Bachchan & Inscription

Inscriptions form a very important part of Amitabh Bachchan’s career. Perhaps uniquely so in Bombay screen history. The foundational moment is once again Deewar. What is inscribed on Vijay’s hand defines his destiny. From then on his life is guided by this mark or the stain it leaves on his soul. But there is an interplay between two inscriptions here. The second one turns up in the form of the talismanic ‘786’. The first one launches him on a path of possibility. The later one protects him from perils on this journey. When the interplay ceases at the climax and he loses the second inscription he meets a tragic end. Among the most oft-quoted of the film’s scenes — Vijay when cornered refuses to accept the morality or ethics of the existing social order until the inscription might be erased. He cannot bring himself to sign till the earlier signature can also be effaced. But the latter is ineffaceable as he later admits. The scene just prior to this opens with a shot of him signing a commercial purchase document for a building that he intends for his mother. In the very next sequence the latter of course exits his house and Vijay in disappointment and anger tears up the document. Inscriptions on paper might be destroyed but those on the body are seared for life.

The second inscription then makes its own journey to Coolie where it becomes an even deeper part of Iqbal’s identity. But this film has a far more startling moment towards the end when Bachchan’s character etches out with his blood the holiest of inscriptions. Sacred to a minority faith. One is unlikely to find in Bachchan’s canon a scene more potent than this one for this economy of inscriptions. Certainly nothing more laden with meaning was written before or after this. Also in Coolie an inscription that has since acquired the order of an ‘event’ spills over from the ‘off screen’ — the one that erupts all of a sudden within the body of the film. A shot where the viewer is reminded that Bachchan was injured and as everyone knows almost lost his life. This ‘freeze’ interrupts the film. A singular moment in the histories of all the cinemas of the world.

In Trishul the obsession that drives Vijay is to see the name of the mother, inscribed on a billboard, higher than that of his father’s, higher than every other such hoarding in the city. For this inscription to then be ‘conjoined’ with that of the father the latter must pay with his life. Again these commercial documents keep showing up. He has to keep inscribing them in various ways, even unethically, to settle his accounts with his father or to earn his father’s ‘counter-signature’ against his name. The climactic moment occurs when having ruined his father professionally he returns his ‘assets’ to him, a bunch of documents this time inscribed with his own name but gifted away to the father. It is the son’s signature that rescues the father at the precise moment at which the genealogical revelation comes about.

Heera ‘enters’ Lawaaris rather interestingly. He signs his name but when asked to do the same with his father’s name resists a bit and then has his interlocutor do it. A certain Deewar economy haunts even this moment. The name that is signed is of course not that of the biological father. Heera learns this very soon and the rest of the film becomes in large part a quest for the actual father. For this reason the film also complements the ‘work’ of Trishul.

Deewar is re-imagined in Agneepath. In a crucial scene Vijay suggests that the ‘writing’ on one’s forehead defines ultimate victory in life. A destiny shaped by an invisible inscription.

Finally Black. Here an incredible teacher inscribes letters on the arm of his student to teach her how to read and comprehend.

To him also belongs the most legendary verse of Hindi cinema. The poetry of Kabhi Kabhie and Silsila.. which is nonetheless never inscribed anywhere. Poetry will return shortly here with a Bachchan signature..

In so many of these provocative segments the name of the father is linked with that of ‘writing’. Derrida might have been pleased!

Why is the ‘786’ talismanic? If his father’s name becomes a destructive destiny for Vijay, if it places him outside the authorized social fold he relies on a somewhat repressed (outsider) minority faith to fill in the gap. His own Gods cannot follow him outside the limits of bourgeois community. To pray for his mother though he must cross that border and enter her space. But then he cannot hold on to the inscription of the other. Bachchan is first seen in Deewar seated outside the temple, he enters it only once for his mother and it is in some sense here that the ‘end’ truly begins. He enters into a final bit of commerce at the temple — his life for his mother’s. Just before he is about to get shot he drops the ‘786’ badge, desperately lunges for it but he cannot reach it. He has forgotten his wager at the temple. He cannot be ‘protected’ by both gods at once.

But there is a non-diegetic aspect to all of this as well (Coolie has already been mentioned), an art-twinning-life element. The title of Agneepath as well as the verse recited in the film’s climax comes from Bachchan’s biological father! In the Deewar climax the father is completely absent, it is only Vijay in a certain solitude with his mother (with the brother as ‘audience’ towards the end). In Agneepath as this scene is ‘re-written’ the father’s poetry intervenes! The actor’s actual father ‘contaminates’ the character’s dialogue with his mother. Just once the signature ‘Bachchan’ actually crosses ‘Vijay’ in the ‘text’ of the film. The off screen biological history laces the re-visited Deewar one! One can then move over to the non-diegetic side in a speculative way — for there is nothing as important in life for Amitabh Bachchan as those inscriptions of Harivanshrai Bachchan. How often has Bachchan (the son) quoted a certain thought from Bachchan (the father) throughout his career. ‘Jeevan mein apne man ka ho to achcha hai, apne man ka na ho to zyada achcha’. An ethic for life..

“Speak, Memory”


10 Responses to “Bachchan & Inscription”

  1. IAMTHAT Says:

    Treat As usual From Satyam….


  2. This piece really gets one thinking…

    “In a crucial scene Vijay suggests that the ‘writing’ on one’s forehead defines ultimate victory in life.”

    Interestingly Ratnam is clued into this in Guru where Abhishek’s young Gurubhai has the same exact line…

    “Why is the ’786′ talismanic? If his father’s name becomes a destructive destiny for Vijay, if it places him outside the authorized social fold he relies on a somewhat repressed (outsider) minority faith to fill in the gap.”

    Very well put. Another way to perhaps approach and account for this is to go back to the moment of the “tattooing”. That act of inscription on the body is in certain orthodox Islamic (and other) traditions considered a desecration of the body, sinful. Given this, it is actually those early aggressors who effectively marked him with the “Islamic” identity that he more fully “adopts” with the 786 badge later on. Their desecration amounts to not only a social stigma but also a religious one. The latter is something thrust upon Vijay from that point on.


    • The Guru moment was at the back of my mind somewhere when I wrote this.. but you’re quite right on Rathnam.. as always he is the best reader of the Bachchan text.. I think all the ‘face-painting’ of Raavan while obvious true to certain tribal registers as well as Kathakali ones can also be connected to the marking of the body. And so much of Raavan is really concerned with what is done to the body from the paint to the mutilations.

      Your point on tattooing in Islamic tradition is a particularly striking one. I did not know this except perhaps in a very vague sense. When you brought it up I seemed to recall hearing something about it. But you’re quite right. Great set of points!


      • Yeah Raavan’s’ narrative really follows through with its thematic interest in the human body given that the central conflict emerges from a moment in which the human body (a woman’s) is violated in the worst possible way.


  3. I don’t know if Im the only one who feels this but I find the whole ‘mera baap chor hai’ plot in Deewar very disturbing.


  4. Don’t compare me with Amitabh: Anil Kapoor

    New Delhi: ‘Mr. India’ Anil Kapoor, at 50, is possibly the only actor who has film offers pouring in almost every day after 67-year-old mega star Amitabh Bachchan. He sees no competition from younger stars, and feels it is an injustice to compare him with Big B.

    “Don’t compare me with Amitabh Bachchan, please. He is a once in a lifetime legend that Bollywood has got and it would be an injustice to put me on the same pedestal. I am really not trying to be modest. But it’s just the love for my work that keeps me going,” Anil told in an interview.

    Most of Anil’s contemporaries like Sanjay Dutt, Jackie Shroff, Govinda and Sunny Deol are of course seen on the big screen. But Anil’s consistency in his over-three-decade career has remained unmatched and the others have not managed to step into the Hollywood space like him.

    “I love acting. Money has never excited me to a certain extent. I have been lucky. The gods have been smiling on me. It’s not just hardwork, dedication or box office success… it’s a combination of all these that has contributed to my success. I’m fortunate that I’m still around,” he said.

    The actor-producer, who has became popular across the shores after Danny Boyle’s Oscar winning film Slumdog Millionaire where he played a game show host and the American TV series 24, says he is lucky he has never been out of work since his debut in 1979 with a bit role in Hamare Tumhare.

    “Over the last 30 years there never has been a single year when I didn’t have job opportunities. I have always decided what I want to do. The choice of films has always been mine. I pray to God that this remains all my life… that I work so hard that only I decide when to hang my boots, rather than people telling me ‘We have had enough of you’,” said Anil.

    And why not? Except for a bit of his receding hairline, the actor looks as young and dashing as ever. Dressed in a shirt and grey-coloured waistcoat and a spiked hairdo, he looks extremely fit.

    He is awaiting the release of his home production Aisha, the production hassles of which have been taken care of by his younger daughter Rhea, while elder daughter Sonam plays the title role in it.

    “The film is really by the young, for the young. I am very happy the way it has shaped up. All credit to the young team,” said Anil. He was here to promote Aisha at the Pearl’s Infrastructure Delhi Couture Week.

    Anil’s earlier production ventures – Badhai Ho Badhai, My Wife’s Murder, Gandhi, My Father and Shortkut-The Con Is On – didn’t manage much success at the box office, but he is quite confident that Rhea’s efforts will pay off when Aisha releases Aug 6.

    He is planning to let Rhea take over the mantle of producing films under his banner, Anil Kapoor Film Company. “Now I feel I can seriously think of producing films regularly because I have a great support system (in the form of Rhea). I am geared to do one or two films a year as a producer,” he said.

    Handing over production tensions to Rhea would also mean more time for him to act. So what’s in the pipeline now?

    “If I had my way, I won’t do films at all. But whenever I feel my bank balance is dwindling a bit, I do one film. If I want to help someone or I need money to bail out someone… my wife says do one film,” he said in a jocular tone.

    His hands are full with sequels right now. “I am doing No Problem, it is a fun film with Anees Bazmee. Then I am doing Race 2, No Entry 2 and probably Mr. India 2 – all sequels!”

    And international projects? “I’m in talks with Sophia Loren’s son and hopefully there are things working out with Ben Stiller also, and Fox Television. But these are all in the pipeline. Once they are completely materialised , then I would love to talk about it. But really… my whole life has changed after Slumdog Millionaire.”


  5. great stuff from Anil Kapoor,
    billa no 786 …..great stuff. Amitabh looks really tough in deewar image.


  6. Satyam: This is a remarkable piece, one of the very best I have read from you. I actually want to revisit Mr. Natwarlal and once I do, I will revisit your piece (of course your piece doesn’t talk about the Rakesh Kumar film, but if I recall correctly in the climax Bachchan uses a “badge” to beat up Amjad Khan).

    Anyway something I wrote on Ghulam, Deewar and “memory”-

    LINK to POST


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