The film Saat Hindustani, set against the backdrop of the liberation of Goa from Portuguese rule and directed by the great Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, released on November 7, 1969. Among the actors who played the seven Hindustanis was a lanky young man from Allahabad, Amitabh Bachchan, who was cast as a Muslim poet.
Fifty years on, that man is still acting. He’s also acknowledged as the greatest star of Hindi cinema — for his staggering longevity and popularity, massive hits and memorable performances. Bachchan’s success began with his portrayal of the unsmiling, hot-tempered Inspector Vijay in Zanjeer (1973).
And then he proved there was more to him than incandescent rage. He took to romance and comedy; he became the actor who could do it all. As he grew older, Bachchan gracefully moved into senior citizen roles; his star power ensures that films are written around him.
Generations of co-stars have bowed out, but Bachchan goes on. Through tough patches, he’s risen to shine again. So here’s Bachchan’s remarkable film career so far – in some fun and surprising numbers…
His first was back in 1973 in Bandhe Hath. And unusually for a Bollywood hero, five of those double roles has him playing father and son. Quite a deal, getting two Amitabhs for the price of one ticket. The 1983 film, Mahaan, featured him in a triple role, as a father and his two sons. When a frustrated Amjad Khan, the baddie in Mahaan, asks exactly how many of them have the same face, the youngest Bachchan quips: ‘Paun darjan hujoor!’ (A quarter dozen, my lord!)
Bachchan’s collaborations are legendary. But it’s Shashi Kapoor, with whom he’s partnered the most. Starting from Roti, Kapada Aur Makaan (1974) and Deewaar (1975). Kapoor also directed him in Ajooba (1991). They last worked in Akayla (1991) when Bachchan played a renegade cop and Kapoor, his wizened mentor. Fans call them Shashitabh for a reason.
In one of the very rare instances in Bollywood, four actors have played his heroines and his mothers (though in different movies). Waheeda Rehman featured opposite him in Adalat and Kabhi Kabhie in 1975 and 1976, and played his mom two years later in Trishul (1978). Rakhee Gulzar has done the same in Kabhi Kabhie, Kaala Patthar and Shakti; Sharmila Tagore did it in Faraar and Desh Premee. And then there’s Nutan, who played his neglected wife in Saudagar (1973), and his mother in Insaniyat, about two decades later in 1994. Head spinning yet? Three Bachchan films also feature co-stars who play both his mothers and wives (since he was playing both father and son). Waheeda Rehman in Adalat and Mahaan, Sharmila Tagore in Desh Premee.
No points for guessing that Bachchan’s most common screen name has been Vijay. Zanjeer, Roti Kapada Aur Makaan, Deewaar, Trishul, Kaala Patthar, Shaan, Dostana, even the relatively recent ones like Aankhen, Nishabd and Rann.
In the ’70s and early ’80s, He was frequently called Amit. In films like Silsila, Do Anjaane and Benaam, he was Amit, the sensitive everyman.
His first time playing a police officer was his most iconic role. In Zanjeer he played Inspector Vijay Khanna, the brooding cop that established his Angry Young Man persona. His most recent outing as a cop was where he was seen grooving and shaking with his son and daughter-in-law. The film was Bunty Aur Babli, and he was DCP Dashrath Singh.
Amitabh Bachchan’s maximum collaborations (not counting cameos) have been with the directors Manmohan Desai and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. He starred in 8 films with each of them. But there’s another director whose Bachchan tally is just as high. Ram Gopal Verma directed 8 films with Bachchan, their last outing being Sarkar 3. But with RGV, the flops have come thick and fast so you don’t remember them as much.
This may have something to do with the fact that they look majestic as a senior couple in recent films: Baghban, Baabul, Veer Zaara. Bachchan has had the most superhits with Rakhee, with whom he’d appeared in 13 films, of which almost all are hits, except Reshma aur Shera and Shaan. Parveen Babi was another frequent partner in crime, featuring in some 12 films together with him. Bachchan worked in 11 films with Rekha, 8 with Zeenat Aman, and Mr. Bachchan has featured with Mrs. Bachchan in some 9 films.
This count doesn’t include Namak Haraam and Immaan Dharam, in which Rekha was among the cast but paired opposite Rajesh Khanna and Shashi Kapoor respectively. Bachchan and Rekha first starred together in Do Anjaane, but they were earlier supposed to be in a film called Ek Tha Chander Ek Thi Sudha, which was shelved because Bachchan was not considered ‘commercially viable’. This number also doesn’t include two cameos. The two appear briefly in the 1981 comedy Chashme Buddoor, and anyone will agree they look like a million dollars on screen. The other was just 4 years ago in Shamitabh, in which she says to Dhanush, who seemingly has the voice of Bachchan: ‘Son, you have been blessed with the voice of God.’
Jaya Bachchan, known as Jaya Bhaduri at the time, agreed to do a bunch of films with a newcomer who nobody really knew. They starred in films like Bansi Birju, Ek Nazar, Abhimaan and the film that finally catapulted him, Zanjeer. By the 2001 film Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, they had worked in 9 movies together. And then with son Abhishek and bahu Aishwarya, he appeared in 5 films each, not counting cameos.
Much before he hit the marquee with Zanjeer, Bachchan starred in Parwana, in which he does some very unsavoury things (murder included) to get his lady love. Decades later, in Sriram Raghavan’s film Johnny Gaddaar, the hero Johnny watches Parwana and retraces Bachchan’s steps to cover his own crime. Babu in Satte Pe Satta was the only instance when Bachchan’s entry completely creeped everyone out. The soundtrack may have something to do with it. Ram Gopal Varma had him play a modern-day Gabbar called Babban Singh in Ram Gopal Verma Ki Aag. In Aankhen, Bachchan planned a bank heist with blind men and got away with it.
Or is it 4? In Toofan, Bachchan was the eponymous superhero with a saffron cape and whupped the bad guys. In Ajooba, he’s a masked crusader in a fantasy empire. For Shahenshah, director Tinnu Anand orchestrated a hero on the lines of Superman who had a mild-mannered alter ego. But back in the 80s, the Bachchan myth was so powerful that a whole comic book superhero was designed in his likeness. Supremo’s alter-ego was the superstar Amitabh Bachchan, who would act during the day and slip into a costume at night to fight crime. Scripted by Gulzar. Imagine.
The booming voice that runs shivers down your spine was once rejected by All India Radio. Some of this sub-continent’s greatest filmmakers have employed him for his narration. His first credited act was a voiceover for Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome. Similarly, Satyajit Ray used his voice on Shatranj Ke Khilari. And the Oscar-nominated Lagaan had his baritone spell out the story of Champaner.
In Roti Kapada Aur Makaan he is a soldier who loses an arm in battle. In Hindustan ki Kasam, he plays Kabeera, an Indian Army veteran who lost his right arm to a stray grenade thrown by a Pakistani soldier during Indo-Pak war of 1971. In Bejoy Nambiar’s Wazir, he is a wheelchair-bound chess wizard. In his pre-Zanjeer days, many producers thought his voice was a disadvantage. Possibly why he was cast as a mute person in Reshma aur Shera. And in Paa, he plays a young boy with a condition that causes him to age beyond his years.
Having spent some of his early years in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bachchan was no stranger to the Bengali language. Which probably explains his first foray into non-Hindi cinema with Jaban, a Bengali film. He collaborated with Shakti Samanta on Anusandhan, the Bengali version of Barsaat Ki Ek Raat. Being born in Allahabad, Bhojpuri was not a completely alien dialect either, so when his long-time make-up man Deepak Sawant produced a Bhojpuri film, Ganga, it wasn’t a stretch for him. He did two English films, Rituparno Ghosh’s The Last Lear and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. The only non-Hindi feature film where he didn’t have any understanding of the language was the Malayalam feature, Kandahar.
The reason Nirupa Roy is seen as the quintessential Bollywood mother is primarily because she played Bachchan’s mother across 25 years, starting from Deewaar and ending with Lal Baadshah. Sulochana Latkar played his mother in 3 movies, Majboor, Faraar, and Reshma aur Shera. Nutan, his wife from the 1973 film Saudagar, transformed into his mother in Insaniyat (1994), while Farida Jalal who played his sister in 1974 film Majboor, became his mother in his comeback vehicle Mrityudaata, 23 years later. Rohini Hattangadi, 9 years his junior, played his mom in Agneepath and Shahenshah. In Ajooba, Bachchan’s character thinks his mother is a dolphin.
R D Burman is a close second, with 21 films, including Sholay, Deewaar and Kaalia. Kalyanji Anandji did some 14 films with him. The other frequent musical collaborators are Anu Malik (8) and Rajesh Roshan (7).
The first is that near-fatal injury on the sets of Coolie. His intestine was ruptured and he was declared ‘clinically dead’, but he recovered and returned to the sets. While shooting for Mard he was afflicted with Myasthenia Gravis, a condition which weakens muscles and nerves, rendering it impossible to even gulp water. Yet again, doctors sounded the death-knell. And yet again, he came back in fighting form. During Diwali he ended up burning his hand so badly his fingers mashed into his palm. Docs advised to stay away from the sets but he went to shoot anyway, hand in pocket, kicking off a trend.
In a span of eight years, they were together in 19 films. They were so good playing hero and villain that Habib Nadiadwala thought of teaming them up for a film where Bachchan and Amjad were best pals instead. The film was Yaarana. The other actor who featured as a regular baddie in Bachchan films was Amrish Puri. They locked horns in 13 films.
(Amitabh Bachchan is arguably the greatest star this subcontinent has ever produced. Obviously, his fans (all several million of them) feel strongly about his work. While we have taken every measure to ensure objectivity and accuracy in these numbers, some of you may disagree with nuance. Wasn’t he also a villain in…? And what about the times he was an anti-hero? We’re going with our definitions, and for the number-crunchers, a note: For the purposes of this feature, we have only considered Bachchan’s roles in full-length feature films, not voice-overs, narrative roles, documentaries or cameos.)