The peren­nial man

Deccan Chronicle - - OPED - Shiv Vis­vanathan The writer is pro­fes­sor, Jin­dal Global Law School and direc­tor, Cen­tre for Study of Knowl­edge Sys­tems, O.P. Jin­dal Global Univer­sity

Amitabh Bachchan turned 75 on Wednesday. It is al­most as if he has taken on a new role, promis­ing some twist of sur­prise, some ad­di­tional tadka to a life, meaty in its histri­on­ics. For me, Amitabh is not a per­son, but a metaphor for a peren­nial man, who keeps on in­vent­ing him­self in new and in­ter­est­ing ways. One can hear the bari­tone voice recit­ing Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man with a gusto, a sense of joy, adding his own rhythm to the var­i­ous in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the text.

At one level I am sur­prised I like Amitabh. He is not a dis­senter, an ec­cen­tric and a man quirky in his in­ter­pre­ta­tions. He seems ab­so­lutely main­stream and yet Amitabh in­ter­ests me in a way few ac­tors do. I think it is the way he com­bines life and script to cre­at­ing a fas­ci­nat­ing per­sona, a hoard­ing larger than life that in­trigues me. Con­tro­versy haunts him but he does not look for con­tro­versy. He seems to have de­fined life in his own terms and that is some­thing even Raj Thack­eray un­der­stands and ac­cepts. He seems iconic of an In­dian way of life; a way one wants a larger than life per­sona to be.

The prob­lem with star­dom is that it of­ten goes stale quickly. The fan that glo­ri­fies you looks on in in­dif­fer­ence as you age or put on a few pounds. A wrin­kle seems like a death sen­tence. Yet ac­tors age quickly and the mus­cu­lar­ity one as­so­ci­ates with them fades. All our great Khans — Shah Rukh, Aamir and even the per­pet­u­ally ado­les­cent Big Boss, seem to feel the ef­fect of age, des­per­ate to rein­vent them­selves. In fact, only one man can chal­lenge Amitabh, and that is Ra­jinikanth. Ra­jini can in­vent him­self, and even of­fer a new prospect of pol­i­tics to keep his hun­gry fans happy. Amitabh makes no such ef­fort or prom­ise of pol­i­tics. In fact, he is in­ept at it, hap­pier to make friends with those in power rather than chal­lenge it.

It is just that his life has a sense of a rit­ual cy­cle, a dra­matic sense of rhythms as he in­vents him­self over the decade. As an an­gry young man, he was im­mac­u­late and he gave to vi­o­lence a dra­matic in­ten­sity, a le­git­i­ma­tion it has not had since then. The logic was sim­ple and the an­tic­i­pa­tion com­plete. In a Bachchan movie, the good cop, the good father dis­ap­peared be­fore the in­ter­val, in­ept be­fore the power of evil or vil­lainy. Amitabh ex­plodes after the in­ter­val elim­i­nat­ing the vil­lain. Yet there was a bit­ter­sweet taste to it, spe­cially in Sho­lay which I saw 16 times. He dies to save his friend Veeru and the bitter-sweet poignancy of Sho­lay sur­vives be­cause of that. Sho­lay is I think the great­est B-grade movie ever made cre­at­ing the great stereo­types from Am­jad as vil­lain, to Bas­anti as the sheer ex­u­ber­ance of life. It im­i­tates a dozen movies but Amitabh shows that out of all the im­i­ta­tions, the ge­nius of Hindi cin­ema is that it can cre­ate an original out of a mil­lion copies.

Amitabh rein­vents him­self as a quizmaster in Kaun Banega Crorepati. He is em­pa­thetic, a good lis­tener, ev­ery­thing your school teacher should be and is not. In­for­ma­tion be­comes play­ful and the quiz a national sport. In fact, it is with these shows that the ex­cite­ment for the in­for­ma­tion rev­o­lu­tion be­gins as Amitabh gives it a mys­tique, while Sam Pitroda and In­fosys give it en­ergy. In in­vent­ing Crorepati, Amitabh shows how one can make a tran­si­tion to mid­dle age. One does not slow down, one moves to a dif­fer­ent mi­lieu, speaks a dif­fer­ent script. He brings to tran­si­tions a con­vic­tion and con­fi­dence that makes me en­vi­ous. His dal­liance with Rekha is per­fectly timed turn­ing both into peren­nial icons, the ideal one can only hope to be. One can play down the re­la­tion­ship but at the cin­e­matic level, it added a touch of the inim­itably erotic that few things could match. Amitabh re­turns to do­mes­tic­ity but Rekha plays the inim­itable Garbo of In­dian film. She does not re­tire but just be­comes age­less. Film life seems more real than real life and I think that is the wis­dom of Bol­ly­wood. Also there is lit­tle that is judge­men­tal as Jaya Bachchan holds her own as a Ra­jya Sabha mem­ber, as a Guddi who grows up and life makes sense in its prom­ise of mul­ti­plic­ity.

But even scan­dal or the whiff of it per­ils into in­signif­i­cance as Amitabh be­comes the grand old man, per­pet­u­ally young at heart as he matches Tabu in Cheeni Kum and years later Deepika Padukone in Piku. He makes grow­ing old in India a grand af­fair, a dif­fer­ent kind of pos­si­bil­ity giv­ing to life and old age a dif­fer­ent verve, a dif­fer­ent sense of mean­ing. Amitabh tran­scends gen­er­a­tions. He re­fuses to be a pe­riod piece. In rein­vent­ing him­self, he shows the pro­tean pos­si­bil­i­ties of life, a sense that a good ac­tor can turn even the most me­diocre of scripts to pos­sess a sense of the mag­i­cal. I think he helped keep the myth of Bol­ly­wood alive, against the Shiv Sena, against the sense of per­pet­ual en­tropy that cin­ema ruth­lessly im­poses on its ac­tors. Be­ing and be­com­ing 75 is like say­ing there are more roles to play and like a glut­tonous fan one waits pa­tiently for the next act. For me, there must al­ways be a next act and that is the beauty and com­plic­ity of cin­ema.

Amitabh tran­scends gen­er­a­tions. He re­fuses to be a pe­riod piece. In rein­vent­ing him­self, he shows the pro­tean pos­si­bil­i­ties of life, a sense that a good ac­tor can turn even the most me­diocre of scripts to pos­sess a sense of the mag­i­cal.

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