IN 1970, a gawky, awkward-looking hero arrived on the sets of Anand, and like a lion with magnificent table manners proceeded to gracefully devour the reigning superstar of mush, Rajesh Khanna. Even so, at the time it would have required singular intuition to see this man as a future star, leave alone anything more. But the seeds of artistic greatness do not announce themselves in the packaging, or in publicity releases; they reside in those undouseable inner fires that fuel spectacular achievement. And this man was a filament on slow burn.
The pile of chips he carried on his shoulder was high. There was the weight of parental eminence, as the son of renowned Hindi poet, Harivanshrai Bachchan. There was the pressure of peers, among them the grandsons of Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi. There were the miseries of a lousy BSc degree from Kirori Mal College in Delhi, and of corporate clerky in Calcutta. Then there was, in an industry of pasty-faced, effeminate heroes, the insecurity of irregular looks. For additional wounding he had a girlfriend, Jaya Bhaduri, who was enjoying terrific success. In a final rub, his first 12 films were mostly a dead loss for him. He could have gone home; and everyone would have understood.
But he chose to stay on a slow burn, and in his annus mirabilis, 1973, two all-time blockbusters, Abhimaan and Zanjeer, capitalised in different ways on the tremendous intensity the burn generated. One way, that of Abhimaan—subtle, sensitive, real, unheroic—was however to be relegated to the distant lobes of the actor's brain. The other, of Zanjeer—angry, rebellious, larger than life, theatrical, melodramatic—was to shape the screen persona of the greatest superstar of Indian cinema. In astounding hit upon hit, he was to play with this image, extending its possibilities, assimilating new genres like comedy and dance masterfully—the slow burn filament metamorphosing into an entire Sivakasi fireworks factory: the one-clown circus, the one-man industry. His talents were so formidable that in the limited compass of this hammy, hyper cinema he was to conquer all aspects, rendering largely redundant comedians, dancers, and even heroines. So colossal was his success, cutting across lines of gender, creed, class, and region, that it wiped everything else out. Somewhere, unsung, wiped out too was the sublime impulse of Abhimaan.
In 1998, Amitabh Bachchan, 56, angry middle-aged hero, ageing megastar, is being forced to contemplate the ruins of his last two films Mrityudaata and Major Saab. Brooder that he is, he is busy sifting through the debris to find clues to what went wrong. Is this the end? Are the bells that began to toll softly 10 years ago, with the fizzless vacuities of Jadugaar, Toofan, Akayla et al, now gathering into a crescendo? For example, in 1993, Bachchan romped home as number one in Movie magazine's opinion poll, with his closest competitor polling less than half the votes he did. Amazingly, even though he had no film releases the next three years, he continued to repeat the feat. But in the 1998 poll he has ceded his position to Shah Rukh Khan. Does this mean the resplendent image in the mirror is beginning to crack? Should he thus cease to rage against the dying of the light, and go gently into the good night?
THE signs of panic are everywhere, and have been fuelling much speculation, and some disgust. Amitabh Bachchan, do-gooding avenger extraordinaire, coloniser of the collective Indian imagination, mythic alter ego and transcendent balm of an entire generation of oppressed, depressed, exploited, unhappy Indians, has been sadly trying to peddle soft drinks like Mirinda and electronic goods like BPL. An exercise that carries the same indignity, and dangers, of killing a fly with a cricket bat: the potential for damage outweighing the benefits. The cinematic upholder of the higher moral order—for decades above the petty limitations and corruptions of the state law machinery—has set up an entertainment company that was in the recent past trying to mop up money through the most cynically superficial of commercial enterprises, the beauty pageant. Increasingly Bachchan is in the news not for another cash-counter busting performance, but for his financial exertions and travails, such as AB Corp owing Doordarshan Rs 12 crore against slots it had bought some years ago.
The people are feeling let down," says Naseeruddin Shah, trying hard to understand the strange endgame that seems to have been set into play with Bachchan's recent incursions into advertising and business. "The entire public feels he owes them something." Clearly, if anything, there is a sacred covenant at work, of empathy and trust, as perhaps existed in antiquity between the finest kings and their subjects, with neither letting the other down. As was on display when Bachchan lay on his deathbed, injured on the sets of Coolie, and an entire nation, and waves of expatriates around the world, an emperor's subjects, prayed for him, beating down the doors of their shrines till their gods responded. The truth of the matter is the problem is unique unto Bachchan.
The nineties boys, Shah Rukh Khan and company, can peddle anything in the most frivolous of fashion and it doesn't matter because they are part of the new materialism that afflicts all of Indian society; also living with us in television sets in our bedrooms every hour of the day they are simply not equipped to evoke the awe and grandeur of the distant and the 70 mm. Even older stars like Dharmendra and Vinod Khanna can be forgiven for endorsing whisky and gutka, but Bachchan must stand by the covenant of greatness he has contracted with his public. As steadfastly as has the giant of an even earlier, more graceful era, Dilip Kumar. Other chroniclers of filmdom put it more plainly. Rita Mehta, the editor of Cine Blitz, feels Bachchan has really "let himself down. He shouldn't take on ads and do silly things in them, just because he's paid for it. He should not compromise on his dignity or the respect for the position that the public has given him." In similar vein, Bha-rati Pradhan, former editor of Showtime, says: "Bachchan needs to stop doing silly ad films if he wants to retain his exclusivity. ABCL was a real mistake, and one felt distinctively uncomfortable when he named the corporation after himself."
One person who fought the eponym was Jaya Bachchan. The famed actress, who guillotined her acting career by marrying Bachchan, says: "I had a strong gut feeling against naming the corporation after his name, and I said so. We already had a company, Saraswati, doing television software. I said we should just expand that." It seems it was not so much the superstar who insisted on the name, but the management advisors who were beginning to cluster around him, scenting pristine opportunity. For here was cinema's most saleable star, in India's most mind-bending medium, preparing to put an entire lifetime's peerless legacy on the line. For the star, it was to prove a costly error.
Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan insist, separately, that the corporation was born only because they were very keen to professionalise showbiz in India, thereby protecting and maximising the legitimate rights of performers. (That is in keeping with Bachchan's impeccable record for professionalism in an industry notorious for its complete absence.) It had nothing to do with the need for more money. "I think Amitabh Bachchan was really comfortable," says Jaya. "He had more than enough money and good investments for himself and his family. And in any case his lifestyle is not very extravagant." According to the star and his wife, what bothered him was that with the satellite television invasion, it was only a matter of time before the big global players, with their well-oiled systems, moved in and took over Indian entertainment. The belief was strengthened when on Rupert Murdoch's feelers Bachchan met the tycoon in Los Angeles in 1992. Among other things, he was "shocked to discover that he had a full dossier on me". Soon after he met the top honchos of Time-Warner. Though he doesn't say it, he must have been completely dazzled by the power and possibilities of these multi-media juggernauts. As he watched mortality creep up on his stardom, it must have been a tempting prospect to be reborn in the avatar of an entertainment baron.
The star couple today declares that they were ruined by bad advisors, but at the time these advisors must have been wide-eyed corporate climbers warbling sweet-sounding tunes about the potential of the Amitabh Bachchan name. They were ostensibly selling him good logic. About how 85 per cent of Indian television, and music industry, was film-based; about how a vertical integration of Bach-chan's own film properties and the ones he could generate made for sound economics; about how largescale event management would be the new hot order of the day; about how his very entry into the market would catalyse all talent and business around him. The aims were good—among them a nice balance of commercial and substance cinema—but the execution proved awful. The first year was fine, and the smart marketing of films like Bandit Queen and Bombay, resulted in a profit being posted. The next brought in Miss World, and the corporation began to fall apart. Nothing damaged the Bachchan aura quite as much as photographs showing him desperately attempting damage control in Bangalore as social activists attacked the extravaganza. The defender of the deprived and exploited was now defending some dumb bimbos; and this time it was not in pursuit of justice, but to make, or save, his money.
Three years later most of the corporate whiz kids are gone, leaving a shambles behind. AB Corp has closed down its audio and television arms, has sacked three-fourths of its employees, and is deeply in the red, getting some form of sustenance from the Sahara group, in the form of cash inflow and office space. Jaya feels: "We believed in leaving the professional managers alone to do their job. We made a mistake. We were simply too polite, we didn't assert ourselves enough." Bachchan, on his part, thinks he has to now pay the price. Acting in commercials—which he would rather not do, and was proud of never doing in earlier times—is part of the price. "They help the bottomline," says Bachchan. "I have to be loyal to the investor." Jaya says her husband is a neurotic in this aspect. "He has a constant problem of not letting people down. He's like a schoolboy who's been given his homework and he'll do it no matter what. He's basically a boy scout." In other words, the diligent son, steady husband and fond father will play conscientious businessman and allow himself to be dragged through such commercial garbage dumps as may prove necessary. But what about his fans? What about their deep emotional investment in him? Shrugs Bachchan: "I hope 10 years down the line people will be more liberal and kind."
The problem really is that Bachchan, and everyone else, has unqueryingly bought a simplistic lie. The superstar has been shot numb by the tranquilliser of idiot jargon. The faceless, and soulless, money managers who gathered around him in the early nineties convinced him that he was a "brand". That Amitabh Bachchan was a "brand". In a tragic twist, too close to the flesh-and-blood Bachchan, they assumed that the Bachchan of the screen was a different entity: up there only to be exploited by the real one. The star himself may also have been guilty of this delusion. All of them erred on two crucial counts.
One, in a medium that has intrinsic magic, in a country where cinema has a distinct, palpable reality, Bachchan was no half-wit brand, such as sell soaps and tea. For simply too many people, if not all, he was the supreme embodiment of life's most incredible possibilities. He could rouse you to anger, move you to tears, and dissolve you in smiles as consummately and completely as any real life experience. It was the fantasy trade millions around the country made every day, as they paid up at theatres to live out a heightened and intensified life-cycle in three short hours. Bachchan was not a brand. Bachchan was magic. Like the gibberish nursery rhymes we first learn as children, and are then moved by forever. Like the stars, which we all know to be an amalgamation of gases, at which we peer in eternal romance.
The second mistake Bachchan and his money managers made was to assume that the real Bachchan could exploit the one on the screen. The truth is that the only real Bachchan that existed was the one on the screen. The other one was merely a conduit, a shadow-warrior, for him. The shadow-warrior had behaved impeccably for years, staying behind-the-scenes, conducting himself with quiet dignity, not speaking out of turn, allowing the real one, the one on the screen, to get on with his job and flourish. (In contrast, witness superstars like Rajesh Khanna and Vinod Khanna whose out-of-screen shenanigans badly dented their on-screen lives.) Even when the shadow-warrior became aggressive, as in Bachchan's foray into politics, the people were willing to treat him as an extension of the real one, for he was there basically to serve the people, the eternal agenda of the real one. No one was to feel the sheer potency, and realness, of this character more than veteran leader Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna, who could never have dreamt he would ever be thrashed in an election by nearly 300,000 votes. The people would forgive the shadow-warrior all the charges of Bofors and Fairfax, for they were essentially unproven vindictiveness against a man who lived his life on a white charger. But what could be done when the shadow-warrior became a deviant? Selling cold drinks, selling television sets, selling beauty pageants, the shadow-warrior began to make the man on the white charger look increasingly like a groom on a flea-ridden horse, cadging for dowry.
And this is where the real crunch has come. Bachchan has been hurt in the movies. His saleability as a superstar is being called into question. Unthinkably, his charisma is up for examination. It's not that his films have been flop-ping abysmally, or his rates falling. Far from it. He is still at Rs 3 crore a film, easily the highest paid star in the business, and even the much-reviled Major Saab enjoyed a huge opening week, bringing in an 84 per cent collection. The problem is that in the second week it was already climbing down to 55-60 per cent, and falling. The problem is that he is failing by his own impossible standards.He now wants to be judged along with the others, but he forfeit his claim to ordinariness long ago. In his territory he fails if he does not succeed wildly. Tendulkar cannot make 40 runs and think he has done his bit, as perhaps could Jadeja.
Theories abound. There are those who feel that as time and trends have changed, Bachchan, frozen in his seventies image, has been an inevitable victim. Scriptwriter and lyricist Javed Akhtar, one of the key creators of the angry Bachchan persona, thinks that the anti-establishment, hard-hitting, bitter, raw cinema of those years has lived its course. "People have seen so much gore and ugliness in the eighties that they are now looking for a balm. They want to see feel-good films, soft, sweet cinema."
BACHCHAN is not unaware of all this. Reclining on his sofa chair in his plush office, a high-collared kurta, a la Dev Anand, concealing the first ravages of age, he is wrestling with adversaries he can neither see nor touch, the passage of time and of trends. "I am struggling to slot myself," he says. "I've accepted the fact that I can no longer do young romancing roles. I have to play something commensurate with my age. I would be very happy doing an important character role." This is a suggestion that is being constantly mooted by observers and writers. The truth of the matter is that even his latest film Major Saab shows that Amitabh Bachchan can never be anything but the central protagonist of a film. His screen presence is so large, so electric and so overpowering that it immediately dwarfs everyone else. The skin may have sagged, the body may have lost its spring, but those twin virtues, that matchless baritone and those articulate eyes, are still dry gunpowder, ready to explode at a touch. He remains a consummate artiste, incapable of a false note. It's not difficult to imagine all the jumping, baring, reigning Khans of Bollywood being carelessly massacred by him in any cinematic encounter.
Thequestion, it is clear, is not about character roles or his abilities, but that he seems to have lost all discernment. Says comedian Mehmood, who directed him in one of his first films, Bombay to Goa: "Nobody can match him even now but he is selecting all the wrong roles. He must take a director who will direct him, not the likes of Mehul Kumar and Tinnu Anand." Javed feels the bad choices may be because "he is not enjoying acting anymore. His style has changed over the last 10 years. He no longer talks to the people but at them." Naseer says: "The greatest tragedy is he's lost the quality of authenticity that he brought to the silliest of movies." Plus these days there are the tacky repetitions of set routines of comedy, vengeance and dance that he once delivered masterfully. Is all this a sign that he is beginning to parody himself, as many great actors have done towards the end of their careers? That would be terrible, for as Naseer says, "There's never been a better actor in Hindi cinema. In fact, he's perhaps the only actor in the world who's better than the films he's acted in."
On this, the question of his exceptional talent, there is complete unanimity. The problem is his image. It is, as Shyam Benegal says, "the iron mask in which is trapped both his success and failure". The image is so powerful, so seductive, even for the man himself, that it has steadily slid him down the chute of increasingly bad cinema. Hrishikesh Mukherjee agrees that the image has now fallen prey to the law of diminishing returns."Filmmakers are still bogged down by Bachchan's earlier films. What they need to do is give him a new role, create a new image for him. Makeup and a beard do not change an actor, characteri-sation does. I feel sad that he has not worked with Gulzar, Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal because these are people who would have utilised his talent as an artiste and not his popular image."