Amitabh Bachchan’s Greatest Contribution - Redefining the Conventional Hindi Hero
The Dadasaheb Phalke Award
The news of Amitabh Bachchan having been conferred the National Award has spread like wildfire across the media. But no one seems surprised because we had seen it coming not now but perhaps some time before this. On November 7 this year, the actor will be celebrating the golden jubilee of his tenure in Hindi cinema which marks a record in itself.
The award is justified through his rich contribution to Indian cinema firstly in terms of durability in an industry known for its fragile lifeline and also for the fluid loyalties among the Indian audience. These two are not the only justifications for the award. Add to this the number of films he has worked in, the milestone performances among them, his versatility as an actor, his adaptation to the changing demands of cinema to his ageing factor and most importantly, his innovative redefining of the conventional hero of Hindi cinema dominated by romance, family values, melodrama, villainy and song-dance numbers that placed the Indian audience in its comfort zone for a long, long time.
Amitabh Bachchan’s greatest contribution to Indian cinema has been his redefining of the conventional Hindi hero in its varied forms represented by Ashok Kumar followed by the golden trio of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand. The 1970s saw the rise of an actor who defined, shaped and dictated the terms of the character he portrayed. His name is Amitabh Bachchan. The swashbuckling hero, a direct plagiarisation from Hollywood was popular among the Indian audience. Such swashbuckling however, was positive. It was the hero who epitomized goodness as he fought against and destroyed evil to restore peace and love in a restive world. Amitabh Bachchan with his image of the convoluted anti-hero changed the image of the hero in Hindi mainstream cinema. In Deewar, directed by Yash Chopra, in a fictionalized characterization drawn from the real life story of Haji Mastaan, an underworld don, he stood the conventional image of the Hindi film hero on its head. In Ramesh Sippy’s Shakti, lesser known than the hot Sholay, Bachchan, along with Dilip Kumar, gave a unique perspective to the father-son relationship in Hindi cinema though, in multiple layers, it also charted the story of a lonely young man who embraced negative values in the misconception that his father did not love him or want him.
Despite his illustrious family background, Bachchan rose from super commercial flops like Pehli Nazar and Bansi Aur Birju. He was hardly noticed in Sunil Dutt’s Reshma Aur Shera. But those who saw K.A. Abbas’s Saat Hindustani will remember the lanky guy with those mesmerising eyes who crawled across the wire fence to be shot down. Not to give up the fight, the tall, dark and not-at-all handsome young man with the golden honey voice continued the uphill climb till Prakash Mehra picked him up for Zanzeer that began the Bachchan image of the angry-young-man-turned-underdog.
The hero of Deewar and Amitabh Bachchan, the actor who played this hero, together marked a turning point in re-defining the image of the hero. Dr. Kishore Valicha rightly comments: “He (Amitabh Bachchan) has created the semblance of the industrial man – a person whose commitment is to himself, and whose passions and urges are calculated and fierce. He gives the impression of a sophisticated, fully-charged machine that mobilizes its resources only when necessary. His cremation of his mother in Trishul is an instance of highly measured and direct emotion, which becomes a focal point of purpose.”
The hero, with the rise of the Amitabh Bachchan persona, evolved into a product of his environment. His shifting principles – from honesty to dishonesty (Deewar), from innocence and naiveté to negative wisdom (Adaalat), from forthrightness to brutality (Lawaaris to Muqaddar ka Sikandar) were in keeping with the decaying morals and eroding values of an increasingly corrupt society. The hero as projected, popularized and perpetuated by the Bachchan persona was the unique symbol of kitsch, who sometimes gave the impression of being an Indianised Rambo or Eraser or Terminator, the unique member of a species of humanity where industrialization and modernization underlined the existence of man as a consumer, and also a destroyer of values and of fellow-men. This hero became a machine created by his predecessors and was no longer the creator who could manipulate the cinema-machine and the audience-psyche himself.
In Cinema and Society – A Search for Meaning in a New Genre (India International Centre Quarterly on Indian Popular Cinema – Myth, Meaning and Metaphor), Siddharth Basu, Sanjay Kak and Pradip Kishen mention 11 films with heroes who are outsiders in society and who inhabit the criminal fringes of society. These films were released in the 1970s. They are – Don, Amar Akbar Anthony, Muqaddar ka Sikandar, Mr.Natwarlal, Qurbani, Zanzeer, Deewar, Sholay, Dostana, Ram Balram and Shaan. Almost every film features Bachchan. The hero in these films and in ones that followed through the 1980s possesses supernormal physical strength. Kak, Basu and Kishen position these films in the context of the prevailing political environment. For some time during this phase, Emergency was imposed in the country, which saw the rise of Sanjay Gandhi, the rise and fall of the Janata Government, and Mrs. Gandhi’s return to power in 1980. The message in these films was based on the then-existing environment in which social and political institutions had failed to sustain stability. Therefore, the situation demanded a leadership that would be authoritarian, strong and almost absolute in its power.
Amitabh Bachchan is not just an actor. He has broken all endorsement records for film stars across the world as he has endorsed for 60-odd products in the market that covers everything from hajmi golis (tiny digestive sour-sweet balls) to diamond jewellery. He is the best ever reality show anchor Indian television has ever produced and the proof of his popularity lies in the many encores of his show Kaun Banega Crorepati.
. He is/was brand ambassador for the State of Gujarat and for UN’s Girl Child Project. He is an institution in the sense that he can be course material in Film Studies. He has risen from grassroots to reach the top, remained there for nearly three decades, quit for five years and came back only to fail miserably when the audience rejected his comeback films and distributors committed suicide. But he rose again like a Phoenix from his ashes and is till today, in great demand with producers queuing up at his office, directors chasing him with film scripts and distributors ready to make him walk the red carpet to premieres and curtain raisers.
Bachchan brought respectability to the ageing hero. He gained the most through characters he would never have imagined playing when he was young – Baghban, Ek Ajnabi, Viruddh, Veer Zaraa, Black, Sarkar, Bhootnath, Aks, Mohabbatein, The Last Lear, Family, Bunty Aur Babli, Khaaki, Deewar, Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gum, Kaante, Aankhen and the list keeps growing. Then, turning the clock full circle to show that he is greater than his star image, he played the main role in Paa. He is a 13-year-old boy desperately seeking his father to acknowledge him and reuniting his estranged parents. He is born with Progeria. Progeria, also known as "Hutchinson–Gilford progeria syndrome”, is an extremely rare, severe, genetic condition in which symptoms of ageing are manifest at an early age. At his age and in his precarious condition of health, he sat readily for hours for the painstaking make-up where he could not speak, or open his mouth etc. and the same hours to take it all off. The portrayal fetched him his fourth National Award.