SUNDAY MAGAZINE

A model superstar?

COUNT eight paces from the high chair to the flashy space at the studio's end. Pirouette to the right as you twiddle with the suit button. The left arm gesticulates, as the right fidgets. The lines are much the same, every time on cue. From the space to the chair, eight paces. Amitabh Bachchan looks ahead at the camera diagonally at the far corner, a good hundred metres away, conscious that the lens catches every move of his muscles. And there are a hundred invitees huddled in the dark, clapping and laughing on cue, masked to those millions who sit in their living rooms watching the man, and his performance.

It is hard to believe that, barely 10 years ago, no big-screen star would condescend to accept assignments for the idiot box. It was demeaning professionally; they tut-tutted. And here was someone who had been a star years before the advent of countrywide TV. To conceive of him as a quizmaster for a television show? Two years and several disastrous movies later, no one cared. He cared, perhaps, even less.

Anything was worth a try. The format was a hackneyed one. Such American shows as "The $64,000 Question" and "Wheel of Fortune" had played on much the same vulnerability of viewer-millions for over a half-century. It was no more than two years ago when the man, and the image floundered. Vijay Hazare's immortal lines were on everyone's lips: "You must quit when people ask why, and not when they ask why not." And the superstar of another time sat in a TV studio refusing to let go — pathetically, one thought, even as you commiserated. He asked, more in bewilderment than in anguish, why a Hollywood star never has to countenance such a thing as retirement. How did Eastwood, Stewart or Coburn find roles becoming of their age, he asked? And here? Here, we can't break old moulds. And there was a note of regret in the admirer's rebuke to the world: "Aren't there scriptwriters and directors who can use this superhero's image to reach India's heart?" For 30 years, the man has seduced the mass media, and the millions who have watched in cavernous dark halls of cinema, or in the comfort of their couches.

And 20 years before the arc lights have left him with no other place to go to. By the time he got to do "Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC)", he had become, of his peers, the most respected. And his humility was touching, they said, while others knew he was merely being truthful. And we all loved it. We never asked him to be anything beyond what he already was. He was never encouraged to desire anything that did not conform to his own tastes. The superstar model was complete — every Indian simply enjoyed identifying with that ideal in his imagination, just as a person might put on someone else's clothes for a moment before a mirror? You never nurse the slightest notion of ever owning those clothes.

If a film failed, he was absolved of every responsibility — the filmmaker just didn't know how to rise to the challenge. And what if "KBC" had failed? It's hard to conjure up that picture. All we know is that it wouldn't have spelt finito for Amitabh.

The format was representative quintessentially of television. TV's ideal, anywhere in the world, has been the absolutely average person. No one ever made it so big that they established a cult — not on TV. What TV has proposed is everyman's man. The figure of Amitabh Bachchan and the history of his fame made him a choice so simple that it was so striking.

From every act, from every word of the persona he has presented to the camera since the early 1970s, there emanates at once a mediocrity and a magnetic allure. This is only heightened by his complete lack of theatrical artifice or pretence. He is selling himself as precisely what he is, and what he is cannot create in you as viewer, even the most ignorant, and any sense of inferiority. What is beguiling about the public figure is that he makes no effort to conceal his ignorance; nor is he fazed by some awesomely difficult area of knowledge — he serves as a consolation to his viewers who know most of those answers.

Contrast with your emotions when you watch Siddhartha Basu on his "Mastermind" hauling his contestants over the coals. You haven't managed more than one of the 10 volleys fired at the person in the harsh spotlight. You shift uneasily at being reminded of your mental sloth.

You don't want to watch this too often, do you? The "KBC" programme-makers ensure that Amitabh takes care not to awe the spectator, demonstrating often not only his lack of knowledge but also his firm resolve not to learn anything — it is interesting that the format and the questions have come from the self-same Siddhartha Basu factory.

The Big B puts the contestant constantly at ease. He displays a sincere admiration for those who do know things, even if the answers are simplistic. He cheers their power of memory, their elementary deduction. All learning and knowledge is supposed to represent culture. And you win true admiration when money is earned through culture. And then even the most mediocre of men buy copies of quiz books to make their son study and aspire to win.

And so you see Amitabh chortle in enthusiasm a value that is distinctly middle-class: "Ek laakh saatth hazaar jeet gaye aap?" He is always polite, always respectful, using his charming Illahabadi cadence to maximum effect. He is paternal but never condescending; and deferential with the occasional celebrity who is invited to the show to keep the ratings bolstered. And when he signs with his hallmark flourish those endless cheques, he articulates the very middle-class belief that such fortunes are the making of Providence.

The personal Amitabh believes in it himself if one were to go by the not-so-occasional beeline he makes to the temple at Tirupati, or elsewhere in the holy recesses of the Himalaya.

The man and the programme weave into each other inextricably — his speech has always achieved the maximum of simplicity. He never takes recourse to pronouns, always repeating the whole subject. His sentences are terse, and tumble into each other with dramatic poise. Remember "Deewaar"? He never uses allusions, elliptical expressions, never pretends to know what he doesn't. Very little attention and effort is needed to understand him. As you sit and watch him, you sense that you can be more talkative than Amitabh Bachhan.

The nature of adulation does not distort his impression of reality. He loves it when an admirer goes ecstatic over the phone, reacts with an amused look, and shakes his head, implying that the caller is being generous. He provokes no inferiority complex, though he presents himself as an idol; and the public repays him, gratefully, with its love and admiration. He almost convinces you of the value of mediocrity by his living and triumphant example.

"Friends asked me to change my name when I set out to become an actor. I refused. I sought to stay by my conviction," he deep-throats in a recent ad for AIR. "KBC" has helped Amitabh Bachchan become an ideal that nobody has had to strive for, because everyone is already at its level.

The writer heads Biodiversity Conservation (India) Limited.

E-mail: bioconserve@vsnl.com.

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