One of the greatest actors India has ever produced, a living legend whose immense popularity remains undiminished with time, Amitabh Bachchan was born on 11 October 1942 in Allahabad. His father, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, was a famous Hindi poet.
As an ‘angry young man’ of the 1970s, Bachchan defined the troubled masculinity of an entire generation, and millions of young men, angry at a state and system that had failed them, identified with his screen persona with an intensity that has few parallels. And yet, Bachchan could also play softer roles and had a great comic timing, making him one of the funniest actors of Hindi cinema.
Not resting on his laurels after rising to the heights of stardom, Bachchan later reinvented himself as an entrepreneur and a magnetic television personality.
In a film career spanning over 40 years and 180 films, Bachchan has bagged scores of awards, including three National Film Awards for Best Actor. For his contributions to the arts, he was awarded with the Padma Shri in 1984 and the Padma Bhushan in 2001.
Bachchan’s famous baritone voice, which most Indians are familiar with, was first heard in a Mrinal Sen’s film, the ‘new wave’ Bhuvan Shome. This was followed by an acting role in Saat Hindustani. It was, however, in the 1971 film Anand that Bachchan—playing the role of a serious, cynical man, in contrast to his co-star Rajesh’s Khanna’s life-should-be-celebrated act—was noticed.
Other films such as Parwaana, and Reshma Aur Shera followed. Bachchan made a guest appearance in Guddi. The young actress, Jaya Bhaduri, who played the lead role of Guddi, would later become his wife.
Box office success was elusive in the initial films; but then, fairly early in his career, Zanjeer happened, with Bachchan playing the lead role of Inspector Vijay Khanna in director Prakash Mehra’s 1973 blockbuster. The raw, physical body language, the bottled-up anger always waiting to explode, the brooding personality, the lashing out at an unjust and uncaring system — the ‘angry young man’ was born. The film was a dramatic departure from the romantic Hindi films of the past. India had a new superstar.
In the years that followed, Bachchan replaced Rajesh Khanna as the most sought-after actor of the decade. He starred in many successful films in a variety of roles, including Abhimaan (in which he got into the skin of a singer who is envious of his wife’s popularity as a singer), and Namak Haraam (in which his character rebels against his industrialist father’s unjust capitalist ideology).
Most of his films now did well commercially. His status as a legend was cemented in 1975, one of the most significant years in Bollywood film history, with two iconic films released. The first of these, the Yash Chopra-directed Deewar, was the story of two brothers, Vijay (played by Bachchan), a smuggler, and Ravi, a cop, whose sense of duty compels him to go after his older brother. It’s a classic morality tale: two brothers, who are brought up in poverty and have as children seen their parents suffer, choose to deal with their difficult pasts in very different ways. Bachchan’s portrayal of Vijay, the rebel, turning his back on the hypocrisies of society, was a powerful depiction of anger, hurt and a tormented soul’s tragic inability to escape his past.
Sholay, which also released in the same year, went down in history as one of the most popular Indian films of all time. Bachchan shared screen space with several other stars in this sweeping saga, and his reputation soared.
Following the unprecedented success of Sholay, Bachchan played different roles—including the hugely entertaining comedy Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) and the romantic Kabhi Kabhie—proving his versatility as an actor. A double role in the 1978 classic Don saw him play the role of a mafia boss and his lookalike Vijay.
In 1982, Bachchan was seriously injured during the shooting of Coolie in Bangalore. He remained in a critical condition in a hospital for many months. There was a mass outpouring of sympathy, with people praying in temples for his good health. Fortunately, he eventually recovered and Coolie went on to become a mega-hit.
In 1984, Bachchan plunged into politics, contesting on a Congress party ticket from Allahabad and winning by a massive margin. But politics was not his cup of tea, and he resigned after three years.
The years were catching up with Bachchan and good scripts that did justice to his talent and experience were rare in the Bollywood of 80s. Except for Shahenshah, in which he played the lead role, most of his other films of this phase bombed at the box-office.
In 1996, Bachchan turned producer-cum-businessman, setting up the Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd., but the venture did not go well and was shut down in a couple of years. Meanwhile, he made some attempts to get back to acting, but the results were mixed at best.
Post 2000, however, Bachchan re-invented himself, playing older characters, and found acceptance in films such as Mohabbatein, Baghban and Black, the last winning him another National Film award. Explaining the secret behind his acting, he said in an interview that it was instinctive and he did not use any acting techniques: “I just enjoy working in films.”
But it was perhaps as host of the television show Kaun Banega Crorepati, an Indian adaptation of the British show ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’, that his sophisticated charm wowed new audiences. The show was a runaway success.
Today, Bachchan is both a father-figure and brand ambassador of Indian cinema. While it’s probably true that his greatest years as actor are behind him, he has successfully adapted himself to the new media world. Millions of fans follow him on Twitter and read his blog posts. Bachchan seems omnipresent, staring at you from billboards, talking to you on the radio, urging you to buy a product from a TV screen. But the legend is bigger than the sum of his parts. If the love and affection of his fans across all age-groups and the respect, bordering on awe, with which he is held in Bollywood are any indication, the legend has become bigger with time.
Also on this day:
1902 — Jayaprakash Narayan, activist and freedom fighter, was born
1930 — K.P. Ummer, Malayalam cinema actor, was born
1984 — Khanderao Rangnekar, Indian Test cricketer, passed away
2002 — Dina Pathak, Gujarati theatre and film actor, passed away