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The Man Who Withers Age

October 11, 2022 | By

Fans and movie lovers across the country and the world celebrated Amitabh Bachchan’s 80th birthday on October 11, 2022. Ratnottama Sengupta takes a trip down memory lane to recall her experiences of watching the Big B grow from a lanky new actor to the icon.

Amitabh Bachchan

He was everything a Hindi film hero in the late 1960s was not supposed to be: Lanky, dark, brooding, intense… And his voice?! Well, who had heard him then? Or, heard of him??

* I had. Rather, I saw him. In 1970. On the sets Hrishi Kaku’s Anand probably playing chess. This lanky young man’s sitting in a chair somewhere. I am not introduced to him, yet my heart misses some beats.

* Anand releases after my SSC exams in 1971. The Phenomenon has all the Quotable Lines, but I’ve eyes only for the angular presence who’s on verge of being written off. Only one voice rings in my ears: “Itne din tum boltey gaye aur main sunta gaya. Ab khamosh kyoon ho? Bolo!!” Have I ever heard such a deep voice in all my sixteen-year life? But then, have I ever seen such intense eyes!

* Saat Hindustani releases in Mumbai. I bunk a lecture in Elphinstone College. No one’s watching the film but Bhavna Parikh and I do. Goa Liberation is a little seen theme. K A Abbas is a much respected writer director. Has any of this lured us into the near-empty hall? Naah. It’s that disturbing young man we’re there for.

* Bombay to Goa is showing somewhere. Bhavna and I are giggling away. Stupid film? So what! Dekha na haay re, socha na haay re, rakhdi nishaney pe Jaan… Kadmon pe tere nikle mera dum, hai bas yahi armaan.

* My cousins – they’re art directors, documentary filmmakers, writers in films. At the dinner table they tease us about our infatuation for the actor whose agile dancing we’re swooning over. “What! You call that scarecrow an actor? The ‘kaker-thyang boker-thyang’ (Bengali idiom meaning all arms and legs) movement is dance? Well, what can we expect of young ladies who go gaga over the voice crooning Dum maaro dum... Some day you’ll say this Amitabh kid can also sing!”

Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri in Abhimaan

Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri in Abhimaan

* Three years and Zanjeer later, I’m on the sets of another Hrishi Kaku film. This one – Abhimaan – is scripted by Baba. Jayadi is respectful of Baba, her Master Moshai since her FTII days. Hrishi Kaku is fussing over his ‘Guddi’, who’s passing on all the grapes Hrishi Kaku got for her, to her ‘Lambuji‘. They’d just got married as the protagonists Uma and Subir. So, banter’s in the air.

Especially since the dhoban scene is being shot. The washerwoman has found a note in the pocket of Sahab’s clothes. “Hai daiyya!” she exclaims, a finger on her lips. That’s a secret sign between Subir and Uma for a kiss! Bhavna and I, doting on Lambuji and Jayadi, are also tickled to no end! Our heartthrob had become Babumashai by marrying Jayadi!

* Abhimaan releases. Bijoyda, Subhenda, Bacchuda are silenced. My baby cousin Raja joins the fanclub. And Bhavna, my closest friend in Elphinstone, is peeved. “You live in Malad and I live in Borivili, two stops after Malad by the local train from Churchgate. That’s why he drops into your dreams everyday and never in mine!” she cribs.

* Bijoyda’s words tum prophetic. Lambu sings Jiski biwi chhoti uska bhi bada naam hai… By then many zanjeers have been broken. Many deewars fallen by the wayside. Lambuji had been angry again and again; again and again he’d made us cry. Either by his love for his mother, or with his ‘heads I win or heads I win!’ By then his success is not kabhi kabhie, the presence of the ‘Flop Master’ is already be-misal. He’s everything to everybody – be it Amar Akbar or Anthony…

poster of coolie

Directed by Prayag Raj, Amitabh Bachchan played a coolie in this movie.

* One day in 1982 a Coolie strikes, and stalls India in its track. Like that scene in Anand, everyone’s praying. Walking barefoot to Siddhivinayak and Kalighat. Burning candles in Novena. Seeking dua in Nizamuddin and Haji Ali. Across the length and breadth of the land we’re praying for divine intervention. For, only a miracle can save the saviour of the downtrodden in film after film after film.

* Baba has dug out his diary of janam patris. He’s poring over Jayadi’s and her husband’s birth charts — a passion he imbibed decades ago from writer Saradindu Bandopadhyay (the creator of the detective Byomkesh Bakshi). After several hours he drafts a message. “Do not worry. Husband will recover and rise higher.” I send the phonogram over the telephone because I’m in Bombay expecting my child.

* My son is two-n-half. I’m a newsperson in The Telegraph. Indira Gandhi dies. Big B plunges into politics. ‘Yeh dosti hum nahin todenge…,’ His buddy who’ll be PM is reassured: Chhora Ganga kinarewala has won by a huge margin.

* But Don flops again. In the Lok Sabha. Not one memorable dialogue. No action!! I’m with The Times Of India in Delhi when Bofors guns misfire, and AB is run out. ABCL mislands. Our hero is neck-deep in debt. But Phoenix re-lives. Bachchan ji’s now doing ads. Zor ka jhatka dheere se laage… “Why is he selling Miranda on TV?!” my Mass Comm students in Kalindi College cry foul. “But he’s an actor, and he’s only acting on the small screen,” I reason with them.

* The newspapers are in a tizzy. Big B is dancing at the wedding of a politician’s son. No!!! So what if he’s the CM of UP. Zillions like us swoon when AB swings his hip, Bhagwan Dada style. Politics messed up his life once. “Please don’t do this!” Nikhat and I plead in an open letter.

* Yes, he stooped, but to conquer. Slowly, surely, he rises back to dizzying heights. He reinvents himself in the role of a quizmaster. Day in, day out, my secretary Amit dials the number that might get him on the Hot Seat. Ek baar lag jaaye toh zindagi ban jaaye. My son sits glued to the TV. He has started quizzing. No, no KBC for him but the mastermind of the show Siddharth Basu ‘Masterminds’ him to win University Challenge quiz.

Amitabh Bachchan in Bhoothnath Returns

Amitabh Bachchan in Bhoothnath Returns

* Meanwhile. Amitji has transited. Graduated. Flourished. He’s now the buffoon in Shahenshah, now the greying brother in Hum, now the mourning father in Mohabbatein. No roles barred.

* Result? At seven my son cheers with me for AB at the Filmfare awards. At ten he queues up at Siri Fort for the Tall Man’s autograph. At fourteen he tries to copy the Jumma chumma de de. And now my grandson, all of three, is dancing Jumma chumma le le, le le…

* Me? At 21, I walk down the stairs of Vatican, and an Egyptian confesses: “I love two Indians – Indira Gandhi and Amitabh Bachchan.” At 41, I walk into a shop in Cairo and they play up the volume of the television showing O mere yaar… At 51, I see a Syrian airhostess swoon on sighting AB on her flight. At 61, I see an Indonesian recognise the quality of Rice with the photo of ‘Amitacchcchan’.

* I still sit in a darkened Netaji Indoor Stadium and listen to The Icon recount Robida’s jokes. I still soak in his voice encapsulating the history of Indian cinema. I still ask Atri for a copy of the speeches that have opened the KIFF year after year.

* Fifty years and more, but I still laugh with Bhavna at every memory of Amitabh Bachchan. Ups and downs in life, grey hair, lousy patches notwithstanding. I have yet to find a tall-dark-lanky man who straddles decades, and genres. Generations, and Continents. Nowhere does the world of make believe have another Amitabh Bachchan.

Let’s turn on the tap, then, and sing: Jumma chumma le le…

The Great Gatsby

Amitabh Bachchan, Tobey Maguire and Leonardo Di Caprio in The Great Gatsby

Great Gatsby… Greater AB…


Amitabh Bacchan, the legend, just turned 80.

The actor? He’s crossed 53!

Five decades and more in which he’s been a seething youth in Zanjeer, Deewar, Sholay, Ganga Ki Saugandh; romantic youth in Abhimaan, Kabhie Kabhie, Silsila; comical in Chupke Chupke, Cheeni Kum, Piku; teaching us a lesson in Main Azad Hoon and Pink; experimenting with emotions in Black and Pa.

The passage of years have seasoned the Angry Young Man of Indian Screen. His comic forays put paid to the practice of having a comedian as the hero’s lackey. His baritone enriched Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Bawarchi, Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari, and the watershed Lagaan.

Through all this, Big B turned into a legend described by the iconic director Francois Truffaut as “a one-man industry”. The “flop actor” became not only the Shahenshah of Bollywood but also the first living Asian to be modelled in Madame Tussauds; and have his likeness as statues in New York, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Washington…

So what happened when the charisma of Big B joined the Hollywood star Leonardo di Caprio, whiz kid director Baz Luhrman and the American classic The Great Gatsby? Did it spell a giant leap for Bollywood? Unfortunately, no.

When the film released in 2013, The Great Gatsby had a terrific response in the US. It was a treat that, after Dark Knight Rising, this was the first film that had the theatres packed completely. Before that of course, I had seen Robert Redford’s 1974 version. His was the third Gatsby, after the silent 1926 film, and the 1949 talkie. Many didn’t want to see DiCaprio’s Gatsby because they thought he could not better Redford’s perfect Gatsby. But the memory I’d retained from that film was of Mia Farrow as Daisy. Why? Because, when I did my MA, Bombay University had the novel as one of our texts. We all read the novel as a critique of the American dream. So we imagined Gatsby as antithetical to Kennedy and Redford was cut in the Kennedy mould!

Di Caprio’s Gatsby was different. He was not obsessed with merely a woman but with a pristine past. That added to the novel’s complexity. But more importantly, this was Big B’s first in Hollywood. Granted, it wasn’t a big role. In fact, it’s a very small and fleeting role. His Meyer Wolfsheim was a flamboyant and suave Jewish money lender who has strong connections with organised crime, and Gatsby is his front. Lambuji himself tweeted, in his impeccable self-deprecatory manner, that he’s there for about a few seconds… “by the time you look down on your popcorn to pick another morsel I’d be gone from the film..” Still, it was Hollywood’s nod to Amitabh Bachchan and at Indian cinema’s popularity.

I distinctly remember the stylised tweet: “Mr Caprio – he be soo gorgeous, no wonder all the ladies flockin’ to him – he be Gatsby. And ‘Spiderman’ Tobey Maguire be his good friend. But sittin’ in the frame talkin’ to Spiderman and Leonardo D was pretty darn okaaaay!…”

“They be nice and polite people,” Bachchan Saab did say that. As a member of the icon’s family of fans we smiled to see him there. What a presence the man has! You can’t miss his style even if you-blink-and-he’s-gone: the commanding white in his hair, the handlebar moustache, the aristocratic beard, the retro sideburns balancing his suit-tie-hat!

BUT he adds nothing to the script! It didn’t need an Amitabh Bachchan to do that role. He’s capable of much much more than what Meyer Wolfsheim had to offer. It had nothing to be proud of even if he was sharing the screen with the titanic Leonardo di Caprio. Why?

Okay, just out of curiosity, does Mr Caprio grab two billion eyeballs and more? Do Syrian airhostesses swoon when carrying trays up to him as they do for Mr Bacchan? Do 20-somethings in Cairo start playing Titanic’s My heart will go on the way they play Mard’s Main hoon mard taangewala the minute brown-toned men and women in salwar-kurta enter a cafeteria?

Middle East or West Asia, Lock kiya jaaye is a byword for AB, not D Caprio. Malaysia Thailand Singapore don’t chew paan but croon Khaike paan Banaraswala. An Indonesian goes to a Jakarta mart and picks up a Basmati rice becoz it sports ‘AmitaBacchan’ on the packet. South Africa or South Hall – do any of these regions sing, My name is Anthony Jack Dawson?

No. No. No. To all the ?? marks.

Amitabh Bachchan didn’t charge a single penny for playing the Jewish gangland boss. Instead, he added to the grandeur of the film. The director of Moulin Rouge knew he would. That’s why, on his India visit three years prior to the filming he had offered that small cameo to Big B.

Sadly, it was no giant leap for Bollywood.

More to read

Bachchan Back to the Beginning — Mega 18-City Retrospective & Exhibition to Celebrate the Icon’s 80th Birthday

Why Dance? I Had No Answer to That…

Shot in Black & White – Treasured in the Heart: Photography by Manobina Roy

Amitabh Bachchan – He Still Towers Over the Others


A National Award winner for her Writings on Cinema, Ratnottama Sengupta is a natural writer with keen understanding of Cinema and Visual Art. A Journalist since 1978, she has been with The Times of India, The Telegraph, Screen and been the Editor of the online magazine Daughter of writer Nabendu Ghosh, she writes extensively on Cinema and on Art. She has contributed to Encyclopedia Britannica on Hindi Films, and has to her credit many titles including on Plastic Arts. Ratnottama has curated 'Little Languages Film Festival' in Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata; 'Prosenjit: A Retrospective', Delhi; 'Bimal Roy Centenary', Goa, Kolkata; 'Bengali Cinema After Rituparno', Delhi; and initiated the 'Hyderabad Bengali Films Festival'. * She has been on IFFI Steering Committee; National and International Award juries; with CBFC; and on NFDC Script Committee. She scripted Mukul, a short film on Nabendu (2009). She debuts as director with And They Made Classics.
All Posts of Ratnottama Sengupta

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