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Guest Times: Being Bachchan – from Amitabh to Shamitabh

Ashish Kaul traces the phenomenon that is Amitabh Bachchan and what makes him tower above all the Rs 100-crore clubs and defy all stereotypes

Mumbai | February 5, 2015


At the core of Indian entertainment’s DNA is an icon whose formula is unrivalled. Over 40 years of unchallenged supremacy on the celluloid and another 14 glorious years of Amitabh Bachchan’s undisputed reign in the television industry is the tale of a man’s battle with the devil inside. Promos of the latest Bachchan flick give you a slice of the magic. “Is awaaz me agar kutta bhi bolega to achcha lagega” and “Whiskey ko zarurat nahi kisiki” are just the signature potions that drive the magic deep in the DNA of every Indian.

May 11, 1973 was a landmark time; not only did I turn two, but Indian police got their first and only brand ambassador who believed that law could be taken to the lawless. The Indian police officer had broken the ‘shackles’ and done what was right. Raj Kapoor, who was in the same studio, heard Amitabh dubbing for ‘Zanjeer’ and had commented to a close friend, “This man will usher in a new era”. Box office collections of ‘Zanjeer’ then had stood at a whopping Rs 198 crore basis inflation adjustment figure and the variance cost of tickets alone between then and now. This does not include modern territorial rights that account for nearly 50 per cent of the revenue for current films.

June 26, 1975 I turned four. It was also the dawn of the darkest 21 months in Indian history that saw suspension of civil, political and economic liberties. The state of Emergency was one of the most controversial times that bought to the fore a new Indian – suppressed, denied, devoid and angry. It was in such ‘darkest hours’ of a hot and barren noon of August 15, 1975 that a glimmer of hope was born. He was to be the redeemer of the suppressed India on the silver screen. It was during this time that ‘Sholay’ set the stage for the ‘Star of the Millennium’ to take centre stage.

In the fall of 1979, I, then all of eight, held on to my father’s hand standing in a serpentine queue outside the Palladium Cinema in Srinagar, wondering what the fuss was all about. It took us four hours just to reach the ticket window and around three hours later, I got my answer. ‘Deewar’ was my first movie in a cinema hall and for years to come, Amitabh Bachchan remained the sole reason to watch a film. Not only did Vijay symbolised the raging despair and anger we had deep within, but also a hope. Vijay was the proverbial son every boy wanted to become and gift their parents monuments of epic proportions. Vijay was and remains who we are deep within – “Kyonki main maa ko yeh building tohfey mein dena chahta hoon, jahan us ne kayee din mazdoori ki” – deprived, with a raging desire to tear apart the system. No wonder then that the box office collections of ‘Deewar’ translated into an astronomical Rs 396 crore basis inflation adjustment figure and the cost of tickets alone. This does not include modern territorial rights that account for nearly 50 per cent of the revenue for current films.

On July 26, 1982, when I was 10, my world came crashing down. Bachchan had injured himself while lifting a billion dreams in ‘Coolie’. For months he remained critical, at times close to death. Poignantly though, it brought him forever close to Indians as the entire country prayed for his recovery. A sea of humanity patiently waited outside Bachchan’s bungalow, aptly named Prateeksha, which has turned into a tradition now. With this, Bachchan was no longer a mere actor or Jaya’s husband or father to Abhishek and Shweta, but an integral part of every Indian family. The news of his injury was the seventh largest news of the century across the world.

February 12, 1988 was a momentous time in my life for two reasons – I was uprooted from my home in Kashmir and officially became a refugee in my own country, which sadly coincided with the release of ‘Shahenshah’. I took a train from Panipat at night to reach Jammu early morning to watch the first day first show at 9 am and took the same train back to Panipat in the evening.

Swarn Theatre in Jammu’s Gandhi Nagar area, which was screening ‘Shahenshah’, was surrounded by workers of a political party shouting anti-Bachchan slogans, who were blocking entry to the cinema hall. There was a 2,000-strong crowd of moviegoers gathered there, who wouldn’t be denied their date with the ‘Shahenshah’. All hell broke loose when one of the protestors tore a Bachchan poster just minutes before the movie’s screening. The protestors got a sound thrashing.

In the ensuing melee, the theatre with a 250-odd capacity had nearly 1,000 people inside. I remember sharing my seat with two more people! None of us could either see the film clearly that morning or hear most of the dialogues, which would get muffled by the sound of coins that people would throw at the screen whenever Bachchan would appear or say a dialogue. Back then, we would collect a bag load of coins for days prior to the release of a film to shower on the favourite actor appearing on the screen.

I don’t know how many are aware that for a long time ‘Shahenshah’ held the record for the most expensive home video rights ever sold. The movie was available in a set of two VHS cassettes. While the usual rate for a video cassette of new films used to be Rs 8 for 24 hours, for ‘Shahenshah’ the rate was Rs 100 for just three hours. I remember the video parlour guy used to wait outside our home for three hours for us to watch the film and then take it to another household.

Before Bachchan there were heroes, villains, comedians and character artistes, but in the actor people got all roles combined into one. It will be quite fair to call him perhaps the only ‘one-man industry’ the world has ever seen. Not only has he excelled as an actor, he redefined the ‘Hero’. Bachchan is the first actor to have pioneered the anti-hero persona in ‘Parwana’ way back in 1971; he was also the first ever young actor to don grey hair in ‘Kabhie Kabhie’. Some of his films, like ‘Silsila’, have been much ahead of their times. I remember back then it was a taboo to talk about ‘Silsila’ in our homes, especially in front of children, and elders would discuss the film in hushed tones.

It was not just great scripts and directors, but also Bachchan’s own sense of the craft. His discipline, exclusivity, professional approach and mannerisms added a strong character to his presence, which aided in the multi-fold renaissance of his charm three decades later on ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’. KBC Season 1 had the highest ever TRPs generated for a TV show in Indian TV history. By then new entrants had started to dance and make appearances at birthday parties and inaugurate jewellery showrooms. It was an era of stars moving with news cameras in tow, and yet there was the traditional vanguard who remained an enigma.

September 15, 1990 Bachchan nearly brought London to a complete halt on the day of his concert at Wembley Stadium. He was the first ever Indian star to perform at Wembley. The Head of Security for Queen Elizabeth was quoted in a London daily as saying, “I have never ever seen such a following even for the Queen”.

Bachchan’s global appeal is very much apparent in Afghanistan as well. Afghanistan is the perhaps the only country where he had non-vegetarian food while he was shooting for ‘Khuda Gawah’. As a state guest, Bachchan was invited by the King and President, who were not aware that the actor is a vegetarian and hence, the feast only had non-vegetarian food. But Bachchan out of respect for the love and adulation of his hosts had the non-vegetarian food without any fuss.

The adulation follows him wherever he goes, be France, Sri Lanka, China, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia or Britain. While most people know that Bachchan was the first Indian actor to be hosted at Madame Tussauds, not many are aware that he was also the first Indian actor to star in an international advertising campaign and was valued much higher than the price paid for a star film actor.

While people today have created the Rs 100-crore club as a benchmark for stardom, there is one man who stands tall outside the club, dwarfing every zero that may ever be added to such clubs.

(The writer is a media and entertainment professional with over 20 years of experience in managing transnational businesses and marketing pioneering brands globally. The views are personal.)

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