The incomparable Amitabh – My diary of a passionate engagement over two decades (Utkal)
The year 1971. I am in the final year of school, right in the center of the Hindi heartland, in Raipur, eating, drinking and dreaming Hindi films. After a spate of super hits, the then heartthrob of Indian film lovers, Rajesh Khanna, has delivered some okey-dokey films. And then came Anand. We were all zapped. What a film! What a performance! And who won’t be touched by ‘ Kahin Door Jab Din Dhal Jaaye’ or ‘ Zindagi kaise Yeh Paheli Hai’ ? The superstar had redeemed himself. But amidst all this, we also talked of the character called ‘ Babu Moshai’ and an actor called Amitabh Bachchan. His performance too was praiseworthy, we all agreed. Looking back, Little did anyone realize that like the slayer of Kamsa being born in the prison cell of the Mathura king, the man who would dethrone the superstar, had got his definitive break in the triumphant comeback film of the superstar himself. Come to think of it, the Angry Young Man was born in Anand itself. ” Bolte kuyn nahin ho? Pichhle ten mahinese bak bak karte mere sar kha gaye ho. Ab chup kyuon ho? ‘ The way Amitabh delivered those lines, the intensity, the total concentration, it was never done before in Indian films. But we quickly forgot him and looked at actors like Navin Nischal ( Sawan Bhadon, Prawana) and Anil Dhawan ( Chetna, Piya Ka ghar) as the big stars of the next generation. ( Dharmendra was already a big star rivalling Rajesh Khanna with hits like Mera Gaon Mera Desh and Seeta Aur Geeta. ) .
Amitabh made appearances in a number of small films after that. We did take note of his intense villainy in Parwana and his awkward singing and dancing to the cult song ‘ Dekha Na hai Re’ in ‘ Bombay To Goa.’ Then in 1973 came Zanjeer and created havoc. But it is not as if Amitabh became the next big thing. It was not like Rajesh Khanna after Aradhana. People had dollops of doubt as to whether Amitabh could be a traditional Hindi film hero. I happened to see Nmak Haram , released the same year, before Zanjeer. I remember the excitement in the theater when Amitabh delivered the line, daring the rowdy workers bent on attacking Rajesh Khanna , ” Hai Koi Mai Ke Laal ? ” My god, what fury he could pack into that single line. I was in IIT then, in my 2nd year, having a session of mild ragging. I remember talking about films ( what else) with a bunch of juniors and asking one of them, ” Do you think Amiatbh can match the level reached by Rajesh Khanna?” ” Match? I think he will go far ahead of Rajesh Khanna in the years to come.” “Was this kid out of his mind? ” I thought. But now I know the younger generation has always a better intuitive understanding when it comes to the future.
The next Amiatbh film I remember seeing was Majboor. Salim-Javed were in the peak of their craft then and this was one hell of a script. Remember Pran singing ” Phir Na Kehna Michael peekay danga karta hai’. But what stays in the mind is Amitabh stung by the pain in the head dropping the fish bowl, smashing it to pieces…Amitabh trying to create false evidence of his death by littering the place with cigarette stubs. Also remember Amitabh singing ” Nahin Mein Nahin Dekh Sakta Tujhe Rote Hue”. The song convinced many of us that , Yes, he could perhaps still become some kind of a hero. He hadn’t sang any song in Zanjeer. and even here, he hadn’t really sung a romantic song. The next milestone in the memory trail is Deewar. Seeing that film was really like a religious experience. Amitabh was like a shaman leading us to trance. I had missed it on its actual release and saw it in a tent theater in Bangalore during my summer training. People were clapping after each dialogue…and what dialogues! Kal ek coolie phir hafta dene se inkaar karega. Peter main yahan hoon. Mein aaj bhi phek hua paisa nahin leta. Mere paas maa hai. But forget these one liners. I remember long passages from the film that Amitabh delivered. The one that he delivers at the Shiva temple: Haan, khush to bahut hoge. woh aurat jo tere dar pe maatha tekata tekaate uske maatha ghis gaye aaj woh zindagi aur maut ke beech ulajh rahi hai.etc. Or the lines he gives to Praveen Babi after the shoot out in the bar: ” Tum mera naam nahin pochoge?”‘ Kya fyada, tumhare jaise ladki apna nam kapdokin tarah badalti hai”. Or his speech to Iftekhar, or is it Madan Puri , ” Bachpanmeim ek kahani suni thi. Ek admi ke paas ek murgi thi jo sone ka andein deti thi.etc.The performance hit you like a sledge hammer. The blue shirt , open, tied at the end over the white bell bottoms are seared in ones film viewing memory like a tattoo. Ever since I saw Dilip Kumar in Aadmi and Raam aur Shyam back to back, no performance has had me in its grip like Deewar.
The memories of the next set of movies aren’t chronological. Like Abhiman, with Amit singing Meet Na Mila Manka dressed in his chequered coat, and joining Jaya for many duets, including the lilting ‘ Tere Mere Milan Ki Yeh Raina”. Honestly I don’t think much of the film. But the songs stayed in the mind. There was Roti Kapda aur Makan, Benam.Remember Saudagar for his very convincing performance as the toddytapper husband of Nutan besotted by the sensual charms of Padma Khanna. Remember the two wonderful Hrishikesh Mukherjee films Mili and Chupke Chupke, the latter showing the first flashes of his inimitable comic timing which attained its full flowering in the next landmark film of Amitabh’s long and lustrous career: Sholay. ” Basanti Tera Naam Kya Hai? Hindi cinema hadn’t seen a display of deadpan humour like this before. In a way it was very Western but implanted very expertly on Indian soil. It was possible due to Salim-Javed’s rootedness combined with exposure to Western pulp like James Hadley Chase. Amiatbh’s Jai was a unique type, never seen before in Indian cinema, combining the laconic , brooding action hero with a deadpan verbal humour. Someone who shoots from the hip as well as the lip. Who can forget his scene where he is talking with Veeru’s mausi proposing marriage with Bassanti. ‘ Daru peeta hai jab jua mein haar jaata hai. ab roz roz to aadmi jeet nahin sakta.” These comic interludes soon became mandatory set pieces in his subsequent films. Sholay was already taking Amitabh on his way to becoming a complete hero who can sing, emote, romance, fight and do comedy. ( The dancing ability was yet to be added to the resume.) He continued with his angry mode in Do Anjaney, an okey-dokey film remarkable only for the beginning of his pairing with Rekha.
The next change of track for Amitabh came with Kabhi Kabhi, where he was romancing Raakhee In Yash Chopra’s trademark locations like Kashmir, dressed in Yash Chpra’s trademark costumes like jackets and sweaters, singing ‘ Main Pal Do Pal Ka Shayar Hoon’. I think the film was messy, unwieldy and didn’t amount to much. But it did wonders for Amitabh’s career , as it established his credentials as a romantic hero. It also established his bond with the director Yash Chopra and also established a pattern of his being paired with Shashi Kapoor, providing a light counterpart to his dark brooding presence. This pattern and bonding was to be repeated in films like Trishul and Kaala Patthar , where Amitabh continued to excel in his established style of acting.
The departure came with Hera Pheri and to some extent Khoon Pasina, both Prakash Mehra films where Amiatbh started showing his comic turns meant for the masses singing songs like ” Apna to Kaam Hai Paraya Maal Hadapna aur Raam Naam Japna’ . I remember enjoying the films then ( specially his romantic turns with Rekha with whom I was totally besotted by now. ), but never cared to revisit them really. But the one that I do revisit time and again is Prakash Mehra’s Muqadar Ka Siqandar. I think this is the best Devdas impersonation after Bimal Roy-Dilip Kumar’s version. The film had all the hallmarks of Prakash Mehra’s campy and crass style. But it also had a lots of heart. Amitabh and Rekha showed what chemistry is about with the song’ Salaame Ishq’ . Amiatbh brought lumps to our throat with his ” Mem saab’ act and his singing of ‘ O Saathi Re”. I saw the film a number of times in the theater, both for Amitabh and Rekha. The Rekha Amiatbh pairing sizzled in the next film of another Amitabh loyalist, Rakesh Kumar ( who vanished when there was no Amitabh to bolster him just like Prakash Mehra, Manmohna Desai, Narendra Bedi, and Chandra Barot,) The film was the unremarkable Mr Natwarlal, made remarkable for me by that one son song: ‘Mere paas aao, mee doston’. It showed the limitless talent of this gifted actor. He sang the song himself and acted it out with such sincerity that it reached to the child in you, held you in its grip and wont let go. I remember him clamoring up the branch of a tree, doing all kinds of monkey tricks, then the fantastic expression and timing he puts into the line ‘ Hanuman Chalisa padhta hua, Bolo Pawan putra Hanuman ki jai” and above all the punch line: ” Arre Lallu, yeh jeena bhi koi jeena hai.” Even today, when I see the song on TV I feel like breaking into an applause when it ends.
The next landmark film is yet another film that shows what makes Amitabh such an immortal star, whose super stardom has lasted longer than anyone else in the history of Indian cinema — his ability to reinvent his star persona many times over. The film I am talking about is Amar Akabr Anthony. It was time for us to be hit by a sledge hammer once again. If the impact of Amiatbh’s performance in Deewar owed a lot to the writing of Salim-Javed here it was the sheer genius of Manmohan Desai that resulted in this remarkable makeover. We were zapped as we saw Amitabh dance , no perform, My Name Is Anthony Gonsalves, mouth dialogues like ‘ Aadmi zindagi mein doh-ich baar aisa bhaagta hai, Olympic ka race ho, yah police ka case ho ( Kadar Khan, take a bow!) and do his Buster Keaton act of putting the band aid on his reflection on the mirror. ( Just digressing a little, those who compare Farah Khan with Manmohan Desai have no clue to what they are talking. Farah does not have even the fraction of detailing and wit present in each of the songs of AAA: Honi Ko Anhonee Kar De, My Name Is, Parda Hi Parda, Tayab Ali Pyaar Ka Dushman). Any way back to Amitabh. Though he did Parvarish and Suhaag with Desai, the only other film that belongs in the same league is Naseeb and to some extent Coolie. Naseeb with its song John Jaani Janardan, Chal Mere Bhai continued to showcase the comic energy and invention of Deasi-Bachchan combo ( Rishi Kappor replacing Shashi by now as the lighter alter ego of Bachchan). This is the phase when he created his unique persona that I have branded as Sophisticated Tapori. No one before or since has been able to create a persona that appeals to masses and the classes alike that completely.
It is impossible for anyone today to imagine how completely Amiatbh dominated this decade. Because here I am going gaga over Bachchan-Desai combo forgetting the Mehra-Bachchan combo that after Muqadar Ka Siknadar came with Namak Halal , Sharabi and Lawaaris. Each of them had a blockbuster item number that would put the Munnis and Shielas of today in the shade: Pag Ghungroo Bandh Mera Nachi Thi, which brings the house down today even in TV reruns or in any stage show by any cover singer, De De Pyar De, Mere angana Mein. Sharabi had some fine emotional moments too, though some were over-the-top melodramatic ones. And both Namak Halal and Sharabi had some fine comic set pieces ( I can talk English, I can walk English. When Vijay Hazare was playing with VIjay Merchant….considering the consideration etc. Moochhe ho to Nathuram jaisa ho) .
And while I am talking about Desai and Mehra I have forgotten about Don, the crackling script that Salim-Javed wrote creating the ultimate benchmark for impersonation dram in Indian cinema. ( It was a hit in every south Indian remake, remarkably in Billa , the Rajnikant version, reprised again by Ajit recently.) Amitabh was pitch perfect as the paan-chewing, Bhojpuri speaking Vijay, singing in his lungi, Yeh hai Bomabi Nagariya Tu Dekh Babua. But what gave us the collective orgasm, was watching him perform ‘ Khaike Paan Benaraswala’. Those who dare compare Shahrukh’s version with the original should have seen the mass hysteria in theatres during the song.
And again while I am talking of these potboilers I am forgetting the little gems he was making with Hrishikesh Mukherjee: Jurmana and Bemisal ( Aalap was indulgent and boring. failing by trying too hard, just like Salim-Javed”s Imaan Dhram earlier). I especially enjoyed his performance in Bemisal. There were okey-dokey films like Do Aur Do Paanch, Khuddar, Kaalia, Satta Pe Satta, Khuddar etc of which some I have not seen , some I have seen but don’t have strong impressions. But I do remember the powerful Dostana penned by Salim-Javed again and the very funny sequence that Amitabh enacted with Zeenat in the restaurant / club, talking about the imaginary girlfriend, Meenakshi.
But three or four films after this Amitabh- can-do-no-wrong-and-is- No1- to- No10 phase that have stayed in my mind are Shakti, Silsila, Aakhri Raasta and Main Azad Hoon. Dilp Kumar had the better role and better lines in Shakti but Amitabh’s performance was as intense and impactful as ever. Can’t stop from watching it whenever it’s on TV. This is one film where the two female protagonists Raakhee and Smita Patil complement the male leads perfectly, even with limited screen time. Silsila is the film that really created a successful romantic avatar of Amitabh, much more than Kabhi Kabhi did. The film once again extended Amitabh’s persona into another dimension, aided by his inimitable rendering of Rang Barse ( spare a thought for the superlative support of Sanjeev Kumar during the sequence), his scorching chemistry with Rekha during the tulips tinte song ‘ Yeh Kahan aa Gaye Hum” and his unforgettable rendition of ” Mein aur meri tanhayi aksar baatein karte hain” which must have come to the aid of so many would-be Romeos to woo their Juliets in shayrana andaz across college campuses. Aakhri Raasta was remarkable for his performance as both father and son. I confess one of the few scenes that really brought tears to my eyes in my adult days was the scene where the father Amitabh meets the son at the graveyard and hears him talk flawless English and sii choked with emotion. Main Azad Hon was a little confused about what kind of a film it wanted to be and does not work fully. But the last soliloquy by Amitabh is unmatchable and unforgettable. ( He managed the feat once again in the closing soliloquy in Baghban).
Moving on, there were films like Shahenshah and Hum which were kind of successful but I didn’t care much about. Khuda Gawah had its moments. Agneepath didn’t work for me as a film ( Mithun the nariwalwala was intolerable) , though the performance was fine ( bit of a Deewar dej vu diluted the impact for me) . Remake of South films like Inqilab and Mahaan I didn’t even care to see. And the fact that you cannot squeeze a lemon beyond a point without making the juice bitter was proven by Desai-Mehra duds like Desh Premee, Mard, Ganga Yamuna Saraswati, Toofan and Jaadugar.
My period of passionate engagement and wide-eyed admiration for Amitabh films more or less ended here, until his second coming with films like Baghban, Khakee, Cheeni Kum and Paa. ( But I cant talk of them in the same breath as this phase of true youthful romance and first love. So I will save that for another summation.)
Just one closing thought. When I look back on my Hindi film viewing days of the 70s and 80s all I can see is Amitabh Bachchan, maybe counterpoised with small films of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee, shyam Benegal and Goving Nihalani. But no other stars even comes close to intruding upon this passionate engagement. Not Dharmedra, not Vinod Khanna ( who are these people? ), not Anil, Sunny , Sanjay ( Bachchas , aren’t they? In fact until the advent of the three Khans in their peak, star excitement for me did not come from any male star, but female stats like Sridevi and Madhuri.
As to Amitabh, the magic of his full-blown star charisma was resurrected for me, not in any big screen portrayal, but as the anchor of the first season of Kaun Banega Crorepati. Once again no Indian star, to paraphrase, MC Hammer, can touch that.