Many of us have fond memories of the so-called "Middle Cinema" of the 1970s and 80s — the relatively low-budget films made by such directors as Basu Chatterji, Sai Paranjpye and Gulzar. Their virtues — the understatement, the clean humour, the "realism" — are often used as a pretext to decry the excesses of mainstream movies, to yearn for the "simple old days" (which were probably never as simple as we'd like to think), and occasionally to romanticise middle-class lives.
But many of those simple, grounded narratives also contain their own inside jokes about the different worlds that coexisted under the umbrella marked "Hindi Cinema". And this was often achieved through cameo appearances by big stars - the biggest of whom, needless to say, was Amitabh Bachchan.
As a mainstream superstar, Bachchan got plenty of flak for staying within the confines of his established vigilante image and not attempting "different" roles. For reasons that belong in another column, I don't think this is a wholly fair charge, but either way he was game enough to play some tongue-in-cheek guest roles that made light digs at his screen image.
It's a long list. In Paranjpye's Chashme Baddoor, when two rogues discuss how to "pataao" a girl by asking her if she dropped her handkerchief, Amitabh and Rekha show up and enact this masala-filmi scenario for us. Pankaj Parashar's Jalwa has AB playing Himself, or more accurately, a version of Himself based on the paan-chewing, village bumpkin avatar that he perfected in movies like Namak Halaal. He appears in the background just as a boastful policeman named Ramu (Satish Kaushik) is claiming that he and the superstar were childhood friends and that Bachchan regularly took his advice. "Ramu bhaiya, hum yeh phillum sign kar lein ya nahin?" the real Amitabh drawls, perfectly in sync with Ramu's bragging. The scene is played for comic effect, but doesn't every superstar owe his fame and fortune to the "little man" who queues up outside the ticket counter? And doesn't every fan feel like he's on first-name terms with his favourite star?
Then there's the climax of Ketan Mehta's Hero Hiralal, in which a starlet named Rupa (Sanjana Kapoor) battles time — and a group of frenzied autograph-seekers — to rescue the eponymous "hero". Hero Hiralal is played by Naseeruddin Shah, the big star of parallel cinema, but this particular dramatic climax belongs firmly to the commercial-film tradition: cue the entrance of a Real Hero, Amitabh in his Merc.
"We stars are human beings just like you, made up of dreams and reality," he poetically tells the throng, requesting them to disperse; but his subsequent behaviour belies these words. Learning of Rupa's predicament, he points straight at the camera: "Aap ko bhi happy ending chahiye?" Then he orders his chauffeur to get in the back seat, takes over the wheels himself — a rescue operation like this needs the star at the helm — and gets her to her destination on time. This, we are told, is what real life can be like if the chips fall in your favour. Sure.
However, my favourite Amitabh cameo (and perhaps the first time he was used in such a way) is from a much earlier film that contrasts the modest aspirations of "ordinary", middle-class folk with the glamorous lives of the stars they gape at in darkened movie halls. In Basu Chatterji's Chhoti si Baat, Amol Palekar — who else? — is the diffident Arun, who can barely bring himself to speak to the girl he is attracted to — but that doesn't stop him getting vicarious thrills from a film where a confident and brawny hero sings "Jaaneman Jaaneman" to a beautiful heroine.
As you can see in that video, Arun's daydreaming creates a marvellous little moment where the transition from mainstream stars Dharmendra-Hema Malini to Middle Cinema regulars Amol Palekar-Vidya Sinha is briefly left incomplete — so that we get a few improbable seconds of film where Dharmendra finds himself crooning "Jaaneman" to Vidya Sinha! Think of these few seconds as the connecting tunnel between a train's luxury coach and its general compartment. (Actually they make a very good-looking couple, but that isn't the point.)
Chhoti si Baat contains many shots of the "everywoman" Prabha (Sinha) standing at a bus-stop that has a large poster of the Bachchan-starrer Zameer (you can see a few such shots in the lovely song "Na Jaane Kyon"). Zameer was produced by B R Chopra, who produced Chhoti si Baat as well, so this is in-film advertising of a sort; but it also gives us a direct contrast between the larger-than-life Bachchan universe and a low-key setting where a shy Amol Palekar might have to compete with a scooter-riding Asrani for a working girl's affections.
Now watch the scene where Arun goes to seek romantic counsel from an omniscient, all-purpose guru named Colonel Julius Nagendranath Wilfred Singh. Julius is played by Ashok Kumar with a pipe in his hand, which lends him a certain authority to begin with, but as an audience meeting him for the first time we need proof of his importance. So a minion appears with a thick stack of mail — letters from smugglers, ministers and former princes, all seeking the great man's help. Impressive, but here's the punch line: the door opens and an unshaven Amitabh Bachchan enters, requesting a few moments of Julius's time.
"Kya baat hai, Amitabh?" asks the old gent casually, "Income tax problems?"
They chatter just out of earshot, after which Amitabh chuckles, touches Julius's feet and exits, sauntering past Arun. (Amol Palekar's expression here is a minor classic of screen acting. Holding his shirt button nervously, scarcely able to believe his proximity to the superstar, looking like a newlywed bride on her wedding night, he opens his mouth in a soundless "oh".)
It's a great scene. The cameo works as a sly, self-referential comment on the star system and on the gulf between the Palekar persona and the Bachchan persona (something that would be done very satisfyingly in Gol Maal too) — but at the same time it serves a function within the narrative of Chhoti si Baat, by showing us how influential Julius is.
Paradoxically, this scene — which hinges on the use of a big star — also has the effect of making that star seem more human and accessible, as if he had been resized to fit a smaller frame. In the mainstream films he was doing around the same time, Amitabh's characters often trafficked in suitcases filled with black money and smuggled goods — but I'm fairly certain they never had to go about evading income tax in such a banal and unglamorous way. It's almost... middle class.
Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based freelance writer. His book about the making of the film Jaane bhi do Yaaro was published by Harper Collins in 2010 and he has also edited The Popcorn Essayists, an anthology of film writing, for Tranquebar. He writes the blog Jabberwock. More about the books here.