You can argue that it is Shah Rukh Khan (or even Sachin Tendulkar) who is India’s biggest brand, and in a way you would be right. However if you want to talk of a colossus who has straddled the scene of Hindi films, for the longest time, and held an entire nation in his thrall, it would have to be Amitabh Bachchan. At age 68 he is today, as popular as he ever was at the zenith of his stardom; or even perhaps more so!
Amitabh Bachchan wasn’t a sudden or instantly huge success in the way that someone like Rajesh Khanna was – to be sure Khanna perhaps had more women swooning over him and marrying his photos and perhaps in his time he was a bigger superstar than Bachchan. However Bachchan, as the angry young man with the brooding eyes, the evocative baritone and the lanky long legs was a whole new phenomenon in Bollywood. And as the have-not who stood up to the haves (witness his line Main aaj bhi phenke hue paise nahin uthata from Deewaar which showed the poor man’s dignity in the face of affluence) he charted a new course for the Hindi film hero, who had hitherto been the lover, the tragedy hero and so on in the main. He received as much adulation from the male cinema viewer as the female.
He is the one entity in Hindi cinema, who has risen, phoenix like, the most number of times from various situations some of this own making and some not – in 1982 he suffered a very serious injury during the filming of Coolie that had him hospitalized for months – he survived that and later also overcame a condition that he was diagnosed with; a condition called Myasthenia gravis (an autoimmune neuromuscular disease causing fluctuating muscle weakness and fatigue).
His foray into politics was perhaps misguided and short-lived, and subject to scandal (relating to the Bofors guns); he called it a day after 3 years, abandoning the political arena that he called a ‘Cesspool’. He returned to his first love, acting and gave us films like Shehenshah, Hum, Agneepath and Khuda Gawah. However when it became clear with the bombing of films such as Insaniyat, that he was no longer able to cut it as the angry ‘young’ man, he went into semi retirement.
Following this was the financial crisis in his life when the company he floated, ABCL (Amitabh Bachchan Corporation, Ltd) ran into heavy weather after the 1996 Miss World fiasco and other problems, which meant that Bachchan was heavily in debt. However he managed to climb out of this as well, repaying all his creditors, and doing films such as Bade Miyan Chote Miyan (1998), and Sooryavansham (1999) and less successful ones such as Lal Baadshah (1999) and Hindustan Ki Kasam (1999).
However his more definitive comeback was with the TV show Kaun Banega Crorepati where he sealed his status as the most loved Indian – he related to the aam aadmi, spoke their language, was affectionately avuncular, and was full of good counsel and wisdom, earning the respect and the undying affection of the entire nation. He had resurrected his career, redefined and reinvented himself and then, there was nothing he could do wrong.
He also went on to act in numerous successful films (Baghbaan, Black, Cheeni Kum, the Sarkar films and Paa to name just a few) did dozens of TV and print media endorsements for products from balm to pens, to suiting to cars, and entrenched his personality and his persona on the hearts and minds of people. From the angry young man, he had transformed into the wise elder, whom people listened to with respect and love so is it any wonder that he has people queuing up for him to endorse anything from paints, to insurance to chocolate to the state of Gujarat?
It also helps that he comes across as a thinking, intelligent and articulate man; very much the son of his erudite father Harivansh Rai Bachchan (who gave us the unforgettable Madhushala). This is also due, in no small part to Amitabh Bachchan’s blog (where he refers to his readers as his extended family) – here he shares ideas, discusses issues, connects with fans, ruminates, offers insight into his own life, and entertains with personal anecdotes.
Amitabh Bachchan has an indefinable star quality, but beside this he has shown courage and tremendous resilience, the ability to repeatedly resurrect his own career and the capability to connect to the people of India is a way that has seen no parallel. Even SRK, couldn’t quite fill his shoes when it came to KBC, it was Bachchan who returned to the show to put people at their ease, laugh and joke with them, receiving their adulation and adoration in his humble and self effacing manner that endeared him anew to his legions of fans.
It is all this and more that ensures that it is Amitabh Bachchan, more than anyone else, who is India’s biggest, most loved and most enduring brand – at the age of 68, he has everyone wishing him many, many more fruitful years.