BY SUSMITA DASGUPTA
Stars have an inherent age like the quizzes that keep popping up on gaming sites like: B. Your real age? Jaya Bhaduri is “Guddi” at heart, a teenager who never quite grows up, Nirupa Roy was never young. Shammi is a young man in his early twenties, while Raj Kapoor and others are in their late twenties.
Amitabh Bachchan is a man of mature years, a man of the age when he has seen it all. There is not only the maturity and insight of years, it is a face of having absorbed life in no small degree, a wholeness of thought that is not possible without a distance that the passions of youth cannot attain.
He is a man who may have longed and lost, but we have no data on his youthful follies. He is a man beyond fault, a man who never gives in to his desires, living for his family and the world at large, a survivor and a fighter who fights to protect his own kind rather than glorifying himself in victory. He is indifferent to his own condition, he rarely raises his hand for himself, but when it comes to saving a helpless young person, raising brothers, raising orphans, saving sisters and making mother comfortable, the hero leaves no stone unturned.
This indifference to one’s own desires and the transcendence of passions gives the star a difficult old age. In films where Amitabh is cast in a dual role, a younger man and an older man, it was always the older man who was the protagonist of the film. Movies like Adalat, Aakhri Raasta, Desh Premee and Suryavansham are points in the case. The innate maturity of the Amitabh years may have sustained him in his biological age if he continues to be as attractive to his fans as he was some four decades ago.
In this day and age, when politics and cinema have converged and politics has taken on the form of popular culture, it’s not surprising when movie stars go into politics. Both Prithviraj Kapoor and Nargis were members of the Rajya Sabha, but it was Amitabh who also spearheaded the trend for movie stars to contest and win political elections to gain seats in the lower house of parliament.
Amitabh Bachchan was close to Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s family and in fact Rajeev and Sonia stayed with the Bachchans before getting married. When Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated and Rajiv Gandhi was about to become prime minister, he called his friends over to fill a duty of which he had no experience. Amitabh Bachchan was among his friends who joined politics at the call of Rajiv Gandhi.
Amitabh eventually resigned over bribery allegations that were later refuted and his name was cleared beyond a doubt, but the bitterness of the brief stint in politics was enough to have the star say he doesn’t want to touch politics with a punt. Amitabh admitted that he knew nothing about politics and that trade was a veritable “cesspool”. He later sought political patronage from a variety of non-congress parties.
Real life and role life are therefore clearly separated for Amitabh Bachchan because his image in cinema is political. It’s political because as a hero, Amitabh is more concerned about villains, the law and the state affecting his work life. He seems more concerned with his productive powers than with the procreative ones, like the girl he wants to marry.
Already in Kabhi Kabhi, Amitabh gives up his inspiration in the form of the girl he loved and focuses on his work. Romances only come as an afterthought, more to fit the routine of the Hindi film formula.
Amitabh’s productivity, rather than his biological reproduction, was the focus of the films. Popular cinema used to be primarily a matter of family versus the individual, but in Amitabh’s films the family is besieged by society’s violence, the individual is detached from the family and depersonalized in a mean, whimsical, demeaning audience place. This makes law and governance an important issue in the lives of the people starring in Amitabh and hence his films are political.
The image of the hero is political because he deals with the state. However, in films like “Trishul” and “Kala Patthar” and especially in Manmohan Desai’s films where the hero has no direct conflict with the state despite the police and the law, films retain their political character because the hero is torn from his moorings in the Family, detached from family life and atomized and alienated in the world without being contained by any social institution.
In Amar Akbar Anthony, the three characters with those names are brothers and they also have parents, but each is separated from each other as one does not know the whereabouts of the other. Such an unsupervised world lets people encounter the public space that only the state can organize.
The hero in an Amitabh film is usually born poor and helpless, overcoming his fate; so also Rajesh Khanna in “Haathi Mere Saathi” or Shatrughan Sinha in “Vishwanath”. But in the Amitabh Stars, the hero does not elevate his struggles to the level of individual effort, but to the discourse of class struggle.
As a hero, Amitabh recalls that his initial displacement was a power struggle in society, a society that uses its legal system, its police force and the institutions of the state to perpetuate the asymmetry of power and the inequalities in property relations that social opportunities always reach unequal and maintain the inequalities inherent in society. That makes Amitabh Bachchan the star of a political picture.
(Excerpt from “Amitabh Bachchan – Reflections On A Star Image” by Susmita Dasgupta, reproduced with permission from Bloomsbury Publishers)