Amitabh Bachchan; the very name evokes a variety of feelings. No other film star whether in India or abroad has probably gone through as many ups and downs as he has. In 1999, he was named Superstar of the Millennium in a BBC online poll in which he topped even such great Hollywood legends as Alex Guinness, Marlon Brando and Charlie Chaplin.
He has been named Man of the Year. He is the first living Asian?he is now turned 64?to have been immortalised in wax at Madame Tussaud?s. He almost faced death in 1982 after a near fatal injury in a movie fight scene and had to be hospitalised for weeks. The manner in which his millions of fans rallied to him and prayed for his life must have been more effective than the medical treatment he received.
He has been the subject of a Ph.D. thesis, a comic series and innumerable booklets and is reportedly the only Asian to feature on BBC'sprestigious ?Wogan Show,? and the only Indian film star to be invited at a dinner hosted by a former British Prime Minister, John Major. One would probably need an entire diary to note down all his achievements. It is doubtful whether even Jawaharlal Nehru has in his lifetime received so much public attention. He has been, needless to say, a subject of attack by his critics and there was a time when he was almost persona non grata with the film media. Bhawana Somaaya'sbiography which has understandably gone into four editions and threatens to go into many more, traces the story of this fascinating and sometimes controversial?man who, in a career spanning over 35 years has acted in some 120 films which is by itself something of a record.
There is hardly anything, apparently, that he has not done. Writes Somaaya : ?He has danced, cried, orated, sang, romanced, fought, humoured, humiliated, rebelled, donned a moustache, beard, specs, hat, turban, shawl and shorts, fired blows, bullets, abuses, crossbows, played the drum, guitar, violen, tabla, sitar, walked on fire, rolled in mud, flew on a carpet and jumped over bombs? and played roles of ?postman, policeman, prince, poet, professor, patriot, clerk, criminal, champ, coolie, chauvinist and crusader.? Importantly, he has survived. And how! He has been in?and quickly out?of politics. He has seen a very close friend?Rajiv Gandhi?becoming a Prime Minister. He got into business and was once almost pauperised, and in playing a sterling role in Kaun Banega Crorepati himself became one. Reading Somaaya'stantalising biography one sometimes wonders how he could have survived the beatings he took.
Somaaya says that when mrityudaata bombed there was collective celebration over the superstar'sdefeat and hostility increased after a similar fate overtook Major Saheb. Somaaya who probably knows Bachchan better than most media people attests to the fact that he was ?crucified time and time again? with every film in which he acted described as ?an acid test?. But Bachchan is still around and even the current heart throb Shah Rukh Khan is most respectful to his elder in the profession. There must be something in Bachchan that has kept him together. It is that which Somaaya has sought to find out in her charming biography of the man who she calls ?a legend? which he is.
Now there are several ways of doing a biography. One can write the story of an individual sequentially from the day he was born to the time of his reaching the peak in his profession in one continuous strain saga. Such biographies have been written in the past and no doubt will continue to be written in the future. Somaaya has done one better than that. She has interviewed many who knew Bachchan at one time or another, well enough to provide insights into our hero'scharacter, and the interviewees include not only his son Abhishek, but film producers, directors, and fellow artistes who had worked closely with him like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Raakee, Yash Chopra, Hema Malini, Prakash Mehta, Zeenat Aman, Ramesh Sippy, Rekha, Tinnu Anand, Neetu Singh and S. Ramanathan. And one suspects that what they have to say about Bachchan provides us a better picture of the man than anything that one could write about him by way of an assessment.
Outsiders can see different aspects of a person better than a mere biographer can, and Somaaya has understood that perfectly. Her technique, therefore, has paid handsomely. We have, for example, a touching tribute to Bachchan from his wife Jaya. How he married her is a story in itself and it is charmingly related by Jaya, beginning with the intriguing sentence: ?I remember the first time I set eyes on him?. And one of her comments on her husband reveals the man. ?The truth is that? writes Jaya, ?Amit is himself unaware of how good a friend he can make. He has a great capacity of sustaining relationships.?
Abhishek, his son, has a charming story to tell of his father the day he gave his daughter away in marriage. Like all fathers who see their daughters leaving with their grooms for the first time, Bachchan cried. ?That'sthe first time? says Abhishek, ?I realised that my father is also human. The one thing I feared the most in my life was to see him crying.? Abhishek was too young to know what a daughter means to a father, especially when she is leaving home to become part of another man'slife. Then there is the somewhat unusual comment: ?He'sthe only person I know in the world who'scompletely self-contained. It'svery easy to make him happy.?
What is so lovely and appealing about this book is firstly that all those interviewed are uninhibited and largely objective and Amitabh comes through as a human being, warts and all. Secondly, it is illustrated and one gets to know the icon from the time he was a child to the time he has grown up to be a grandfather. One of his early directors was the famous K.A. Abbas now long dead but who is quoted as saying that what attracted him to Amitabh was his reserve. Amitabh himself is quoted as saying that Saat Hindustani is his favourite film because ?K.A. Abbas launched me with this film?. Abbas must have been among the first to recognise Amitabh'stalents.
Salim-Javed wrote ten films for Amitabh but significantly enough, nine of them were milestones and only one a flop. Somaaya has not shied away from the agonies Bachchan went through as when he had to fight an NRI weekly for libel. He won the case. He had come to Mumbai with only his driving license as his asset. Now he has driven his life into posterity, adding name and fame to his enlarged assets. His is a story worth reading if only because it shows that in life, struggle is not only inevitable, but counts.
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