The first time I, as a callow film journalist, met Amitabh Bachchan — who turned 80 this week — the lanky actor was addressing the press in a Mumbai hotel, discussing a retrospective of his films at New York’s prestigious Lincoln Center. As Bachchan sat back in hard-to-forget lavender trousers and spoke thoughtfully of that 2005 selection (featuring 70s classics like Zanjeer alongside newer fare Aks and Aankhen), a journalist asked about having a similar showing in India. Bachchan was momentarily nonplussed. “In India?”, he laughed. “In India there is a retrospective running all the time.”
This is not an exaggeration. Switch on a television set, flip a couple of channels, and you will — in not too long at all — land on a Bachchan hit. This moviegoing nation has never been able to get enough of that particular man. Once lionised for being Angry and Young, the performer remains Experimental and Pathbreaking, his filmography growing in unique and unpredictable ways.
It’s a list as long as his legs, but to me what may be most remarkable about Amitabh Bachchan is how prolific he has been and continues to be. It is a career marked by a furious refusal to rest on one’s laurels. To wish this undimmed superstar in his 80th year, I decided to zoom into one particular and astonishing year. To give you a one-year retrospective you can stream this weekend.
1975. This is the year Bachchan wears a blue shirt that a tailor has incorrectly cut too long, but with cameras ready to roll, the actor improvises and knots it up instead — more like a glamorous vacationer than a dockyard worker about to get into a fight — and a legend is tied into place. Yash Chopra’s Deewaar (currently streaming on Zee5) features Bachchan in a scalding performance as Vijay Verma, an indignant upstart refusing to be boxed in by society, or by scruples. This is Bachchan at his most unapologetic, playing an antihero as towering as the skyscrapers we see reflected in his sunglasses. Frighteningly good.
1975. This is the year Bachchan plays drunk for the first — and far from the last — time. In Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Mili (currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video), Bachchan’s brooding and reclusive Shekhar Dayal speaks little at first, save to ask his orderly to make yet another drink, or to ask the children of his building society to pipe down. Yet it is with this film that Bachchan’s imperious baritone shines through most powerfully as this traumatised introvert — scolding, then withholding, then learning to open up — fascinates an inquisitive neighbour. It is a mature, reined-in, and ultimately devastating performance.
1975. This is the year Bachchan becomes a PG Wodehouse character. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Chupke Chupke (currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video) stars Dharmendra in the lead as a prank-loving botanist. This immaculate comedy is Mukherjee’s Blandings Castle, where Bachchan is a riot as the guileless Sukumar Sinha, a Literature professor coerced into pretending he’s the botanist. This leads to much mugging up of modified stems and modified roots, and the actor, forever pushing spectacles up his nose with a determined finger, is delightful in this bewildered, besotted role. It’s an exquisite film, and Bachchan is so nuanced and natural — so perfect — that this is my favourite of his performances.
1975. This is the year Bachchan embraces full-blown melodrama with Ravi Chopra’s Zameer (currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video), playing a stable-hand in a forgettable film that nevertheless shows off his preposterous screen presence. This is also the year Bachchan plays himself in a self-aware cameo. In Basu Chatterjee’s Chhoti Si Baat (currently streaming on Disney+ Hotstar), the actor seeks advice from the film’s know-it-all Colonel Julius Nagendranath Wilfred Singh, played by Ashok Kumar. He rebukes Bachchan for his stubble and asks “What’s the trouble, income tax?” They talk intensely (out of earshot) for a few seconds, then Bachchan laughs, touches Kumar’s feet and strides out after thanking him. The moment instantly mythologises Kumar as a larger-than-life authority figure.
1975. This is the year Bachchan asks a girl called Basanti her name. Ramesh Sippy’s magnum opus Sholay (currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video) belongs to many characters: the story is that of Sanjeev Kumar’s Thakur Baldev Singh, the leading man is Dharmendra’s Veeru, the most iconic lines are handed to Amjad Khan’s supreme villain Gabbar Singh. This is a red hot film, and it is Bachchan — as the laconic and understated Jai — who makes it cool. From nonchalantly showing off his aim to delivering the most backhanded marriage proposal in history, Jai gives Sholay its style. (Also, considering that Jai keeps using a trick two-headed coin to settle all decisions means that he influences not only the climax but the entire film. Doesn’t that make him the real hero?)
Imagine making that set of films in one year. They are career highlights, films that created history and films that have endured, and most actors would kill to have one or two films that good in their entire career. Imagine straddling all those genres. Imagine the range required to play Vijay Verma of Deewaar and Shekhar Dayal of Mili back to back. Imagine stealing not one but two films from the same leading man, by shining brightly enough in supporting roles. Imagine that one phenomenal year, then imagine Amitabh Bachchan at it again and again and again, year after year. As the legend carries on, it’s clear who won the coin-toss: we did.
Streaming tip of the week:
It’s not just 1975. Take any packed Bachchan year, and you’ll see extraordinary range. 1981 had Naseeb (Zee5), Yaarana (MX Player), Silsila (Amazon), Laawaris and Kaalia (Amazon). 2007 included Cheeni Kum (Zee5), Nishabd (Amazon), The Last Lear and Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag (Amazon). He’s never stood still.
Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about the killing of critics.