The longevity of Amitabh Bachchan’s 53-year career can be gauged from the fact that he has had three films (Brahmastra, Chup: Revenge of The Artist, and Goodbye) released in the last few weeks alone, and he has played pivotal roles in each of them. Bachchan has acted in more than a hundred films since turning 60, and looks unlikely to slow down anytime soon.
A former Calcutta corporate executive, Bachchan was 27, a relatively old age for an actor starting out in Bollywood then, when he made his debut with six other lesser-known actors in K.A. Abbas’s 1969 film Saat Hindustani, based on the Goa freedom struggle. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand came two years later, followed by several flops, before he had his first nationwide hit at age 31 with Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer in 1973. He hasn’t looked back since, except for a long lull in the 1990s, before making a comeback with renewed vigour after the success of the TV show Kaun Banega Crorepati in early 2000.
In 1990, Bachchan won the National Award for Best Acting for Agneepath which was a curious moment in his career. He was clearly on the downside of being the Phenomenon, the One-Man Industry, the Reigning Superstar. He had roughed up his voice, he was paired with Amrita Singh who had the spark and energy that had been missing since his pairings in the 1970s, and the story was a familiar one, worn out by repetition. It was also a turning point in the National Awards which, until then, had been reserved for non-mainstream cinema. (Even Rekha had won hers in 1981 for Umrao Jaan which was directed by Muzaffar Ali.)
After that there were three more National awards to come, for Black, for Piku and for Paa. You may note that only one of these films makes our list. We make no apologies for that. It’s not that we are denying the validity of these awards—who could be so mean-spirited at an eightieth birthday bash? We’re just saying that these are a connoisseur’s list. You, dear reader, probably don’t remember what it was like to sit in the stalls in a fleabag cinema where the air that smelled of urine and samosas frying was stirred by disconsolate fans, but to completely forget all this and to be transported to a world where a man could turn up at an Easter Ball in a top hat and tails and announce that his name was Anthony Gonsalves. Or to gasp as a prisoner being transported in a goods train (why?) would open his eyes and offer the calculated insult of ‘Mujhe to sab policewaalein ki sooratein ek jaisi lagti hai.’ (All policemen look the same to me.)
We did not gasp alone. We gasped as a single unit, melded together by an assemblage of masculine tropes we had never seen before. Where the reigning figure of Devdas had been unable to overthrow his father’s rule and had not been able to grow into his male potential, Amitabh had missing fathers in so many films (Laawaaris, Amar Akbar Anthony, Muqaddar ka Sikandar, Deewaar, Agneepath, Parvarish, Ram Balram to name just a few) that he could be accused of rewriting Oedipus Rex for the India of the 1970s.
Here’s a top ten list of the best Amitabh films.
This was the explosion of male energy young men had been waiting for. Sure, there were fight sequences in films before this but they were laughably playful. You should catch early monochrome Dev Anand fopping it up for a fight sequence to see what happened to us when we watched Bachchan throw a punch. Our mirror neurons fired and we were flinching on our seats. And there was a brilliant bromance between the angry young cop and the Pathan (Pran) which ended in that beautiful declaration of friendship, ‘Yaari hai imaan, mera yaar meri zindagi.
What a year 1975 was. Bachchan died twice and he died most memorably. In this one, the survivors of the bloodbath were the nice guys, the pallid, boring ones who had walked the straight and narrow. Branded from birth (Mera Baap Chor Hai), Bachchan breaks with God and society to become a Don. What ensues is a Titanic struggle over ownership of the mother (Nirupa Roy) and another first: Parveen Babi and Bachchan in bed, post-coitally, smoking and not repenting.
There has been far too much written about Sholay. It is not an Bachchan film in the sense that most others in our list are. It was an ensemble film but it was made with restraint and no one played more than their part. Later Bachchan films would try to get more bang for the buck they were paying by putting him into every single frame. Here, the four major characters, the two mercenaries (Bachchan and Dharmendra) hired by the Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar) to rid himself of the dacoit (Amjad Khan) were delineated brilliantly and played off each other.
In the middle of all the violence, Bachchan turned in another brilliant comic performance in this one. This time I believe it was the steadying influence of Hrishikesh Mukherjee who was the maestro of the middle class. He was not above using the Bachchan myth in other films (Bemisal and Jurmana come to mind) but in this one, it was all delight. We still wonder what Vasudha (Jaya Bhaduri) could not understand about the calyx and the corolla but everything including Om Prakash as a Hindophile was perfectly timed.
This is the film that defined an era, it defined a world view, it defined a nation. It is Manmohan Desai at his best and Bachchan at his best too. Amitabh took the rare risk of playing the carefree small-time hooligan Anthony, and allowed himself to be beaten up by the lesser star Vinod Khanna (who played Amar). But then it all made sense once you realized that Bachchan was the younger brother and Vinod Khanna the older brother. The youngest brother, played by Rishi Kapoor at his most charming, was Akbar. You can read all you want into that.
If family was so important in AAA, it was totally deconstructed in Trishul. Waheeda Rehman plays Bachchan’s mother but she is bundled out quickly; she dies, leaving her son with the burning desire to avenge her death by poverty by taking down his father R K Gupta, played superbly by Sanjeev Kumar. And in most cases, the son comes close to destroying his father and then backs off, and happy reunions are called for even if the father has blinded one of his sons (Suhaag). But here Vijay (the name was iconic too) succeeds, peeling everything from his father, his company, his money, his children… Oedipus unchained.
Shah Rukh Khan homaged to this film in his own way, with a good movie. But once you had seen Bachchan playing a double role, a paan-chewing street performer who had adopted two children he had found and the great criminal mastermind, Don, there was no room for much else. The last scene which is played out in a graveyard and has a red address book flying through the air, mixes pantomime and high tension brilliantly.
A fatherless boy is adopted by a cleaning woman. He falls in love with the little girl of the house. He grows up to be Bachchan, she grows up to be Raakhee. She loves the lawyer, Vinod Khanna, who helps her father while Bachchan has his Chandramukhi in Zohrabai played by Rekha. Yes, it is Devdas again. The man loves the woman who does not love him and cannot love the woman who does love him. But it is brilliant although its structure goes: Amjad Khan (a goon) loves Rekha who loves Bachchan who loves Raakhee who loves Vinod Khanna. The only two people left in the end are the least interesting characters and even their marriage is disrupted by Bachchan dying ceremoniously in the middle of it.
Oedipus plays out again. The upright policeman Dilip Kumar refuses to pay the ransom asked by thugs who have kidnapped his son. His refusal (Maar daalo usse…) is overheard by his son who turns against him. Raakhee is caught in the middle when Bachchan turns criminal. Poor Smita Patil who plays Bachchan’s love interest simply looks bemused at the goings on but this is a film about the clash between two superstars, both bringing their best game to this film about a struggle between two generations and two values. (Anil Kapoor plays Bachchan’s son.)
Bachchan has traded in his rage for dignity. This dignity is often cloying (Baghbaan and Mohabbatein come to mind) so it was a great relief to see him playing Bhaskhor Bannerjee, a strident, narcissistic, constipated man who works hard at keeping his daughter unmarried so that his life will go on unchanged. Except for its rather too cute ending, this was a fun film and it drove a tractor into the notions of father-daughter relationships.
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