The Films of Amitabh Bachchan
Amitabh Bachchan is the biggest star of them all. Idolized in India, China, Malaysia, Russia, the Middle East, the UK, North Africa, and significant parts of everywhere else (except America), he has put more butts in seats than any other actor in the history of the medium. He is the son of prominent Urdu poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan, husband of Jaya Badhuri (a star in her own right), father of Abhishek (a handsome young actor who — in a repetition of his father's rocky start — has found success after a series of flops) and now father-in-law of Aishwarya Rai. In his long career Amitabh has made over 170 pictures, many of them mega-hits, many of them classics of Hindi cinema. I love him without reservation and recommend almost any film he has ever made, particularly his angry-young-man pictures from the 70s. Here are some of my favorites:
Amar Akbar Anthony An extremely campy and fast-moving film with enough plot for two Dickens novels, Amar Akbar Anthony is a excellent example of the "separated at birth" scenario that has fueled dozens of Bollywood screenplays over the years. Three brothers, their father on the run from an evil smuggler, are left in a park and respectively found by a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian. Each of the boys is consequently raised in a different religious tradition, each unaware that their parents are still alive. They become friends as adults after meeting while donating blood to an injured woman. She is, of course, their mother, who can't recognize anyone since she has gone blind. This is all before the credits, mind you! The high point of this wonderfully enjoyable film comes fairly early in the picture when Amitabh (seemingly dressed as Mr. Peanut) emerges from a giant Easter egg and sings the classic "My Name is Anthony Gonsalvez." There are few such delirious moments in all of cinema.
(While my family and I were in Mumbai not long ago we visited the set of new comedy-romance called My Name is Anthony Gonsalvez, a commercially canny homage to Amar Akbar. As we were driving away my daughter began to sing the song, one of her favorites. Before the second line everyone in the van was singing along, Americans and Indians alike. Totally cool!)
Deewaar This film is one of the best examples of Amitabh as the angry young man (often named Vijay) in roles that defined the first phase of his career and turned him into the world's biggest superstar. In film after gritty film the Big B would emerge from poverty to find success in Mumbai's underworld. Invariably events force him into vengeance, often towards a father-figure who has betrayed him. Often he dies, often in his mother's arms — as he does in this film, after a bloody struggle up the steps of a temple, reminding this viewer of Cagney's death at the end of Public Enemy.
Don (1978) Don is a gangster, a really bad guy. He kills without compunction, loves without concience, and probably isn't even nice to his mother (though we never know for sure — there are no mothers in Don, which is unusual for an Indian film of this period). Fortunately for the law-abiding citizens of Mumbai, Don is killed in a police ambush well before intermission. Thus the challenge for Inspector D'Silva (Iftekhar, a man who played cops so many times his name became a slang term for policeman). Can he train a simple paan-chewing street enterainer from Benares — a man with an astonishing likeness to the real Don — to fake amnesia and take over the gang?
Aside from Amitabh's great double performance as bad ass and naive hero, there are many reasons to love this movie. Reason 1, the first five minutes: Don dispatches a trio of ruffians with an exploding briefcase — boom! — and we cut to a psychedelic credit sequence with the best music since Monty Norman's "James Bond Theme." The tremendous music in Don is by the composing team Kalyanji-Anandji (Kalyanji Shah and Anandjit Shah), two brothers who scored dozens of movies, many of them the best "wacka wacka" disco-style tracks of the seventies. These guys are a major source for bhangra break-beat styles filling dance floors even as I write (check out the great Bombay the Hard Way: Guns, Cars And Sitars mix CD).
Reason 2: Amitabh's musical numbers. His first, "Bombay Nagaria," is a paean to Bombay ("...the church is missing at Churchgate...") staged in a sandlot off Marine Drive with the city as a backdrop. Hundreds of residents watch as the Big B struts his stuff as a street entertainer barefoot in rustic garb. In "Main Hoon Don" he's in disco gear in a nightclub, this time surrounded by bad guys and cool girlfriends (including Zeenat Aman, another reason to love this movie). Curiously, the song starts with Amitabh in a tiger mask. (I'm clueless on the cultural background for this mask dancing, but it reminds me of what we used to call the "cat dance" at Sonali, a tiny joint on the Indian restaurant row (6th Street between 1 and 2) in the East Village. If they found out it was your birthday, one of the kitchen boys was sent out in a plastic cat mask to dance while colored gels spun in front of a light fixture and some Bollywood tune played on a cassette deck. It was wonderful; I knew people who had three or four birthdays a year just to watch.)
And then there's "Khaike Paan Banaraswala" a hymn to the joys of the betel leaf. "With opiate ruling your senses / chew a betel leaf / a betel-leaf from Benares opens up the mind." He's in street entertainer mode in both, wearing rustic garb and barefoot, and his dancing is much more than a joy to watch: as I read once, it's a reason to go on living. It's not so much that he's good at it — while not ungainly, he's no Fred Astaire — he's just so much fun to watch.
And finally Reason 3: the first song in the movie ("Yeh Mera Dil," one of the biggest hits of one of the great playback singers, Asha Bhosle), picturized on eternal vamp Helen who is seducing the bad Don as the police gather outside. While his back is turned she removes the bullets from his gun, but wait! There's one on the floor, between his feet! Helen's legend says she was in a thousand films, though the actual number is probably closer to seven-hundred; she was a half-Burmese, half-French waif who walked with her mother from Burma to India to escape the Japanese during the Second World War. The original item girl, Helen often appears in a song sequence that has no relation to the plot: the item number. Her dancing is like Cary Grant's accent, a self-invented compendium of styles. And did I mention she's fabulous?
Sholay It's hard to write anything about Sholay that hasn't been written. There are books, articles, movies about Sholay, even LPs and cassettes in the 70s containing snippets of dialogue from the soundtrack. Sholay is the ultimate Bollywood hit. It ran for five-and-a-half years in a first-run house in Mumbai — the people just kept coming, filling the theatre month after month. In 2005 Filmfare was still calling it the best film of the last fifty years; according to Wikipedia there are still over a thousand prints in circulation. All this for a movie made in 1975!
Sholay didn't make Amitabh a star — Zanjeer had done that a few months before — but it solidified his place in the Bollywood firmament. The movie borrows liberally from Seven Samurai, though it's most obvious stylistic forbear is the spagehetti western of Sergio Leone. It's the story of two neer-do-wells rescued from prison by a former cop who needs their help: the town is threatened by a bandit gang led by the baddest bad guy of them all, Ghabbar Singh. The legend goes that Indian mothers would get their children to settle down at night by saying, "Go to sleep or Ghabbar Singh will come and get you!" Amjad Khan (pictured above) became an overnight sensation with the role and was associated with bad guys (and Amitabh) for the rest of his career.
Like Star Wars in the US, Sholay was not only a mammoth hit but was also extremely influential technically, providing a financial motivation to improve the way Hindi films were shot and projected. Though shot in 35mm the prints were masked at top and bottom and blown-up on 70mm stock, giving it a widescreen ratio that was almost unknown in India at the time. It also had the first stereo soundtrack.
The stunt work was also first-rate, with industry stuntmen recruited from the West to elevate the "thrills" to a level never before seen. The horsework is particularly good, and there is a stunning attack on a train near the beginning of the movie that looks like something from Lawrence of Arabia. Stuntwork in Bollywood was often amateurish before (and even after) Sholay, with actors doing dangerous feats that their Western counterparts had avoided since Lilian Gish jumped ice floes for D.W. Griffith.
In the film Coolie, in fact, made in 1983 — eight years after Sholay — Amitabh was almost killed when an unpulled punch connected with his abdomen and sent him to hospital for weeks. There was national mourning, with Amitabh shrines everywhere and offerings on every altar. One pilgrim walked backwards in supplication across the breadth of India. When Amitabh finally recovered and resumed filming, the ending of the picture was changed so that his character survived. Release prints froze the frame just before the incident and displayed the words "This is the shot in which AMITABH BACHCHAN was seriously injured." After a few seconds the film resumes, then the frame is frozen again as the near-fatal punch connects. God I love Bollywood!