Amitabh Bachchan:The Coolest Movie Star You’ve Probably Never Seen

Bachchan1Those of us who consider ourselves die-hard movie fans (not to be confused with fans of the Die Hard movies) might like to think that we’d do anything to meet our screen heroes. That bar was raised considerably in 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, when title protagonist Jamal remembers how, as a boy growing up in impoverished Mumbai, he once escaped from a locked outhouse by diving down into and wading through piles of…well, what they build outhouses for, so that he could see and get the autograph of Bollywood film star Amitabh Bachchan. That, dear readers, is dedication, and while Bachchan didn’t play himself in Slumdog, it gave American audiences a glimpse of the fervent devotion the actor known as “the Big B” has built up in his native India, across South Asia, and around the world in his 40-plus-year body of work. Everywhere, that is, except here.

In discussions about Bachchan’s career, the most frequent comparison to a Hollywood actor’s–and one that seems appropriate to me–is Al Pacino’s. Both men debuted on the screen in the late 1960s, became major stars in the early ’70s as part of a new breed of tough male leads, and broadened their range and appeal in a variety of genres over the following decades, so that now their mere presence in a film carries a tone of gravitas and quiet intensity. I must confess that I am a bit ill-equipped to talk at length about the first half of Amitabh’s career as, except for three films, I’ve had no luck at seeing much from his “angry young man” days, but I’ll try to give a suitable overview.

Born in northern India’s Uttar Pradesh state in 1942, Bachchan made his screen debut as a Muslim poet who joins Indians of various faiths trying to free the Goa region from Portuguese colonialism in 1969’s Saat Hindustani, a role which won him a National Film Award as Best Newcomer. His breakthrough performance came in 1973 with Zanjeer (the subject of Jamal’s first question in Slumdog), playing an incorruptible police inspector seeking the villain responsible for his parents’ murders years ealier. Amitbah married his Zanjeer co-star, Jaya Bhaduri, and later that same year they teamed as pop singers in the A Star Is Born-like Abhimaan. Another key role–and the earliest that I’ve been able  to watch (thanks, TCM) –was as a petty crook who, along with partner Dharmendra, is hired to bring in a ruthless villain who’s terrorizing a remote village in the 1975 actioner Sholay. A typical “masala” blend of drama, comedy, romance, and music, the film also broke new ground with its depiction of its two antihero leads, and was so popular it was still playing in Indian cinemas five years after its opening. In fact, Bachchan starred or co-starred in all four of the Indian box office’s biggest films of 1978!

Following a near-fatal accident on the set of the 1983 melodrama Coolie, Amitabh slowed down his frantic (by Hollywood standards) work schedule and entered into politics, winning a seat in India’s lower parliamentary house in 1984. His friendship with then-prime minister Rajiv Ghandi would link him to the Bofors corruption scandal, and while he was cleared of any wrongdoing, a disillusioned Bachchan stepped down from office in 1987. For the rest of the 1980s and ’90s his films would meet with sporadic success, as in the case of Khuda Gawah, a 1992 tale of love, revenge, honor, and the unusual Afghan sport of Buzkashi (described here).

Bachchan2Amitabh rebounded in an unusual way in 2000, when he agreed to host the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (irony again), and the show was as big a hit there as it was in the U.S. That same year the romance/drama Mohabbatein cast him as a stern university head opposite rising star Shahrukh Khan. Bachchan’s “angry” persona was well seen in the 2002 crime thriller Aankhen, playing a short-tempered ex-bank manager who trains three blind men to help him break into a vault and rob his former employers. Also that year, The Usual Suspects and Reservoir Dogs were morphed into the thriller Kaante, a shot-in-Los Angeles opus with Bachchan as part of a team of six South Asian immigrants who meet in jail and decide to rob a bank used by the LAPD. It’s Tarantino with even more singing and dancing, and Amitabh’s turn as the dignified “Major,” who needs the loot to return to his terminally ill wife in India, is riveting.

Key supporting roles for Bachchan came as the uncle of Khan in the 2004 three-hankie love story Veer-Zaara; as a lawman chasing a modern-day “Bonnie and Clyde” con artist team played by his son Abishek (who’s gone on to a successful career that’s earned him the nickname “Little B”) and Rani Mukerji in 2005’s Bunty Aur Babli; and as Abishek’s playboy papa in Kabhi Aliva Naa Kahna, a 2006 tale of martial strife and forbidden affairs partly shot here in Philadelphia.

As you can gather, Bachchan maintains a work schedule typical of a Mumbai megastar (over 50 films in the past decade alone), so I’m going to finish with the last three films of his I’ve been able to see, all out here in the last three months. Borrowing elements of the 1996 Robin Williams drama Jack, Paa featured Amitabh, almost unrecognizable under heavy make-up, effectively playing a 13-year-old with a progeria-like condition that has given him the body of an elderly man, and who tries to reunite his separated parents before the disease takes his life. Rann has principled TV news channel owner Bachchan defending his ethics in the cutthroat world of 24-hour global journalism. And the just-released drama Teen Patti, co-starring Ben Kingsley, finds him as a work-obsessed mathematics professor who develops a formula for winning at the title three-card poker game, only to learn along with his students that their success comes at a price.

These three roles are indicative of  the diversity that has marked his career, a career that most American moviegoers are missing out on. Here’s hoping that some enterprising Hollywood filmmaker will find a chance to cast him here, or that a studio will pick up the U.S home video rights to some of the more interesting and popular Indian films of the last few decades, and do for Amitabh Bachchan and Bollywood what the release of John Woo’s The Killer, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and their like did for the Hong Kong action genre.