From the India Today Archives… the Shahenshah Hysteria!

thanks to Yakuza…

Return of the hero
Amitabh Bachchan makes spectacular come-back with Shahenshah

First the letters arrived: “Warning No.l: if you release Shahenshah we will set your cinema on fire.” Then, a telephone call: “You did not heed our warning, now face the consequences.” So on February 12, when Shahenshah was finally released, 250 cinema owners across the country had protected themselves against the threat with truck-loads of Sten gun-wielding policemen.

What came instead was a human tidal wave. The advance booking for Amitabh Bachchan’s controversial come-back film shattered all records and in some cases, the windows of booking counters. In Shiela cinema, in the heart of Delhi, a crowd of 20,000 people began collecting from 9 a.m. onwards for the first show. “It was larger than anything anyone can remember. Twenty, thirty times larger,” said the owner, Ajay Kaushish.

Never perhaps has there been so much anticipation before a film. On one hand, youth wings of several opposition parties had sworn they would not let the film be released as they considered Amitabh a symbol of corruption. On the other hand, the film industry itself was nervous enough. Would the film survive the threats – and the expectations? As a safety measure, director Tinnu Anand crossed his fingers and released Shahenshah simultaneously across the country. Oddly, Amitabh, at the last minute, got rid of his Bombay territory rights which he had held on to for so long.

For three and a half never-ending hours on February 12, the entire film industry held its breath. Would Amitabh be accepted back – despite everything?

Then the reports started coming in. The claps whenever Amitabh appeared on the screen, tickets spiralling to Rs.100 and more in the black market, a poor man who said: “Take my rickshaw but let me see the film.” “Normally on the first day, the audience is very unruly, they come out on every song,” said a theatre owner. “In this case, nobody moved out at all.”

Even the video cassette asserted its might, commanding a five-day advance booking. A one minute spot on the video is reported to have cost advertisers several lakhs. In Varanasi, a theatre had an extra show at 7 a.m. on a Sunday: it was house full immediately. “Anyone or anything even vaguely related to Shahenshah is making gold,” wrote Dalip Shandil in Evening News. Or as a Bombay film spokesman crudely put it: “Ladka hua hai (It’s a boy).”

Deja vu. The film is a rehash of everything Amitabh has ever done. Take a huge pot, throw in Amrish Puri, Prem Chopra, Kader Khan, Aruna Irani. Spice it up with the usual masala, slowly sizzle for three hours and the result: a long, somewhat irritating film with a familiar taste.

Whatever the merits of the film itself, the moment Amitabh comes on the screen, the ghost of Bofors whimpers away. The audience has forgotten Swiss banks, arms deals and Vinod Khanna. The Amitabh release after a year and a half proves just how far he is above everyone else in the industry.

During the day, Amitabh plays a crude paan-chewing policeman; at night he is Shahenshah. Superman and Phantom rolled into one. with clothes inspired by Michael Jackson. A colossus striding across the landscape blowing away hooch dens, smugglers and bride burners. He is a superhuman force that bullets cannot hurt, he raises his arm and the hoods go crashing, and in the completely bizarre finale, he drives his truck straight into the court room, and hangs the villain right there.

Shahenshah is a lavishly made film, even if it is not crafted with the finesse of Deewar and Trishul There is JK the villain (Amrish Puri) in an unforgettable scene, emerging from a massive pool filled with waterfalls – in his drawing-room. Meenakshi Seshadri is the fresh, leggy heroine who lives in a slum but wears clothes that could teach Pierre Cardin a trick or two. Shahenshah is a law unto himself, beyond the courts and the police. “There cannot be two laws,” he says, mouthing lines that would warm any socialist politician’s heart. “One for the rich and one for the poor.”

Amitabh is still the phenomenon he always was. The people love him. He is one of them, a man who has risen from the masses, becomes a millionaire, gets a beautiful woman’s love – and never forgets where he came from. “What else do they want?” asks Raj Chopra, a major Bachchan film distributor. “He takes them from the earth to the skies.”

“He has proved that he is still the number one draw despite what the Opposition might say,” said Sidheshwar Dayal, a film exhibitor. In Shahenshah, Amitabh is visible in all his shades: comedy, tragedy, action. He is perhaps the only hero in Hindi films who would dare oil his hair, have paan dripping from his mouth, wear the most hideous clothes, move his pelvis crudely, look thoroughly revolting – and still command complete affection. He also plays the loner, as in his earlier films, appearing on strange nights to do away with evil. Amitabh is special because he is so familiar, he has meant so much to cinema audiences for so long.

Amitabh in Shahenshah by nightThis one man has also changed the fortunes of several people. Director Anand was almost bankrupt a few months ago, reduced to making advertising films. Even film exhibitors have been through a lean period. After several months, audiences are returning to cinema halls. “This film can rejuvenate the industry,” said Dayal. “Ultimately, it will help other films.”

Directors like Prakash Mehra and Yash Chopra can breathe again: all their films with Amitabh were hits, all without him flops. The lesser heroes, however, have suffered. With one eye on Amitabh’s return, Jackie Shroff, Dharmendra and Mithun Chakraborty are signing any film that comes their way. “But Shahenshah’s biggest dhakka (jolt),” as Raj Chopra put it, “is to V.P. Singh.”

It is too soon to predict how the film will finally do. once the crowds subside. Outwardly, it is a hit but the industry is divided on whether it can finally pay its way through. It doesn’t take long for shows to break and it is. after all, one of the most expensive films ever made, with distributors paying up to Rs.90 lakh for each of the five film territories.

Fate has given Amitabh the first hand. Producers are buzzing around him like bees and he has reportedly signed 12 films in the last month. But the actor has begun to look old and tired. The charisma cannot last forever. “He cannot fight nature,” said Chopra. That, alas, is one fight even Amitabh Bachchan cannot win.


” Added Amit Khanna: “Amitabh still remains the only bankable star with the Hindi film industry.” But the most telling evidence of the controversial actor’s continued popularity has come in the last six months in the revival of several of his old films.

At least 200 prints of his earlier films are being screened, many to packed houses, throughout the country. If the Hindi film Moghuls were doubtful about their most phenomenal star, these were dispelled by house – full boards for the past several weeks outside Bombay’s Minerva theatre for the blockbuster Sholay.”


3 Responses to “From the India Today Archives… the Shahenshah Hysteria!”

  1. omrocky786 Says:

    Superb read, specially liked the line that the biggest dhakka was to v.p. singh….


  2. Couldn’t fine suitable thread for this .. Another nostalgic piece from 1993 …. Boxoffice of Aankhein …


  3. Aankhen was the equivalent of some of Amitabh’s 80s efforts like NamaK Halal and Sharaabi, fast-paced with lots of gags and fun.


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