A Tribute To The Only Bollywood Star My Indian Family Ever Agreed About

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There are three things that power the nation of India: food, cricket, and cinema. Take away that holy trinity, and no Indian would agree to get out of bed to a country filled with poverty, partisan riots, and corruption. I was born and raised in New Delhi, and my family so besotted with movies that our modest flat boasted three televisions, which lowered the odds of World War III breaking out between those who chose the news broadcast over the 1955 black-and-white Devdas, or the primary colored Hindi musicals of the 1980s, or Wimbledon. Only one man could unite a family: Hindi film actor Amitabh Bachchan. He's not a politician or a saint, even though there's a temple that prays for him in Calcutta. But he's family to practically everyone I consider family.

For someone so integral to India, Bachchan struck out with his first nine films. He scored a major Indian film award for 1970's Anand, but it wasn't his breakout role. Depending on who you ask, Bachchan's rise could be credited to 1972's action comedy Bombay to Goa, or the decade-defining Zanjeer in 1973. Objectively, the latter did spark the nexus of Bachchan's fame: the "angry young man" struggling daily in a country rife with despair and unemployment, who isn't afraid to fight back if necessary.

India in the 70s was overflowing with young college graduate males who'd been told their dreams would come true in a country that was just turning 30. Instead, they stared down arch societal expectations. Around this time, there were also unwed mothers who'd been abandoned by the rotten male scoundrels in their life—young women repulsed by men leering at them on buses and in college corridors. There were dockworkers who dreamed of glamour and intrigue. Ordinary people everywhere wanted to be whisked away for three hours and 30 minutes. Bachchan was a handsome young man with his back to the wall in movies about surviving while staying true to faith and family; to millions, he was life itself.

As a young child, if you were to ask me which film I thought would unite my quarreling family, I'd answer immediately: Sholay. It's been written about extensively that the 1975 blockbuster was the first "masala film" or "curry Western"; while those aren't inaccurate labels, they severely limit the film's impact on India and, by extension, the world. Sholay is ageless, its lessons, songs, and dialogues ringing true to this day.

Bachchan plays Jai, a common yet wise criminal who, along with his partner Veeru, is recruited by an ex-cop who wishes revenge on a famous dacoit. I watched Sholay last week for the first time in almost a decade, and it was such a warm and welcome experience that I wanted to dance in the streets and send everyone to Hindi classes so they could understand the dialogue. Indeed, there are nuances in Bachchan's delivery that risk being lost in translation; in Sholay, his voice moves like oiled leather, and his first line of dialogue translated is a hallmark of leftism: "All cops look the same to me."

While recently revisiting Bachchan's filmography, two films took me by surprise. I hadn't seen Abhimaan from 1973 since I was a teenager and was wary to revisit it; based on the marital troubles of Pandit Ravi Shankar and his first wife, Annapurna Devi, it's an dissection of the jealousy that consumes a famous singer after his new bride turns out to be more talented than him. The film's honest depiction of sexual desire and gratification, and its death in the face of discord, took me by surprise, and that Bachchan plays the part of the disgruntled singer opposite his own wife, Jaya Bhaduri, adds layers to the film that I wouldn't have noticed as a child.

On the other hand, I've watched 1975's Chupke Chupke many times and have yet to tire of Bachchan's portrayal of Sukumar Sinha, an intelligent English literature professor who's hapless in playing an elaborate practical joke on his friend's brother-in-law. Bachchan has comedic potential that directors have often ignored in order to rack up the drama points; he's no less hilarious in Piku from 2015, in which he plays ornery Bengali father Bhashkor Banerjee, consumed by constipation and all discussions thereof.

Bhashkor lives with his adult daughter Piku (Deepika Padukone), an architect who's nearing her last nerve while taking care of her father; for the first time, I saw myself in Bachchan in that I know what it is to be a stubborn Bengali daughter to a stubborn Bengali father. Water pooled in my eyes as I imagined future conversations about the color and consistency of stool with an ailing father—whether from mirth or sorrow, I wasn't sure.

Truffaut called Bachchan a "one-man industry"; a nation full of disheartened unemployed youths called him "the angry young man"; mothers called him their son. As for my aunt, she didn't call him anything when she met him once, after a premiere in New Delhi. She was a teenager, and shook his hand. He smiled at her. That night, she slept with that hand cupped neatly against one cheek. I am certain that if I am lucky enough to meet him before he passes, I would do the same.

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