Amitabh Bachchan: Beyond the Angry Young Man

The Big B became famous for being India’s Angry Young Man, but there’s a lot more to his legend
Amitabh Bachchan: Beyond the Angry Young Man

For his sheer longevity, Amitabh Bachchan’s career of more than five decades remains a milestone for Bollywood. An actor who witnessed stratospheric success, a star who tried his hand at politics, a failed politician who tried to make it as a businessman, and a veteran actor who revived a late career to pay off creditors, the patriarch of Bollywood who refuses to slow down or rest on his laurels – it’s a story for the ages. What often goes unnoticed is Bachchan’s brave forays into roles that don’t fit the mould of an action hero. Even at the peak of his stardom as a brooding young hero in the Seventies, Bachchan took on parts that were unexpected and complex. He may be most famous for being Bollywood’s Angry Young Man, but Bachchan has revelled in playing a range of characters that include the bumbling fool, a manipulative schemer, the jealous husband, and even ruthlessly evil men.

As we near his 80th birthday, here’s a look at films and roles in which Amitabh Bachchan put aside market expectations, and sank his teeth into delicious parts. Some of these films are playing in Bachchan: Back to the Beginning, a festival organised by Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) and PVR, in which 11 of Bachchan’s films will play in 19 cities between October 8th and 11th.

Moti in Saudagar (1973)

In the same year he found fame playing the upright cop in Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer, Bachchan played the benign jaggery trader Moti, in Sudhendu Roy’s Saudagar. It’s a far cry from any character the actor had played till then, and has since. Moti’s jaggery is the object of envy across the marketplace, and he brazenly flirts with the young women in his village. He’s young, enterprising, proud and doggedly myopic. After realising his associate — a widow named Majobee (Nutan) who turns nectar into actual jaggery — is taking away a significant portion of his income, he comes up with the ploy of marrying her to get her services for free. He’s also smitten by Phoolbano’s (Padma Khanna) physical beauty and hopes to earn enough to pay the dowry Phoolbano’s father has asked for: Rs 500. After working through the winter and exploiting Majobee’s loyalty, Moti makes enough money to pay Phoolbano’s dowry. He coldly tells Majobee he wants a divorce. The confrontation scene plays out brilliantly with Nutan’s righteous fury coming up against the unrepentant pragmatism in Bachchan’s eyes. His Moti is a common man – not some 70mm silhouette that demands pandering.

Subir in Abhimaan (1973)

Arguably Bachchan’s most popular ‘unheroic’ role was in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s adaptation of Hollywood classic, A Star Is Born (1937). The film navigates a male singer discovering a female singer, bringing her to tinsel town, seeing her become a bigger celebrity than he is, while his own career withers away. It’s a beautiful tragedy where egos suffocate the most tender relationships. Bachchan’s turn is the kind that announces stars as ‘Actors’. Mukherjee managed a casting coup of sorts by getting the real life couple of Bachchan and Jaya Bachchan to star in his film. They’d got married only a few months prior to the film’s release, thereby adding a meta layer. Bachchan was so convincing as the petty, jealous husband — remember him seething after being asked by the paparazzi to exit the frame? — theories concocted about how Jaya was ‘better’ than Bachchan, and how he was stifling her blooming career. This film also has some of Bachchan’s finest lip syncing work, which we would see more of in (Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978), Yaarana (1981) and Namak Halaal (1982).

Sukumar Sinha in Chupke Chupke (1975)

For any other actor, Bachchan’s part in Chupke Chupke would be a special appearance. However, Bachchan’s pitch perfect performance of a bumbling fool made Sukumar Sinha a memorable second lead. Appearing in one song and a handful of scenes towards the end of the film, Bachchan’s physical comedy – even in the way he repeatedly pushes back the spectacles that keep rolling down his nose – is absolutely top grade. Who can forget the way he hams as Parimal Tripathi, pronouncing corolla (petals of a flower) as “korola” (bitter gourd) and follows it up with an Asrani-esque laugh. In a cast with Dharmendra, Sharmila Tagore, Om Prakash, Asrani and Jaya Bachchan, it would have been understandable if Bachchan had barely registered with this small role. It’s testament to the form Bachchan was in that practically everything he touched in this era turned gold.

Shekhar in Mili (1975)

It’s easy to dub Shekhar Dayal in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Mili (1975) as a variation of Dr Bhaskar Banerjee from Anand (1971). Both characters are furiously disenchanted with the world. However, while Dr Banerjee gets blown away by a tornado called Anand (Rajesh Khanna), Shekhar puts up a good fight against his well-meaning neighbours and the luminous Mili (Jaya Bachchan). Grappling with childhood demons, Shekhar drowns himself in alcohol and constantly grumbles about the building’s noisy kids. All he wants is some peace to pour himself a glass, so he can lip-sync to Kishore Kumar. However, he keeps getting interrupted by Mili’s relentless zest for life. As usually happens in such movies, Mili’s exuberance rubs off on Shekhar. Bachchan is great as the consistently irate, antisocial neighbour, who keeps everyone at a distance. It was an interesting year for Bachchan as an actor, with Chupke Chupke, Deewar and Sholay and this film showcasing his spectacular range.

Amit Malhotra in Kabhi Kabhie (1976)

At a time, when Bachchan had cornered his market as a fast-paced action hero, Yash Chopra’s Kabhi Kabhie slowed things down by painting him as a heartbroken, introspective poet. It’s a brave choice for a star who had recently delivered the biggest hit of the year (Sholay). For most of Kabhi Kabhie, Bachchan plays a bitter, middle-aged man who spends his days wallowing in a cocktail of duty and self-pity, rather than confronting his circumstances. It’s a strangely passive role for a star who doesn’t appear for long stretches till the interval point. He also sported grey streaks for this role and is perhaps the most inert of all the characters in the film. It speaks volumes about the trust that Bachchan and Chopra reposed in one another. Bachchan was part of an ensemble featuring powerhouses like Rakhee, Shashi Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman. Decades later, director and producer Karan Johar would be inspired by Kabhi Kabhie to make Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) and one can see a few similarities between Amitabh Malhotra and Yashvardhan Raichand. Both are patriarchs with a stiff upper lip, pride, and years’ worth of buried hurt.

Vijay Singh Rajput in Aankhen (2002)

After his reinvention in Aditya Chopra’s Mohabbatein (2000), filmmakers began to see Bachchan as a primary antagonist in their films. In Vipul Shah’s Aankhen, Bachchan played a disgruntled employee who plans on robbing a bank after being fired from it. The actor has never played such an irredeemable psychopath before or since – someone who pummels an employee for stealing Rs 100, and later tickles a man to death. Throughout the film’s runtime, Bachchan aces the role of a ruthless mastermind who directs a heist from behind a curtain. Far from being heroic or grey, Bachchan imbues Vijay Singh Rajput with the kind of mercurial rage that makes everyone queasy each time he appears on screen. It’s also to Bachchan’s credit that while being repulsed, we’re also quietly rooting for the plan birthed by his twisted mind.

DCP Anant Srivastava in Khakee (2004)

Writer Sridhar Raghavan has addressed how he intended the character of DCP Anant Srivastava to be a version of Bachchan’s Zanjeer character, as seen 30 years later. So it’s no surprise that we find him asleep in the film’s first scene and his first line of dialogue is “Maaf kijiyega, zara aankh lag gayi thi!” (Apologies! I’d shut my eyes for a bit), followed by rapturous applause. This could very well be the same Inspector Vijay, who famously kicked the chair from underneath Sher Khan, weary and tired after being made to navigate a crooked system for over three decades. Deflating some of that youthful anger and diminishing some of that self-righteousness, Srivastava seems like a man who was constantly overlooked for promotion. For not sucking up to his superiors, asking inconvenient questions, and probably going after the ‘wrong people’. Nearing retirement, there’s a sense of defeat that looms over Srivastava, especially when he looks back at the price he’s had to pay for doing the right thing. If the system is still as corrupt as when he entered, then what has he even achieved? During a crucial pre-interval scene, a subordinate (Akshay Kumar) calls him out for his “foolish idealism”. It’s a telling scene in which Bachchan visibly gulps in disbelief, questioning his principles for a second, before reiterating his orders. In Khakee, Bachchan steps down from the pedestal of seniority that he usually occupies and presents as a character who is feeble in more ways than one. For instance, he has asthma attacks in the middle of chase sequences and is slapped by multiple characters (when was the last time you saw that happen?). Towards the climax, Santoshi lets Bachchan’s action-hero image have its time in the sun, but by then it’s already established that the once angry young man is now a disillusioned and exhausted veteran.

Mirza in Gulabo Sitabo (2020)

Bachchan’s second innings plateaued somewhere in the 2000s and barring the occasional flash of genius, his roles in the last decade are marked by the reverence in which he’s held by filmmakers and audiences. The reverence is well-earned, but it hasn’t made for particularly interesting performances. Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo is an exception to this rule. Bachchan took his biggest swing as an actor by playing the part of Mirza the miserly landlord. Like in Paa (2010), the elaborate make-up does most of the heavy lifting, but Mirza isn’t a gimmick in the way Bachchan’s role was in R. Balki’s film. Mirza is a well thought out character, brought out of folk tales and into a contemporary setting. Even though Bachchan’s pronounced mannerisms are sometimes jarring in a film filled with understated and moving performances by a cast that includes Ayushmann Khurrana (just Khurrana with a lisp), Vijay Raaz, Farrukh Jaffar and Srishti Srivastava, there are flashes of brilliance of physical comedy from Bachchan’s Chupke Chupke days. Like for instance, the way he communicates Mirza’s humiliating existence through those big googly eyes and how he clutches his chest when he’s told about the money he stands to gain from a builder for redeveloping his dilapidated mansion. Ultimately, inconsistent as it might be, Bachchan’s Mirza is still perhaps his most interesting character in the last decade.

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