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Heroes for our times

Legends: Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna

Legends: Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna  

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Emblematic of our collective longings, each superstar of Bollywood is a window to the hopes and angst of his times…

Indians can devour films for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. And to prove this you don't have to look beyond the timings of the latest blockbuster playing at your nearest multiplex. The magic of the movies has touched generation after generation. And every generation has repaid this debt by creating its own superstar and paying homage to the man who leads the pack. Adulating the singular phenomenon who sets the standards in terms of what we wear, how we behave and when we choose to cut our hair. It does not take long for him to be elevated to the status of a demigod. He stays there until the fickle audience tires of him and replaces him with the new kid in the block. He is nothing but the cumulative product of our collective longings. This is abundantly clear if we undertake a cinematic journey with particular reference to Bollywood through the decades that came after our independence.

Nascent hope

Take the years that followed as an afterglow to the liberation from the British. The films of the 1950s, be it Raj Kapoor's “Awara”, V. Shantaram's “Do Aankhen Barah Haath” or Bimal Roy's “Sujata”, simmered with a missionary zeal. They were fuelled by naive hope and touching faith and aspired to do away with everything that was rotten in society. The directors and not the actors were firmly in saddle as the captains of the ship and the star system was yet to come of age. To look for a superstar in this era would be futile as actors were cast depending on their suitability to play the role, rather than roles being tailor made to suit the actor's image. Hence, even a Bharat Bhushan and Pradeep Kumar had their day.

It was in the 1960s that the star system came home to roost. There was the mournful Dilip Kumar pining over his sometimes-unrequited and sometimes-lost love in films like “Mughal-e-Azam”, “Dil Diya Dard Liya” and “Aadmi”. “Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai”, “Teesri Kasam” and even the romantic triangle of “Sangam” had Raj Kapoor continuing to play the forlorn clown with Chaplinesque fervour . The roguish Dev Anand cast a spell through his unique mannerisms in films like “Jaali Note”, “Asli Naqli” and “Jewel Thief”. All three of them commanded a loyal fan following and the image was beginning to dominate the acting chops. But there was no clear winner. The 1960s held too many diverse and divergent strands and while Kumar epitomised the pathos of a generation coming to terms with the lost idealism of an increasingly floundering nation, Kapoor drew from Nehruvian Socialism while Anand tried to lure the audience into forbidden passions and pleasures. No one actor would have been able to represent such conflicting strands and hence the honours got equally divided.

The 1970s held no such confusion. Not just the country but the entire world had retreated into a hippie-induced haze. Rajesh Khanna may not have been a part of “Hare Rama Hare Krishna”, but with his crinkling eyes and dancing hands, his body language communicated intoxication and the nation got high singing “Jai Jai Shiv Shankar”. The sub-text of his drawl in “Amar Prem”, ‘Pushpa, I hate tears' was denial. Something that the society outside was mirroring. His throne of romance was usurped when a tall, lanky young man decided enough was enough and he was no longer going to tolerate the injustice meted out to him by the discriminating world he encountered.

Amitabh Bachchan brought into the public domain the unresolved issues of illegitimacy of not just an individual but an entire class of underdogs and the country cheered like never before. Be it his cool declaration in “Deewar”, ‘Mein aaj bhi phenke hue paise nahin uthatha' or the accusation he flings at the unfaithful father who had deserted his mother, ‘Aur aap mere najayaz baap hein,' Bachchan was ‘cool' personified even before that term became a part of the vocabulary of the happening crowd. It is no surprise that his rise coincided with a period of street protests marked by slogans like ‘Sampoorn kranti ka nara hai, bhavi ithihas hamara hai.' Never before had revolutionary lines screamed on the roads defined the rise of a superstar so prophetically. More than 40 years after he debuted in “Saat Hindustani”, Bachchan continues to be a force to reckon with and heads the cast of many a hits ranging from a “Black”, to a “Cheeni Kum” to a “Paa”.

However, there was a time from the mid 1980s to the early 1990s when the audience was tiring of him and the search for a successor was on. Sanjay Dutt, Anil Kapoor, Jackie Shroff and Sunny Deol became pretenders to the throne for a while before being tossed aside by the audience for not being good enough. For the first time in Bollywood, female actors like Sreedevi and Madhuri Dixit appeared to command more of a following than their male counterparts. “Mr. India” may well have been christened Miss. India and a “Beta”, Beti thanks to these two dancing divas. But these years were more of an aberration for a gender-biased nation that was transitioning to an era of terror-induced mayhem. In rode the edgy Shahrukh Khan spouting a maniacal laugh and a stutter to terrorise womankind in films like “Baazighar”, “Darr” and “Anjaam” and we were hooked all over again to the charisma of the latest rage . He introduced a new brand of romancing that did not flinch from taking the fight to the enemy's, read prospective father-in-law's, quarters. “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge”, continues to run in matinee shows in a theatre in Mumbai, more than 17 years after it was released.

Changing with the times

Bollywood is now institutionalised not just in our psyche but all over the world. Films are now made keeping the global audience in mind and the collections from the UK and the US market is equally if not more significant than the pickings from a Nasik or a Rajkot. ‘Brands' have replaced ‘ Superstars' in the new reckoning. In the first decade of the new millennium, Salman Khan turned ‘ Bhai' and Shahrukh Khan wore the crown of the ‘King'. But it was the understated Aamir Khan who has wooed the audience and the Oscars alike with one resounding hit after another. The interesting thing is the audience did not choose him as the superstar; he decided to reinvent himself as one by playing a 20-something while negotiating the mid forties in real life. The unmatched success of “3 idiots” is as revealing about the times we live in as the Radia tapes.

Currently, generation next in the form of a Ranbir Kapoor and Imran Khan has queued up for their turn. But the baton may well belong to an upstart who arrived recently with “Band, Baaja, Baarat” and delivered a sleeper hit. Ranveer Singh's street-smart demeanour reflects Delhi brashness and sleaziness in equal measure and as such he may be the best candidate to hold a mirror to these angst ridden trying times when everyone and everything comes with a price.

We can only await the coronation of the next superstar.

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2020 2:46:15 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/Heroes-for-our-times/article15529023.ece

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