Time to Tone it Down Mr Bachchan!
KOLKATA: I am a self-confessed fan and admirer of Amitabh Bachchan, the star-actor, not the man because I do not know the man. I have interviewed him three times on a one-to-one basis spaced out with some years in between. He came off very well during the interviews even when his name was clouded over with the Bofors shadow and his non-performance as an elected Parliamentarian.
I caught him at his residence in Delhi for an interview when he won the National Award in 1991. Incidentally, the access to the star was made easier by the fact that I too, was a National Awardee for film criticism!
I have rarely reviewed his films because I felt that being an ardent admirer, reviewing his film would unwittingly make me compromise on my objectivity as a journalist. Not that it made any difference to his tremendous popularity across continents, rare for an Indian actor who has not gone out of his way to seek fame or the power that comes of it.
I recall meeting a known Polish journalist at Mannheim in Germany who proudly told me that he had had the good fortune of interviewing the Bachchan for one of the Polish radio stations and he came away with greater awe than he went in with. He informed me how popular Bachchan was even in Poland. This was in 1999.
At Cairo, I discovered, both with shock and surprise that the masses identify “India” with “Amitabh Bachchan” though, since Hindi films were barred in Egypt for 20 years, they had no idea that their star icon had aged and was no longer the tall, dark and handsome star with the golden honey voice. The posters they were selling on the streets displayed huge images of Bachchan as the “angry young man.” Small kids pronounced his name proudly as “Amitabachchan.”
Bachchan has successfully transcended every audiovisual media in India one can imagine and reportedly holds a world record in endorsements of goods and services having endorsed everything from paan masala to chooran to diamond and gold jewellery. He has run one of the most successful game shows on the small screen and has been brand ambassador for God-Alone-Knows how many commodities, services and even the State of Gujarat. He has triumphed over every controversy that dogged his fame and has come out almost unscathed, venerated even with a temple in Kolkata and draws crowds wherever he goes for whatever occasion or event and special security has to be arranged.
However, of late, his National Award for Best Actor for his performance in Piku made me look back on whether he really deserved this award at all because all he did through the film playing a constipated hypochondriac in his seventies was be Amitabh Bachchan. I am sort of convinced that Bachchan is suffering from a severe case of actor burnout. The National Award notwithstanding, he is now only Amitabh Bachchan, the star actor who does not go under the skin of any character he portrays. If you look closely, you will find him playing himself in film after film and yet his star charisma is so strong and powerful that directors chase him even for brief cameos. Many of his films are bombing at the box office but his acting is just the same in every film. His endorsements are a world record and soon, he will hold a world record for his ribbon cutting too. But as a screen actor, he is really a burnout case.
Buddha Hoga Tera Baap (2011), directed by Puri Jagannath is a film he should never have done at all. Much less was the character he portrayed in Shamitabh (2015) directed by R. Balki who also directed him in the very successful Cheeni Kum (2007) because the former was an ill-conceived script and portrayed Bachchan in a performance he did not much care which reflected on the box office failure of the film. In this film, Bachchan belted out a song that goes piddly si baatein seated on a toilet seat using the spray end as a microphone. If the director thought that the toilet as a physical presence almost as a character would raise the status of the toilet itself and the box office future of the film, he was wrong. Why was the song shot inside a toilet when it could have been shot anywhere? In an episode of Comedy Nights with Kapil as a promotional for Shamitabh, both Bachchan and Kapil did the entire show seated on fancy commodes! The price of commodes must have gone up after this show!
Bachchan’s Tagore number ekla cholo re promoted many years ago by Mahatma Gandhi himself played on the soundtrack of Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahani. Never mind the less-than-perfect Bengali enunciation of the lyrics by Bachchan, the film’s box office prospects shot up with this one song. Bit cameos in films like Bol Bachchan and Delhi 6 featured Bachchan probably to boost the box office prospects of films in which his son featured as the hero. But both films bit the dust very unceremoniously and Bachchan’s brief appearance could not save them from floundering.
I saw his brief performance in K.A. Abbas’s Saat Hindustani (1969) as one of the seven “Hindustanis” crawling under the barbed wire fencing and though he hardly had much dialogue, I saw the seeds of a great actor in that small role. He was tall, extremely lanky and almost ugly if you remember him in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand. Son Abhishek is dashingly handsome in comparison. But success is like a magic wand that can make a plain looker like Sourav Ganguly or an actor with imperfect features like Shah Rukh Khan turn into the handsomest men around today. But Amitabh is considered to be the handsomest of them all, never mind the differently stylised and custom-designed wigs he carefully covers his bald pate with and the salt-an-pepper beard that adds to the dignity and class he was born with added on with age and success.
Besides, peer actors around his age are marginalised or almost rendered invisible. There are hardly any character actors of his age who have grown with him though we have talented people around who have called it a day, perhaps because work does not come their way any more. Other character actors who surround him on screen are decades younger, be it Kay Kay Menon, or Boman Irani or Irrfan Khan and others.
I am a great fan of Bachchan. I saying this really must add up to something. You should have seen the crowds gathered to watch him cycling on the fiercely guarded streets of Kolkata when he came here several times for the Piku shoot. He will be 75 this year. He was born in 1941 and the two-year cut off is the media's creation. His pitch of dialogue delivery remains almost the same in every film. The change is only in the appearance and the make-up for which the credit should rightly belong to the costume designer and the make-up man and not to the actor. His dismal debut in the fiction serial Yudh last year directed by Ribhu Dasgupta was a warning to him not to participate in fiction serials that demand continuity in time for shooting, dubbing and location shifts which, with his water-tight schedule, he cannot do justice to.
His last release Wazir (2016) .touted as a thriller and directed by Bejoy Nambiar is the best example of how Bachchan is no longer interested in the film or the character. One will also notice how many relatively new directors are trying to take a piggy-back ride on the Bachchan charisma to establish themselves in Bollywood. His performance in Wazir is terrible to say the least but then, so is the film. Younger actors like Farhan Akhtar and Manav Kaul, basically from theatre, are notches above him in performance.
I am not saying he should call it a day. I am only saying that he should reduce his on-screen appearances a bit and choose his assignments with great care so that he does not dilute his charisma and his talent. He is too over-exposed both on screen and off it. He is too big a person to be ignored or marginalised by reason of age.
It is for Bachchan himself now to call the shots and say “no” even if the money is good and even if a National Award is waiting round the corner. He already has had his share. It is time to make way for others. His burnout is of no consequence to filmmakers who keep chasing him with films and roles that demand only his name in the credits to garner the needed finance. But it does matter a lot to die-hard fans of this great star we have grown up with and learnt to admire, respect and appreciate.