I “met” Amitabh 40 years ago while watching Sholay after it already had run over two years. After that, I quickly watched Amar Akbar Anthony. I watched Zanjeer and Deewar much later in reruns. But in my first encounter of him in Sholay, a film that cannot really be said to belong to Amitabh specifically, there was something about him for which I decided that in my life henceforth, I will be Amitabh Bachchan.
I grew studious, dead serious, somewhat melancholic, but focused and decided to win at everything I do. I became a perfectionist, hardworking, confident, defiant and also arrogant. I used to imagine Amitabh Bachchan as bearing all of the above attributes and hence worked myself up to be all of these.
Slowly, I discovered that the image of the star also was attached to his parents, dutiful towards his children and I too, taught myself to be mindful of my own parents. When I watched Deewar, I became intensely political; interestingly, I developed a socialist, egalitarian, anti-rich political affiliation with strong ideas about social justice. I trained myself to become fearless and soon had a hostile body language that helped me hold out against potential eveteasers.
Then came Amitabh’s first downfall as he, charged with graft, resigned from politics. I became aware of the sociology of public opinion and since I was about to write my MPhil examinations in JNU, I decided to work on the public condemnation of Amitabh Bachchan.
My thesis was called the Social Construction of a Hero, The Images By Amitabh Bachchan. In the dissertation, I discussed how the star image of Amitabh Bachchan made the public construct him as a man who could corrupt the politicians.
I started working at the end of the career as an M.Phil student and soon I used Amitabh’s formula of hitting back at critics with a slew of comeback films, renewed contacts with the media and creating noise around his own victimisation as the apt formula which I could use against harassment at my workplace.
I started feeling invincible in the sense that if I do not accept defeat, no one can rile me. I learnt how to rise up against hostilities. My MPhil dissertation expanded into a PhD thesis in which I concentrated on how Amitabh Bachchan was a philosophy of overcoming of obstacles and of evolving into a higher level of achievements.
Slowly, I made a name for myself in my career. I now own my own apartment and drive my own car; my days as a street fighter seems to be over. I also have now other people to admire, I no longer watch popular films, and I have expanded my readings far beyond political thoughts into reading more of history and anthropology.
I no longer need to be Amitabh Bachchan and Amitabh, truly seems to have brought me as far as he could and now my journey with him seems to be over.
When I look back at the star from a distance with detachment, and again ask myself the same question, what makes Amitabh into the star that he is, I think that I get two possible explanations.
One is undoubtedly his family background, not of political connections for these no longer work for him, but of education.
The advantage of having a poet father and a mother who used to be college teacher before her marriage, the privilege of forever having poets and novelists as guests, the atmosphere of English classical literature, Shakespeare’s plays and the poetry of Yeats gives Amitabh a rare education, perhaps unparalleled by any among his peers. People often miss this very important asset of Amitabh Bachchan when they count his money and mark his wealth.
The other explanation is a sense of restraint. In the height of success or the depths of failure, from earning a crore per hour to being penniless with his home on mortgage, Amitabh seems to have neither been overboard with joy nor did he sink into despair.
Money does not embolden him, penury does not unsettle him. During bad times, he thinks of emerging out and when in good times, he dreams of further perfection. In his restraint lies both a sense of self command and self-awareness.
I think that the above two explanations are somewhat related. Only a fine education can lead to a heightened awareness of the self, which is plainly what Amitabh Bachchan inheres. Every other attribute of action and anger, of renewal and retribution, of victory and justice only build upon the strong edifice of self-awareness. If I am to become Amitabh again, I think that I need to raise my self-awareness and not my voice.
With his roles in the Last Lear and Kahaani, Amitabh is no more a stranger to Tagore and hence we can wish him through Tagore’s birthday song, He Nutan, Dekha Dao Baar Baar, Jonmero Prothomo Shubhakshan, or translated as Let me be renewed every moment with the renewal of that first auspicious moment of my birth, or O Divine, let me be born again and again, every moment being the auspicious moment of my birth.
(Susmita Dasgupta is the author of Amitabh – The Making of a Superstar and the forthcoming book, Amitabh Bachchan – Reflections On An Image.)