Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan was honoured with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest honour of Indian cinema on Sunday. President Ramnath Kovind gave him this award at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi. The entire auditorium resonated with thunderous applause when Bachchan received the citation.
Bachchan thanked everyone for the support after receiving the honour. On meeting Dadasaheb Phalke, he quipped, “When I got this honour, I wondered if my career was over.” Dadasaheb Phalke Award being a prize for lifetime achievement, only veterans get it.
But Bachchan also said politely, “Right now, I feel there is still some work to be done in the film industry.”
The thespian had been ill for the last several days. He had informed that he would not be able to attend the award ceremony. Bachchan had said that due to ill health, he could not travel and it was unfortunate but he would not be present there to receive the honour.
Amitabh Bachchan has been active in Bollywood for five decades, beginning with Saat Hindustani in 1969. During this time, he has worked continuously and entertained the audience with his acting, changing the popular genre from romance to revenge in the 1970s, reducing every other character in a given film to insignificance. His Zanjeer and Deewaar ended the career of Rajesh Khanna prematurely on the one hand. On the other, it forced the audience to look at the protagonist as more than just a part of the film.
As Bachchan grew taller and taller with every film up to Coolie, an accident at the set of which pushed the entire country to praying for his long life, none other than the antagonist in every story remained important in his films. Of course, once before and once in the period of this towering persona came a criticism: that better actors could still overshadow him. Critics said it for Jaya Bhaduri-Bachchan in Abhimaan and Dilip Kumar in Shakti. But for different reasons, Jaya Bachchan did not last in lead roles beyond Chupke Chupke (Silsila did not have her in the lead) and Dilip Kumar, infrequently seen in the 1970s and ’80s, made a mark for the last time in Saudagar. None in the film trade has played as long an innings, and a successful one at that, as Amitabh Bachchan.
But the performer‘s career has had quite a few intervals, with the world seeing him in a new avatar after every break. After a failed stint in politics and allegation of receiving kickbacks from the Bofors deal, which was proven false in court, his much-awaited Shahenshah could not do well at the box office, with one court after another staying its release due to the contempt with which the screenplay treated Indian judiciary. While the version people get to see on television these days does not have it, the original had the character Shahenshah telling even a judge inside a court in session, “Rishtey men to hum tumhare baap hote hain!”
In the late 1980s, both Manmohan Desai’s Toofan and Prakash Mehra’s Jaadugar flopped. Desai and Mehra were the producers/directors Bachchan relied on to be sure about commercial success, but their era was over. In the 1990s, even Ramesh Sippy of Sholay fame could not make Akayla work.
Within a couple of years, some marketing managers convinced him his name was as good as a brand and, so, it was time to monetise it. That was how Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited (ABCL) was conceived. Along came a slew of product endorsements that were watched more for his awesome screen presence than the value of the products he endorsed.
ABCL came up with Tere Mere Sapne in 1996. While that was a hit, expanding the company’s portfolio was a bad idea. Expenses incurred on the Miss World contest brought ABCL to near bankruptcy. This was also the period when Bachchan had drawn close to Amar Singh, then a politician of the Samajwadi Party but otherwise known in political circles as a socialite and power broker. But better days were round the corner.
Bachchan reinvented himself for the small screen. Kaun Banega Crorepati‘s first episode on 3 July 2000 floored the audience. He never looked back ever since, anchoring its 11th season earlier this year. In an interregnum, Shah Rukh Khan was used as a replacement, but it did not work out.
The previous decade then saw Bachchan play his age film after film. Endorsements continued as did voice-overs for the introduction to many a film, including superhits like Lagaan. BR Films’ Baghban saw him play a wronged patriarch in a family of self-centred children. Bhootnath was liked even by children. While he was being liked in the roles of aged characters, Bachchan had but this brooding aspect of portrayals even when he was much younger and on top of the industry. He had pulled off fatherly characters with elan in Desh Premee and Aakhri Raasta.
In between, the Khans — Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh — ruled for two decades but Bachchan never faded away. He remains one of the most sought after actors in the industry and people love him for his manners and humility as much as for his baritone and Hindi diction. He was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for his lifetime contribution to the film world. And no, that does not mean he is retiring. His fans wouldn’t let him go.
— With inputs from agencies