Back then, three decades ago or thereabouts, when the multiplex as a possibility was nowhere on the horizon and crowds at single theatres were the barometer of a film’s success, the release of an Amitabh Bachchan movie was nearly always festival time.
The atmosphere around the theatre would be electric in Odisha. People would join the scrimmage at the ticket counter with gusto, sweating, shouting and swearing till they got their hand into that ticket counter from where the licence to watch the actor on the screen emerged. It was never a game for the faint-hearted. You had to fight off a nasty throng who attacked the tiny ticket counter from all possible angles and there were the thuggish ‘blackers’, rumoured to be carrying blades between their fingers, who had to be fended off.
The smiles on faces at the end of the struggle said it all. Those with crest-fallen faces would try their luck again for the next show, the next day and the whole of next week. In the age of multiple screens and online booking and manufactured hype, the madness is a bit difficult to explain. It would escape the comprehension of the KBC generation. But that is what Amitabh Bachchan used to be for his fans. He drove them crazy like none of his contemporaries did.
At the end of the film, usually a trip across many emotions with anger and revenge as the dominant ones, there would be a bizarre sense of satisfaction. Young men would carry some of his swagger in their gait while trooping out of the theatre and minds would be heavy with scenes of the man in different frames. The latter would repeat playing in the mind for days and weeks. The dialogues would be delivered among friends for long, or at least till his next film hit the screen.
He was believable. The tall, lanky man did not need to flaunt a six-pack or ripping biceps to justify how he smashed to pulp 20 baddies on a narrow iron bridge or inside a godown stacked with sacks of grain and armed goons. Collective disbelief remained suspended when he went about the logic-defying Manmohan Desai movies with elan. He didn’t quite fit into intensely romantic movies, of which he had quite a few, but no one complained. The magic spell of his personality made all his shortcomings redundant.
He set the fashion trend for the rural and semi-urban youth. Many parted their hair in the middle after watching his films and others shifted to wearing bell-bottom trousers. His jackets were a rage. Those who could procure downmarket copies of these from cities, flaunted them proudly back home. In his peak period between the late 1960s and early 1970s, Rajesh Khanna held his fans in similar thrall but Amitabh took it to another level altogether. That he eclipsed Khanna soon enough is another story. But that is the way charisma works.
Amitabh was charismatic. His deep, resonant voice, his image as a rebel, his portrayal of the angst of the times and the devil may care attitude of his characters went into the construction of the charisma. That a whole nation would plunge into grief and pray to all gods for his recovery in an unprecedented show of love after his near-fatal injury on the sets of Coolie, reflected his grip over the popular imagination not only as a hero but also as someone who had transcended being an actor to the status of demi-god.
The Khan trio of today or Akshay Kumar or Hrithik may have been highly popular post the gradual abandonment of central roles by Amitabh but none among them seem to generate fan frenzy like he did in his heyday. We are talking of times when stars did not make ceaseless rounds of cities and TV studios to promote their movies or stay connected to fans through social media or shows on television. They had to make a place and stay in the memories of the people. Amitabh did it better than all.
If you don’t belong to small-town India of the 1970s and 1980s, you may understand Amitabh Bachchan the actor, but will never fully grasp Amitabh Bachchan the phenomenon.