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Amitabh Bachchan: The reign continues in the new millennium

As the star turns 74, it is time to acknowledge the evolution of a true-blue millennial icon. Bachchan has survived the turn of a millennium, the rise of social media, and an increasingly divided fan following to re-establish his status as a leading face of Indian cinema. A look at the star through the eyes of millennials.

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Shriram Iyengar

Just a year short of celebrating his diamond jubilee, and Amitabh Bachchan, actor, superstar and big daddy of Hindi cinema, has delivered another powerful performance as the grouchy old lawyer defending women's rights in Pink.

Last year, Bachchan was part of a critical hit, Piku, in which he stood out in a cast that included Deepika Padukone and Irrfan Khan. And this year, he has already had four releases – Wazir, Ki & Ka, Te3n and Pink.

Since his turn as the dominant, unbending professorial head of an institution in Aditya Chopra's Mohabbatein (2001), Amitabh Bachchan has continued to evolve as an actor. As he arrives at his 74th birthday today, the actor is enjoying a purple patch unlike that of any other veteran in Indian cinema.

As the disciplinarian Narayan Shankar opposite Shah Rukh Khan in Mohabbatein (2001)

Stars in Hindi cinema usually have short shelf lives, with most fading out well before they hit their fifties. The examples are numerous: Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Rajendra Kumar, Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Feroz Khan all began losing their sheen as they crossed 40. Only Dilip Kumar, that beacon of method acting, continued to be sought after for leading roles in films like Shakti (1982), Mashaal (1984) and Saudagar (1991) well into his sixties.

However, no star has managed to extend his career on screen into his seventies as Bachchan has. A comparison could be drawn with Hollywood legend Henry Fonda, who metamorphosed from the dashing hero of innumerable Westerns to the grouchy old man in On Golden Pond (1981). Bachchan has similarly changed from 'Angry Young Man' of the 1970s to 'Grand Old Man' of the 21st century. For many millennials, it may be difficult to connect with Bachchan the star, but Bachchan the actor is a familiar totem.

Sudhish Nair (born 1998) agrees. "Bachchan is an icon," he says. "I like his style. He is solid. I loved him in Piku. He reminded me of an uncle I know."

It is this transformation that is momentous. Since the turn of the millennium, Bachchan has enthusiastically experimented with roles that were beyond his reach when he was a superstar. Films like Aks (2001), Aankhen (2002), Baghban (2003) and Black (2005) marked some of his performances in the early 2000s that were very different from what he had done before. The variety has increased in the second decade of the millennium with films like The Great Gatsby (2013), Paa (2009), Piku (2015), Shamitabh (2015), Te3n (2016) and Pink (2016). It is in these 'characters' that Bachchan has found new audiences.

Akhil Kulkarni (born 1995) is clearly a fan. "I like him as an actor," he says. "He feels real, and at his age to work in such films is impressive." Asked if he was familiar with Bachchan's earlier work, Kulkarni says, "Not really. I have seen Sholay, Deewar and the comedy with Dharmendra [Chupke Chupke (1975)] on TV. Other than that I have not seen many of his films."

Bachchan won the National award for Best Actor for Shoojit Sircar's Piku (2015). In so doing, he joined the list of oldest actors to win the prestigious award.

Amitabh Bachchan, playing second fiddle to Dharmendra in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Chupke Chupke (1975)

Social media provides the other dimension that has improved Bachchan's visibility among fans. His presence on Twitter, in particular, has drawn 22.6 million followers. His quotes, posts and tweets have helped him build a fan base with an audience that is unfamiliar with the craze that once followed him. They might not stand outside his bungalow for hours for a glimpse of the man, but they still adore him.

Says Ritika Nair (born 2001): "I always like Amitabh Bachchan. My dad told me how big a star he was. He was bigger than Ranveer Singh or Ranbir Kapoor. He is still so popular." Asked if anyone else could compare to Bachchan, she replies, "I think Irrfan Khan is like that. He picks so many different and interesting roles. He is also working in Hollywood. Their acting styles are very similar too."

It is no coincidence that Nair chooses to compare Bachchan with Khan, an actor who is praised for his daring choice of roles, rather than Ranveer Singh or Ranbir Kapoor, who are bona fide stars in Hindi cinema. 

Longevity is one thing, popular longevity quite another. In 1999, the BBC awarded Amitabh Bachchan the title of 'Star of the Millennium' on the basis of an online poll. Since then, he has taken on the mantle of a national treasure in India. He is ambassador for several national programmes, including those of the Union tourism ministry, the prime minister's pet Swachch Bharat campaign, and the campaign to eradicate polio. He is a familiar face on television, promoting several brands.

Indeed, it was TV that began the revival of Brand Amitabh Bachchan with the reality quiz show Kaun Banega Crorepati in 2000. Since then, the actor has become a 'brand' worth more than the millions he offered as prize. This has brought him followers and detractors in equal measure. Nitin Khatri says, "I don't follow Amitabh Bachchan. I know people say he is a great actor and all that, but I feel he is doing it for the money. He does so many advertisements and promotions, you feel tired of seeing him on screen. He needs to step down, retire and let others do the job." So, whom does he follow? "Varun Dhawan. He looks like a good actor. Also, Ranbir Kapoor. He has not had a hit in some time, but I think he is a good actor." 

The followup question seems obvious. Can anyone else replicate this scale and period of success? Ritika Nair says, "No. I think this was the only time anyone of this age has given hit films." To be fair, she is not familiar with Dilip Kumar. Khatri agrees, "I cannot see any other actor growing old on screen. Maybe Irrfan Khan or Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Aamir Khan can do it to an extent. But Shah Rukh and Salman would look weird if they appeared on screen as old men."

With the Khan trinity officially into the fifties, it is time to start thinking of ways to extend their careers. Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan have already shown some skill with diversified acting, with the latter even taking up direction. Even Salman Khan has moved on to more mature roles, as in the recent Sultan. However, whether they match up to the man who has spent five decades in the industry, and continues to be one of its stalwarts, is debatable. In the end, a dialogue mouthed by Amitabh Bachchan sums it up well: "Rishte mein toh hum tumhare baap lagte hain... naam hai Shahenshah."