Watching Bachchan On The Big Screen

To celebrate the 80th birthday of Bachchan, Film Heritage Foundation in association with PVR put up a retrospective of 11 films from the Seventies and Eighties
Watching Bachchan On The Big Screen

The restrooms on the fifth floor of PVR Juhu were a fertile site of chatter during the Amitabh Bachchan retrospective. Against the backdrop of urinals, people exchanged notes — the “conviction” with which these films were made, Don (1978) specifically; how most of them watched these movies as children in theatres, with that bleak, half-formed memory mixed up with those of later decades; watching these films regularly on the small screen, a repetition that felt natural. During Kabhi Kabhie’s (1976) intermission, the title song was hummed across urinals. After Abhimaan (1973), people softly mouthed ‘Tere Mere Milan Ki’ as though struck by a brick of melancholy, unbothered that the anchoring moment of the song sings ‘Dekho Na, Dekho Na, Dekho Na’.

In the women’s restroom, actress Tanvi Azmi was drying her eyes after the screening of Mili (1975). She remembers being on set as a child, watching her mother, Usha Kiran, act alongside the Bachchans — Jaya and Amitabh — a ringside view of Mili and Chupke Chupke (1975) being shot. “I was in school at that time. I remember in the last wedding scene of Chupke Chupke I had come with puran poli. I think it was Holi, and I was offering it to Mr. Bachchan and taking it around the unit. I also remember taking my school friends to the shoot of the song ‘Ab Ke Sajan Saawan Mein’, and Dharmendra being so charming, winking at us while we were just giggling away. For me watching these films is almost like reliving those memories. It is a huge nostalgia,” she said.

‘Bachchan: Back To The Beginning’, a retrospective of 11 films starring Amitabh Bachchan, has been organised by the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) in association with PVR across 19 cities in India. It’s been timed to ring in the legendary actor’s 80th birthday. The films may be commercial, but this festival of fandom is as indie as it gets with funds being raised entirely through FHF’s founder-director Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s efforts — without corporate sponsorship.

Among the films screened were Yash Chopra’s Deewar (1975), Kabhi Kabhie (1976), and Kaala Patthar (1979); Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan (1973), Mili (1975) and Chupke Chupke (1975); as well as Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Don (1978), Kaalia (1981), Namak Halaal (1982) and Satte Pe Satta (1982) — a collection of films that hints at the range Bachchan exhibited in the Seventies and early Eighties, when his Angry Young Man persona filled the vacuum left by Rajesh Khanna’s ageing romantic swoons. While showing us the grisly anger, urban loneliness, and socialist bent of Bachchan’s characters, the selection also shows us the softer side of his filmography, with poetry replacing poverty, longing replacing anger, humour replacing hubris.

While introducing Mili on the first day of the retrospective, at Mumbai’s PVR Juhu, Jaya Bachchan said this was the first time she was watching the full film — ever. She had only ever watched scenes from it while dubbing for it in the piecemeal way one dubs, turning this retrospective into a premiere of sorts. Jaya and Abhishek Bachchan also browsed through an exhibition curated by film historian, author, and archivist S.M.M. Ausaja, at PVR Juhu. There were film posters, photographs, magazine covers, publicity material, and even the original Shahenshah costume — leather bristling with metal chains, sourced from Fantico, a digital collectibles platform — and you were welcomed into the space by an imposing cutout of Bachchan from Deewaar. Ausaja has been a fan of Bachchan since he laid eyes on him in Suhaag (1979). Growing up between Kanpur and Lucknow, his fandom was fanned through the decades, collecting a scrap file of posters, magazine covers, and interview snippets. Today, he says he has the largest private archive of Bachchan memorabilia in India.

In Mumbai, most evening shows have been packed. Trained in the contemporary grammar of cinematic stardom, where a Rohit Shetty or a S.S. Rajamouli hero enters the scene in a way that you know a hero has entered the scene, with a crescendo-like build-up, the audience was a little disoriented and caught off-guard with Bachchan merely walking into the film, casually from a coal mine in Kaala Patthar or a stable in Satte Pe Satta or out of the mist in Kabhie Kabhie. The timing of the applause varied, first registering his presence, then recognising how without fanfare he arrives, and then realising that the fanfare is in the reception — clapping, cheering. It was clear that there is something odd and frictional about this retrospective, celebrating an icon who was formed in the haze of single screen adulation in a multiplex theatre. A friend whispered wondering, sincerely, if this was appropriation. Whom does Bachchan belong to?

After the first day, director Madhur Bhandarkar posted a video of audience members at a Don screening, coming to the front and dancing to ‘Main Hoon Don’, silhouettes of hands in the air, frollicking. , Shabana Azmi had reposted it and wrote, “Unbelievable audience to DON at PVR Juhu”. The following day, between shows, some of us were chatting outside, confused. We, too, were at the Don screening, but no one danced. I was in the first row, head cocked up to the screen, so I was unsure. But the others, seated behind, confirmed that Bhandarkar and Azmi got it mixed up. “This seems like a Delhi crowd.” In between, someone said Shah Rukh Khan showed up at PVR Kurla. He didn’t. The air was thick with the possibility of actor and Bachchan’s one-time co-star Hema Malini making an appearance for the Satte Pe Satta screening, for a reunion. No such luck. Why didn’t Bachchan show up, a friend moped. Some were saying he was shooting for Kaun Banega Crorepati, and others had bleaker theories regarding his ill-health. Shaad Ali, Vikramaditya Motwane, Vijayta, Divya Dutta, Ananya Panday, Boman Irani were some of the faces I spotted, darting between screens.

Shabana Azmi showed up to watch three films back to back — Abhimaan, Deewaar, and Amar Akbar Anthony, each genre different from the other. Abhimaan, a film she has watched 14 times, makes her weep on each viewing, she said. She can’t stop laughing about her entry in Amar Akbar Anthony, her lime yellow pants — costume designer Mani J. Rabadi’s doing — and the attitude of a seductress, but the brains of a pick-pocket; a Shyam Benegal actress in a Manmohan Desai film. She watched Deewaar beside partner Javed Akhtar, the dialogues Akhtar co-wrote being delivered decades later on the big screen to claps and whistles — including a three-minute standing ovation at the end. It was the last film that moved her the most, that visceral experience of a film becoming one with its audience, even if the two are separated by decades, sometimes by a generation.

What does it mean to watch a vintage film today? It is impossible to look at it with a discerning, critical eye, because the myth of the films are so blinding, that it is nearly impossible to cut through and see the film as just a film. There is, to be sure, some irony in the viewing. A lot of these films, and a lot in these films have aged terribly — not just the content, but the style too. While watching Satte Pe Satta, during Malini’s final sentimental patch of dialogue, a man in the audience mimicked her style of always ending every sentence in an uncertain, erotic vocal fry — and the audience burst out laughing. With every line she spoke, the style felt more apparent, and the laughs got louder, even as the scene deepened in melancholy. When the men on screen would say odd things about women and marriage, you could hear the groans and the sarcastic sighs. Has time and technology made us ironic, then? Those enjoying the film sincerely — laughing when they had to laugh, crying when they had to cry — spoke of these films exaggeratedly as cultural pinnacles from which we have grossly and irrevocably descended. That even sincerity requires blindspots, some delusion.

Nestled in this audience, one that was as swept up as it was shoring in, it was clear that nostalgia isn’t always a yearning of the past, but also a graceful, thankful distancing from it. That you are glad it existed. That you are glad it happened. But also that you are glad it is over. It is always lovely to have a throbbing film history, something to look back at when thinking of grand narratives of how we came to be who we are today. To love the past but to not be deluded enough to crave the swapping of the past for the present — that, too, is its own kind of nostalgia.

Additional reporting by Rohini Singh

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