum’ made way for some real, believable action once he entered the industry.

It is hard to find another man in the contemporary world of entertainment – or any world, for that matter – in India with his versatility. Even in the past, just about the only person who comes to mind is the great Satyajit Ray. But since he was not an actor or even a maker of commercial films, he never really enjoyed the popular appeal that Big B has.

Dear Amitabh! On your birthday, this steady, devoted fan of over four decades, wishes you many more years of healthy, active life. There will never be anyone like you, certainly not in my lifetime!!

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)