Circa 1992, a 6-year-old kid is taken to a cinema hall in a small town in Odisha. After the lights go out and the opening credits rolls, a tall and lanky figure enters the frame. His deep baritone reverberates across the theatre as he proceeds to beat ten brawny men to a pulp. The epitome of what someone powerful looks like. The film was Hera Pheri (1976) or maybe it was Don (1978) or maybe this image was registered in my adolescent mind over successive visits to watch these re-runs in cinemas.
Memories are tricky that way: the after affect remains lodged in crystal clear fashion, the exact chain of events remains hazy. Irrespective of this, the magic trick works like a charm as a kid falls hook, line and sinker for this cinematic deception and the pivotal figure at the centre of it: Amitabh Bachchan. We are an amalgamation of our choices (or in some cases, the choices made on behalf of us). Would my absolute mania for movies have developed if the adult accompanying me to the theatre had chosen to watch the latest release of those times featuring the upcoming Khans? I am not so sure. What I am absolutely certain of is the fact that I am thankful they decided to take me along to watch Bachchan on big screen. For it gave a 90s kid the chance to witness cinematic history as it was created 15-20 years before his time. Bachchan and the big screen became synonymous for me – the giant screen seemed invented for the sole purpose of capturing all 6 feet and 2 inches of his magnificence and the Dolby digital technology an after thought since the existing technology felt inept to propagate his reverberating voice across the country.
Listicles are a Damocles sword for cinephiles. No matter which films you choose, a significant rest would be chopped off instantaneously. Do you go for his angry young man roles in the Yash Chopra films or his high on emotion and action protagonists from Prakash Mehra universe or the Manmohan Desai heroes who joked, romanced, and punched with equal elan? His last hurrah as leading man in the Mukul Anand films or elderly resurgence where we see more of the actor and less of the megastar? So with a heavy heart and some fond nostalgia, here are my favourite picks and without a doubt, most are from the years when Bachchan was a one man industry.
This Chandra Barot thriller has Bachchan at his dapper and suave best. Dressed to kill in the suits and bow tie and the bell bottoms that were dripping with style, Don was the bad guy Hindi films never had. Holding audience hostage as he shot moles, glanced at the dancing seductress and made business deals with exploding suitcases. When he says "Don ko pakadna mushkil hi nahi namumkin hai" you believe him. The interpol officers could not be blamed for losing their advantage by spending a crucial minute or two in admiring the fugitive. Too bad, Hollywood was not looking outside its home ground for a Bond replacement. It need not have looked further. As the doppelganger, the rustic Vijay, he plays to his fan base with the ganga kinare wale accent. It's a win-win for viewers across the board.
If Don was stylish, Vijay of Kaala Patthar was raw. A physical manifestation of the coal mine that the film is set in, Vijay's eyes convey the pain and the anger simmering inside – like tons of coal burning beneath. That iconic moment when he bursts momentarily to say one of the memorable lines in Hindi film history – "Why don't you understand, doctor, that pain is my destiny, and I can't avoid it" is a keepsake for ages. This line conveys all one needs to know about the character, his internal conflict and the seething hurt and anger in him that would go on to explode in the third act.
Poets in Hindi cinema had been sulking and drowning in alcohol for years before Bachchan at the peak of his action hero image chose to appear in this against type casting. And I am grateful he did because Sahir's line in the film needed a powerful voice. Whether it was reciting the melancholic version of the title poem: "Kabhi kabhi mere dil main khayal aata hain ki zindagi teri zulfon ki narm chhaon main guzarne pati to shadab ho bhi sakti thi" or li syncing to "Main pal do pal ka shayar hoon" or "Mere ghar aayi ek nanhi paari". Kabhie Kabhie depicted a softer, romantic and melancholic side of the actor in Bachchan and gave us an on-screen poet to cheer for.
The ones that did not work, sometimes appeal more for the romanticism. An Indian adaptation of Capra's Meet John Doe, on paper had everything going for it. A political commentary helmed by the biggest star of the times. The reasons for its failure aside, this is a film, and Azad is one Bachchan protagonist that deserves more love and admiration. Playing a drifter who is manipulated by the powers that be to don the fictional identity of Azaad, Bachchan shines all through this film. As the film progresses and Azaad gains popularity among the masses, it's a reflection of reel imitating real and the boundaries between Azaad the character and Bachchan the star blur. His rendition of Kaifi Azmi's poem "Itne baazu itne sar gine le dushman dhyaan se" is another highlight of the film.
In Sikandar, Bachchan portrays Hindi cinema's most likeable Devdas. The visual of Bachchan crooning to Rote hue aate hain sab, is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood from the Sunday morning Rangoli days. While good acting is snobbishly not associated with mainstream cinema, Muqaddar ka Sikandar has Bachchan performing in some of the best emotional moments. His monologue preceding the O Saathi Re song has to be one of his finest performances. Emotional moments aside, Sikandar also aces comic and action sequences through the film.