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Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National
Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National

The 'B' in Bollywood stands for Amitabh Bachchan

His early career moulded his image as the "angry young man" of Indian film, but Amitabh Bachchan has proven to be one of the most lasting and successful actors in the industry.

Film and fashion fans have been licking their lips for some time about Baz Luhrmann's multi-million-dollar 3D retelling of The Great Gatsby, due out this December. And when the first trailer landed last month, few were disappointed. But alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan, the teaser gave a glimpse of a cast member that might have raised more than a few eyebrows. There he sat, clad in a smart, double-breasted grey suit and classic Panama, whispering in the ear of Maguire's social climber Nick Carraway. The presence of the man known to a decent chunk of the world's population simply as "The Big B" no doubt contributed a sizeable portion to the millions of YouTube hits the trailer has already notched up.

Amitabh Bachchan's role in The Great Gatsby as suave money-lender Meyer Wolfsheim might be brief ("by the time you look down on your popcorn to pick another morsel, I'd be gone," tweeted the 69-year-old Bollywood titan) but it'll likely shock many to hear that it's his debut Hollywood appearance. Despite a career spanning more than four decades, this will be the first time one of the most recognised faces from world cinema will have headed West (OK East; it was filmed in Australia).

But he's not done with Bollywood, and Bollywood certainly isn't done with him. Next Saturday, he's up for Best Actor for his role in Aarakshan at the International Indian Film Academy Awards in Singapore, proving that, even in the latter part of his career, Bachchan is still held in high regard in Indian cinema.

Born in 1942 in Uttar Pradesh, Amitabh Harivansh Bachchan had his eyes on the Bollywood prize when, after university, he gave up a job as freight broker and headed to Bombay. And the prize was quick to come. While the film didn't succeed, his role as a Muslim poet in 1969's Saat Hindustani was enough to win him Best Newcomer in India's National Film Awards. Several well-received roles in similarly disappointing films followed, but the road to megastardom was laid with 1973's Zanjeer.

So the story goes, it was Bachchan's friendship with then prime minister Indira Gandhi's son Rajiv that saw a well-placed letter of introduction sent to the film's director, Prakash Mehra. However it came about, his lead role as Inspector Vijay Khanna is now considered one of Bollywood's iconic performances and established Bachchan as the "angry young man" with that unmistakable baritone voice. The film also starred Jaya Bhaduri, whom he would marry that same year.

The 1970s was a significant decade for Bachchan, and no doubt saw several extensions made to display cabinets as the awards began to arrive. The Spaghetti Western-influenced Sholay from 1975, in which Bachchan played petty criminal Jaidev, was voted Best Film of 50 Years by Filmfare in 2005 and, in 1999, it topped the British Film Institute's poll of Top 10 Indian Films of all time. It's due to return to screen in 3D later this year, only affirming its long-held position as the highest-earning film in Indian cinema history. Underlining Bachchan's bankability, he starred in all four of 1978's high-grossing films in India.

The 1980s can be summarised by pain and politics for Bachchan. While filming Coolie in 1982, a stunt he was performing went wrong and he was struck in the abdomen by a table corner, resulting in a splenic rupture that required surgery. Bachchan remained in a critical condition for several months, with long lines of well-wishers camping outside his hospital. When the film was eventually released a year later, the ending was changed so that Bachchan's character lived (he was supposed to be killed off) out of respect for the actor's own battle with death.

Although the pre-publicity ensured Cooliewas a box office hit, Bachchan took a break from cinema in 1984 to support his old friend, Rajiv Gandhi, in the political arena, eventually winning the Allahabad seat in Indian Parliament's Lower House by a record-breaking margin of 68.2 per cent of the vote. While his entrance was exhilarating, his time there was to be short-lived.

"A cesspool," is how Bachchan described politics when he resigned three years later, a move triggered by his implication in the enormous Bofors corruption scandal that rocked the roots of India's government.

Bachchan was eventually cleared, but the following 10 years, involving a much-hyped cinematic comeback as the lead in 1988's Shahenshah, was considered something of a slump for the actor. The fact that this "slump" included a National Film Award for Best Actor for 1990's Agneepath and a Filmfare Best Actor Award in 1991 for Hum (along with a Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award) only highlight the expectations levelled on a man by now regarded by many as the greatest living figure in Indian cinema.

But a series of box office failures, culminating in 1992's Khuda Gawah led to Bachchan taking a long-overdue five-year leave from acting.

This hiatus saw names such as Shah Rukh Khan rise to the top of the Bollywood tree as Bachchan's star waned. It also saw him establish the Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited, a production house aimed at becoming one of the biggest entertainment companies in India.

While it exploded into the limelight when it brought the Miss World beauty pageant to India in 1996, ABCL was soon swamped in financial controversies and legal battles before its operational collapse just a year later.

Bachchan returned to cinema with the ABCL-produced 1997 flop Mrityudata, in which he attempted to reprise his status as action hero with little success. Thankfully, he didn't give up, and found his feet a year later with a double-role in Bade Miyan Chote Miyan, a remake of Hollywood's action-comedy Bad Boys. The film may have been a critical and box office success, but it wasn't until 2000 when his star reputation began to truly return.

First, there was Yash Chopra's hit Mohabbatein, in which Bachchan, now sporting the white beard with he has now become so associated, reversed his "angry young man" role by playing the stern patriarch, a role that he would claim as his own and be replicated with acclaim across numerous following films. Then came his hosting of Kaun Banega Crorepati, India's version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, a move that would see Bachchan become the face of one of the country's most successful TV shows, reinventing himself as a brand for numerous product endorsements.

Illness forced Bachchan briefly from Kaun Banega Crorepati after five years, but his film performances continued to earn him further praise, most notably for his multi-award-winning role as an ageing teacher in 2005's Black and his first appearance in an English-language film, The Last Lear, in 2007. By this time, Bachchan's son Abhishek had risen to prominence in Hindi cinema, cementing the name into film folklore by starring alongside his father in several successful titles, including 2007's Sarkar Raj, which also featured his wife Aishwarya Rai.

Although Bachchan Senior continues to add to his 180-plus filmography (Department is currently on general release), the roles that he made famous in the past are now being "rebooted" by the industry. His iconic portrayal of mob boss Don in 1978 has already been turned into a hugely successful two-part franchise with Shah Rukh Khan as the gun-toting lead in 2006 and 2011. This year saw Bachchan's vengeance-seeking Vijay from Agneepath given to current Bollywood favourite Hrithik Roshan, a film that became one of India's highest grossing films of all time. Zanjeer, perhaps Bachchan's most famous film, is set for a remake next year. Curiously, at the Indian film awards next Saturday, he's up against Shah Rukh Khan for his Bachchan-reprising role in Don 2.

It's likely he's forgotten exactly how many gongs he's been awarded throughout the years, but alongside three National Film Awards for Best Actor, five Filmfare Best Actor Awards, three International Indian Film Academy Awards for Best Actor and countless others, there's also the less tangible nods such as "greatest star of stage or screen" in a 1999 BBC poll, beating figures as Charlie Chaplin. In 2000, he became the first living Asian to be given a waxy rendition at London's Madame Tussauds museum.

The late French filmmaker François Truffaut once described Bachchan as a "one-man industry". With his Millionaire quiz show still dominating TV ratings, further films in the pipeline and a slew of Bachchan remakes, it's probably a term still as valid today as it was in the 1970s.

 

The Biog

October 11, 1942 Born Amitabh Harivansh Bachchan in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, to Hindi poet father and Sikh social activist mother

1969 Debuts in Saat Hindustani, winning Best Newcomer from National Film Awards

1973 Stars as Inspector Vijay Khanna in Zanjeer; marries co-star Jaya Bhaduri

1975 Stars in Sholay, which becomes the highest grossing film in Indian history

1982 Critically injured while performing stunt on set of Coolie

1984 Wins lower parliament seat for Allahabad with 68.2 per cent of the vote

1996 Establishes Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd

2000 Becomes host of the highly successful Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

2007 Stars alongside son and daughter-in-law in Sarkar Raj

2012 Makes Hollywood debut in The Great Gatsby

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