My (maternal) grandmother was the first Amitabh Bachchan fan in the family.
When India was infatuated with Rajesh Khanna, she saw Bachchan in a magazine and paid him the ultimate compliment in her book. "Wish I get a son-in-law like him", she said. This was around Anand and the angry police inspector of Zanjeer still 24 issues of Stardust away. Her daughters and nieces had laughed at her poor taste.
A Quick Aside: Sometime in the late 80s, we were watching a TV serial called Circus and she perked up at the sight of the bushy-haired hero. "What a smart boy. Shonabhai (that's her name for me), you should get your trousers stitched like his." Yes, she would have been Yash Chopra if she had been in Bollywood. I am getting her to see a Ranbir Kapoor film soon enough.
My father was the family’s second Amitabh Bachchan fan. One Sunday afternoon in 1975, he gave up his siesta and asked my mother to accompany him to watch a new film called Deewaar. I never found out what prompted him to do so but for his entire life, the discussion of his favourite movies started and ended with only one line - "Main aaj bhi phneke hue paise nahin uthata..."
I was the Johnny-come-lately to the Amitabh Bachchan party.
Born in 1974, Bachchan's best films happened and his phenomenon unfolded when I was a toddler. The famous India Today cover story that called him the 'One Man Industry' happened before I could read properly. When Manmohan Desai called him a 'Halley's Comet' and ranked him ‘Nos. 1 to 10’, it was before I could devour film magazines on my own.
When I was growing up, stories about Bachchan and his films were all around me.
My father told me about the searing intensity of Deewaar. My mother told me how tickets to his movies sold 'in black' at astronomical prices. Elder friends told me about loose change swept off cinema floors. I remember hearing that he charged Rs 70 lakhs per film and trying to write the figure in numerals.
We spent our summer vacations at my grandparents’ place in Dibrugarh, a town in Assam. My theatre experiences of watching Amitabh Bachchan started there when I was an infant. A manservant used to take me to watch Sholay while pretending that he was taking me for an evening walk. We watched the film daily in Jyotsna theatre, where the usher benevolently allowed him and his Munna-babu inside day after day.
I was not taken for Muqaddar Ka Sikandar but I cried so much that my grandfather took pity on me and we entered the theatre when Zohra was dying in Sikandar's arms. Because I got scared by the first scenes of The Great Gambler and forced my mother to take me home half-way through the film, she ditched me for Shaan. And consoled me by saying it was really bad.
Then, he died.
My grandmother came back from her evening walk and flatly announced "Amitabh Bachchan mara gechhen". I was just beginning to like him. I hadn't watched too many films. I remember Yaraana and Barsaat Ki Ek Raat. An EP record of Mr Natwarlal was my staple afternoon entertainment. Any actor who could sing so nicely for children had to be a nice guy.
And here, he was dead.
A picture in Sunday magazine showed him slumped on a chair immediately after the accident. That magazine and many others recounted his many achievements, his dogged determination, his rise to stardom. They were all premature obituaries of India's biggest superstar. Or maybe that's when they coined a new term – Megastar. I became an avowed Bachchan fan because I got to see his entire life's magic capsuled into a few pages.
I always feel Amitabh Bachchan the human being died in that accident and Big B the Superstar was born. Because the films that came just after that were really bad and would have got hooted out of the theatres if they starred anybody else. The objective of those films was to cash in on Bachchan (without script or novelty) but they raised his legend to the levels of our mythology.
The shooting scene in Coolie, where he collapsed magnificently atop the minarets of Haji Ali. The meaningless triple role of Mahaan. The extended guest appearance of Andhaa Kaanoon. The trigger-happy Chief Minister in Inquilaab. These were epic roles that were like all the ten avatars of Vishnu rolled into one. He did action, emotion, comedy, romance, song, dance, preservation, destruction all in one go and almost not pausing for breath.
By the time he did his first superhero film (where he wore a black leather costume, embellished by a salt-and-pepper beard and a strange arm-guard made of chains), his position in the pantheon of Indian gods was guaranteed. For a long time, the person I hated most in this world was a friend's innocent elder brother – whose only crime was to have watched Shahenshah on the first day, first show.
In 1984, Bachchan stood for election and defeated a former UP Chief Minister on his home turf. I remember his victory announcement during a soporific bulletin on Doordarshan. My interest in that election began when he announced his candidature and ended with that bulletin. HN Bahuguna – stung by this betrayal – famously told his constituency that they had abandoned him for a nach-gaana wala. You were up against a Superman, sir.
More accurately, Supremo.
A comic book series started with Bachchan having a super-hero alter-ego. The book I had was about a plane full of children getting hijacked. Amitabh Bachchan the actor dashed out of his makeup van, flew down to his island hideaway with his falcon Shaheen and dolphin Sona, morphed into Supremo and saved the day. I cannot think of too many film stars getting their own comic books.
Around then, an honest man called VP Singh started saying Amitabh Bachchan ‘ne paisa khaya hain’. The allegations were quite vague but every newspaper or magazine I picked up seemed to have some new 'angle' of his involvement. Everybody was convinced of his guilt. I was not. It is strange that without any fact to back me up, I was convinced of his innocence. How can Vijay do anything wrong?
Between 1987 and 1992, I put together a scrapbook of his pictures cut out from newspapers and magazines and lovingly pasted on multi-coloured pages. I remember thinking of that book as my shrine. I had accepted that my favourite actor would be hounded out of the industry and probably thrown into jail. When the Prime Minister decides a man is guilty, what chance does he have? That was my memento.
But I was used to seeing normal men. Superheroes did not give up. Just like he took bullets on his chest and still managed to throw villains off skyscrapers, he took on the press, the political system and the Prime Minister in a hugely unequal battle. I found it extremely touching that he had ignored the allegations and decided to fight back only when his father seemed shaken by it.
Around then, several new actors staked claim to the No. 1 spot and film magazines started putting them on covers. Jackie Shroff was the first contender but when Allah Rakha (originally planned with Bachchan) flopped, he receded. Anil Kapoor made a bid with a slew of successes like Tezaab, Ram Lakhan and Parinda but when his bad films flopped, people realised he was an excellent actor but not the inheritor.
The true mark of Bachchan's talent that distinguished him from Jackie, Anil, Mithun, SRK, Aamir, Hrithik or just about anybody else was that none of these stars could ever salvage a bad film. Bachchan could. And Bachchan did.
The biggest contradiction of my fandom is that I dislike most of Bachchan's films. An overwhelming majority of his films are very bad and he is the only flawless thing in them.
SRK delivered Baazigar and Darr but when the formula collapsed (Anjaam), so did he. Aamir Khan broke records with JJWS but couldn't prop up Mela. Hrithik reached an extreme where he cannot deliver with anyone other than his father. Post-Coolie, Amitabh Bachchan did Sharaabi, Inquilaab, Aakhree Raasta, Mard, Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi and Shahenshah. Except for Aakhree Raasta, all of them were bad and yet broke every record that there was.
Amitabh Bachchan’s biggest success was that fact that he not only made utterly crappy movies bearable, he made them memorable. If you see films like Desh Premee today, it will be difficult not to cringe. But you cannot fault Bachchan's performances in any of those. He brought the right mix of drama and restraint to the roles to make you forget the remote when they play on TV even now.
I have done several crazy things to watch the films of Amitabh Bachchan. I have heard the dialogue cassette of Agneepath so many times that it tore. I was almost lathi-charged before Hum. I left an end-term exam unfinished to be on time for Indrajeet’s matinee show. I walked out of a meeting with a prospective bride to watch Aks. I watched two successive shows of Ek Ajnabee - alone.
Though the craziest thing was to have done first day viewings of his post-1992 movies. Mrityudaata, Insaaniyat, Major Saab, Suryavansham, Kohraam, Lal Badshah. They were all stupendously bad. In Mrityudaata, there was a scene in which he kicked a villain off the third floor and he landed straight into an oven (tandoor?), thus burning to cinders. You should have seen how amazingly he performed the pre-fight diatribe in that scene.
I started to underestimate him again and wished that 'father' roles be written for him (but not painful ones like Mohabbatein) when he changed the screen I was used to seeing him on. For the very first episode of KBC, I rushed over to a colleague's house since it was closer from office to watch Bachchan make a graceful turn and give away crores of rupees to simple, everyday people.
He – with KBC – became to TV what he was to the box-office all his life: the benchmark. Even today, when Salman does his spontaneous tomfoolery or Aamir does his orchestrated sentimentality, newspapers dig out the ratings of KBC and pronounce what I knew all along – the newer ones don't quite match up. In fact, he sometimes gets excited by this and rattles off the numbers himself (which is quite disconcerting).
I watch KBC for the interactions. The warmth with which he treats contestants is wonderful beyond words. My favourite moment was when a lady returned for her second episode and Bachchan asked if she thought about the money she had won. I didn’t think about the money, she said. “Toh phir aapne kya socha?” “Aap ke baare mein…”, the lady giggled. A 60+ year old blushing on national television? Priceless.
Post-KBC, he exploded his repertoire. After one decade of angry-young-man and two decades of angry-young-singing-dancing-romancing-joking-man, he started having fun. Boom, for example. Katrina Kaif's debut that drove Jackie to his maushi's you-know-what had Bachchan playing a Mafia don (romancing Bo Derek) with hysterical WTFness. His Babban act in Ram Gopal Verma Ki Aag is, of course, legendary. Bunty Aur Babli, KANK, Aladin were all brilliant roles in decidedly mediocre films.
Simultaneously, some films focused almost entirely on him. With those, he didn't just hit them out of the park but out of the colony as well. Khakee, Dev, Black, Sarkar, The Last Lear, Nishabd all had such powerhouse performances that it is difficult to imagine all of them came so close together. After decades of being ridiculed as a nach-gaana wala, he showed what heights of acting he could scale.
In the last decade, I have been least regular in watching his films. I watched most of them on TV or DVD with many interruptions. And yet, he manages to catch attention and does not let go. He manages to charm audiences and hard-nosed journalists alike. Arnab Goswami becomes a fawning wimp when he interviews Bachchan. Anupama Chopra giggles like a schoolgirl. Shekhar Gupta smiles indulgently when he is answering.
Funnily, it was never ‘cool’ to be a Bachchan fan. In the 1980s, everybody was one. In the 1990s, nobody was one. In the 2000s, his sincerity seems to have a strange anachronistic tinge to it. His devotion to his online extended family is the antithesis to the use-and-throw policy most cool people adopt. His incessant retweets of praise for Abhishek’s films is deemed desperate. He is just not cool.
And of course, his performances – however legendary – never seem to attract the gushing newer actors get for their ‘method acting’. His effortless sign-language in Black is no match for Barfi. His Paa gets missed in front of a Guzaarish. But I guess I have grown used to having him for myself. Though – for the life of me – I cannot figure who these three million people crowding him on Twitter are!
For me, there are still so many things I want to see him do.
He has to romance Madhuri Dixit.
He has to play Atticus Finch, directed by Anurag Kashyap.
He has to act in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with Rajnikanth.
He has to act in Bridges of Madison County with Sridevi.
He has to act in a film that will wow my son.
He is only seventy, for God's sake.
Inconsequential Trivia: Each paragraph in this post has 70 words.