By Soha Elsirgany
Photos courtesy of Soha Elsirgany
Radiant with charisma and energy, and armed with his signature deep baritone voice, Amitabh Bachchan’s presence on the silver screen has enchanted viewers from around the world in a career spanning four decades. As part of the recent India by the Nile festival, a raving Egyptian audience welcomed Indian mega star Amitabh Bachchan at the Cairo Opera House in April.
Amitabh Bachchan, whose name translates to Infinite Light or Unending Brilliance, is not just a mega star in India, but has gained international cult status over the years. Dubbed “the angry young man” of Indian films in the 1970’s, Bachchan’s charming and fiery yet down-to-earth characters on-screen may remind Egyptians of a young Ahmed Zaki in films like Kaborya and Mr. Karate. Off-screen, Bachchan is more reminiscent of Omar Sharif, and he speaks of film and art with intellectual insight and perspective.
In front of an audience that excitedly anticipated his visit at the Cairo Opera House’s main hall, Bachchan had a conversation with Indian journalist Sidharth Bhatia on what makes him so popular to Egyptian audiences and why Indian films are so widely viewed.
A Look into Bollywood
“Indian films are larger than life, yet of it,” says Bachchan in conversation with Bhatia. He explains that with their mixture of humor, drama, music, depth, and fun, Indian movies center on raw human emotions and familial ties.
“Sometimes people want to escape from a hard life or from their everyday struggles. In Bollywood, there is the triumph of good over evil with a hero that takes care of everything and it is very satisfying to watch – I think it is what everyone wishes for,” says Bachchan.
Indian films, especially the older ones, do have running themes and an epic-like quality; these are the ingredients that lead audiences to liken ordinary events or stories to Indian movies.“My films portray a certain kind of universe where someone at the very bottom can rise up and triumph over the hierarchy,” explains Bachchan.
Considering that India has many religious faiths and subcultures, Indian films must appeal to the diversity of local audiences as well; Bachchan notes: “Indian films are meant to be seen by everyone. To make each corner of the country accept them and like them.”
Though still active in cinema nowadays, Bachchan comes from the era of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, when films had a different rhythm.
“Globalization is changing Bollywood, and there is great competition as we have 800 television channels now. But people are experimenting with new thoughts and ideas and with new technologies,” he says. “Perhaps some of the lyricism and poetry of the script is lost in comparison to older films. Now, our narration is more rapid.”
Fate Lines: A Life of Drama
Combat scenes and tragedy are common in Bachchan’s films, yet the prolific star has suffered many accidents and physical challenges off-screen as well. In addition to living with asthma, Bachchan also endures myasthenia gravis – a rare muscular disorder, a stomach hernia, cirrhosis of the liver, tuberculosis on his spinal cord, and a neck surgery that resulted in the loss of his shoulder muscle.
In 1982, he had an accident on the set of Coolie, famous as “the Coolie accident,” when actor Puneet Issar punched him in the stomach during a fight scene, leaving him with a severe intestinal injury.
It was reported that the star bowed to the crew, celebrating a perfect shot, before collapsing in pain minutes later. The drama of Bachchan lying in a hospital bed between life and death for a week drove people all over India mad.
“People were walking backwards,” Bachchan says, adding that fans offered all sorts of sacrifices to spare their own life in return for their beloved hero’s wellness.
In 1984, during the Diwali festival of lights, Bachchan was lighting a firework when it exploded in his hand. The accident left his palm completely burnt. “I used to joke with the doctors that they could change the fate lines on my palm and change my fate while healing my hand,” he says lightheartedly.
Despite these enormous physical challenges, Big B is as invincible as his Indian heroes; he continues to takes on new roles, some of them with more eccentric characters, all of them out of his comfort zone.
“As you age, you cannot be the leading man anymore. I enjoy the new roles, but it’s a great challenge for me as an actor to play characters I haven’t played before. It’s exciting for me to not be doing the same thing over and over again,” he says.
Bachchan has been approached by many young directors, and has been flexible to the currents shifting the Indian film scene. “The young generation is aggressive and confident, and I admire their energy. More recently, a lot of Indian films have taken up subjects that may not have been seen before. People want to see something different, something closer to reality. We call it Niche Cinema,” he says.
Bachchan’s classics, however, remain dearest to his Egyptian fans, and his hit film Amar Akbar Anthony, which was screened after the talk, aroused a welcome nostalgia in many.