Another one-off post! This week is just killing me between church and work and friends, so I don’t have the energy to start another big series. Plus, I never gave you a chance to vote! So instead, another Amitabh one-off, this time covering his most recent re-invention, from failed international businessman to TV star and back to movie star.
Usual Disclaimer: Everything I am about to say may or may not be true. I don’t know these people personally, and even if I did, there would be no way to be sure if anything I am saying is accurate. But it is the generally accepted version of what happened, which is useful to know if you are new to Hindi cinema, or somehow missed this part of it before.
Amitabh is just so big that there is no way I will be able to do a regular Hindi Film 101 series on him. So instead, I am dropping in little bits of his story along the way in one-offs. I already did a post on the significance of the Coolie accident. Now, I wanted to talk about Mohabattein, because the Aditya Chopra post reminded me about it. And in order to understand why that film was so important to Amitabh and Hindi film in general, you need to know about ABCL and KBC and Cadbury Chocolate too.
In 1992, Amitabh decided to take a hiatus from film. This wasn’t the first time he had done that, he left for a disastrous stint in politics back in the 80s when his best friend was elected Prime Minister, but that’s a different post. This time, it wasn’t quite as clear exactly what made him decide to leave.
Amitabh’s films hadn’t been doing quite as well, either critically or commercially, for quite a while. Worse, often the critically successful films were not commercially successful and vice versa. Agneepath was generally regarded as one of his greatest performances, and a generally good film (certainly better than the others he had been putting out lately), and it flopped terribly. And then Hum, which was your standard big over the top action movie, was his biggest hit of the 90s.
(Although Hum did bring together Govinda, Rajni Sir, and Amitji all in one film)
Also in Amitabh’s life at the moment, his two kids were growing up. His daughter was starting college and a serious relationship, his son was a teenager. And Amitabh himself was over 40.
(This is the family around then. Shweta was on her way out of the house, Abhishek was finding himself, Amitabh was probably feeling a little over the hill)
And then there was that stint in politics. After he came back from that, his stardom didn’t feel quite the same. People still came to his films, the industry was still at his feet, but the love didn’t feel the same. Somehow actually running for political office had cheapened it (plus there was the whole involvement in the Bofors scandal issue).
I suspect he left film because of a combination of all these things, a midlife crisis, a sense that he had lost touch with his followers, and a general feeling that he was taking the industry in a bad direction, he was no longer driving it forward but rather holding it back. And so, in 1992, he announced he was leaving. And within months, Deewana released and new star Shahrukh Khan burst on the scene. Not so coincidental, there has to be a vacuum before there can be a change.
But, what did Amitabh do when he wasn’t acting? He could have sat around the house and thought deep thoughts or written a book or anything like that. But he did something completely unexpected, and opened India’s first major entertainment corporation.
Remember that film studios and entertainment in general was not considered a “business” in India. Like, legally. You couldn’t sell stock in a film company, contracts often weren’t protected in the courts, and income taxes were impossible to determine. So for Amitabh to announce that he was founding (and funding) a massive corporation which would handle all aspects of entertainment, that was revolutionary!
(This is what the police/tax wallahs find when they raid a producers office. This is how Hindi film usually works, wads of cash, a big gamble, and then you start fresh. An actual corporation with officers and a paper trial was unheard of)
And it might have worked too. Amitabh’s name alone opened a lot of doors, and he did have a business background (working in an office in Calcutta for several years before acting). Plus, just running the “Amitabh Bachchan” industry for the past 2 decades gave him loads of experience in all kinds of contract negotiations and projections for the future of the industry and all of that.
The problem was that it was just too ambitious. Amitabh threw everything he had at it, massive offices, impressive logo, and he wanted to open an events wing, a film distribution wing, a TV wing, all at once. In it’s small time of existence, ABCL (Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited) sponsored the 1996 Miss World pageant, and distributed the Hindi version of the film Bombay. So it had a long term effect after all, giving Hindi film one of its biggest international presences, and letting it enjoy one of the greatest Tamil classics.
And then it went bankrupt. Poof! Everything was gone. Turns out all that ambition and handshake agreements and forward thinking works great in the film industry, but in business it just lets people cheat you out of all your money. In 1996, Amitabh was 54, his daughter was about to be married and his son wasn’t yet out of school. His wife hadn’t “had” to work since she married him, he was supporting his aged parents, and his brother and his brother’s family. And he had just lost absolutely everything in a massive public business failure.
(His brother’s wedding photo. Allllllllllll the people in this photo, and more who aren’t even born yet, are counting on him)
The ABCL project wasn’t the proudest moment of Amitabh’s life. It wasn’t a total embarrassment, his ambition was laudable, and he did manage to get Bombay into theaters in the titular city (a miracle, considering the topic!). But it wasn’t very impressive. However, his response to the failure is impressive. Instead of complaining or bemoaning, he just buckled down and went right back to work. He gave his daughter a grand wedding, he finished his son’s education, he fulfilled all his responsibilities.
In the end, it wasn’t the founding of ABCL, but the failure of ABCL which lead Amitabh to revolutionize Indian entertainment. At the time, in the mid-90s, there was still a line between film and everything else. TV was the boring backwater of public funded programs (except for the Mahabharata). Even ad campaigns, while they got the plenty of big name actors to appear in them, they didn’t get the Big Big Names.
But Amitabh in 1996 took an attitude of “No job too small!” And, at the same time, Cadbury chocolates was in trouble. Cadbury is a big business in India, and suddenly from out of nowhere this rumor started spreading that they were “unsafe”. Unclean, poisoned, who knows! Anyway, Cadbury was desperate. And some brilliant marketing executive hit on the idea of hiring the one most authoritative voice in India to stop the panic in its tracks. And thus Amitabh the Ad Star was born!
After Cadbury came Parker Pens and then dozens of others (including his public service campaigns against Polio and, now that he has cured that, TB). Amitabh brought the same commitment and professionalism to his ad campaigns that he did to his other work, and suddenly the whole ad world wasn’t “beneath” the film industry, but was a profitable alternative income source. And a source for talent as well. It was Amitabh’s involvement in ads which introduced him to R. Balki, and later to Gauri Shinde. And Genelia D’Souza. Those are just some of the artists who ended up migrating between ads and films and back again once Amitabh broke down that barrier.
The ad campaigns were nice, but he needed something around which to center them. Some reason (besides ads) that he was in the public’s minds. Movies weren’t working. His “comeback” picture had flopped, which was unheard of. An Amitabh movie hadn’t flopped since 1973. Even worse, Amitabh was a producer on it. So it damaged his star power, and further damaged his bank account. The next movie was a flop too. And the next. Altogether he featured in 7 flops between 1996 and 2000. Well, qualified flops. Some of them were minor hits even, but none of them came close to the level an “Amitabh” movie was expected to do.
All of those movies were also “Amitabh” movies. That is, he was the lead character. And he played a character familiar to the audience, either a fast-talking comic in the Anthony Gonzalves mold, or a fiery rebel. An older rebel, sure. Some his roles were even father parts. But still a rebel.
In 2000, after 4 years of flops, it had reached the point were people began to think a little outside the box. And Amitabh got two offers that he never would have gotten even 5 years earlier. And which he never would have considered 5 years earlier either. One, to host a TV game show. And the other, to play the antagonist (and 3rd lead) in a Shahrukh Khan romance.
I’ll take the game show first. This was still fairly early in the satellite TV revolution in India. Soap Operas were beginning to take off and there had been a few other hits in other genres. But television still wasn’t really the big time. Especially not a TV game show. Especially not for a Star as dignified and respectable and upperclass as Amitabh.
But Abhishek still wasn’t working, and they weren’t getting back any money on those films Amitabh had just produced, and the Cadbury money wasn’t paying for it all. So he took the job. And CHANGED TELEVISION FOREVER!!!!
Kaun Banega Crorepati isn’t/wasn’t as big a deal as the Mahabharata, but I think I can safely say that it was bigger than anything else that ever happened on Indian TV short of the Mahabharata. And then Bigg Boss comes in right behind. Amitabh had always been this man on the mountain type, keeping himself back from his public. The ad campaigns began to show the cracks in that image, but KBC blew it wide open! The “hook” of the show became less about winning the prize money, and more about just sitting there and joking with Amitabh. He never lost his dignity, he never made you forget he was “Amitabh Bachchan”. But he also made you feel as though you were the most important thing in Amitabh Bachchan’s life right now, like he really wanted you to win and was enjoying spending this time with you.
Soon it wasn’t just the average contestant showing up on the show, it became a routine thing for stars to show up to promote their next films, or just for a visit. It changed not just Amitabh’s image, but all of them. KBC led to Koffee With Karan, to Bigg Boss. It showed how one could be a SuperStar, but also the right size to fit in your living room TV set.
Amitabh had finally redeemed himself from that slide he had been on in public opinion all the way since his political disasters. He had transformed from the beloved hero of the underclass into the beloved Grandpa of us all. Maybe not as powerful in the same way, no longer the “hero”, but equally beloved.
(How can you not love this man?)
KBC started the process, but it was Mohabattein that really made it work. Mohabattein gets a lot of grief (justifiably) for things like being a disappointing follow up to DDLJ, trying to shove greased up frog face Uday Chopra down our throats, having costume designers who apparently never read the script (how are any of these girls “modest”????), and of course the plot itself which isn’t the greatest. Complicated, sure, but not very emotionally resonant.
But then I read Susmita Dasgupta’s book on Amitabh (look how cheap it is! You should buy it. Although be aware, it’s also a little academic-y) and she finally explained in a way I could understand why Mohabattein was such a hit, why people keep returning to it, and why it really was a worthy successor to DDLJ.
The key is, you can’t look at Mohabattein as being about characters and the actual story, you have to look at it as a big meditation on the direction of the film industry. In DDLJ, Aditya had brought to life a new kind of hero and a new kind of film. Love is everything, the world is changing, and you better get on this train or end up under the wheels. But, in a nice way. These lovers don’t elope, instead they try to gently convince the older generation to agree with them.
Amitabh Bachchan in Mohabattein is the physical manifestation of Amitabh’s career. It was stuck in a rut, unable to move forward with the world. Doing the same old thing over and over again is the only way. And Shahrukh is his career, flexible, youthful, beloved of youth and looking to the future.
(And, obviously, Aishwarya is the spirit of Indian film which temporarily left Amitabh, but returned once he had changed himself)
For most of the film they are set up as opposites, just as Shahrukh (and the other young lover type heroes, and the films they were in) were always set as opposites to Amitabh. But finally, in the end, Amitabh is defeated. Only to learn that his defeat was never the goal. The goal was to find a common ground, something they could share, someway of existing together. And Mohabattein itself is that common ground.
Let Amitabh be Amitabh as we have come to know him from TV and ads. Let him be a dignified old man who still has something special about him. Let him show that not through his isolation and perfection, but through how he can serve and interact with the world. There is a direct line from Amitabh as the genial host on KBC, and Amitabh as the caring lawyer in Pink, and Mohabatein is what cut that line.