The Time Amitabh Came Back to Life, August 1st 1982

Amitabh is living a second life already, which he himself says. Every year he celebrates his second birthday on August 1st, the day he came back from certain death, somehow. We are coming up on the 28th anniversary of that date and Amitabh is once again hospitalized and in danger. A good time to look back at the miracle of his survival.

Disclaimer: I don’t know any of the people involved personally, I don’t even know full details of everything that occurred, all I can do is give you the sort of sense of the importance of this incident in film history and Indian history.

In 1982, Amitabh was going through a bit of a rough patch in his career, but he was still AMITABH. Zanjeer had come out 8 years earlier, Deewar 6, Sholay 5.  And he had plenty of hits besides those as well.

While Amitabh at this point was doing a variety of roles (sad poet in Kabhi Kabhi and Silsila, for instance), he was mostly known for his action roles.  And his action roles tended to follow a similar track.  He would be part of a small but happy family.  Something would go wrong, and he would need to take on responsibility for the family at a young age (usually in a childhood flashback).  He would struggle and fight against fate to build a life for himself and those who rely on him.  Something would go wrong towards the end and, although he could fix it by saving himself, that would bring pain to others.  And so he has to sacrifice his life and happiness for the support of others.

And in the middle of all these action roles in which he was constantly dying for our sins, it happened in real life!

That’s one half of it, the way this accident on set played into the narrative everyone knew onscreen, the half unrealized sense that if Amitabh was injured, it wasn’t just a normal injury, it was somehow something done for “our” benefit.

But the other half of it is that Amitabh was just SO BIG at this point!  So big, like all the stars combined.  And I don’t mean movie stars, I mean like the stars in the sky.

In my book, I used the idea of Gods to talk about movie stars.  And it kind of works, if you think of how the Hindu pantheon works, or Catholic Saints.  Of course, there is one overall concept of God.  But there are multiple paths and faces by which you can relate to him.  Today, we have the 3 Khans and most people use one or the other.  But a few like Akshay or Ajay or someone else instead.  Now, close your eyes and try to picture a world in which everyone only had one star.  The way I feel about Shahrukh, or you might feel about Salman or Akshay or someone else, everyone felt that way about only one person.  That’s what Amitabh was like, he wasn’t just “a particular face of God”, he was every face, every pathway, everything.

Image result for amitabh mural

(Speaking of pathways and bigness, this is the mural of him that was painted around the corner from his house.)

That’s what made it hard to understand if his power was waning or waxing.  People were looking at box office figures and trying to draw a conclusion from that.  But it wasn’t in the box office figures, it was in the way people felt about him in their hearts.

And that’s what the Coolie Accident revealed.  The importance Amitabh had (and still has, I remember the stories back when he had a health scare in New York a few years back) for his followers is like nothing that had ever happened before, like nothing that may ever happen again.

On 26 July 1982 (a day which will live in infamy!), Amitabh was filming in Bangalore.  He was doing a fight scene against Puneet Issar.  He was supposed to he thrown against a table and then push off of it.  Puneet hit him at a different angle than expected, and he ended up landing hard against the corner of the table.  He took a moment, and then completed the scene and that day’s shoot.

Later that day, he collapsed suddenly, complaining of great pain, and was rushed to the hospital in Bangalore.  And later to the hospital in Bombay where he could be close to his family.

He recovered (obviously), but it took weeks.  During that time, among other things, Puneet Issar was given police protection because of the number of death threats he was receiving.  And Manmohan Desai, director of the film, realized he had to re-do the ending because he couldn’t have Amitabh’s character die after the whole nation had just gone through this trauma in real life.  He also decided to freeze the frame on which the accident occurred and write the date across it.  When the film was finally shown, audiences would cheer or prayer or cry, however they felt, when they saw it appear.

Image result for coolie freeze frame

I already talked in the Rekha section about Jaya, how she was there every day, only leaving his side to travel to various Temples and Mosques to offer her prayers.  But what about the rest of the family?  Abhishek and Shweta were only 8 and 6, I believe.  They were brought in to see him once, when he was conscious (he spent most of the time in a semi-unconscious state).  In a recent interview, Abhishek remembered how his father joked about the tubes going in and out of his body, how this one was for root beer and that was for lemonade.  What I found interesting is that there was another interview with Amitabh, and he remembered the exact same thing.

It reminded me of more recently, when Amitabh was in the hospital in New York, Abhishek went to see him post surgery wearing a Superman shirt.  He told reporters later that he did it because his father was his superhero.  And, weeks after this, Amitabh was asked something about that day, and he immediately said, “Oh yes, Abhishek showed up in that Superman shirt, because I am his superhero, I knew right away.”

Image result for amitabh hospital abhishek superman

Those stories don’t feel like PR processed things which they rehearsed and figured out together.  It feels more like the closeness of families, when you have these jokes that you know between the two of you so well, you don’t have to talk about it.  Or stories that are shared so often, no one can remember whose memory is whose.

Abhishek and Shweta got to meet Amitabh only once during this time, but there were plenty of others who came as well.  Rajiv Gandhi, son and grandson of a Prime Minister and future Prime Minister himself, canceled a diplomatic trip to the US and rushed to his side.  Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had known him since he was a little boy, came to the hospital as well.

And around the country and the world, fans prayed for a miracle.  Stories abound of massive icons made in his image, huge pilgrimages taken on his behalf.  What sticks in my mind is a personal story from Susmita Dasgupta, who wrote a book on Amitabh.  She was a big fan at the time, but she remembers that her uncle, who had never cared for him, suddenly took to his prayer mat and was praying 5 times a day for Amitabh’s health.  It was more than being a “fan”, Amitabh was a national icon, a monument, a symbol of all of India.  His popularity as a film star may come and go, but there was something at the core of it all that could never go away.

And this went on and on.  It wasn’t like he had an accident, had a surgery, recovered.  No, he had a surgery, died, came back, went into a coma, hovered between life and death for days, and then, finally, the announcement went out that he had fully recovered and was leaving the hospital.

When he came out, it was like he was reborn in his powers.  Hundreds were there to greet him.

Image result for amitabh hospital
Image result for amitabh hospital

It was after this point that his Sunday viewing routine started.  So many people gathered in the road outside his house to see him, that he felt the need to regulate it.  So he started a new system, every Sunday the gates open, he stands on a platform and blesses the crowd, and then they close again and the crowd dispurses.

T 1050 - Sunday well wishers !! I never know why, but they come ... past 28 years ... every Sunday !!

I got to see Amitabh’s house, where he does these viewings, on my last trip to India.  We went on just a regular Tuesday, and the road was deserted.  He’s on a kind of busy street, on a corner, and we drove right by.  On Sundays, you can’t even get down the road, it is so full of well-wishers. And this is every Sunday, for the past 36 years.

It feels like, the significance of the Coolie Accident wasn’t just that Amitabh was reborn, it’s that he was reborn for us, by us.  Suddenly there was a new sense of possession in how the people felt about him.  Our prayers brought him back to life, he is “ours” now.  And we are “his”.

We are reminded of this pact every year on August 2nd.  Amitabh tweets it as his “birthday” and thanks us all for our prayers that brought him back to a second life.  And he receives “birthday” wishes from all his fans and followers in response.

“The Coolie Accident” is just one of many major incidents in Amitabh’s life, it was followed by his failed political career, his failed corporation, his re-invigoration of Indian television and advertising, Mohabbatein, Sarkar, etc. etc.  And preceded by his marriage, his bursting on the scene in Zanjeer, even his birth in which he was named following a vision.  Heck, his involvement in Indira Gandhi’s assassination is in there too!

But it is the one fixed point around which his life revolves to this day, marking before and after.  Before the accident, he was just a star, and no one was quite sure how to measure how big a star he was.  Afterwards, he had become a God.

Oh, and there was one other long term consequence.  Amitabh received over 30 bottles of blood transfusions.  One of which was tainted with hepatitis B.  He currently is surviving on only 25% of a liver, and it is a recurring issue for him.  So he still needs our “prayers”.

When I was reviewing Wazir, I found myself referring to his death scene as “If Amitabh ever dies”.  It really does feel like he might not ever die.  Because he is living so much now thanks to the powers of his well-wishers, if we all just keep honoring and caring for him, he could life forever.

8 thoughts on “The Time Amitabh Came Back to Life, August 1st 1982

  1. I must say I’m hoping and praying he will continue to live some more. I feel like I just discovered him and would love to enjoy his acting and his insightful blog entries more. I hope I don’t sound too egoistic but that’s what I’m thinking. And also, this year has been so very difficult, we need better news.

    Btw, what’s that about the involvement in Indira Gandhi’s assassination? And, wow, I didn’t know about all the blood transfussions. And his liver…

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    • Amitabh’s father was a famous poet and part of the Quit India movement. His family knew the Nehru-Gandhi family through that, and then Amitabh ended up growing up in a house near the Prime Minister’s house. He and Rajiv Gandhi, Indira’s son, were best friends as children and teens, he was always running in and out. When Indira was shot, Rajiv was traveling, and rushed back to Delhi. At the airport, he was met by some top political advisors/old family friends, and also his best friend Amitabh Bachchan. He got in a car with Amitabh and got out at the hospital and by the time they had arrived, Rajiv had decided he was going to take his mother’s place and be the next Prime Minister.

      There’s a lot of other stuff too, Amitabh stayed by Rajiv for days during one of the most turbulent times in India’s history, but that story is the one that sticks out to me. That short car ride forever changed the course of Indian history (it was just as likely that one of Indira’s experienced advisors would take her place, not her son, until he got out of the car and announced he wanted it) and Amitabh was right there. May have been the one who said “You are my best friend, I believe in you, why don’t you become Prime Minister”.

      Here’s a photo of Amitabh as a teen with Indira. Dara Singh, wrestling superstar, was visiting the Prime Minister’s house to celebrate his wins, and her teenage son and friends got excited and wanted a picture with him. Look at ridiculously tall teenage Amitabh!

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        • There are also some allegations that he incited anti Sikh mobs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Some people claim to have seen him say “khoon ka badla khoon” on Doordarshan, though there seems to be no tape of it. Given how pretty much everyone in Congress at the time had a “India is Indira, Indira is India” ideology, I won’t be surprised if he said some problematic things at the time. India is going through a similar “great leader” type of thing in the last decade and it makes me very uneasy because everyone seems to have forgotten the lessons from things that happened less than 40 years ago.

          He was also one of the only non family members present with Sonia, Priyanka and Rahul during the funeral of Rajiv Gandhi. Then politics and Amar Singh happened and now it seems like the there is not much interaction between the Bachchans and the Gandhis.

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          • Thank you for describing the Sikh situation so nicely. The last time it was mentioned in a comment I had to delete the comment because it was not even handed and accurate. You put it perfectly.

            It’s sad but almost normal for Amitabh to drift away now that Rajiv is dead. Like, if they were two non-famous people who were childhood best friends, once the friend dies, do you really have a way to maintain a connection to the wife and kids without him?

            On Mon, Jul 13, 2020 at 4:46 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. One of my earliest memories is standing in the market with my dad while he read the official update on Amitabh’s health written on a chalkboard outside some public building – police station or hospital. I was only 3.5 years old at the time, so the memory is like one of those snapshot in time kind of memories where you don’t remember anything before or after. This was in a small town in north India. I assume in the absence of social media and 24 hour news, this kind of updates were being used to let everyone know of his health. Interestingly, my next memory is also of Amitabh from the opening ceremony of the Asian Games in Delhi in November 1982. It was one of the first big events shown live in India and I remember touching the screen when they showed Amitabh in the audience and then telling everyone that I had touched Amitabh Bachchan. I assume 3 year old me thought that he was somehow more “real” because it was a live broadcast. Many years later, I got to meet him and tell him this story. He said, “now you can tell everyone that you really have touched Amitabh Bachchan.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is a great memory. I am going to tuck it away to share with people when I try to explain how big Amitabh was, even for folks who wouldn’t consider themselves “fans”.

      On Mon, Jul 13, 2020 at 4:34 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      Liked by 1 person

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