Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Mask of Big B

Amitabh Bachchan's new "bald" look in the R Balkrishnan's new film, Paa, is in the news. You can't recognise Big B quickly except for his tall frame. At least in the promos on air. I am not sure if I want to watch this avatar of Bachchan, but the transformation of the Bollywood star is interesting to watch.

I personally like films in which Amitabh played the angry, hurt poet than the dishoom-dishoom angry young man. I like his roles in Kabhie Kabhie or in Faraar or Babumoshay in Anand or in Guddi. I can still watch them again and again, dialogue for dialogue.

I wish I had met him during the days of his superstardom, but I saw him closely for the first time around 1998-99. Bachchan's films had started flopping miserably, and age was clearly showing on his clean-shaven face. That's when Krantiveer-fame Mehul Kumar cast Bachchan in Mrityudata and Kohram. The second one with Nana Patekar. I remember covering a launch function where Bachchan and Patekar were present together. Bachchan looked a bit jaded. I kept observing him, and I felt that he was weighed down by the heavy crown of superstardom on his head. Given a choice, he would escape this prison of his "image" and throw away the mask that he has to wear all the time.

My next interaction with him was at his bungalow Prateeksha around 1999-2000. The British Council had brought a wonderful, comprehensive exhibition titled Enduring Image to the National Gallery of Modern Art, and they had invited Bachchan to recite poems from Madhushala, Harivanshrai's evergreen poetry volume. I had already heard Bachchan's recitations in an 1971 audio tape called Bachchan Recites Bachchan, and was a fan of both the voice and the words. So, on the eve of the poetry reading, I got a chance to interview him. Though Bachchan had fever, he graciously agreed to give me 15 minutes after Bombay Times editor Malvika Sanghvi spoke to him.

In the interview, he spoke passionately about the poetry gatherings in Allahabad and Lucknow when thousands of people would listen to poems of his father. He said he missed those times when poets were so respected, and large crowds stayed all night to listen to poetry. Later, he brought Babuji on a wheelchair for the photo-shoot.

After the photo-shoot, something amazing happened. Bachchan led us - Photo editor Pradeep Chandra and I - to the huge gate of Prateeksha. It was a Sunday evening around 6 pm. As we entered the courtyard of the bungalow to go to the maingate, Bachchan's baritone boomed -- "Haan Khol Do Bhaiyya". It was aimed at the security guards, who slowly opened the gate about two-three feet wide. As we watched, that opened space was full of hundreds of fans standing outside for their favourite star's darshan. Bachchan did a namaskar, and waved to the fans for precisely a minute. The crowd was delirious. He asked if we shot the pictures. The whole thing took us by complete surprise, and Pradeep Chandra had, unfortunately, finished his roll during the interview.

Bachchan said, "No problem. Come again to shoot this, and come on a Sunday evening." By the time, we stepped out the crowd outside had melted. They knew the exact time of this whole "darshan" excercise, and I wondered how many years has Bachchan been doing this. Almost three decades?!!!

Cut to Year 2000 when Kaun Banega Crorepati was launched. KBC allowed the superstar to be human, and interact with the audience that adores him. Strangers telling him how they love him, watch his films both on and off air. The popularity of KBC not only offset Bachchan's debts, but perpetuated the French beard on his face which somehow looked better than his clean-shaven face.

After KBC became the superhit, I covered two functions where I got a chance to observe him. The first was an art exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, and the other was the launch of a French perfume named after him. At both the functions, his fans interacted with him closely, asked him curious questions, and I saw the star interacting with them at a human level. He looked more happy to be that way. He graciously signed all autographs, and even posed for keepsake pictures with anyone who requested.

After that point in time, Bachchan has never looked back. He has been boldly experimenting with roles. Black, The Last Lear, Cheeni Kum, Bunty Aur Babli, Sarkar, Nishabd, Laksh, Virudha and so on. I would love to see Bachchan doing what Gene Hackman, Sean Connery, or Clint Eastwood do in Hollywood.

During this period, Bachchan did another important thing for Indian cinema. He very seriously pursued the globalisation of Hindi cinema as the brand ambassador of IIFA awards, and helped it reach out to a larger canvas.

He could have been wiser than signing Ram Gopal Varma ke Sholay, but I am glad that Bachchan has shed his iron mask. Forever.
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