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Big B's evergrowing versatality

At an age when actors plan to quit, Big B continues to evolve, writes Saibal Chatterjee.

india Updated: Sep 19, 2006 16:52 IST

So you didn’t like Amitabh Bachchan’s 'Sexy Sam' act in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna? Well, you have every right not to but, make no mistake, it is nothing short of wondrous when a 64-year-old Bollywood actor dares to defy his patriarchal image and play an oversexed widower.

We could debate endlessly on whether Bachchan has got all the nuances of the controversial right – he may not have done so because Karan Johar’s cinema is not about nuances but about superficial brushstrokes. But let us hand it to this man: at an age when most Bollywood actors are constrained to call it a day, Amitabh Bachchan continues to call the shots.

The reason is simple enough. For once in his long and eventful career, Bachchan is fleshing out an array of characters, instead of merely projecting stereotypes. His amazing versatility is what sets him apart from the rest of the crowd.

Bachchan's 'Sexy Sam' act in KANK took everyone by surprise.

It’s a trait that he has been consistently tapping in right earnest only of late as a means to extending his already record-smashing reign. As a result, he has begun to explore his full range as an actor. The last thing his fans should be doing is complaining.

Attending the 31st Toronto International Film Festival last week for the gala screening of KANK, the Big B told the press: “I am lucky that at the age of 64, people in the Mumbai film industry are still giving me work. They want me to play a stern patriarch, an older policeman or Sexy Sam.”

That isn’t entirely true. For Amitabh Bachchan has hit a purple patch as far as his range of characterisations is concerned and his fans now know that the only predictable thing about their favourite actor is that he is going to be unpredictable from here on.

When Bachchan was famously Bollywood’s one-man industry, there was far too much riding on him to allow him the luxury of experimentation. And then when he tried to pull off a comeback in the 1990s after a protracted hiatus, he made the mistake of starring in run-of-the-mill films like Mrityudaata and Lal Badshah, to name just two.

These films did no justice to his age and talent. He realised that quickly enough and bounced back with assignments that allowed him to play well-etched characters and not just wisecracking, invincible larger-than-life heroes. 

The array of characters that Bachchan plays today stems from the lessons that he learnt from the reverses that he encountered on the comeback trail. If Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black required him to deliver an over-the-top, rendition of the character of an irascible teacher of deaf-blind girl, Sarkar, which saw him donning a Godfather-like garb, found him at his subdued best.

He made a strong impact with both films, establishing his versatility as a screen performer. The distance between the two performances – one was hyper theatrical, the other was a superbly well-modulated exercise in subtlety – gave the industry a full-on demonstration of what its greatest star was capable of delivering.

Amitabh Bachchan does not need to play characters like the one he does in KANK to keep himself at the top of the Bollywood heap. He needs to play these characters simply to keep reminding the world that he is now more than just another Bollywood star. He is an actor par excellence blessed with the skill to sink his teeth into any character that Bollywood scriptwriters can throw at him.

His fans, too, have probably begun to see the Big B in a completely new light. When a few years ago, he played an ageing, skirt-chasing sleaze ball in Kaizad Gustad’s Boom, a film that went bust from day one, there was a veritable public outcry. How could anybody dare to think of casting the redoubtable Bachchan as a lecherous old man, went the refrain. His fans were offended and the film paid the price.

Bachchan’s star turn in KANK, although it is not really in keeping with his established screen image, hasn’t provoked similar outrage. That is, if anything, a happy augury. Now that his fans are willing to accept him in a wider range of roles, it leaves Bachchan free to pick and choose the parts he wants to play, not merely what the industry and his fans want him to essay. 

As a consequence, in his next four films, Bachchan will be playing roles that he has never attempted before. In Ravi Chopra’s Babul, he is an old patriarch who goes out of his way to find a match for his daughter-in-law when his son and her husband dies young. 

In Chini Kum, a comedy of manners directed by adman Balki, there is a huge difference between the age that Bachchan plays and that of Tabu, who, he says, “is 30 years old in the film”. It seems that the “sexy Sam” tag is going to be with him for a while yet. 

In Ram Gopal Varma’s Nishabd, a film that has clear shades of Lolita, Bachchan is a much older man who is drawn by the charms of an 18-year-old girl played by newcomer Jiah Khan.

Would the Amitabh Bachchan of five years ago have dared to take on such bold roles? Varma, in his remake of Sholay, has cast Amitabh as Gabbar Singh. “That’s quite a departure,” the veteran actor admits. But it is pretty clear that he is now game for any challenge.

As Bachchan says, satellite television and its serials have changed the way people look at fictional characters on the screen. “It is a process that has been unfolding for a while,” he says, “making it possible for directors, writers and actors to foray into areas earlier regarded as taboo.”

This marks an exciting new phase of Amitabh Bachchan’s career. At an age when most actors draw up their retirement plans, the one and only Big B manages to find fresh pastures. That’s no mean feat.