It is possible there are more people in this country today who have never seen a classic period Amitabh Bachchan film on the big screen than those who have. Bachchan, of course, remains an active and important part of Hindi cinema: Just this year, he was the motive force in Jhund and the sage older statesman in Brahmastra. But nothing can compare to his reign in the 1970s-80s, when he was Hindi film, an industry unto himself. The utter lack of revival screenings in India has meant that these films, some of the most important in Hindi cinema, have only been watched on TV and laptop screens by recent generations. That could change this weekend.
To mark his turning 80 on 11 October, there will be a retrospective—'Bachchan: Back To The Beginning', by Film Heritage Foundation in association with PVR. Eleven films featuring the actor, the most recent from 1982, will be screened in select PVR cinemas in 19 cities from 8-11 October. These include Yash Chopra’s Deewar, Kabhi Kabhie and Kaala Patthar, the Hrishikesh Mukherjee films Abhimaan, Mili and Chupke Chupke, as well as Don, Kaalia, Amar Akbar Anthony, Namak Halaal and Satte Pe Satta. The rarity of old films playing in cinemas seems to have surprised even Bachchan, who said in a statement: “I didn’t think that I would see a day that all these films from my early career would be back on the big screen across the country.”
There will also be an exhibition of Bachchan memorabilia at PVR Juhu in Mumbai (the source for the images used here). Curated by film historian, author and archivist S.M.M. Ausaja, it will have posters, photographs, LP and magazine covers, publicity material and the original Shahenshah costume.
The retrospective has its origins in a request by the Finnish Film Archive to Shivendra Singh Dungarpur to help them source some Bachchan films for a screening. Dungarpur, founder of the Film Heritage Foundation, started wondering if it might be possible to get the actor’s films into cinemas here on his 80th birthday. He got in touch with Ajay Bijli, chairman and managing director, PVR Ltd, who asked him how they would convince the producers who had the film rights. “That’s my problem,” Dungarpur told him.
Dungarpur started approaching producers and rights holders. Rajiv Rai gave them Deewar, Aditya Chopra gave them Kaala Patthar and Kabhi Kabhie. Zanjeer was sought, to no avail. Unsurprisingly, some of his requests were met with bewilderment. “People said to me, why are you taking Abhimaan, it’s on YouTube.” The transfers, he says, were “all decent prints. They are not Bologna-standard but this is a first step to give producers confidence that their films are wanted”.
These producers might take heart from what seems like a good deal of public interest. Dungarpur says his phone has been ringing non-stop. Shows have sold out, celebrities are asking him for passes. “The response has been overwhelming,” he tells me. “Contemporary actors have been calling, saying they will be watching these films for the first time on a big screen. It’s a tremendous feeling.”
Sanjeev Kumar Bijli, joint managing director, PVR Ltd, also describes the response as “overwhelming”, adding that with the advance sales “turning out to be a huge success, we look forward to regularly showcase the best of India’s films in our cinemas”. Hopefully, this means more old and rare films will find their way into theatres from time to time. “We don’t have an institution like a MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, New York) or a BFI (British Film Institute),” Dungarpur says. “But what better way to reach out than do a people’s festival?”
To movie fans outside India, it might seem strange that the rights holders and producers were so sceptical that people might want to watch the most beloved films of India’s biggest star. Yet the average cinema-goer is thought so little of in India that this dismissal of their tastes is not that surprising. “People who have seen Chupke Chupke 20 times, they still want to see it on the big screen,” Dungarpur says. “Today, I saw each and every print on the screen. Man, what a feeling.”