The problem in trying to piece together a coherent narrative about Amitabh Bachchan is that you’re doomed to be trite, inadequate or just plain wrong.
No amount of research about his epically successful films, his cult dialogues, his piercing intensity, his inimitable voice, his most iconic roles, or his sublime acting skills can capture what Bachchan means to Indian cinema but more pertinently, to every single Bachchan fan.
They number in the millions. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say they’re probably a billion.
That’s a sixth of the world’s people.
Each will tell you their own distinct Bachchan narrative, adding to the complication of piecing together a consistent picture of the man himself. From the moment of his first significant success – the film Zanjeer in 1973 – he has belonged to too many. Carried the dreams of too many. Hefted the ideals of too many. Been, for too many, the husband, son, father, brother, lover, hero they desire.
And yet, it has been a tumultuous journey.
In the 43 years since he entered the film industry, Bachchan has lived multiple lives – he’s been a struggler who starred in 12 consecutive flops as well as the actor for whom the word superstar is inadequate; he’s been a failed entrepreneur and a revered TV host; he’s confronted death and witnessed the kind of nationalistic fervour saved for a handful of men on the planet.
It’s his experience with adversity – in almost equal measure as his success – that has shaped him into the towering presence he is today.
When Bachchan is ill or, as in 1982, when he had an accident on-set that sent him into a coma, the nation grinds to a halt.
When he takes the stage, silence descends.
When he’s on the screen, whistles erupt.
When he’s on television every weekend, traffic thins.
And yet – bafflingly – one gets the sense sometimes that while the superstar has got his due, the actor hasn’t.
For it is Amitabh Bachchan’s formidable genius as an actor that stands head and shoulders above the legions that have followed. In a nation that thrives on hyperbole, his domain is subtlety and instinct. Whether it’s the wry, scathing humour of Sholay or the quiet despair of Anand; the simmering intensity of Zanjeer or the raging fury of Deewar, Bachchan is riveting – an actor who achieves the sublime when he’s in front of the camera.
It’s a genius that has given him an influence unparalleled in the world of cinema. In a BBC poll for the greatest movie star of the century at the turn of the millennium, Bachchan beat Sir Lawrence Olivier – and every other Hollywood actor in the reckoning – for the top spot.
And yet this is the same man who was turned down by All India Radio – and the country’s then top radio host Ameen Sayani – for a radio announcer’s post when he first arrived on the scene decades ago.
The country, it has to be said, owes Sayani a debt of gratitude for his poor judgement.