The ’70s to 70: An unbroken zanjeer

Commerce does not lie. At 70, Amitabh Bachchan is the reason why KBC is among the top 3 shows in the country today. He continues to be the face of many brands, and is among the top brand ambassadors, much in demand from categories as diverse as cement, hair oil and the state of Gujarat. When a brand gets into trouble, he is the first and perhaps the only celebrity who can by virtue of his credibility, re-assure people with a calm sense of authority that things are well. The thing about commerce is that it puts the notion of influence to the harshest test and it is quite remarkable how easily the Big B sails through at a time when his contemporaries have slipped into basking in the gentle sunset of fame.

Commerce does not lie, but the truth that is speaks is at best a crude one. To measure Bachchan’s influence in terms of money might not be entirely like measuring Gandhi’s contribution in terms of khadi sales, but it comes close. For almost fifty years now, he has played a consistent role in the lives of ordinary Indians, always a star, but always something more. Apart from being an iconic and culturally influential superstar, making an effortless transition to being a powerful character actor, he has been a part of the Indian political landscape in a variety of ways – an influential voice on social media, a lover of poetry and a faithful guardian’s of his father’s artistic legacy, a leading purveyor of brands and a host of India’s pre-eminent reality show. His voice is India’s most recognised and imitated one, and his dancing style refuses to die even today in the nightclubs and wedding sangeets across the country.

In his avatar as Vijay, the tormented young man, bitterly disappointed with father figures with feet of clay, and driven by an inner rage that spilled over from his being, he connected with urban India across different social and economic classes. The story of blind fathers, and too-forgiving mothers, of unstated expectations and undelivered promises, of being sandwiched between weightless identities of the past and dispiriting facelessness of the urban present, resonated across the board. Bachchan managed to deliver to the audience a vicarious sense of significance within the reality of their circumstances, making anger the primary sign of a festering sense of individuality.

There have been baritones before on the Indian screen as there have been actors who are tall, but no one has quite managed to use their physicality in quite the same way as he has. Perhaps it has to do with its deployment in the services of the characters he played, in that it was important for Vijay to be effortlessly significant, even as he fought insignificance. At a fundamental level, it helped give more tangible form to the idea of being an individual;Amitabh Bachchan as Vijay echoed the search for a sense of individuality constructed in the here and now, using as material, what one could call one’s own, eschewing the need for inheritances. The twin search for emotional attachment to the past and material detachment in the present is mirrored in Vijay’s relationship with his parents. Physical bearing was in his scheme of things, the estate of an individual, and although Bachchan drew subtly from his upper middle class and literate background, his presence was and always has been first and foremost physical. He burned into the screen inside-out, leaving a trail of smoke behind him;as powerful an absence as a presence.

As the seventies turned into the eighties, and purpose began to evaporate from cinema, we see Bachchan becoming an ersatz version of himself, a crude rip-off from the original design. As his films sought to claw back into the past, even as he visibly aged, it seemed as if an old script was coming to life, where a once-iconic presence fades into meaningless in a way that makes for painful watching. Redemption came in the form of KBC, as he found a new address to relocate to. Physically, the goatee marked the end of an attempt to belong to an earlier generation, and the nature of the show used his commanding presence to create a new sense of purpose. The transition to benevolent father figure from tortured young man freed him from the nowhere-land of pretend belonging and the audience rediscovered his specialness. In his second innings, his films have been marked by a freedom that only self-assured age can bring and he has assayed a wide variety of roles, from the sublime to the jaw-droppingly ridiculous without it making the slightest difference to his image and his relationship with an adoring audience.

Of course, Bachchan’s influence has as much to do with his life as it has to do with his work in films. Having led an extraordinary life, crammed with incident and overflowing with controversy, across many different arenas, one would thought that he would drained us dry, for every possible emotion that could be extracted has been used up by him. He brought a nation to a standstill when he was injured and hovered between life and death, he represented a new hope for politics, only to leave bitter and discredited, he allowed his personal life to be turned into a film, a reality show of a kind that leaves the apparently sensational attempts made today seem tame. He had a deep and intimate relationship with India’s first family which went spectacularly wrong. His business venture threatened to revolutionise entertainment but ended up a giant and embarrassingly public dud. He found solace in the companionship of ‘brother’ Amar Singh for a long time before seemingly discarding him as the wind changed direction. Every few months, some utterance or perceived slight gets him into the headlines, only to give way to the next controversy.

And yet curiously, he rises above his many successes and failures;loyalties and betrayals. It would seem that our need for him both precedes and is unmindful of his actions. Amitabh Bachchan between his real and reel life, has lived all our possible lives and acted out any fantasy that we might have harboured. In him, we can finally see age not as a thinning line, but an aggregation of all that is possible to experience. As a result he has ceased to be defined by his experiences;think of him as a palimpsest on which nothing gets erased, but where nothing new alters what he represents. It is as if all his experiences and controversies have through the twin transformative forces of fame and time, lost their specificity and metamorphosed into a radiant form of energy, a motive force propelled by the fuel of experience.

At 70, then Amitabh Bachchan is embedded in no particular era and is relevant to everything. He operates as a cheerleader for the times, through its good days and bad, and looks to be beyond the reach of time and immune to the vagaries of circumstance. We need him much more than he needs us, and it looks unlikely that that is going to change anytime soon.

TOI Crest 6th October 2012