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Fans and wellwishers of Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan dance outside his house on the occasion of his 80th birthday in Mumbai on October 11, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

The only thing I find missing is the Indian Post & Telegraph issuing a special commemorative stamp to honour him with a special denomination coin to follow in due time. This week, weekend and some days to come, it will be Amitabh Bachchan all over. In media, in cinemas, on television.

Most moviegoers would have learnt of the arrival of Bachchan when producer-director Praksha Mehra’s film “Zanjeer” hit the screens.

The story and dialogue were by the Salim-Javed duo, who were charting a path to success with “Andaz”, “Adhikar”, “Seeta Aur Geeta”, and “Haathi Mere Saathi” to their credit. Probably, not big names enough to lure the veterans who were offered the film, to accept it. The film fell into the lap of a struggling newcomer, Bachchan. “Zanjeer”, when released, went on to become a box office blockbuster.

Amitabh Bachchan Image Credit: AFP

That established Bachchan as star and, the media gave him the title of the angry young man. It established Prakash Mehra as a director to reckon with and Salim- Javed name became a known even outside the film industry.

But, the film’s journey to the silver screen was not easy because, there were no takers for the film.

No distributor was willing to risk on a new actor who had a few flops behind him, already. The producer had to make compromises and sell it to the Bombay circuit distributor at Rs400,000 on outright basis which meant if the film worked, the distributor kept it all.

Hits and flops

Bachchan had featured in a couple of successful film after a line-up of flops. “Anand” was one but, it was a Rajesh Khanna film. “Bombay To Goa”, but it was a film of Mehmood, the legendary comedian, producer, director. “Abhimaan” followed the success of “Zanjeer” but, it was still, a Jaya Bhaduri film. So far, all he had to his credit was “Saat Hindustani” and a bit role in Sunil Dutt’s “Reshma Aur Shera”, besides a few flops like “Parwana”, “Raaste Kaa Pathtar”, “Badhe Haath” etc. However, the films that followed, “Sholay” and “Deewaar” cemented his place.

Despite “Zanjeer”, the reigning superstar was still Rajesh Khanna. That was until “Namak Haraam” released, a film where Khanna and Bachchan played inseparable friends but were actually pitted against each other. Here, Bachchan played a benevolent friend but, at the end of the movie, he got to put his newly acquired angry young man image on display and it became his film. It was an author-backed role for him.

Bachchan had arrived. The Rajesh Khanna era of romance was over. Films like “Dost”, “Roti Kapada Aur Makaan”, “Kasauti”, and “Majboor” kept him consolidating his place. The audience had accepted him. The year 1975 accounted for three Bachchan hits in “Deewaar”, “Chupke Chupke”, and “Sholay”.

In the years that followed, Bachchan kept giving an intermittent hit or two. A flop once in a while did not affect his career. If a film was due for release, posters were put up all over and that was that.

There was no concept of marketing and promotion like it is now. The mainstream media did not even bother with film schedules. And, yet, when a Bachchan film released, the exhibitors made a beeline for the distributor’s office. All cinemas owners wanted a Bachchan film, also all cinemas wanted to make sure the film did not go to the competing cinema in the same town.

In the circuit of CP (Central Province) and UP, a new film opened on a Thursday (as against Friday in rest of the country). Here, the first show opened at 6 in the morning. Whatever the new Bachchan release, the report read the same: “Sir, jitni aaudince cinema ke andar hai, utni hi bahaar hai!” Every film buff wanted to be the first one to watch his film. That was the craze.

'The One Horse Race'

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A fan takes pictures of the photographs of Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan during a presentation organised on the eve of his birthday celebrations in Mumbai on October 10, 2022. (Photo by Sujit JAISWAL / AFP) Image Credit: AFP

Bachchan was given various titles like Megastar and so on. But, the film trade, which never gave titles, also relented and called him “The One Horse Race” and, even further, “A One Man Industry”.

This was the era when the glossy gossip magazines were popular. And, for whatever the reason, Bachchan avoided them as well as the other media. He lived like a recluse in an industry where showmanship and overstating were the norm. No media had access to him. I think that created a kind of extra mysticism about him and helped propel his career.

It was in 1982, when Bachchan met with an accident while shooting for Manmohan Desai’s film, “Coolie”. He was on his deathbed. He was never in contact with his audience nor the fans so far. But, all of India was praying for him while he was lying unconscious, fighting with, his seemingly inevitable death. But, the fans he was never aware of, in fact, all of India, was praying for his recovery.

Temples, churches, dargahs were where the people flocked to pray for him. It worked. Bachchan had fought with death. He emerged from his injury with a status bigger than ever before. He was the people’s man. Not because of his films, but as an individual. The persona that he had built over the years with his line-up of successful films that had entertained the masses. Over a period, he regained his health and was back working. For posterity, Manmohan Desai froze the scene where Bachchan was hurt in the film.

Then, there comes a time when age catches up. Bachchan gracefully accepted character roles. In Padmalaya Studio’s “Sooryavansham”, he played both father and son. But, with “Mohabbattein”, his phase as the character actor began and he has been going on ever since. He, probably, will end up setting a record for doing more films in his later years than he did earlier. Even now, he has 10 films at various stages of production.

Thing is, every filmmaker wants to work with Bachchan at least once! While Manmohan Desai and other makers assigned him action roles, Bachchan had also been loved in “Silsila”, “Kabhi Kabhie”, “Chupkke Chupke”, “Mili”, “Do Anjaane”, and so which were either love stories or ones where the action was incidental.

Bachchan was also lured into politics by his friend, the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. He fought general elections from his hometown, Allahabad, and won by defeating local heavyweight, H.N. Bahuguna, by a huge margin. Realising that he was not cut out for politics, he gave up on it.

Today, Bachchan also promotes dozens of consumer products as a brand ambassador. But, along with these commercial assignments, he also helps promote any and every government programme with a cause whenever asked to. And, that he does free of charge as his duty to the nation and to the people.

Bachchan made some missteps when he launched Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd (ABCL), with future plans to go public and raise more money. After all, once a film man, always a film man. With ABCL, he could always make films which he wanted to and get into other activities related to the entertainment business.

ABCL got into film production successfully with first release, “Tere Mere Sapne”. It got into beauty pageants, talent hunts and so on. However, the venture was a disaster faced with bankruptcy proceedings. But Bachchan managed to avoid bankruptcy.

This was what we Indians justify as a bad phase. Looked like Bachchan had just got over it. Because, soon, his new phase was taking off with the television show, “Kaun Banega Crorepati” (KBC), followed by flood of offers for films and endorsements. He adjusted to working with the new and younger generation and, it did not seem to matter if the film had commercial potential or not.

Devoted to movies

Irrfan Khan in 'Piku'
'Piku' Image Credit: Supplied

The films he did were totally in contrast to films which made him the megastar in 1970 and 80s. Films like “Cheeni Kum”, “Pink”, “Piku”, “Pa” were nothing like what you would imagine Bachchan doing! But, he carried off most of them with elan.

Bachchan celebrates eighth decades of his life of which almost 55 devoted to the entertainment industry. He has been a singer, performed stage shows in various countries, a comedian, a villain, father, grandfather all that on screen. Yet, you can’t mould him in an image any more. He is beyond that. And, if one has seen him during 1970s, a man, keeping distance from rest of the film industry, fellow stars, socialising, and media limelight, this today is not the same Amitabh Bachchan. He is now a people’s man.

Bachchan’s new persona emerged post his 1982 near fatal injury. He opened up to all. The media (I happened to be the first one to interview him), the fans (as he appeared at the gate of his bungalow to greet hundreds of fans and well-wishers who gathered there every evening. (this ritual became once a week, later on). He even started communicating with his followers through a blog (he called them the extended family). This was an all-new Amitabh Bachchan. The Bachchan when you watch on the KBC programme on TV, he emerges as more human than anybody else. A caring host, offers a glass of water to a contestant, offering face tissues and even wiping the tears of a nervous contestant. His banter with them is usually delightfully witty.

What has he not seen or been through? Struggle to get into films, success like no one has ever seen, an accident that almost spelt the end for him, foray into politics and disillusionment, financial disaster. Then leaving it all behind to bounce back with ever more riches, fame, and adulation from the masses.

But, Bachchan had arrived. Like no other star had. He went on to consolidate his grips so much that other stars had to agree to play second and third fiddle in his films.