Big Fans of Big B: Directors on Amitabh Bachchan

Film Companion spoke to some contemporary filmmakers who grew up with the actor’s films
Big Fans of Big B: Directors on Amitabh Bachchan

Vasan Bala (Mard ko Dard Nahi Hota, 2018), Hardik Mehta (Kaamyaab, 2018; Decoupled), Shlok Sharma (Haraamkhor, 2015), Siddharth Sen (Good Luck Jerry) and Suparn Verma (A Family Man) have one thing in common: They’re all fans of Amitabh Bachchan. The actor’s performances over the decades have loomed large over these directors’ youth, with them growing up alongside the cinema of the actor who established himself as a legend after becoming a star in the Seventies.

“I have seen every Amitabh Bachan film ever made, period,” said Verma. His earliest Bachchan memory is of watching Mukaddar ka Sikander (1978) and crying “Amitabh Bachhan marr gaya! (Amitabh Bachchan has died!)” It took some doing to explain to the young Varma that reel life wasn’t real life. “My father had to take me to a party Mr. Bachchan was attending, to convince me that he is alive and kicking — and only then I was happy.”

Verma will have you know he’s watched Sharaabi (1984) not twice or thrice, but 82 times. He also has vivid memories of watching Hum (1991): “At Topiwala Theatre, sitting in the front row in the stalls, where I had coins falling over me during the song ‘Jumma Chumma De De’. I have even seen films like Jaadugar (1989) and Toofan (1989), which turned to be huge disappointments, sadly. I have even seen a mediocre film like Andha Kanoon (1983) 20 times, where he made [an] entry in themiddle of the story, in a Rajnikanth film. I even had a collection of Supremo comics when they came out — he was the de facto hero/ father-figure /mentor, everything you needed in your life.”

While Varma first saw Shehanshah (1988) on a VHS, Vasan Bala has an altogether different memory of the film. “I remember forcing my parents to take me to Shehanshah,” said Bala. “Everyone around me was forcing their elders to take them to the theatre — that was the level of craze for that movie.” Bala’s first Bachchan memory is watching Naseeb (1981). “During Ganpati, the building people would put a white screen between two buildings and project films on them. We used to carry newspapers and sit on them — that’s where Naseeb happened. ” He adds, “I saw Sholay (1975) much later in life, but I already knew the film’s entire story by then, because of the dialogue tapes which I had heard umpteen number of times. Similarly, I have heard a lot of Bachchan films first, courtesy my friends and relatives who would narrate the entire film after they returned from theatre, before I got round to watching them.”

Hardik Mehta, Shlok Sharma, and Siddharth Sen grew up in the early Nineties and have a slightly different relationship with Bachchan. “I remember watching on VHS, films like Hum and Satte pe Satta (1982) with the whole family many times,” said Sharma. “Sholay of course is a film that would play on TV on every Holi. Then there are films like Shahenshah and Ajooba (1990), which every kid must have seen back then. Later, as I grew up, my mother would keep asking if I saw Anand (1971). She would keep telling me to watch Anand and other Hrishikesh Mukherjee films for Bachchan saab’s performances.”

Sen recalled how he was inducted into the Bachchan fandom. “We would rent out a TV set and VCRs every weekend. There were three films — the first one for us kids; the second one would be watched by our mothers, mostly Hrishi da or Yash Chopra films; and then there was this quintessential larger-than-life action movie that the fathers would save for the last,” said Sen. “Hum and Agneepath, this was my introduction to power and screen-presence, in films where Bachchan saab was reliving his Angry Young Man image because audiences wanted to see that persona and power on screen. I have seen my family elders behave like kids and go crazy over the subtlest of gestures — the way Bachchan would ruffle his hair, turn in slow motion; the music, or the way he would run to it. It’s only today I understand the sentiment behind it, the angst these people had and hence wanted their favourite actor to do everything on their behalf.”

Sen also recalls Satte pe Satta as the film that converted him into a true-blue Big B fan. “It’s not for the hero Ravi, but Babu, he’s the anti-hero figure. I fell in love with the way he played that character who is basically a ruthless killer. I remember everything about it — the color of his eye-lens, the chilling background music that accompanies every time he enters a scene, the middle-parting hair.”

Mehta, whose Kaamyaab (2020) was one of the most heartfelt films set in the film industry, remembers Ajooba was a major influence when he was a child. Its songs like ‘Ya Ali’, Bachchan’s superhero-chashmas, and the swords were a big draw and he maintains Ajooba is underrated in Bachchan’s impressive filmography.

When he was in his teens, Mehta started seeing Bachchan films in theatres and has two memories that he holds particularly dear. “Everyone knows that a Bachchan film will have a proper high-voltage monologue, but nobody knows when it will arrive. So in Khakee (2004), when Bachchan delivers the monologue about what police is capable of but ends up doing instead, everyone clapped in the theatre,” he recalled. The other memory is of watching Lakshya (2004), in which Bachchan has a small role. “When Hrithik [Roshan] conquers the highest point, we have Sunil Damle [Bachchan], his superior, watching it from base camp. Damle sees the flag waving and the way Bachchan reacts to the moment, pumping his fist in the air, it brought so much jubilation in the theatre. If the triumph of the Kargil victory could be personified by one actor, it was him.”

For Sen, Mohabbatein (2000) was the first time he saw Bachchan on the big screen even though he’d practically grown up with Bachchan’s films at home. “Being a Nineties’ kid, I was an ardent SRK [Shah Rukh Khan] fan and yet, in Mohabbatein, I was far more excited to see Amitabh Bachchan. It was a fight of two generations — Bachchan’s character wasn’t the one we loved, it was Shah Rukh who stood with love. I wanted SRK to win, to be the better performer, but Bachchan saab was phenomenal,” he said.

Bala recalled the Hum experience: “Every time that amazing background music piece played, we knew that he could turn into Tiger any moment, but was controlling his rage. The audience would go crazy at those moments.” Mehta too remembered the impact of Hum’s background music. “One realises only today that all his films had such amazing dialogue and background score. In a way, these were two pillars on which the towering Bachchan brand often soared,” he said.

For Bala and Verma, the sense of communion while watching Bachchan’s films was particularly intense when there was a death (or near-death) scene. Remembering Shakti (1982), Verma said, “When he [Bachchan] dies in that film, I remember everyone came out crying. And later, I enacted that scene hundreds of times, where Amitabh is dying in Dilip Kumar’s arms, saying ‘Yeh toh hona hi tha, Dad’.” Bala recalled Coolie (1983): “When he gets punched, and the frame freezes, everyone became so emotional in the audience. For us, it was like a real-life hero survived and came back for us. And the climax where our hero gets shot six times — it always got a huge reaction.”

Sharma also had vivid memories of Coolie (1982) and the scene in which Bachchan got fatally injured during shooting the film. “I remember my parents telling me how everyone was so affected by the incident, about the long queues outside the hospital, praying for his recovery. He wasn’t merely a beloved actor by then. He had become a family member for the whole nation.”

Bala remembered looking for the clothes, particularly the jackets, that Bachchan wore in films like Khuddar and Shakti (both released in 1982), and re-enacting the actor’s drunken scenes from films like Hum, Mard (1985), Satte pe Satta and of course, Sharaabi.

“I have gone to Red Fort and Qutub Minar, wearing a pajama, a red knicker, an umpire’s cap, using a long straw as a sword, set out to avenge White people, just like Big B did in Mard,” said Verma. “All I could find was two foreign tourists, so it didn’t help matters. On my way back, the straw I was using as a sword broke in the DTC Bus, and I burst out in tears.”

Sen also has memories of channelling his inner Bachchan as a child. Even the television show, Kaun Banega Crorepati, became something to recreate. “I used to do the classic Bachchan mimicry very well, especially the way he said ‘Hainn’.” Much later in his life, while doing a commercial for the cricket team Kolkata Knight Riders, Sen recorded a scratch voiceover (VO) and was surprised to find people thought he sounded like Bachchan. “I had unwittingly imbibed that heavy texture in my VO, which is quintessential Bachchan style. But more importantly, it went to show how Bachchan’s voice, with fine grain, became almost a default voice in everyone’s head for an impactful narration,” said Sen.

The directors also spoke about Bachchan’s more unusual roles, often in smaller projects that he chose to work in despite being at the height of his celebrity. “When Bachchan phenomena gets discussed, we talk about his action films or comedies, but one rarely talks about Abhimaan, where he played with such ease this arrogant man who comes around,” said Mehta. Verma added Main Azaad Hoon (1989) to the list of Bachchan’s underrated films, saying it was possibly the first time the actor appeared as full-fledgedly political in a movie. Bala pointed out Kaala Patthar (1979) while Sharma mentioned Saudagar (1973), which he discovered later in life. Shakti kept surfacing in conversations with these directors. Vasan Bala described it as one of director-producer Ramesh Sippy’s seminal films and Verma said he would love to adapt the film into a “modern-day drama”. “That was the era of heroes. It’s not the same anymore,” rued Verma. Sen said Shakti still resonates with audiences, despite the passage of time. “The concept of father standing against his son is so relevant even today,” he said. “Everyone has these inner angst and journeys, but we have stopped making films about core emotions. However, these relations and these core emotions will never wither away, and will always remain relatable.”

I understood what Sen was talking about while watching Deewaar last week, in a packed auditorium with an audience as overwhelmed by the film’s energy as by their own nostalgia. People clapped at every line, they cheered for every move Bachchan made, they reacted without hesitation to the emotional and philosophical tugs in Salim-Javed’s ingenious script. We weren’t just cheering for the heroism or the swag; we were truly invested in a world, sentiment and characters that felt real. Much has changed in India since the time when Deewar was made, but like Sen said, perhaps some things do indeed stay the same. And who better to remind us of the lasting magic of movies, than Amitabh Bachchan?

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