Amitabh Bachhan is, in popular parlance, the king of Indian cinema, most certainly of the commerical Hindi film. The older of the two sons of Harivansh Rai, an acclaimed Hindi poet, and the socialite Teji Bachhan, Amitabh went to Sherwood College, a boarding school in the hill-station town of Nainital, and from there to Delhi University where he earned an arts degree. His first appearance was in the movie Saat Hindustani [Seven Indians], which did not do particularly well at the box office. Nonetheless, Amitabh was not deterred, and he can be said to have arrived in the Hindi film world with the films Zanjeer [Chains] and Deewar [Wall] . With his tall and lean looks, Amitabh became emblematic of the new kind of action hero. Whereas his predecessors such as Rajesh Khanna and Dharmendra played romantic roles, Amitabh introduced the motif of the ‘angry young man’ to Indian cinema. This is at a time, in the mid-1970s, when domestic politics was in a period of great turmoil, student unrest was high, and the employment prospects for educated young men were bleak at best. In Deewar, which furnishes the classic example of the double in the Hindi cinema, he played the role of a mafia don and smuggler opposite his policeman brother, played by Shashi Kapoor. The theme of ‘alienation’ is further explored in Shakti [Energy; Strength], where as the son of a strict police officer (Dilip Kumar), Amitabh takes to the life of high crime and smuggling.
Altogether, Amitabh Bachhan has appeared in over 70 films, many of them, particularly those from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, resounding successes. During the shooting of the movie Coolie, he injured himself fatally and had a near brush with death. He married Jaya Bhaduri, herself one of the most successful and accomplished actresses in the Hindi cinema, and it is perhaps telling that, quite in the Indian fashion, she ceased to act in Hindi films after their marriage. About ten years age he retired from the film world. He then tried his hand at politics. Due to his enormous popularity, not to mention the close association with Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, and members of their family that he has enjoyed, he was elected to parliament with a huge majority from his home city of Allahabad. But his stint in politics did not last long and he was implicated in some scandals. He gave up his seat in parliament, vowing never to be involved in politics again.
Some years ago, Amitabh attempted a return to the commercial cinema, but he has not had the impact that he had in previous years. However, he continues to have an extraordinary public presence in India. It was Satyajit Ray, among others, who found that Amitabh’s deep and rich voice, which leaves a lasting impression upon listeners, makes for excellent narration. Amitabh had provided narration for numerous films and cultural programs, and he now also heads an entertainment company. Most recently, his entertainment company was the principal sponsor of the Miss Universe Contest, held in Bangalore in 1996. In this respect, as in many others, whatever Amitabh Bachhan’s lasting contribution to Indian cinema, he has shown himself to be naive, socially insensitive, and politically irresponsible; like most other Indians of the upper crust, he is committed to the proposition that India must become a major player in the world stage, and that opposition to ‘globalization’, ‘liberalization’, ‘modernization’ and spectacular ‘world events’ is not merely inopportune, but a residue of India’s attachment to socialism and tradition.
Saat Hindustani (1969)
Namak Haram, Zanjeer (1973)
Deewar, Sholay (1975)
Amar Akbar Anthony (1977)
Chashme Buddoor (1981)