His contemporaries have disappeared into oblivion. Some are dead, some have receded into a retired man’s routine. A new generation of sharp, versatile all-purpose actors now rules the roost, making the crumbling mega star system and its leading lights, relics of another age.
A new breed of directors, brimming with ideas, creative imagination and gumption, is redefining cinema. The art of storytelling has undergone many shifts. Technology has opened exciting platforms, facilitating all artistic experiments, from the frivolous to the engaging to the intense. Most importantly, the audience, around which the whole world of entertainment revolves, has changed.
Straddling the many transformations over the last half century is one man: Amitabh Bachchan. The angry young man of yesteryear is a mellowed old man now, struggling with constipation in one film and competing to be the oldest man on earth in another or putting questions worth a crore or more to contestants on a television show and spearheading campaigns to save water.
His gravelly voice does not spew words of rebellion, angst and non-conformism anymore, nor does his once formidable screen presence make hearts flutter with anticipation and excitement. Yet he remains the most enduring symbol of the constant and changing in Hindi cinema.
The constant sustains on the overwhelming power of his persona. Not many movies mounted on a big budget and aiming pan-Indian are conceived without him in a key role. Thugs of Hindustan and the recent Chiranjeevi offering Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy are examples. His captivating voice still introduces many films to viewers. Creative or experimental sparks in most directors, even the best, still ride piggyback on his dependable shoulders to find an audience. He is the ultimate go-to man for men with new, unconventional ideas to pitch.
It is not difficult to explain why. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Hindi cinema ran into a creative barren stretch with no fresh concepts coming in and the audience shunning the theatres, he was the only one holding fort. The movies churned out with him in the lead were way low on quality quotient but he was the only star who raised expectations among the makers and viewers alike. The new generation of actors, the Khans, had begun marking their presence but were not big enough yet. His charisma, in some way, saved cinema from collapse. The charisma may have waned with time, but bankability as an actor and audience-puller continues intact.
The changing manifests in the manner the actor has evolved, acknowledging the new currents in cinema and making pragmatic adjustments to fit in. It was evident by the first decade of the century that the glitter of stars and allure of the formula had lost traction among the new generation film-goers exposed to world cinema and western television shows. In the big budget action genre, Hollywood with its huge technological advantage had begun overshadowing Bollywood. The only way out was good, intelligent and relatable content.
Actors had to get off the high horse and be in sync with the trend. Change or perish. That was the message. Amitabh was quick to adapt, while many of his contemporaries and even immediate successors in filmdom failed. He was willing to submit himself to new directors with refreshing ideas. For them, he was the ultimate muse. The partnership has worked wonderfully.
In him, the past has blended seamlessly with the present. The titan of the old continues to drive the new. Yet the more he makes faces before the camera, the more he appears under-exploited as an actor. The world does not tire of him. This would make him the muse of directors till he carries on. There may be many others casting their magic spell on a film crazy nation but he will always retain a high pedestal of his own.