Archive for October, 2002

The Beatification Of Big B

Monday, October 28th, 2002

Oct 28, 2002

Why do we make a god of Amitabh? Why do we think he’s Inspector Vijay in real life when he’s just a man with funny hair earning a living?

It was May 1978. Within half an hour of finishing the last paper of the Class X board exams, I was inside a theatre, panting from my sprint to the hall, watching the credits roll for Trishul. I still remember the agony of sitting through that last exam, while the clock ticked perilously close to show time. And when Amitabh Bachchan sauntered, bidi in mouth, out of a cloud of dynamite smoke, growling that someone who’s seen his mother die a bit every day for 25 years doesn’t fear death, the whole hall stood up and cheered. Including me.

On Amitabh’s 60th birthday last week, I was irritated to see that memorable line mangled in a national newspaper. And confused that it appeared in the religious quotes column, till now reserved for wisdom from the Bible and the Vedas. But then, for days leading up to the Big Birthday, newspapers had carried breathless countdowns, with gushing accolades from anyone they could get hold of. Placing pieces of dialogue mouthed by him in a space meant for sacred words completed the process. Amitabh was God, even though His lines were written by Salim-Javed.

Even as a great admirer of Amitabh the star, I find this hoopla—has no one ever turned 60 before?—ridiculous. Also, the fact that most of the slobber is about what a great Human Being he is—an embodiment of courage, dignity, compassion, punctuality and every other quality you can think of (except for intelligence, a virtue that, mysteriously, not a single admirer mentioned)—rather than a Hugely Charismatic Actor. Zeenat Aman even recalled a good turn done to her by him during the shooting of Chhaila Babu in Goa. Amitabh did not act in Chhaila Babu. So much for grateful memories.

Why do we, as a nation, crave for the presence of the godly in a flesh-and-blood actor whose expertise lies in entertaining us, nothing more, nothing less? This is 2002, 33 years after man landed on the moon, and we Indians are still busy building temples to film stars. And it can only get worse with huge commercial interests—media, marketing, politics—piggybacking on our pathetic attempts to conjure up a cartoon pantheon.

Fundamentally, we want to deny that our heroes can be complex people with normal human contradictions. Amitabh is clearly the most popular actor ever to grace the Hindi screen. Which is a huge accomplishment. But no, we have to make him some sort of cross between Raja Harishchandra and Gautam Buddha. We must insist that he is the Biggest Star of the Millennium. That’s because there are more crazy Indians who take part in meaningless internet polls than any other nationality, stupid! And thank your stars (astrological) that the Chinese had better things to do than vote for Jackie Chan in their millions!

We go into collective amnesia when Amitabh, who maintains nri status and got his children educated abroad, exhorts us to buy BPL because it’s an Indian brand. We are not ready to talk about the fact that Amitabh set up ABCL and then charged his own company a fee to use his name! That in the last days of abcl, when professional executives were not being paid salaries, the company was buying the Jaya Bachchan-promoted Saraswati Audio Video at what seemed suspiciously like an inflated price. That he sees no contradiction in calling Bal Thackeray “a close friend”, Mulayam Singh his “father” and professing eternal friendship to the Gandhi family.

Amitabh is a defaulter on payments like any other down-on-his-luck businessman. Yet, every time he gives Doordarshan a cheque, newspapers carry his picture and go into ecstasies about what a great soul he is, whereas the man is legally bound to pay up, and has already been cut infinite slack on his payment schedules by his creditors. In other words, he is a hero because he is doing the minimum acceptable thing under our laws!

Even when we look at him only as a film star and not god incarnate, we studiously avoid uncomfortable truths.Like the fact that eight of his last 10 films have flopped, and that the credit for the two which made money has gone to the directors, not Amitabh. The fact that in the last 15 years, he has made perhaps just one film—Main Azad Hoon—that has any chance of standing the test of time. That given the power he wielded, he has done precious little to stretch the envelope of our cinematic formulae. In all this accolade overkill, only Javed Akhtar, half of the screenwriting duo that ignited Amitabh’s career, told The Times of India: “With his kind of talent, he could have done a lot more…. I wish he had extended himself, taken some chances and done some unconventional roles in crossover cinema.”

Do these shortcomings diminish Amitabh’s status as a film star the likes of which we have never seen? Does the fact that he has human foibles detract from any of his powerful performances? No. Marlon Brando’s status as an actor is in no way diminished by his off-screen eccentricities. Does Picasso become a lesser painter because of his obsessive promiscuity? Do Hemingway’s books read any less beautiful once you know that he had an alcohol problem? Surely, Bjorn Borg doesn’t become a mediocre tennis player because he had awful business sense and lost much of his money?

This incapacity to conduct any balanced appraisal of our heroes makes us look like idiots, a nation of losers with no perspective on success. In fact, this eagerness to make him a god is unfair to Amitabh, who has never claimed he is anything but a normal human being, quite unable to walk on water or raise the dead. But if we as a people believe Amitabh is Inspector Vijay in real life too, instead of a man with funny hair trying to make a living, then we are suckers who deserve to have their wallets emptied. Which, of course, is the whole point of the hypefest hosted by canny marketing men.

And now just you wait for April 24, 2003, when Sachin Tendulkar turns 30.