(This is an extended version of a column I wrote in today’s Business Standard Weekend. Had to find a peg for the official piece so worked with the “Amitabh is everywhere” angle. But hope to expand this sometime into a more general piece on my memories of growing up with AB’s films.)
“And now,” my friend said glumly, as we sat about chewing on tangri kababs and discussing our favourite old Bachchan movies, “there’s something called Dil Jo Bhi Kahey, a film I hadn’t even heard of before it released last week. The grapevine says He’s in it only because a friend directed it. How long has it been since his last release anyway, two weeks? Three?”
For old fans like us, the Ubiquity of Amitabh is difficult to come to terms with. It could be because we became sentient movie-watchers around 1982-83, a time when Bachchan, at the height of his superstardom, had just started rationing his film appearances out -- partly because of the accident on the sets of Coolie, partly because of his nascent political career. I did, of course, see all his earlier films on video, but a new Bachchan movie was something to be savoured, all the more so because it came after weeks of waiting. And in the pre-cable era, when cine magazines were the only access one had to information about a forthcoming film.
Today, with the benefit of hindsight, I know that most of his mid-to-late 1980s films were the most appalling nonsense: heavy-handed political statements like Inquilaab, where he single-handedly purged a corrupt system by gunning down a roomful of ministers; shoddy revenge dramas like Aakhree Raasta. Looking back at them today, it’s also easy to see that he was past his prime. He was well into his 40s and looked it: heavyset jowls, pouches under the eyes, nowhere near as lithe as in his early days. (In fact, the trajectory of AB’s career is often forgotten. Remember, he became a superstar when he was already in his mid-30s. Today we marvel at what an active 63-year-old he is, but the transition from the late 30s to the 40s wasn’t an easy one for him. In even his better films from the early 1980s - Silsila and Shakti for instance - he was, and looked, significantly older than the character he played. It was possible for Shashi Kapoor, many years his senior, to come off as a credible younger brother/sidekick.)
Back then, though, we couldn’t care less. We were the first generation of video junkies and I still have a tangible memory of the goose pimples that appeared on my arm when a long-awaited Friday finally rolled over and I caught my first glimpse of the shiny cassette of a new Bachchan film in the video library. Rental rates for these were at least twice those of regular videotapes. The one time I ever saw a flash of annoyance in the eyes of the kindly uncle who manned the neighborhood comics-and-videos library was when he realised that my mother’s friend had watched Shahenshah (a double-cassette!) at our house, thereby depriving him of a customer.
And I remember vividly the hullabaloo when Toofan and Jaadugar (two of AB’s vilest films, though both have cult potential) were released within a week of each other (or was it the same week?) – on one level it amounted to twice the excitement, and even more frenzied scrabbling for videocassettes; but on another level it felt like a betrayal. Two films in one week! How could he cheapen himself so?
But today, he’s everywhere. On KBC, three (four?) times a week. In advertisements, his stentorian voice gracing lines that range from the ponderous (“Dard shvet hai...”) to the silly (“Pappu paas ho gaya?”). Doing 13 films a year, from full-fledged roles to supposed “friendly” appearances that eventually extend to half the length of the film. He does a stark human drama with Rani Mukherjee that’s hailed as “the role of his lifetime”, but then two months later he’s in another role of a lifetime, in Ram Gopal Verma’s take on The Godfather. Then he’s playing an “ordinary middle-class man” in what must surely be the worst case of miscasting in film history. His face peers out at you from every poster you see on the roads. And in the muddled world of present-day Bollywood, where everyone guest-stars in or does item numbers in everyone else’s films, if AB himself isn’t in a movie you can be sure he’ll be doing a voiceover for it.
Sure God is meant to be omnipresent etc. But I much preferred it when he did three films a year, well-spaced out.