Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Rajinikanth
- three careers in retrospect
Amitabh Bachchan was a part of my growing up years,
which is why I will never watch Sooryavansham
Published in scroll.in Oct 11, 2017 · 01:30 pm
For two days during the summer vacation of 1977, I stood in the advance booking line to buy tickets for Amar Akbar Anthony. I did not succeed. Such was the hype that people had lined up in the early hours, much before I sauntered in hoping to see Amitabh Bachchan as Anthony Gonsalves before everyone else. Despite being a multi-starrer with Rishi Kapoor and Vinod Khanna, both of whom could easily headline their own films, this was all about Bachchan.
While I did go home empty-handed and did not watch the film for several weeks thereafter, I did not mind too much. My time would come. Until then, I satisfied myself with the radio programmes on Vividh Bharati, those 15-minute advertisements for the film, full of dialogue, song snippets and Ameen Sayani.
The adulation for Amitabh Bachchan started with Bombay to Goa and gained momentum with Zanjeer. At that time, we did not even realise that there were two ‘chs’ in his name. For us, he was the bee’s knees and was always referred to in the rushed and compressed “Amitabachan!” The young Jamaal in Slumdog Millionaire, covered in shit and holding up the unsoiled photograph of his hero, gets the pronunciation right exactly as I remember it from my schooldays. This metaphor for the unsullied leading man of our youth is apt. By the time Sholay and Deewar were released, Amitabh Bachchan could do no wrong.
I was in complete thrall of both man and image in the mid-1970s, as were many of my peers. We were just hitting our early teens and had the role model we were perhaps unconsciously searching for. The rebellious but upright angry young man channelised our angst at our school teachers, our parents and every authority figure around us. We were genuine fans, devouring information on Bachchan through the radio, though film magazines that we leeched onto waiting our turn at barbershops and exchanging gossip more made-up than real. Our eyes were willingly stabbed by the flashes of lurid, hand-painted, largely unsophisticated posters that were the norm at the time.
And, of course, we watched every Amitabh Bachchan movie that was ever released (and the whole back catalogue) on Doordarshan on Sundays, from Saat Hindustani to Bansi Birju to Ek Nazar to Raaste ka Patthar to his early Hrishikesh Mukerjee films. We watched in disbelief his villainous turn in Parwana and his rather wimpy presence in Reshma aur Shera, and cheered his herogiri in Hera Pheri and Khoon Pasina. We watched movies even if Bachchan had a blink-and-miss cameo, as in Kunwara Baap or Chala Murari Hero Banane. We watched him in some of the direst movies ever made in Hindi, such as Besharam (which seemed to have been scripted on the sets and has Sharmila Tagore covered in shoe polish in one scene) and Zameer (where it is unclear whether he is Saira Banu’s long-lost brother or love interest). We realised that some of these movies were drivel, but all we wanted was Amitabh Bachchan. The story came second.
Amar Akbar Anthony did change our perception of Bachchan as an action hero. This phenomenon has been described by several commentators before, but after his turn as Anthony bhai, Bachchan became “a one man industry” (a phrase apparently bestowed upon him by Francois Truffaut). As Anthony, he was action hero, romantic lead, and comic relief all in one. No longer the smouldering, brooding presence filled with self-righteousness and suppressed violence, Anthony was a chameleon and became whatever you wanted him to be as long as (to paraphrase Hobson) he was Amitabh Bachchan.
From this film on to this day, with few exceptions every film is a meta-film, a showcase for the variety show for the superstar he had become. Bachchan prefigures Rajinikanth, a hall of mirrors, with multiple reflections, all of the same person.
It has been correctly said that the Bachchan phenomenon rang the death knell for several character actors, especially comedians who always had their fixed space in the multiple narratives and vignette-filled montages that structured most mainstream Hindi films. Every Bachchan film was so dominated by the colossus that he subsumed everything into himself. The poor fellows in their waning years turned to direction, such as Deven Varma, Jagdeep and Mohan Choti. The makers in turn followed into oblivion, tail between legs.
And yet, Amitabh Bachchan reigned supreme in the eyes of his fans. His films now were fan fodder and kept everyone satisfied. We knew that even when he acted in ensemble films such as Trishul or Kala Patthar, the focus was solely on the central performance. All the other roles existed, for better or worse, to prop him up.
But then, sometime between Coolie and Mrityudaata, something changed. It was as if Amitabh Bachchan had been kidnapped and replaced by a lookalike also called Amitabh Bachchan. His roles were tired re-treads of bombast and exposition, doing and saying things he really did not seem to believe in, dressed up in costumes that bordered on the ridiculous, like Laal Badshah or Toofan or the truly, truly atrocious Ajooba.
Whether this was due to the after-effects of the Coolie accident, the onset of myasthenia gravis, the Bofors accusations, the self-imposed exile of five years, or the abject failure of his company Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited and its attendant financial liabilities, the later films weaned us away from starry-eyed fandom with alacrity. For the first time we began to question what was willy-nilly handed to us. Had the great man lost his mojo?
Amitabh Bachchan’s finest performance during this time, his swansong almost, was as a postman in an advertisement for the soft drink Mirinda. Here we saw the very best of Bachchan in under a minute – his commanding presence, his mellifluous recitation and impeccable comic timing as he reads out a postcard to a hapless villager from his wife with the news that she is leaving him for another man. Through rhymed verse and innuendo, we realise that the other man is none other than the postman himself. No tagline for an advertisement had greater weight: “Zor ka jhatka dheere se lage.”
With this delightful exception, our growing disenchantment with the one-man industry reached a tipping point with Mohabbatein, in which Amitabh Bachchan presented to us his newly crafted bearded look and unbridled patriarchal pig-headedness which, in an earlier and better time, would have been the domain of Rehman, KN Singh or Murad. Bachchan’s role was metonymous with all that was wrong in our increasingly conservative society. Was our disgruntlement a sign that we were growing up ourselves? A reaction against the decreasing space for inclusivity and cosmopolitanism – a space that was once occupied by Bachchan? Where did the rebelliousness go? Who was this dodgy daddy/uncle type figure who was borderline distasteful?
Mohabbatein was not a one-off role. Bachchan seemed to find increasing comfort as a patriarch full of misogynistic bluster and self-righteousness. This was evident in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Waqt, Viruddh, and several other films. The outsider was now domesticated, assimilated in the mainstream, the upholder of some of the most venal values.
Around the time of his resurgence with the success of Kaun Banega Crorepati, we also saw Bachchan increasingly in print and on billboards and television hawking all manner of products from noodles and mango candy to cement and real estate. There was once an angry port worker who asserted, “Main aaj bhi phenke hue paise nahin uthaata.” Now it seemed to be all about “Bangla, gaadi and bank balance”. It was not that we begrudged Bachchan his earnings from endorsements. We just questioned the products. Jewellery? Infant clothing? Hair oil?
Yet, Bachchan continued to appear in a handful of roles that were challenging and enjoyable. Aks gave us glimpses of his former angry persona, while Paheli had a very interesting comic cameo. Perhaps the best of Bachchan’s current roles is Paa, which subsumes both his persona and his voice and shows us the potential of what he could have been if Amar Akbar Anthony had never happened.
On the other hand, we have to contend with his award-winning roles such as Agneepath, in which his stylised acting and exaggerated accent grates like nails on a blackboard, or the absurdly conceived mentor figure in Black, whose efforts at taming a deaf-mute girl consist of berating her by shouting at the top of his voice.
The later Amitabh Bachchan is a very real disappointment for an acolyte of the former Amitabh Bachchan. Not for us the appellations of Aby Baby or Big B: he is the once and forever Amitabachan. It hurts to see him play the roles that once would have ideally suited Om Prakash (Baabul, Piku). The movement from the daddy to the daddu roles may be a natural progression for an emasculated angry man, but it is disappointing to see him find such comfort in it. There is perhaps no sadder creature than a former fan.
Which why I may be the only Indian citizen who, despite its 24/7 ubiquity on all film channels, has not yet and will perhaps never watch Sooryavansham.
Vinod Khanna conquered Hindi cinema by just being there
When not playing the villain, Vinod Khanna played straight man to the more garrulous co-stars.
Published in scroll.in on May 03, 2017 · 05:00 pm
Before Gabbar Singh, there was Jabbar Singh.
Not a grumpy, grungy, paunchy dacoit on the run from the police, but a smartly turned out young man with a twirled-up moustache, clean-shaven cleft chin and a black tikka, a daakuon ka sardaar, who laid down his own law at the end of a double-barrel gun. Before Amjad Khan, there was Vinod Khanna. A leading man/villain to face off a leading man/hero Dharmendra. It would be easy to be confused, watching Raj Khosla’s Mera Gaon Mera Desh, to decide on whose side you would rather be. This was the film that made Khanna a marquee star. Graduating from his several turns as a conventional bad guy, it would only be a few films before he would become one of the most sought after leading men of the 1970s.
And yet, one could argue that becoming the good guy emasculated him. In his early roles as an antagonist he inevitably chewed more scenery, and had more eyes riveted on him than on whichever hapless protagonist he was cast against, whether Manoj Kumar, Vinod Mehra, or even Dharmendra and Rajesh Khanna. Not since the heyday of Pran was Hindi cinema blessed with a youthful bad guy of immense charm and swagger, one who could deliver threats with an edge and a smile.
One wonders what direction Hindi cinema in the ’70s would have taken had Khanna remained with the dark side. Look at Mere Apne, a two-antagonist film, in which Khanna as the gang leader is still remembered for his intensity even though he is cast against the usually bombastic Shatrughan Sinha.
Khanna was cast with Amitabh Bachchan in Hera Pheri, Khoon Pasina, Amar Akbar Anthony, Zameer, Parvarish and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar. In all these films, except the last one, there are no real villains to pose a significant challenge to the heroes. Imagine the possibilities had Khanna been cast as the villain in each of them.
Why is Vinod Khanna so fondly regarded upon his passing, while still making us feel that there could have been more to him? As a leading man, he strode the ’70s with other colossi like Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra and Shashi Kapoor. In nearly 50 of his 140-odd films, he was cast with another hero or with multiple heroes. Apart from the six with Bachchan, he made two films with Feroze Khan and Randhir Kapoor, three with Shashi Kapoor, five with Rajesh Khanna, six with Jeetendra and seven each with Dharmendra and Shatrughan Sinha. Almost all his significant hits came from some of these films.
Here’s the rub. When not playing the villain, Vinod Khanna, Adonis, heart-throb and ladies man, retreated into the scenery, playing straight man to his more garrulous co-stars. In most of his roles, he is the upright do-gooder, the head of the family or a police officer, serious and sacrificing in nature, a witness to the shenanigans of more expressive scene stealers. Slightly boring, in fact.
This self-effacement is the leitmotif of Khanna’s career and can be seen even when he is cast in women-centric films. As the stoic spouse alongside Hema Malini in Meera and Rihaee, in Lekin with Dimple Kapadia or in Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki opposite Nutan and Asha Parekh, Khanna subsumes his role to that of a foil, allowing the women to take centerstage, and by holding back, allowing them to shine.
His solo roles were rarely blockbusters, but they have some of his best performances. In Gulzar’s Achanak, almost a one-actor film, he can be seen in virtually every shot, and is a good example of character development as a cuckolded army man who murders his wife and her lover and goes on the run.
Among the many roles Khanna has played as police inspector, the best by far is in Inkaar, a police procedural inspired by Akira Kurosowa’s High and Low, a story of the misdirected kidnapping and rescue of a child who belongs to the servant of a rich man. The climax is a long chase, and his quest to find the villain (Amjad Khan) and the ransom money allow Khanna to shine as a realistic action hero.
Among the many loving remembrances after Vinod Khanna’s death on April 27, filmmaker Paromita Vohra described his screen persona best, as one of “unhurried hotness”. He could capture both your gaze and imagination but with suaveness and cool. It is a persona more suited to the ’70s, when the leading man was one of a film’s characters and not its raison d’être, a protagonist in a quotidian setting who could still do extraordinary things.
My favourite Vinod Khanna film embodies all these qualities. In Imtihan, he is cast as a college teacher. Leaving a rich father, he departs from home to the stirring song Ruk Jaana Nahin and ends up as a teacher in a college filled with long-haired, wide-collared and bell bottomed delinquents. Over the course of the film, he reforms them and finds himself and his lady love. This was an action film without much filmy action (one fight scene in the end) that kept moving, with Khanna in the most canonical role of his career. There is nobility in his bearing and a dignity that he holds on to despite the adversities he has to undergo. Imtihan was one of his few solo hits.
It may be counter-intuitive, but the most famous role of his career, as Inspector Amar in Amar Akbar Anthony, is the one that probably led Khanna down the slippery slope to retirement. Typecasting at its worst, we find Khanna once again as the straight man to slapstick Amitabh Bachchan, feeding him lines that would be answered by memorable retorts (Robert? Kaun woh fast bowler Andy Robert?) in a movie that is less a narrative and more a variety show.
Khanna had the least to do in this burlesque that allowed both Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor to take centerstage. He does little other than react and is the least proactive in driving the pace of the film. His own slapstick turn as a one-man band in the climax is completely unbelievable, given his dour persona throughout.
Bachchan, on the other hand, consolidated his superstardom with a big-top performance – performances really – as hero, lover, fighter and comedian, killing once and for all the need for the mandatory parallel comedy track in Hindi films.
Movies after Amar Akbar Anthony would be more and more crafted as vehicles for superstars who were the narrative rather than part of it. Little wonder then that Vinod Khanna found it best to quit movies for his spiritual quest with Osho.
Rajinikanth in Hindi cinema:
We awaited his wanton assault on our senses and were not disappointed
Published in scroll.in on Jul 25, 2016 · 11:04 am
There is a moment in the Kabali trailer where the Superstar walks down a corridor with henchmen wearing a lethal Manila shirt. With one deft flick he sweeps back the trademark mane and I was, like Proust, transported back to the misbegotten days of my youth, the eighties. In that politically incorrect and not yet meta-charged period we were uncomplaining consumers – from the highs of the cricket World Cup victory to the lows of B-grade Hindi cinema. We absorbed it all, and accepted that Hindi cinema was no longer obliged to follow any rules, of history, cinematography, color, or continuity. Scenes assaulted our senses like “just one damn thing after another”.
Two men bestrode our screens in that period, overturning the traditional pantheon of filmi heroes with a story arc – Mithun Chakraborty and Rajinikanth. Rajini’s arrival on the shores of popular Hindi cinema (Andha Kanoon, 1983) followed Kamal Haasan (Ek Duje Ke Liye, 1981). While Bombay’s film world had already embraced female actors from the South for several decades, the debut of male superstars needed a more fortuitous positioning. But both fitted in oddly into the established system. Haasan did better with his edgy romantic roles, and the occasional directorial deviation (Chachi 420, 1997), while Rajinikanth was always difficult to slot.
In our Hindi filmi consciousness, Ranjikanth first made a dent in 1980, not as an actor but as a name, Billa. This was the Tamil remake of the Amitabh Bachchan blockbuster Don. Billa had other associations for us, as the man, who along with his cohort Ranga abducted and killed the Chopra siblings from Delhi in 1978, a case that had caught the imagination of the country in the years before carpet-bomb media. Billa was no name for a hero for an Amitabh Bachchan copy. While we sniggered about these Tamil fellows having no sense of cultural association, Rajinikanth would nonchalantly and unselfconsciously make another movie in 1982, called Ranga.
And then, of course, came the jokes.
Rajinikanth’s reputation preceded his debut in Bombay cinema – he of the swirling hair, the twirling cigarette, and the twerking sunglasses, whose iconic entry scenes, slo-mo and fast-mo fist fights and somersaults were laced with sound effects and punch dialogue that broke the fourth wall. With Andha Kanoon, we awaited his wanton assault on our senses, and were not disappointed. Enter Vijay Kumar Singh, man in black. As he walks around his childhood home (where, inevitably, his parents and sister have been raped and/or murdered) we see Rajinikanth’s POV. Unlike ordinary mortals, his vision is all fish-eye. His gaze is so intense the whites of his eyes turn red as we watch and he smashes a block of RCC kept right in the middle of the room for the sole purpose of smashing it. In declamatory tones, he promises revenge, but while Hindi film folk would raise a mutthi bhar matti as attestation, Rajini does more – he picks up and pulverises a fistful of concrete.
How can we assess the career of the Boss in Hindi cinema?
In movie after movie from 1983 to 1995, Rajinikanth pressed all the right cinematic triggers that would send his Tamil fans into Pavlovian frenzy, but this somehow worked only fitfully in Bombay. One reason for this ambivalence may be that Andha Kanoon, while a big hit, relegated him to Amitabh Bachchan, who despite only making an extended cameo remained centre stage. Bachchan also got to sing the title song. Rajinikanth ultimately would come across as a hit-man. Hindi cinema loves its stereotypes, and Ranjikanth would be offered few roles as leading man. He became an eternal sidekick, and more than once a “sachcha Musalmaan” sidekick (much in the mould of Shatrughan Sinha when he transited from villainy into good-person roles in Khan Dost et al.). Rajinikanth would be the faithful number-two man to Bachchan in Geraftaar (1985) and Hum (1991), and later to everyone from Shashi Kapoor to Raj Kumar to Govinda.
In order to garner brownie points, Rajinikanth had to oblige all by dying dramatically. With apparent lack of irony, in Gair Kanooni (1989), he dies twice in the same film, once as Aadam Khan and then as Akbar Khan. Both deaths are through a combination of stabbing and electrocution, in the latter case in Govinda’s arms, reciting the Kalma. And to bury irony once and for all, in Geraftaar he dies (as inspector Hussain) in Bachchan’s arms, reciting… the Kalma. It is unlikely in his current meta-avtaar, Rajini fans would accept something as mediocre as dying from their demigod.
In the days before his deification (not only by his fans but by our hysterical national television) Rajinikanth was happy to be an ensemble actor, an untenable position today. He would be subject to the role and the narrative, not embody the narrative, the text, the subtext, the denotations and connotations as he does today. Wafaadar (1985) and Chaalbaaz (1989) are both essentially comedy films. As Anupam Kher’s servant Ranga (!) in Wafaadar, the future “Thalaivar” acquiesces to all sorts of atrocities meted on his posterior. Surely if the Rajini bhakts today were to see Anupam Kher laying on Rajni’s bum with a swagger stick or giving him a swift kick in the youknowwhere, he would sincerely have to rethink his current domicile.
Rajinikanth would have starring turns in standalone B-grade films like Gangvaa (1984) and John Jaani Janardhan (1984) but they barely caused a flutter. He probably foresaw, quite early, his limited future in Hindi films and stopped after Aatank Hi Aatank in 1995. This too was an ensemble film based on The Godfather in which Rajinikanth played the role of Sonny Corleone. Hindi films were changing too, and his over-the-top turns had little mileage. Before long both global and indie sensibilities would make serious inroads and the appearance, storytelling and even acting would transform. Even mainstream Hindi film stars (the Khannate, for example) would have to change their ways.
The Superstar’s Hindi-speaking fans have had to wait for his Tamil films come to these shores in their dubbed versions, and through these filtered lenses have seen his rise from superstar to SuperGod. But even his most diehard acolytes would have noticed how, since his last five releases or so, right until Kabali, Rajinikanth has become completely subsumed in his own created image.
Becoming the Once and Future Thalaivar has come at a cost. Rajinikanth is now his own Chitti, the robot from Enthiran (2010) that his maker struggles so hard to contain.