Actor, singer, game-show host and ne-time politician Amitabh Bachchan remains, at 80, India’s uber-celeb. He still commands star billing and has audiences and directors vying for him. On social, he is one of India’s most followed film stars. 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 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.
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.
Zanjeer was also the first film in which Amitabh Bachchan’s character was called Vijay, a name that would stick. He used it in several subsequent films, including the big critical and commercial hit that followed Zanjeer – Deewar.
While the Angry Young Man was a role that Amitabh Bachchan would play often, from 1975’s seminal Deewar to 1978’s Trishuland 1990’s Agneepath (in which he was frankly no longer young), 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. Big B 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 Bachchan 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
However, as the millennium changed, so did the fading superstar’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 National Awards for Black, Paa and Piku.
Today, Amitabh Bachchan continues to host Kaun Banega Crorepati and has his pick of roles, from the critically acclaimed Jhund to the blockbuster hit Brahmastra. He made his Hollywood debut with a small but significant appearance in The Great Gatsby co-starring Leonardo DiCaprio. He has received the Padma Shri, the Padma Bhushan, the Padma Vibhushan as well as the Dadasaheb Phalke Award.
Amitabh 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 Bengaluru, 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 every day. 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 Agastya, and Aaradhya, daughter of Aishwarya and Abhishek, make up the third generation of Bollywood’s first family.