When I think of the complete Hindi film experience, my mind harks back to the era of the single-screen cinema halls, a few decades back.
This was a time when exquisitely hand-painted posters adorned the exteriors of cinemas, when lobby cards heightened the anticipation of the upcoming movie and speculations were made merely by looking at still images from the film in magazines, when serpentine queues outside the theatre were a regular occurrence. Fistfights erupted when the dreaded ‘Housefull’ board made an appearance.
One name in particular, printed in big red letters on billboards, managed to cause this level of hysteria: “AMITABH BACHCHAN”.
The cinemas were always packed to the limit. Some theatre owners chose to maximise their profits by selling tickets at discounted rates above the capacity of the hall. Makeshift rusty, creaky metal chairs were given to grateful patrons. What made the experience special was the audience who weren't passive spectators, like they usually are at multiplexes, but active participants.
They talked back to the screen. They wolf-whistled when Bachchan made his first appearance on screen, his “entry”. They cheered when Bachchan delivered his one-liners, many of which have now become milestones of Indian cinema. They kicked the seat in front of them (unintentionally most of the time) when the villains received their comeuppance at the hands of Big B and even shed tears during the sombre moments. They danced to their favourite Amitabh songs. Some tossed their hard-earned money at the screen.
The chairs were usually creaky and uncomfortable. Despite the letters ‘AC’ at the entry doors, the air conditioning occasionally didn't function, giving the viewers a sauna experience.
But for the audiences back then, these were minor distractions as the focus was total, complete, and undivided on Big B on the big screen.
I recall during the screening of an underrated Amitabh caper, The Great Gambler, a mischief-monger set off a small firework in the cinema hall. Just a few rushed to the exit, but they returned to their seats in minutes. A majority of the audience continued to remain focused on the film. When the authorities stopped the screening to investigate what had happened, the audience protested in salty language, ordering the theatre bosses to resume the screening and investigate later. This would be unthinkable for current audiences.
Such was the demand for tickets for Bachchan blockbusters that audiences had to wait for 25 weeks to get a ticket at the booking counter. It made the booking of tickets seem like an accomplishment. I remember my neighbours boasting about being able to get tickets for Bachchan's Shahenshah in the late 80s.
It wasn’t only the producers, distributors, and theatre owners who cashed on Big B’s popularity. Black marketers of tickets too turned in huge profits. A black ticket seller named his son Amitabh because of the income generated for him by the superstar.
There were no 24x7 or on-demand film channels, no streaming services that allowed you to watch films while sitting in the park or walking down the street.
The films of Amitabh Bachchan re-released every year, and had a bigger audience than the latest releases of other “stars” of those days.
There are two kinds of individuals who appear on celluloid. There are stars and there are actors.
There are stars who possess the looks and magnetism that draw the crowd. There are actors who possess talent while not being blessed by the charisma that makes a movie star.
Then there is Amitabh Bachchan.
His unique screen presence, his ceaseless panache, and his distinctive and now trademark baritone voice made him a superstar.
Bachchan is gifted with prodigious acting abilities such that he can change himself into a character like a chameleon.
Had he merely possessed the onscreen charisma and not the exceptional acting talents Bachchan would have still been a big star. Conversely, without his charisma, Bachchan would have done well as a character actor.
But Bachchan possessed the best of both which made him the phenomenon he is, perhaps causing legendary French film maestro François Truffaut to describe Amitabh Bachchan as a “one-man industry”.
Back in the 70s and 80s, Bachchan didn’t need a 'look’ for his character. There were no prosthetics or makeup. He looked as he always did, usually clean-shaven with the trademark hairstyle and all the attributes that audiences looked forward to.
The focus was instead on the performance – language, the tone of his voice, the manner of delivery, the way he moved and the way he dressed, and even the manner in which he held a cigarette.
A perfect example of Bachchan’s skills as an actor was his 70s films such as Amar Akbar Anthony, Deewaar, Kabhi Kabhie, and Don.
Anthony Gonsalves in Amar Akbar Anthony, Vijay Varma in Deewaar, Amit Malhotra in Kabhie Kabhie, and Don/Vijay in Don had nothing in common apart from the way they looked.
Anthony was a wise-cracking, smooth-talking likeable bootlegger who carried himself with self-assured swagger and spoke Bombaiya Hindi.
Vijay Varma suffered unspeakable humiliation and hardship as a child and the trauma scarred him forever. He was like an intense volcano that could erupt at any moment.
Amit Malhotra was a poet who fell deeply in love with his college mate Pooja, only to sacrifice the love of his life to become an embittered and sullen middle-aged man.
Don was a suave, confident, almost cocky mob boss who even referred to himself in the third person while Vijay, the man who impersonated Don, was from rural India, spoke in the Awadhi dialect, and couldn’t survive without pan.
There was never ever any demonstrativeness or force in any of the performances. It was almost as if he lived those characters. It seemed real as it was happening at the moment. It was understated which was a rarity for its time.
The films may have been larger than life but Bachchan never let go of the humanity of his character. There were always poignant and vulnerable moments that made the audiences empathise with his on-screen persona. This is what made audiences relate to Bachchan's characters.
It is not just the on-screen performances but the choice of scripts that made Amitabh the superstar he is.
After Bachchan established himself as the “angry young man” in the 70s, he could have continued down that road and played the character over and over again. The public certainly wanted it.
But Bachchan was keen to challenge himself. He almost dismantled that persona by playing comedic and romantic parts. It broadened his audience and established Bachchan as an all-rounder or even a one-man variety show.
I remember being told by a film critic that Bachchan had managed to captivate all demographic groups. The poor saw him as one who took on the system. The very young thought of him as their superhero, the elderly saw as the model son. Men wanted to be like him while women wanted to be with him.
That broad appeal still continues which explains why he is among the biggest brand names in the country.
"Do you think you are Amitabh Bachchan?" is the equivalent of don't punch above your weight.
As he went on to do many more films and reached new heights of success, Bachchan was expected to be a certain way and do certain things. A slight repetition was inevitable. But never ever did Bachchan sleepwalk through a performance or appear indifferent. He always applied himself to the fullest irrespective of the merit of the film.
Even while he donned “superheroic characters” on screen that demanded the audience to suspend their sense of disbelief, he continued playing characters with shades of grey in smaller, more realistic films such as Bemisal, Jurmana, Alaap, and Mili. He played the common man who is taken advantage of by megalomaniacal politicians and publicity-hungry journalists in the underrated Main Azaad Hoon.
Most of these films were dwarfed by Bachchan’s blockbusters, but he should be admired for stretching his limits as an artist in times when leading men were expected to stick to convention.
When his career faltered slightly during the late 90s, Bachchan reinvented himself by becoming an amiable host on Kaun Banega Crorepati. The KBC phenomenon in the late 90s and the early 2000s generated the equivalent craze of his blockbusters in the 70s and 80s. The streets were silent, corporate meetings took breaks, and the country came to a standstill to watch the biggest game show in India. The show still continues to draw audiences almost two decades later.
While his big screen personality enabled people to live their dreams through Bachchan, KBC allowed the players to realise their dreams by winning astronomical amounts of money in a short period of time.
As Bachchan entered the senior phase of his film career, he continued to play the leading man but was no longer shackled by the compulsions of what a young leading man required. Bachchan broadened his horizons by playing a large variety of roles, including a child suffering from progeria and a lascivious ruthless gangster.
What impact did Bachchan leave on his audiences?
I remember during the late 80s, the crowd was on its way out after the screening of Amar Akbar Anthony and I overheard an elderly man dressed in black with a haircut similar to Amitabh Bachchan of the 70s saying, “After a long time I have had so much fun at the cinema. I felt it was me up there on the screen. I am Amitabh Bachchan. The tallest and the mightiest. Don't mess with me.” He spoke triumphantly, mimicking Big B as Anthony Gonsalves. I saw him walk towards one of the small huts near the cinema with a big smile on his face.
This euphoric mania from the audience was what made the film-viewing experience back then very special. There were people from all strata of society packed in one auditorium experiencing it all at the same time. Cinema was a truly unifying experience.
It provided an escape for those struggling with their daily lives. They walked out of the cinema as if they were intoxicated, they could take on the entire world and win simply because they had seen Big B take on everybody for three hours and win.
Surprisingly not much has changed with the mad passions.
Recently, the Film Federation of India restored and re-released some of Bachchan’s classics like Deewaar, Don, Kaalia, Namak Halal, and Amar Akbar Anthony.
The audience cheered at every trademark one-liner and danced to every song.
As Bachchan turns 80, the audiences thank him for the entertainment on-screen and for the inspiration off-screen, for never being complacent about his success and always yearning for more.
Here’s wishing the big man a century.