In his foundational work on film stars and stardom, critic Richard Dyer notes that stars matter because they act out aspects of life that matter to us, and performers become stars, when whatever they act out matters to enough people.
If so, Amitabh Bachchan’s near half century on-screen presence requires greater scrutiny.
Since 1969, he has been acting out aspects of life that matter to enough people to grant him the coveted Diwali release slot for his latest film. Yet, in those same decades, India and the world have changed to become nearly unrecognisable.
So, what does Bachchan act out that matters to so many of us? And, what does it say about us?
India’s ‘Angry Young Man’ Arrives
His initial success in the tumultuous era of the 1971 War, the Sampoorna Kranti Express, Pokhran-I and the Emergency, was as the ‘angry young man’, who seemingly performed the grievances held by India’s first post-independence generation. Brooding, raging against ‘the system,’ some, where on the margins, Bachchan’s ‘angry young man’ persona was quintessentially a 1970’s India, complete with dockworkers’ strikes and greedy mine owners.
Bachchan fought for the downtrodden, the vulnerable, and given the magic of popular discourse, for the dreams – if not the reality – of the nation state of India. It is impossible to ignore such heavy-handed symbolism for example in Amar, Akbar, Anthony (1977).
Echoing the mass movement of (mostly) young men from the hinterlands to India’s urban centres, Bachchan also embodied the struggles and aspirations of a new proletarian class: he could rise from being a dockworker to the best-dressed man at a five-star hotel in Deewar (1975), and get not just the bangla (bungalow) and gaadi (car), but also the chic, urban girlfriend.
But as is often the case with popular culture, Bachchan’s ‘angry young man’ had little to do with his life or films. As early as Sholay (1975), the proletarian fury had been co-opted by the state and society, and the material aspirations he embodied on screen became the primary attraction – with ever lavish sets and costumes, foreign locations – out of reach for most Indians at the time – and all amassed material wealth. These, rather than the ire, served him well in his post-liberalisation avatar when he effortlessly acted out the suave, expensively-clad pater familias, for a country clamouring for all sorts of material goods while maintaining a fig leaf of cultural values.
The ‘Angry Young Man’ is Usually a Savarna
Throughout his career, Bachchan has played happy Christians – who can forget Anthony Gonsalves – and noble Muslims – remember Iqbal from Coolie? His films make us believe that we lived in an India where minorities were happy with their lot, where the proletariat could reach the same dizzying heights as the elite, and we were all equal participants and beneficiaries of the national project. Of course, it is telling that none of the religious minorities Bachchan plays ever challenge the national suprastructure. In fact, any rage that the ‘angry young man’ may have expressed towards the nation and the ‘system’ is conveniently suppressed in favour of an explicit nationalism, channeled towards members of a marginalised community, or performed as hyper-patriotism.
There is an even bigger silence in the Bachchan oeuvre that continues in much of commercial, especially blockbuster cinema: caste.
The proletariat rage of the rural young men arriving in the metro, living in chawls, is that of young Savarna men. Despite the nominal exclusion (in many films) of a last name that could reveal caste, Bachchan’s on-screen roles have always been coded as upper-caste. This is a particularly vicious conceit that simultaneously appropriates the political, economic and social struggles of the most marginalised in India, while also erasing those fighting for change from the narratives.
From Subtle Misogyny to In-Your-Face Misogyny
Instead, Bachchan’s films provide us with a cozily middle-class, upper-caste aspirational version of political justice where, just the right bit of rebellion is rewarded with material success, social status, and desirable, willing female bodies. Unsurprisingly, early-liberated, feisty girlfriends were soon tamed into appropriately silent, devoted, interchangeable, wifely love interests. By the 1980s, misogyny in Bachchan’s films became so explicit, it should have set off alarm bells.
Even a cursory study of history demonstrates that explicit sexism in popular culture is often an early sign of the rise of the extreme right.
Perhaps, we should have seen our political future, given the films – and not only Bachchan’s – made in the 1980s and 1990s, that made a virtue of the mistreatment of women.
This Should Make You Squirm in Your Seat
Amitabh Bachchan’s screen biography is the story of a post-independence India, of how narratives of justice, freedom, equality intertwined with the reality of how easily an upper-caste and yes, in many ways, oligarchic elite became leaders of a newly freed nation.
Above all, it is the story of how socially conservative values are dressed up as liberal and spun into golden dreams for the screen.
And that should make all of us deeply uncomfortable.
(Dr Sunny Singh is a UK-based academic and writer. Her latest novel is called ‘Hotel Arcadia’. She can be reached at @sunnysingh_n6. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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