Amitabh Bachchan is celebrating 40 years in the Hindi film industry. Although he is one of the most famous men in the world, his stardom and its significance in India have rarely been scrutinized systematically, nor indeed have its intriguing implications in shaping ideals of the Indian male been addressed. Bachchan’s films are well known, but the man behind the star remains a very private individual, inaccessible to the public, and hardly better known even among the inner circles in Mumbai’s film industry.
Behind the scenes: (clockwise from top) Bachchan’s long association with film-maker Yash Chopra began with Deewar (1975); in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan (1973), Bachchan and his wife Jaya invested their own money; he was given the role of Jai in Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975) only after Dharmendra, the reigning matinee idol, agreed to act as Viru in the film.
These lacunae about such a key figure in contemporary India say much about investigative journalism, scholarly research and the deference accorded to such a towering public figure by the Indian people.
Bachchan’s stardom was shaped, as with other stars, by the combination of his screen roles and his offscreen image, combining fact and gossip, the extensive circulation of which has taken root in India’s public imagination. His career in films is well known. His initial failure was soon forgotten as he achieved deserved success in the 1970s. Although his phenomenal popularity was to occur first in his role as the “angry young man” in the films scripted by Salim-Javed, directed by Yash Chopra, Ramesh Sippy and Prakash Mehra, his other roles in the middle-class cinema of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and the “lost and found” genre established by Manmohan Desai as well as the romantic films of Yash Chopra were also major contributions to his dominance of the box office during much of the 1970s and 1980s. These years also saw Bachchan’s foray into politics and his illness after an injury on the sets of Coolie (1983). By the 1990s he had set up his own production company, Amitabh Bachchan Corp. Ltd, and began his moderately successful comeback. The year 2000 was a turning point in his popularity, largely due to his role as the host of the TV show Kaun Banega Crorepati. In stark contrast to the host in Slumdog Millionaire, his gravitas and benevolent patrician manner endeared him to new audiences, his reinvigorated persona appealing to young and old, in the process transcending boundaries of class, region, religion and caste. In recent years, while he has played (arguably) supporting roles, he has also accepted lead roles in films which aspire to a more artistic form such as The Last Lear (2008), where his performances have been much appreciated.
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Bachchan is an intensely private individual about whom little is known beyond the bare facts of his life. He has fulfilled his various duties: as the son of famous parents who never failed to respect and care for them; via his marriage to top film star Jaya Bhaduri at the beginning of his own stardom and their two children, he fulfilled his role as a householder, while the audience kept alive its favourite fantasy of his romance with Rekha; and now the family appears together in a public role with Bachchan taking up his role as a father and father-in-law to Abhishek and his wife Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.
Jessica Hines’ tongue-in-cheek book, Looking for the Big B, where she tries to unearth and describe the private person, is probably as near as we will come to discovering the unknown Bachchan, while the rumours and gossip that proliferated in his earlier years are now silenced. Bachchan began a blog (http://blogs.bigadda.com/ab) in April that reads somewhat like a diary, marking his daily agenda, while also making public statements about events in his life, as well as arguing passionately with journalists and others, seeking to convey his point of view. He gives away little about his offscreen life although the numerous responses from his fans suggest they read the blog avidly and through it find a way of knowing him more intimately, at least in their imagination.
Yet Bachchan is more than just a highly successful film star. How did he come to represent India itself on the world stage in the last decade of his 40-year-old career? What does this tell us about him, the nature of stardom, Hindi films and the vision that new India has of itself?
The star is a main feature of Hindi film, often presented in ways that allow the concerns of stardom to override realism, especially with regard to performance. Recent films make constant references to their predecessors and to the stars’ offscreen lives as if to invite the audience into their private worlds, often as a limp substitute for shaping character or focusing attention by other means. One of the key points in the film in which the star overrides the actor is the song sequence. Although songs are inserted into films in many ways and serve far more complex functions within the film than merely providing diversions, they are often discontinuous with the rest of the film and are key to the presentation of the actor as star. The circulation of the songs beyond the films themselves adds to the build-up of stardom and the actor who does not have a song and dance is rarely a star. The delivery of dialogue as non-realistic speech, crafted for its very quotability, is another way in which the star is created within the film itself. Bachchan was associated with the voice of one of the greatest Hindi playback singers, Kishore Kumar, and with some of its greatest dialogue writers and his distinctive dance style, which has been copied by generations, all added to his stardom. Costume was also key to Bachchan’s stardom and he regularly appeared in films with the same distinctive hairstyle (partly practical as he was working in many of these films simultaneously) and his stylish flared trousers and other outfits that were not always appropriate to his character.
While Shah Rukh Khan may be the current top box-office star, someone who is likely to enjoy many more years of stardom himself, he is not yet half way to Bachchan’s 40 years in cinema. Dilip Kumar’s reign from the 1940s to the 1960s was shorter and predated the media boom that allowed stars to become superstars by the endless recycling of stories about them, both true and false. Rajnikanth may be adored from Chennai to Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo, where Muthu (1995) has been a superhit, but he does not have a national appeal. What has made Bachchan such a superstar, and how is the nature of his stardom different?
Although his roots in Uttar Pradesh are well known, Bachchan’s standing as an all-Indian hero has been reinforced by his playing characters from many of the country’s regions and communities as well as from different class backgrounds. The Hindi film hero is usually upper caste and north Indian, but Bachchan’s characters often have names that specify region and caste, rather than being simply “Mr Vijay” as Raj Kapoor was always “Mr Raj”. Bachchan has also played the international Indian who is comfortable in all parts of the world, notably New York and London, showing a new cosmopolitan Indianness that impresses and charms others in equal measure.
One of the problems with understanding Bachchan’s stardom, as with that of other stars, is that at its heart lies the problem of charisma. In addition to acting abilities, choice of films, publicity and so on, the question of “star quality” or “charisma” is essential, but remains hard to define. It is a way of being the centre of attention by focusing the audience’s emotions and with Bachchan it is his ability to depict emotions on screen that is a great part of his star quality. In his most famous role as the angry young man, Bachchan depicted anger in a way that the audience understood. It was not a depiction of anger as the political zeitgeist of the 1970s, but a means of understanding individual suffering and how anger could restore the moral equilibrium by finding justice, though not necessarily that prescribed by the law of the land.
Bachchan showed a pure anger, focused only on its goal, and he was willing to risk—and usually lost—his life in its pursuit. This was not political anger but a moral anger, whatever the means were to pursue his aim. His dignity and self-respect in the face of humiliation were admirable and to be emulated. His presentation of his self, dressed in stylish fashions rather than opulent or formal dress as part of his insouciant “cool”, was heightened by his delivery of quotable dialogue. The audience could admire Bachchan as well as empathize with his suffering and his anger, and his physical presence and acting talent as well as choice of great roles all contributed to his superstardom. Bachchan brought these qualities to his other roles, even his romantic heroes who suffer silently before articulating their emotions in ways which can be admired.
India has seen an explosion of the cult of celebrities since the media boom of the 1990s, as they are found not only in gossip magazines but also in advertisements, on websites, on television and so on. Bachchan may only rarely play the hero today but he takes a key role in many films, as he did in Slumdog Millionaire—either directly by taking a role, but more frequently indirectly through his family, notably Abhishek and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, and also through the way that he shaped the idea of the Hindi film hero that has dominated the public imagination for many years. He maintains a huge presence in other media from news to advertisements and his image must be one of the most frequently seen in India.
Other actors/stars have represented their countries internationally, notably Catherine Deneuve, whose identification with France is such that she actually modelled for Marianne, the national symbol of France, or John Wayne, who embodied America’s determination to subjugate its western frontier. Yet Bachchan’s role in representing India is of increasing significance as part of the recognition of India’s changing role in the world.
The recent phase of Bachchan’s career has occurred in parallel with a wider cultural reassessment of Indian cinema, long loved by its fans but viewed by the elite as an embarrassment, to being recognized internationally as the only global cinema after Hollywood, and as India’s major form of soft power. The last decade has also seen the seemingly inexorable rise of India to world power status.In the absence of any charismatic or internationally recognized political leadership, Amitabh Bachchan, the senior statesman of Hindi cinema, is the only individual who can fill the role as brand ambassador for the new India on the world stage where his dignity and cosmopolitan outlook are universally admired.
Rachel Dwyer is professor of Indian cultures and cinema at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and author, most recently, of What do Hindus Believe?
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