The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, March 4, 2001
Lead Article

Muqaddar Ka Sikandar

From a lanky, angry young action hero with blood-shot eyes to a mellow, meditating grandfather — Amitabh Bachchan has made the journey of his life very fruitful despite trying circumstances. What’s his secret? What’s his place in our hearts today? Vimla Patil tries to find out.

IN July-August 1982, on the day Amitabh Bachchan was mortally wounded during the shooting of Coolie,I happened to be in Lakshmanjhoola, a pilgrimage town in the Himalayas. In the early eighties, package tourism companies had not yet latched on to the concept of big money which they could earn by carrying busloads of travellers to these destinations. Yet, the crowds in Lakshmanjhoola were large and noisy.

Suddenly, there was a stunning silence. A wave of murmurs arose from the gathering crossing the delicate bridge. "Amitabh has been wounded, he is seriously hurt and may even die." The news spread like wild fire as people ran helter-skelter in shock and stood aghast as the magnitude of the event sunk into their minds. As I stood safely away from the surge of crowds, I saw one of the rarest and unforgettable sights of my life. Here were thousands of people who had probably seen Amitabh Bachchan only in some of his films. They probably had no hope of ever seeing or meeting him in person in their lives. Yet, they were panicking, crying and wringing their hands as if one of their own had been hurt or worse still, a natural calamity had hit them suddenly. Though far-fetched, the truth lay not far from this statement. In the seventies and eighties, Amitabh Bachchan’s position in the hearts of the Indian people was so strong and so cherished that everything that happened to him would literally move the entire country to joy or sorrow. The fact that he suffered from myasthenia gravis and asthma pained his fans no end. His appeal to the millions was unparalleled in Indian cinema’s history and he clearly seemed to be the chosen one of God.


And yet, Bachchan was never truly a ‘people’s man’. He was never given to mingling with the janta, pumping the hands of his poor fans or attending public functions as an expansive, hail-fellow-well-met chap. He never supported any causes, never founded any institutions, never did serious charity and never displayed a sense of honour. He was irked each time the media took a pot shot at him and was as angry in real life as he was on screen. He was reserved, difficult to access, rather stand-offish and very private throughout his early career. His angry young hero days lasted well into his, late forties. In the late 70s and early eighties, his magnum opus films, made by Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra became super hits of all time. Each film’s popularity catapulted Bachchan to ever new heights of fame, success and money and eventually, as the angry young man, he became the king of all he surveyed. For some reason, even in the days when Bachchan was in his thirties, the media and the general public were a little scared of him. Everyone knew that he had close connections with the Nehru Gandhi family; that he was a school friend of Rajiv Gandhi. He contested the Lok Sabha seat from Allahabad and won easily as the son of the soil. The newspapers were full of reports about his exotic holidays in the Andamans with the Gandhi family. Jaya Bachchan’s growing closeness to Sonia Gandhi attracted media attention too.

Alas, this dream Utopia came crashing down with the Bofors scandal. With this, the worst controversy of Rajiv Gandhi’s political career exploding right in the Prime Minister’s face, the so called party came to an abrupt end. Bachchan resigned his Lok Sabha seat and moved totally away from politics. His friendship with Rajiv became somewhat low key. But Bachchan was to go through yet another trial by fire. It was reported widely that he was involved deeply in the Bofors case. The media reported that his brother Ajitabh, his wife Ramola and their children were living in a flat in Switzerland and questioned how the family had accumulated so much foreign wealth and a Swiss bank account. Bachchan was hard put to defend his family, explaining that his brother was living in a ‘two and a half bedroom flat’ given to him by his Swiss employers since he was a non-resident Indian and

free to work in Switzerland. When the media noise became truly cacophonous, Bachchan struck his famous blow, and in a lawsuit filed and fought in London, cleared his name from the Bofors mess and received an apology from the journals which had maligned his name. In an interview given around that time, Jaya was quoted saying, ‘Amitabh is truly an angry man. If he is wronged, he will never spare the offender and will surely make him lick dust.’

In a way, this was really the reputation Bachchan had picked up. He couldn’t take criticism. He retaliated strongly when hurt. His affairs — especially his relationship with Rekha — were under the wraps. No one dared to question him directly about them. Even Rekha herself, apart from hinting at her love for lambuji at the height of their careers, never openly discussed their relationship. Everybody feared Bachchan within and without the film and media industry. He was reputed to be curt, often arrogant and certainly inaccessible.

As the years passed by, Bachchan’s career slowed down. He himself stood aside and let the industry go ahead, without his towering and overpowering presence. Then suddenly one day, the media announced with great fanfare that Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd. had been formed; that it would go into the business of production and distribution of films, create shows, television software and even music albums. For a while, this bubble shone and fascinated people. Industry claimed that this first-ever experiment could be copied if successful, by other legendary stars who were brands in themselves.

However, after the debacle of the 1996 Miss World Show in Bangalore, produced by ABCL, the company’s losses and mismanagement surfaced. It was said that very high salaries, uncontrolled expenditure and total confusion had brought ABCL to its knees and Bachchan was deeply in debt, with his home ‘Pratiksha’ being sealed by his creditors. The Press missed no opportunity of slinging arrows at him through jokes, reports and so-called investigative stories. It was rumoured that his brother Ajitabh had ditched him and taken away a great deal of his property abroad; that he had become penniless. It was reported that he was negotiating his financial status with Canara Bank, Sahara India Ltd and other institutions. Many stood by him — especially his close friend Amar Singh who has been seen frequently with him on pilgrimages, family occasions and public functions.

In these circumstances, Bachchan relaunched himself as a hero and made several films with heroines much younger than him. Since none of them were successful, he faced one more barrage of criticism from the media.

This was perhaps the worst time of Bachchan’s career. His films flopped, ABCL’s failure was discussed daily in the papers and Bachchan himself became the butt of any number of jokes. But the angry and aloof man that he was, Bachchan never answered even one of his detractors. Only when the pricy staff of ABCL was sacked and son Abhishek took over the affairs of the company, did the senior Bachchan sigh with relief and remark, "At least now ABCL is in reliable hands!"

Time flew by. Daughter Shweta was married meanwhile to Nikhil Nanda, scion of the Nanda family of Delhi; the son of Ritu Kapoor-Nanda and grandson of Raj Kapoor. She had a daughter Navya Naveli and more recently, a son. Abhishek launched his film career with Refugee and then did Tera Jadoo Chal Gaya and Dhai Akshar Prem Ke. Jaya did theatre in India and the US, making Ma Retire Hoti Hai and Dr Mukta great successes. She also made her comeback film Fiza.

And then, like manna from the heavens, the Kaun Banega Crorepati show ‘happened’ to Bachchan. It is said that the reluctant actor was taken to London to see the original show and studied it to help in its exact replication in India. Notwithstanding the gripes of sniping journalists and sour-penned columnists, the show went on to the hit the bull’s eye and became a new benchmark of success for television shows. A rather nervous-in-the-beginning Bachchan, relaxed visibly and now, 25 weeks later, after having experienced the love and adulation of a vast public, he has actually mellowed and become people-friendly, gentle, urbane and even humorous for the first time in his career. Many say his private personality is like what he is on television now. He is seen rejoicing in the success of small-town winners, especially partial to women, teaching values through his well-scripted intros and through his own reactions to situations and random conversations. He has, in these weeks, become the pastmaster of TV shows!

The mellowing of Bachchan has happened on other fronts too. He does not look angry and arrogant any more. He supported the anti-asthma campaign with willingness and added great humane value to it. He is now poised to campaign for vegetarianism for PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, a world body of 700,000 members)which was launched in India in January 2000. In the new year, Bachchan, Hema Malini, Juhi Chawla, Mahima Chowdhury and others will help create an ad campaign to stop the cruel slaughter of animals for food. Bachchan, now a vegetarian, has acquired spiritual pursuits too. He explained in a recent controversy about the scene of the Gayatri havan in Mohabbatein that he was devoutly religious and could never disrespect the sentiments of people on that score. He is seen going on Balaji pilgrimages and expressing his faith in religion, Indian traditional values and the family system.

With the success of Yash Chopra’s Mohabbatein, KBC and with his ICICI and Pepsi endorsements, his debts are over. He is financially sound and free of mind once more. His charisma increases each day as he chats amiably with children on television shows, accepts enthusiastic compliments on KBC, laughs at being called ‘uncle’ and in real life, enjoys being a father and a grandfather. Voted ‘Star of the Millennium’, Bachchan’s popularlity fever stands only next to that of Hrithik Roshan’s right now. Amitabh Bachchan’s ever-changing charisma is a wonder of modern life. It is born of his perseverance, faith and quiet personal strength; his courage and ability to overcome the worst odds with hard work and optimism!


Being himself, and ever so graciously

Is it the magnetism of the baritone or his engaging candour? Perhaps, it is the good manners and the total lack of starry airs and graces. May be, it is the way in which he soothes visibly nervous contestants with an effortless straight-from-the-heart style of conversing. The way those deep-set eyes twinkle merrily.

Unlike in the past, Amitabh Bachchan does not smoulder or spew vitriol or loom larger than life. Whatever the reasons for his charisma and the power to bowl over the viewers --- age, class, sex, notwithstanding --- the fact that rings loud and clear is that like good wine Amitabh Bachchan’s got better with the years.

As if to meet the requirement of the small screen, Bachchan has toned down his starry persona and discarded the image and its attendant mannerisms. So you don’t have any conscious attempts to impress, intimidate or browbeat the participants of KBC. Chivalry and genteel behaviour might belong to another era but Amitabh recreates the ambience of the time when men were gallant and exuded charm and graciousness, especially towards women and the elderly. Small wonder that you have wide-eyed, breathless and so obviously floored fans looking at him with awe and adoration. Not once does Amitabh make them feel that HE is the protagonist. They are catapulted centrestage for that moment of fame which means so much for each of them. They feel special as they share it with their icon, who bonds so well with them.

The fact that he does not come on too strong or sound raucous or shrill helps as does his understated sartorial elegance. Even when he talks on the phone, it goes beyond the mere routine because he invests it with so much of warmth and sincerity.

For fans who have watched him traverse the peaks and troughs in many varied roles, it is time to rejoice. In this age of shirtless wonders, here is a thorough gentleman, if there was ever one. No role that he has essayed has evoked the sort of response that this one has. And the most wonderful thing is that Amitabh Bachchan is just being himself! — AN