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August 23, 2016

Decoding The Charisma of Amitabh Bachchan

Text by Shashi Baliga. Illustration by Prasad Bhat (Graphicurry)

His name is synonymous with mega stardom and even though his peers have hung up their acting boots a long time ago, Amitabh Bachchan is here, there and everywhere

At 73, he is India’s favourite grandfather. We Indians like to respect our elders, indulge them and take care of them. Don’t work too hard, grandpa; here, drink your hot milk and put your feet up, we say. The retired grandparents — able-bodied and cheery, not impecunious but not wealthy, fussing over their grandchildren and dispensing avuncular wisdom — are standard fixtures in our ads and movies.

That’s not quite Amitabh Bachchan, though.

So, in interview after interview, he keeps getting asked variations of a question that essentially inquires, ‘When do you plan to retire?’ It’s what journalists and Tweeples did incessantly to Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, and are currently doing to Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Perhaps it’s an Indian thing. Amitabh Bachchan has just had to deal with it longer than the others. With him, the concern is couched in different ways: Where do you find the energy at this age? Do you get to spend enough time with your grandchildren? How do you keep such a hectic schedule? The actor invariably has a polite reply. If he were to take the battle to the questioner he could, like Dhoni once did, counter ask: ‘Do you want me to retire?’

‘Of course not!’ would be the horrified reply.  Because who can imagine going to the movies without that familiar face? It’s been 46 years since Saat Hindustani and only two of those years (1987 and 1995) did not see a film with Amitabh Bachchan. Sometimes he was just a narrator, as in Tere Mere Sapne in 1996. But he has always been there.

In fact, he has been there, here and everywhere. In any part of India, city or hinterland, you’re bound to bump into Mr B in some avatar or the other. You see his images popping out at you from a tea stall or looming large in a mall. He’s talking to you, persuading you, advising you on anything from cement to chyawanprash. He’s part of our cultural landscape. And a regular dose of his baritone assures us that all is well with the cinematic world.

Bachchan has come up with quite a few spirited performances since he attained senior citizen status: Piku, Paa, The Last Lear, Cheeni Kum, Nishabd, Sarkar, Black and Bunty Aur Babli. That’s quite a list, especially if you add Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham… (2001) and Mohabbatein (2000), which released just before his 60s. You could even say that, in the same period, his performances are far better than those of two of the reigning Khans (you figure which)!

He also managed to bag a role, however minuscule, in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.

The endorsements, brand ambassadorships and social campaigns are still pouring in. His social media following is off the charts. An Eid Mubarak Facebook post gets him 2,53,000 likes and  9,065 shares. He has 21.5 million followers on Twitter and 1.8 million on Instagram. His blog is more than a blog; Bachchan has made it his EF, short for Extended Family. His followers wish him on his birthday, he wishes them individually on theirs; they meet across the world. Bachchan has taken an overused platform largely filled with banalities and elevated it. Last year, he launched a video blogging app that would bring him closer to his EF. And this year, when a digital Learning Management System (LMS) platform called Robomate+ for students was launched, guess who did the honours? Though the younger stars may hit the headlines more often, but it’s Sr. Bachchan who is the king of social media.

So at 73, he’s acing his juniors in the acting department, in endorsements and on social media. Okay, so he may not play the hero or set the box office on fire any more. His fees are not the highest in the biz. But there’s more to greatness and longevity than trade figures and Amitabh Bachchan has shown he can transcend mere numbers.

Indeed, no star has descended from the throne only to acquire an even bigger aura as he has. Rajendra Kumar, Dharmendra, Rajesh Khanna, Dilip Kumar…they all faded away quietly at the end of their heydays. Why didn’t Bachchan? He was, after all, at the edge of the precipice when he entered that awkward age that fells heroes once they’ve peaked. He had no work, he was nearly bankrupt thanks to the financial mess that was ABCL; his health was fragile. You couldn’t go much lower than that.

He could have caved in. But he swallowed his pride and begged director Yash Chopra to give him work, any work. Mohabbatein turned out to be the perfect vehicle for the distraught actor whose internalised pain burnt up the screen. Would he be the Amitabh Bachchan of today if it had not been for Mohabbatein? It’s tempting to say no to dramatise the legend further, but in all likelihood, the answer would be yes.

This is because he also did Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) at the time, to help pay off his rupees 90-crore debts. It is difficult now to imagine what a fall it was in the eyes of many at the time — Hindi cinema’s most successful star gone bankrupt and doing a game show! He did KBC against all popular judgement because he needed the money — and turned it into gold.

That alchemy has been a recurring motif in his career. Zanjeer was famously turned down by Raaj Kumar, Dev Anand and Rajesh Khanna. And KBC and the enormous reach of television became a revelation for other stars.

He works happily with young or untested directors and makes the movie his own. He does a not-too-glamorous but inspiringly effective pulse polio campaign and plays a part in making India polio-free. Next on the cards is a campaign to create awareness about Hepatitis B, a liver disease that he himself suffers from.

He’s reached a stage where you could say it’s not just about the acting; the legend of Amitabh Bachchan has grown to encompass so much more. The actor and the man segue in the public imagination. But it is still that magnetic  presence that drives it all. With that trademark self-deprecation that has seen him through the peaks and valleys, @SrBachchan’s Twitter bio reads ‘Actor…well at least some are STILL saying so!!’

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