In an industry where fashion change every Friday, Amitabh Bachchan has been
synonymous with cinematic entertainment for over thirty years. But beyond the
labels of 'one- man industry, and 'star of the millennium', a number of issues
pertaining to the star, his films and his era remain largely unaddressed.
What is it that makes Amitabh Bachchan the star he is? Is it his undeniable
genius as an actor, his ability to connect with the masses and the classes alike,
or is it his writers and directors who project him in varied roles? Did his
films in his heyday reflect the angst of his time or did they ferment the spirit
of anger and rebellion in the first place? Was he really the rebel as his 'angry
Young man' image suggests or was there, behind all the sound and fury, a conformist
subtext that called for restoration of the status quo. How relevant is Amitabh
In Amitabh: The Making of a Superstar, Susmita Dasgupta answers these and
other question that lie buried in the trail of glory these and star blazed.
In a warm and insightful analysis, the author traces the world view and philosophy
that have shaped the films of Amitabh Bachchan-from the Angry Young man Zanjeer,
the tragic antihero of Deewar and the entertainer of Amar Akbar Anthony to his
more conservative turns in Mohabbation and Kbhie Khusi Kbhie Gham. In the process,
she not only chronicles the star jounery from a flop actor to a national icon
but also bring to life a period in the history of Indian cinema which altered
forever the economics of film-making in the country.
Susmita Dasgupta has a PhD on Amitabh Bachchan from Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru Univeersity. She has been a Senior Fellow at the National Film Archive of India, Pune, where she worked on the history of ideas of Indian popular cinema since its inception. She teaches film appreciation in management schools, and works as a deputy chief economist with the economic research unit of the ministry of Steel. She has Written extensively for several prominent journals that cover issues of sociology, media and poltical economy. Her forthcoming books is and appreciation of the popular Hindi film Deewar.
Amitabh Bachchan is a watershed in the history of Hindi cinema. It won't be an exaggeration to say that the three major developments in Hindi cinema have been the coming of sound, the advent of color, and the emergence of Amitabh Bachchan. His popularity made films big business. Before he straddled the screen like a colossus, Hindi cinema had never looked as big and significant. There had been blockbusters aplenty and big stars but there was no one quite like Amitabh Bachchan.
This book, emerging out of my PhD thesis 'Sociology of Hindi Commercial Cinema: A Study of Amitabh Bachchan', is an effort to look at the work of one of Hindi films' most dynamic stars in a way that has not been done before- analytically, academically. Popular Hindi cinema does not lend itself easily to scholarly analysis. There is very little academic work available on it. Hollywood films, Kurosawa's works and European cinema have been extensively covered in an informed manner. The basic texts of film appreciation use examples from Western movies, and even definitions of genre-noir, epic, musical-emerge from work done in the West. This is probably why there is little understanding of the mechanics of popular Indian cinema which has a language of its own, one that does not lend itself to the tools employed in the West. We ourselves tend to look down upon our commercial films and are quick to dismiss them as a pot- pourri of songs and dances, fights and melodrama. One reason that got people like me interested enough in Hindi films to study them in-depth was Amitabh Bachchan. He made the hero look omnipotent and all of us who saw the world through him also felt the same way. It was probably this aura of invincibility he exuded that made the entire medium of Hindi mainstream cinema commercially and intellectually consequential.
I grew up in what one can call the 'Amitabh era'. His films enveloped and
engulfed us. Today, when I look back, I see a great difference between Amitabh's
films at the height of his popularity and the films that get made now. Compared
to the candy floss blockbusters of today, Amitabh's films are positively disturbing.
The hero is irritable, cynical and cantankerous. His mission is to fight than
to love. He seems to want to conquer rather than compromise. Where things are
better left alone, he is likely to upset the apple cart. He seems to be a little
too eager to score a point over others and find fault with the world in general.
As a hero, Amitabh presented a hitherto unseen violent and volatile aspect of
our cinema, something that gave it a certain vitality. It was not romance but
rebellion, not maudlin emotions but anger, not relationships but action with
which Amitabh Bachchan wrenched out newer possibilities from the formula film.
In his cinematic roles, he not only ended the innocence of the hero but also
destroyed the limits Hindi cinema had imposed upon itself, setting it on a path
of renewal and rejuvenation. In today's age of consensus, where protest has
all but been replaced by feel-good conformism, the conflictual model of Amitabh's
films seems to be rather out of place. But in the times during which these films
were made, Amitabh's 'manner of being' in the narratives sent the viewers into
ecstasy. This book is an attempt to see why Amitabh Bachchan created such euphoria
during his time and what rendered him cinematically irrelevant in the 1990s
Amitabh Bachchan's unprecedented and unsurpassed popularity qualified him as
a social phenomenon and thus an enquiry into the reasons as to why he became
popular is appropriate. There have been theories in popular newspaper and journals
about how people liked Amitabh for his height voice, hair do, eyes and so on.
There are also pedestrian explanations of how his films reflected the social
and political unrest of their time. What these explanations probably miss is
why then should Shah Rukh Khan-a short and slight man with a nervous voice,
a slight stammer and mild eyes-be so popular now. And why was Amitabh no longer
potent enough in the 1990s which again was a time of great social and economic
change? I have tried to answer this question by looking at some of Amitabh Bachchan's
more memorable roles. What was it that 'Vijay' of Zanjeer articulated? How was
he different from 'Vijay' of Deewar, and how again were these two poles apart
from 'Vijay' of Agneepath? How did the star move from 'Jai' in Sholay to 'Anthony
Gonsalves' in Amar Akbar Anthony to 'Sikandar' in Muqculdar Ka Sikandar to 'Narayan
Shankar' in Mohabbatein, and what do these movements signify in the context
of his superstardom and the era in which he ruled the box office? Importantly,
how did Shah Rukh's 'Rahul' and 'Raj Aryan' critique 'Vijay' and render him
an anachronism in the 1990s?
Amitabh Bachchan's peak period falls between 1973 and 1985. This largely corresponds
to the age of Indira Gandhi in India's politics. If film stars like Raj Kapoor,
Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar were heroes of the Nehruvian era, Amitabh reigned
during the period of Mrs Gandhi-a very distinct political age in contemporary
history. Much of India as it is today was created during the years of Mrs Gandhi's
dramatic tenure as prime minister. Amitabh Bachchan was the cinematic parallel
of Mrs Gandhi's political force and charisma. Just as Mrs. Gandhi was the epitome
of how political leaders could concentrate all powers of the state unto one
person, Amitabh Bachchan too was something like the black hole that gobbles
up stars and universes. While he straddled the screen, all his co-stars-male,
female, comic and villainous-became mere appendages to him.
Indira Gandhi's era was the age of heroism: Bangladesh was created, the Green Revolution asserted India's food sovereignty and India tested its first nuclear bomb. There was also the Emergency, the attempt of the executive to run the country single-handedly. It was a time when as many as fifty parliamentary acts were passed. These acts cracked down On! smugglers, private capitalists and monopolist profiteers. They, also sought to empower the displaced and the distressed through advocating greater rights to bonded laborers, migrant workers and those under informal and contractual employment Almost all these laws and acts existed only on paper. I have tried to reason how, in the eyes of his fans, Amitabh Bachchan came to represent the powerful individual agency that would assume the institutions unto his own self and have the confidence to question the role and rationale of the establishment.
For his fans, it was not the political ideology that Amitabh Bachchan portrayed
on screen that was important We did share the hero's views on social equality,
role of the state, nature of law and the responsibilities of the establishment,
but we were more eager to understand the star as a person who made such a vision
possible. In our discussion; we assigned the intellectual content of his roles
to his person rather than treat it as something that emerged out of direction
story and screenplay. I do not think that we did this out of an ignorance of
how films are made. We were aware of the peculiar functioning of the star system.
Richard Dyer says that a star is a star because he/she goes beyond the mere
characterization of the roles in individual films and become an image that extends
across all of his/her films. The inter textual extensions of Amitabh's image
made us imagine that he was the author of his roles.
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