Monday, November 21, 2005

Big B at 61

He didn’t have a ‘style’ like Dev Anand or Rajesh Khanna. He had neither the physique of Dharmendra nor the sex appeal of Vinod Khanna. He didn’t have the dimpled innocence of Shashi Kapoor, or the boyish charm of Rishi Kapoor.

All Amitabh Bachchan had was height — 6 feet 3 inches; a great voice — though it once failed the audition test at All India Radio; and a different hairstyle — mane parted in the middle. And also a unique name. Had he stuck to his Uttar Pradesh Kayastha surname, no one might have taken notice. Who would cast a second glance at a guy called Amitabh Srivastava? But in those days of struggle, the name made no difference. As for the height, directors thought he was far too tall. And as for the voice, well, Sunil Dutt gave him the role of a mute in Reshma Aur Shera (1971)!

One movie came after the other, but Amitabh either went unnoticed or was overshadowed by the reigning stars of the era. It was his 13th film that turned luck in his favour. Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer, in which Bachchan played a young and upright police officer, not only made people sit up and take notice but also propelled him to superstardom.

I grew up when Amitabh was becoming a phenomenon, and sitting in the theatre those days could be a torture if the casting did not begin with the name ‘Amitabh Bachchan.’ Millions of others, I am sure, felt the same rush of adrenalin when they saw the two words appear on the screen to the sound of violins and trumpets.

Today Amitabh Bachchan is 61. You might not feel the same rush of adrenalin when you see his name on the credits. His movies might not even induce you to go the theatres the way they did 20 years ago. And that’s because you no longer associate him with just movies — today he’s a brand name.

Currently, he commands the same price as that of a top hero. For endorsing products he charges anything between Rs 8 to Rs 10 crore. And look at the range of products he is endorsing today — from pens to paints. And last week, Mulayam Singh Yadav made him the brand ambassador for Uttar Pradesh! From star to superstar, Amitabh Bachchan now enjoys the status of what would be the showbiz equivalent of a statesman. Why did he not fade away like Rajesh Khanna — the other superstar who in his heyday had the entire nation under his spell?

One reason is range. Amitabh played the comedian with as much ease as he played the rebel or the romantic. Two, he wasn’t a narcissist, like Dev Anand and Rajesh Khanna, who were so much in love with their ‘style’ that they never grew out of it. As a result, what was once ‘style’ became ‘antics’ and the audience moved on. Amitabh, on the other hand, had no fixed style. He sat lightly on the audience, and spoke to them rather than speaking at them.

But the most important reason why his popularity continues to soar is that he recognised the limitations of age. Had he continued acting in films believing he was still the Angry Young Man who could take on 20 goondas single-handedly, he would have been history by now. But he recognised the limitations of age. Instead he reinvented himself. He sported a grey goatee and started playing his age. People — from seven- to seventy-year-olds — instantly identified with him. So when contestants sat on the hot seat in Kaun Banega Crorepati, they were rarely nervous. Because the man who sat across them was not the Big B, or the biggest star India had ever seen, but the gentle, friendly, neighbourhood uncle who has always been around. Kaun Banega Crorepati earned him new fans. And old fans fell in love with him all over again.

“Even as an anchor of a show, he is not just asking questions... He is performing. Just watch him minutely — how he pauses, how subtly he gives a hint to the contestant,” said Prakash Mehra in an interview while KBC was still on air. “He also helps the contestants win some money, however small. He gives himself so completely even to this show. That is the secret of his longevity — his sincerity,” according to Mehra.

To quote Ramesh Sippy: ‘‘How gracefully he has matured. Like vintage wine, totally positively.” They should know: they are among the few who made movies that made Amitabh Bachchan. But the country’s renewed interest in the superstar can be explained best by the line on the invitation card to his birthday that fell on October 11: ‘‘In life, as in cricket, there’s always a second innings.’’ And how well he’s playing it.


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