Amitabh Bachchan: What legends are made of

Amitabh Bachchan: What legends are made of
New Delhi:  Actor, singer, game-show host and sometime politician Amitabh Bachchan remains, at 70, India's uber-celeb.

He still commands star billing and has audiences and directors vying for him. On Twitter and Facebook, he is India's most followed film star, far outstripping Shah Rukh Khan and Priyanka Chopra.

And yet, when he quit his job with shipping firm Bird & Co. in Kolkata and moved to Mumbai with stars in his eyes, prospects seemed bleak for the tall, dark but not traditionally handsome young man. Armed with a letter of introduction from no less a person than Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was close friends with his mother Teji, Amitabh Bachchan was cast as a Muslim poet and prisoner of war in the nationalistic Saat Hindustani (1969). The lanky young would-be actor was turned down repeatedly in favour of fair, handsome heroes like Rajesh Khanna. His most singular asset, a deep booming baritone voice, was put to good use by directors and producers in films like Bhuvan Shome and Bawarchi but leading roles were rare even though his first film won the young Amitabh a National Award for Best Newcomer.

Amitabh Bachchan's third film, Anand (1971), fetched him the Filmfare Best Supporting Actor for his sensitive performance as an idealistic doctor. Through 1971 and 1972, he appeared in a clutch of mostly forgettable films, the most notable of which was Bombay To Goa co-starring Aruna Irani and Shatrughan Sinha. But it was not until 1973's Zanjeer that Mr Bachchan struck box office gold. Zanjeer co-starred future wife Jaya Bhaduri, who signed on for the role after it was rejected by several leading actresses who did not want to appear with a "flop actor." The superhit Zanjeer marked the rise of the Angry Young Man, as Amitabh Bachchan's explosive, brooding, action-hero persona came to be known. With Zanjeer, the romantic lover boy, as personified by reigning superstar Rajesh Khanna, was dislodged from the top of the charts by the vengeful vigilante almost overnight.

While the Angry Young Man was a role that Amitabh Bachchan would play often, from 1975's seminal Deewar to 1978's Trishul and 1990's Agneepath, he was equally competent in action films flavoured with a generous dollop of humour. In the landmark Sholay, in which he played one half of a pair of mercenaries for hire, many of the film's best loved one liners and comic moments belonged to his character, the taciturn Jai, rather than the more flamboyant Veeru, played by Dharmendra. He combined his flailing fists with a flair for fun in films like Amar Akbar Anthony, Do Aur Do Paanch, Shaan, Naseeb, Satte Pe Satta and Namak Halaal.

Amitabh Bachchan was equally accomplished at drama and emotion as he was at action and comedy. In Abhimaan, one of his earliest hits, he played a singer resentful of his wife's talent. In Kabhi Kabhie, he played a lovelorn poet later reunited with his old flame. In Lawaaris, he played an illegitimate son who chances upon his biological father. And in the memorable Silsila, he played an adulterous husband. Director Yash Chopra had pulled a major casting coup - the film starred Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjeev Kumar, Jaya Bachchan and Rekha -and in the story, some said, was the allusion to a much-rumoured liaison between Mr B and Rekha.

In 1984, Amitabh Bachchan took a break from movies and turned to politics at the behest of good friend Rajiv Gandhi. He defeated former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, H N Bahuguna, by one of the highest margins in India's election history from his hometown of Allahabad. However, Mr Bachchan's tryst with political destiny was short-lived. After being implicated in the Bofors scandal three years later, he quit politics calling it a "cesspool." 25 years later, Amitabh Bachchan was cleared of any involvement in the Bofors case in April 2012.

His political ambition behind him, Amitabh Bachchan made a screen comeback with Shahenshah, a movie made immortal by the dialogue: Rishtey mein hum tumhara baap hote hain (In terms of relationship, I am your father). But despite some landmark performances, most notable in 1990's Agneepath which fetched him a second National Award, the Bachchan supernova was imploding. As his glory days petered away, the now middle-aged Amitabh Bachchan put acting on hold and started a production company called Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd or ABCL. ABCL quickly became a millstone for the Bachchans who lost millions after the company sponsored the 1996 Miss World pageant in Bangalore. The films ABCL produced tanked at the box office and mounting costs coupled with legal battles led to ABCL being declared a failed company by the Indian Industries board. All through the late '90s, Amitabh Bachchan, once indestructible on screen, navigated financial and legal dire straits.

But as the millennium changed, so did Mr Bachchan's luck. The year 2000 brought with it a blockbuster movie in the form of Mohabbatein, co-starring Shah Rukh Khan, and a job hosting Kaun Banega Crorepati, the Indian version of hit TV show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. Almost overnight, Amitabh Bachchan's star was resurrected from the depths of the black hole into which it fallen. Hit film after hit film followed, including Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Baghban, Bunty Aur Babli, Sarkaar and Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna. He even had a role as romantic lead in Cheeni Kum, and scooped up a few more awards for Black and Paa.

Today, Amitabh Bachchan continues to host Kaun Banega Crorepati, still has roles written for him and is about to make his Hollywood debut with a small but significant appearance in The Great Gatsby co-starring Leonardo DiCaprio. He has received both the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan, four National Awards in total, and has won 14 Filmfare awards.

Mr Bachchan's personal life has been as eventful as his professional one. Born to poet Harivanshrai Bachchan and freedom fighter wife Teji on October 11, 1942, the infant Amitabh narrowly escaped being named Inquilab, so involved was his mother in the struggle for independence. The young Amitabh went to Nainital's Sherwood College and then to Delhi's Kirori Mal College. He married Jaya Bhaduri, his co-star of many films, a month before their film Abhimaan released, in 1973 - the year that he became a bona fide star.

The country's devotion to him was on unabashed display starting July 26, 1982 - Amitabh Bachchan ruptured his spleen after a punch from co-star Puneet Issar and a mistimed jump on the sets of Manmohan Desai's Coolie. He was flown from Bangalore, where Coolie was being filmed, to Mumbai and remained comatose despite emergency surgery. A country of mourners added their prayers to those of his wife Jaya who walked barefoot to Mumbai's Siddhi Vinayak Temple everyday. Finally, on August 2, doctors injected adrenaline straight into Mr Bachchan's heart as a last ditch measure. Almost immediately, Jaya Bachchan saw one her husband's toes move and exclaimed, "Look, he's alive." Mr Bachchan went on to make a full recovery and even finished shooting for Coolie, the ending of which director Manmohan Desai changed to have the titular character live rather than die saying that the man who had cheated death in real life deserved no less on-screen. But the accident left Amitabh Bachchan with a legacy of pain and illness. He has been in and out of hospital with abdomen-related illnesses over the years and has written about living with chronic pain.

Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan have two children together. Daughter Shweta is married to businessman Nikhil Nanda, grandson of actor Raj Kapoor. Son Abhishek is an actor and is married to former Miss World and superstar actress Aishwarya Rai. Shweta's children Navya Naveli and Agastye, and newly arrived Aaradhya, daughter of Aishwarya and Abhishek, make up the third generation of Bollywood's first family.

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