Tuesday, 8 November 2011


Amitabh Bachchan ... eulogies have been written ... paeans have been sung ... columns have been filled ... about the man, the aura and his stardom. Here are my two cents worth.

Undoubtedly, there never has been a superstar like Bachchan  ... someone who was a complete package ... who could sing, act, dance, do comedy, was tall, brooding  ... and though that never is a consideration in India ... could act too.

The Superstar face off in 'Namak Haram'
There were other superstars before and after the Big B ... Rajesh Khanna being one of them. Even as a kid, I remember watching the Babumoshay scene in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s ‘Anand’ eventually followed by a superstar kind of face off in ‘Namak Haram’ As is well documented now, Amitabh won that battle.

Of all the superstars in the annals of Indian cinema, I have always believed that Amitabh Bachchan is probably the only actor who deserved it as much as he did. But then, he was not really a superstar because he was the best at everything he was supposed to do on screen ... probably the same way that a Dhirubhai Ambani was never top of his class.

Mr. B, I believe, was like that kid, who always stood second or third in school ... but the difference being that he was second or third at almost anything and everything there was to do as an Indian actor, unlike most other actors who were the best at a thing or two or who were really good at a lot of things and really bad at some key stuff that denied them superstardom. Let me explain.

I have always rated Naseeruddin Shah as the Best actor of the 70’s and the 80’s. As a struggling actor, he was truly world class. He looked and played the part like no other actor of his times. His blind act in ‘Sparsh’ was probably better than Pacino’s ‘Scent of a Woman’. He is the only actor who ever played a genuine Parsi in the sublime ‘Pestonjee’. The madness in ‘Junoon’, the buffoonery in ‘Jaaney Bhi Do Yaaron’, the anger in ‘Albert pinto ko Gussa kyun aataa hain?’, the innocent chawl act in ‘Katha’ and the drunken cussing in ‘Mandi’, are all class acts from an actor par excellence. But big time commercial success always eluded Naseer saab. He, unfortunately, never saw stardom the way Amitabh Bachchan did ... The major difference, I have felt, between the two was that Mr. Bachchan, unlike Naseer saab, was very clearly commercial in his intent as an actor. What I mean is this.

Naseer saab probably studied real people and portrayed them as real as he could. Mr. Bachchan did just the opposite. He studied real people and made them unreal on screen ... rather aspirational and loveable. The drunkard Anthony in ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’ was actually a neighbour of the Director Manmohan Desai in Girgaum. Now who really likes a drunk who rolls around in the gutters or vomits on the roads? Nobody in that chawl in Girgaum must have viewed Anthony the way Bachchan and Desai did ... completely lovable and strangely aspirational. The dock worker in ‘Deewar’, the revenge driven businessman in ‘Trishul, the street singer in ‘Don’, the fugitive in ‘Faraar’ are all iconic characters but there is one common thread between them. They are all unreal, mouth cool lines and are all larger than life ... making them clearly aspirational.

Mr. Bachchan did actually try his hand at real characters too like in ‘Anand’, ‘Reshma aur Shera’, ‘Mili’, ‘Saudagar’ and ‘Manzil’ but none of them are as revered and remembered as an Anthony or a Vijay.

That is probably the difference between the star commercial actors and directors. The bigger stars realise one fact about the audience, that most times, to be a big commercial star, it all has to be more aspirational than real. Mr. Bachchan probably had those opportunities far more and probably a more commercial understanding of an audience than a Naseer saab and it all showed in the films they did.

A still from Shyam Benegal's 'Mandi'
The difference is apparent in the drunken acts of Naseer saab in ‘Mandi’ and the Anthony in ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’. Both are class acts by two of the most wonderful performers to hit the Indian screen. To my mind, these two are not comparable. Naseer saab’s drunken rant to Shabana Azmi is one of the finest natural performances ever, while Mr. Bachchan’s act is one of the finest over the top funny acts. I have never laughed as much as a kid, as I watched Mr. Bachchan’s drunk act in front of the mirror ... These are not comparable solely because they are not interchangeable to begin with. It is probably a reflection on our audience that only one of them would sell the tickets.

Mr. Bachchan was never considered a great dancer either. His initial dancing years were mostly forgettable. I remember seeing an interview of the legendary Mehmood. Mr. Mehmood had cast the tall and gawky looking Bachchan in his iconic film ‘Bombay to Goa’. Mr. Bachchan was to dance to the song’ Dekha naa ... hai rey sochaa naa ...” As per Mr. Mehmood, dancing was sheer horror for Mr. Bachchan and he even broke down to the extent that he asked Mehmood to replace him. Mr. Mehmood, however, asked him to take a break and return the next day.

The next day, it was a different Mr. Bachchan. He was more uninhibited and seemed to enjoy the process far more. That, probably was a defining moment for Mr. Bachchan when he let his body just let go. In that one night, Mr. B had climbed the learning curve a bit more till he finally danced to wonderful numbers in ‘Kaalia’, ‘Satte pe Satta’ and culminating in that pulsating ‘Jhumma Chumma de de’ in ‘Hum’. Mr. B never danced better than that ever.

But if one has to compare dancing talent or just watching an actor twist his body on screen ... did anyone ever dance like Shammi Kapoor on the Indian screen? Shammi Kapoor was on the rounder side but when he danced, he was a delight to watch. The eighties saw Mithun Chakravarthy with a trademark dancing style closely followed by Govinda. Mithun was also an amazing actor. It is difficult to believe that ‘Mrigaya’ was Mithunda’s first film and he has won three National awards since. Dada could be both loud and subtle at the same time. That is a very important aspect of being a star actor. That is where a natural actor like Balraj Sahni failed. His loudness never had the same impact as that of a Bachchan or a Mithun.

Mithunda could have been the next superstar but the classes never really took to him. Even at his peak, he was ‘The Poor Man’s Amitabh’ like Govinda in his initial years was ‘The Poor Man’s Mithun’. Amitabh’s charisma, however, transcended all boundaries of class. Most of these actors could carry off a bright red coloured banian but they found it very difficult to simultaneously be acceptable in a designer suit. Bachchan, on the other hand, when he wore a suit, looked like he deserved to wear one. In the earlier world of the single screens, Amitabh, Dharmendra and Vinod Khanna were the few star actors who could carry off both worlds in terms of look.

That brings it to one of my favourite actors ... Vinod Khanna. There never has been a better looker than Mr. Khanna. For somebody to start off as a villain in ‘Mera Gaon mera Desh’, he almost came close to overtaking the Bachchan mania.

But Mr. Khanna never really seemed very comfortable with the song and dance routine. For a mainstream commercial actor, he seemed to have a kind of serious disposition that no other actor of his time had. I remember watching films like ‘Nehle pe Dehla’, ‘Parvarish’ and even ‘The Burning Train’. He seemed like someone who commanded respect inspite of the over the top cinema he did. Somehow the more lasting memory I have of Mr. Khanna is in films like ‘Imtihan’, ‘Shaque’ and ‘Achanak’... all semi-art films, the kinds where one would expect a Naseeruddin Shah, but strangely, he seemed to fit the groove much better.  In those films, he seemed like an actor who just didn’t care about the Box office anymore. That probably was the kind of person he was ... to have quit at the top of his career to live the life of an ascetic on the Osho farm ... now that needs character.

But then, what was it about Mr. B that got him to where he did? Having said that there was always somebody who could perform some performing aspect as an Indian actor better than Mr. B, so it is a paradox that Mr. B became the superstar. 

There definitely, were actors who could dance, act, sing and even had a better voice than him. But none, however was a complete package. In entirety, no one actor could act, dance, look good, do action, comedy, emote, be foolish on screen and yet be completely acceptable to both the masses and the classes as the Big B would be.

I don’t know Mr.B or his thought process but feel that the one night he must have spent ruminating on his failure as a dancer on the sets of ‘Bombay to Goa’ must have been a key step in the process to becoming the Superstar. To me, ‘Dekha naa ...’ is an amazingly uninhibited performance. Mr. Bachchan was also probably more conscious of the learning curve than most other actors of any time. What he didn’t have in talent, he replaced it with grace and style. The song ‘Dilbar mere’ from Satte pe Satta’ and ‘Tum saath ho jab apne’ from ‘Kaalia’ have him do ballroom dance moves, with irrefutable class.

Mr. Bachchan stylised almost everything he did. The way he walked, talked, sang ... it was all deliberate and probably thought over. Nobody ever held a gun as casually as Mr. Bachchan did, yet there was something menacing about the way he held it. Javed Akhtar once said that about Mr. Bachchan that when Amitabh held the gun, he seemed like someone to be taken very seriously but when he sees some of the current actors hold the gun, he feels like telling them, “Son ... be careful ... it might just go off”

Bachchan, to my mind, stays the epitome of style on screen. Most actors confuse style with clothes , accessories and other superficial fashion statements ... but style is more in the mind than anywhere else. It is how others view you over generations. The clothes and the shoes that Amitabh Bachchan wore on screen may be out of fashion decades ago ... but the one thing that will never go out of fashion is the way he held a gun. There is one other thing that the Big B did that will probably stay unmatched on screen ... RUN.

Fact is no other actor ran on screen like Vijay did.

Running is probably such a miniscule part of being an actor but did anyone ever run like Mr. Bachchan on screen? When Mr. Bachchan ran on screen, it was a cinematic moment akin to Clint Eastwood in a western face off or Matt Damon solving that arithmetic problem on the notice board in ‘Goodwill Hunting’. It was that cool.

The final chase sequence in Deewar is imprinted in my memory as much for the drama between two brothers as much for Mr. Bachchan’s graceful long strides as he tries to escape the diligent cop Ravi, the tail of his coat flying in graceful rhythm ... making it aspirational for every guy sitting in the audience to someday escape the cops, running like Vijay.

Did Mr. Bachchan ever run like that in all those school races a kid? I wouldn’t think so. Mr. Bachchan’s long lasting stardom has probably been in his ability to comprehend the learning curve faster than most and to be finicky about every small thing that the audience will see on screen and possibly applaud. The way the hands moved in the song in ‘Kaalia’ or the rhythmic running in ‘Deewar’ are probably all a part of the larger aspect of how he would have himself liked to see a star on screen. He, I guess, was somebody who got that opportunity to be that star and he probably adapted his screen persona to things he would applaud on screen himself.

Today, a lot of actors working in the Hindi film industry lack that old world charm for which we went to the cinemas. It is, however, available in large doses in the South. Probably, that is why one has larger than life stars in the South. The more recent Salman Khan phenomena is largely on the backs of the south Indian Robinhood kind of cinema, fairly simple and mostly star driven ... the kind that will only work with a very big star.

It was the same with Mr. Bachchan, yet the superstardom of the Big B is largely unrivalled. I am sure most actors would love to see that kind of adulation, but they may have one question to ask of themselves.

“I may be faster than a PT Usha ... but, talent apart ... can I run like a Bachchan?”


  1. No way you can say that Rajesh was inferior in Namak haraam. That means you did not understand the role at all sir.

  2. Rajesh Khanna was inferior in Namak Haraam? Don't believe that nor have I said that to begin with. It was the early 70s and 'Zanjeer' had just released. What I mean is that it was a superstar face off ... meaning the decline of superstardom for Rajesh Khanna and the rise for the Big B and 'Namak Haraam' brought them together at that crucial juncture in their careers. Eventually Amitabh Bachchan did win the superstar race. It has nothing to do with the film. Then Rajesh Khanna was the bigger star and actually had the author backed role in 'Namak Haraam'. Rajesh Khanna has all the songs, has a heroine, the better lines and also the audience's sympathy when he dies in the end. Bachchan is merely in a strong supporting role (albeit in a very strong one) in 'Namak Haraam'. It is one of my favourite films. Both, Bachchan and Khanna put in terrific performances, cheers

  3. Its more of choice...Naseeruddin Shah or Vinod Khanna could have done movies which could make them commercially successful actors...but they made their choice and so did Amitabh Bachchan...I am sure the same story applies to Directors as well...Right