From Shahenshah To Big B: What Makes Amitabh Bachchan A Timeless Superstar

On the occasion of his 80th birthday on October 11, we spoke to three filmmakers R Balki, Bejoy Nambiar and Umesh Shukla on what makes him a living legend.

Published On Oct 10, 2022 | Updated On Feb 22, 2024

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In a career spanning more than five decades, Amitabh Bachchan has been known by many names - from the ‘Shahenshah of Bollywood’ to ‘Star of the Millennium’ to simply Big B. Son of the prolific poet Harishvanshrai Bachchan and social activist mother Teji Bachchan, AB was famously rejected when he went to audition for All India Radio, but destiny had bigger plans in store. Making his debut in 1969 with ‘Saat Hindustani’, the tall and unconventional-looking lad went on to do films that made him one of the most remarkable actors ever seen in Indian cinema. From Zanjeer, the film that gave him the ‘angry young man’ image to blockbusters such as Deewar, Sholay, Trishul, Kaala Patthar, Shakti, Abhimaan, Kabhie Kabhie, Amar Akbar Anthony… the list of his successful films is endless.

Sure, there were setbacks as well, but the talented star battled them all – whether they were to do with his health or business. The television reality show ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ saw him enter people’s homes and renewed their love and admiration for him. In the later years, his performances and ability to experiment with different roles in films such as Paa, Bhootnath, Piku, Pink, Gulaabo Sitaabo and most recently in Chup, Brahmastra Part One: Shiva and Goodbye have only cemented his versatility and sincerity to his craft. 

On his 80th birthday, Zee Zest chatted with three directors Umesh Shukla, Bejoy Nambiar and R Balki who have worked with the legendary actor to try and find out what makes him one of the most admired, respected and loved actors Indian cinema has ever seen.  

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Growing up in Bhuleshwar in the 1970s was a good time for anyone who was a fan of Hindi movies. With several single-screen theatres in the vicinity, there was always the possibility of a Bachchan movie playing at one of the cinema halls. “During Navratri and Ganpati, they would put up projectors and screens on the road and play his films,” says Umesh Shukla. Sitting cross-legged on old newspapers in the middle of the road and watching ‘Zanjeer’ multiple times is a memory he cherishes. “For two-three days after watching any of his films, we would walk like him and style his hair the way he would on screen. Jab tak pitaji ke haath se chaanta na padhe tab take hamare andar ka Bachchan nikalta nahi tha!” he laughs.

Ask him to name a favourite film of his favourite actor and Shukla says there are way too many to mention. “My friends and I used to be such fans that we would wait for a film to get housefull and then buy tickets in black. We considered it an insult if the tickets were available for the first day first show. That’s how we showed our love for him,” he recalls.

Years later, when he worked with the superstar in ‘102 Not Out’, he shared those fanboy memories with AB and the latter seemed genuinely amused by them. Bringing Rishi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan together on screen after 27 years was a dream come true for Shukla. “The two actors shared an amazing rapport on screen. You couldn’t believe that they were working together after so long,” says the filmmaker. Recalling an incident when Rishi Kapoor arrived at the dubbing studio, Shukla says that the late actor was so moved by Bachchan’s performance in a certain scene that he couldn’t get himself to dub that day. “Rishiji was sobbing after watching that scene and told me, “Bachchan aise hi Bachchan nahi bane; just look how brilliantly he has performed”. That’s the kind of genuine respect the actors of that generation had for each other,” says Shukla.  

The filmmaker, too, has learned a lot just by observing the superstar. “Even after all these years, he is still a director’s actor. He puts across his point, and his inputs are always for the betterment of the film. As for his discipline and punctuality, anyone in the industry would be able to tell you about it,” he adds.

One of Bachchan’s rare qualities as a star, shares Shukla, is that he takes his scripts home even after the shoot. “Even though the script is provided during dubbing, he brings along his original underlined script where he has made notes about enunciation and pauses. He uses that script for dubbing. It’s so rare to find such genuine sincerity for the craft,” says the filmmaker.

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R Balki’s first encounter with Amitabh Bachchan happened very soon after the superstar made his comeback with Kaun Banega Crorepati. “I was the creative head at Lintas and Amitji was doing a brand endorsement for Parker Pens,” he shares. Balki narrated the script of the ad to him and as it is bound to happen, he ended up narrating it to him in Bachchan’s voice in Hindi. “There was no reaction from him. He just kept looking at me with a poker face. I felt like ducking under the table!” he laughs at the memory.

Balki’s association with Big B was strengthened further when the filmmaker cast him in his debut movie, Cheeni Kum. “He must have seen something in me; I don’t know. I keep telling him that was the only mistake he made,” he jokes, adding that Bachchan asked him to write the script once he had okayed the one-line idea for the film. “I wrote and gave him the script and he told me he will do it. It was that simple. There was no further discussion,” says the filmmaker who went on to make Paa and Shamitabh with him. He has also done special appearances in Balki’s other films including Ki & Ka and Pad Man and recently, the actor also spontaneously composed a melody for the filmmaker’s latest film Chup: Revenge of the Artist. “It’s been a beautiful association,” Balki says with a smile.

The director says he has a certain perception of the actor, and he doesn’t go to him with a script unless he feels it does justice to that perception. “I like his sarcasm, his poker face. I don’t like his dramatic side. He’s the only actor who can just look at another person without any expression, say one dialogue and convey a thousand emotions. Just like that! He doesn’t need to do a lot of things and that’s his personality,” he says.

For Balki, it is important to approach the actor with a story that does justice to his personality and be something which is so quintessential Bachchan but also something he hasn’t done before. “I never want to make him play a role where he is not Amitabh Bachchan. Amitabh Bachchan as a character is more important than any other character. That’s the power of someone like him,” he says, pointing at some of his performances where he played a drunkard or a coolie. “There is a difference when he plays it. He is not just playing a drunkard, he is playing Amitabh Bachchan, the drunkard, bringing a lot of his own coolness to it,” he explains.  

The filmmaker admits that he starts every script with the thought ‘how do I get AB to be a part of this’. “Apart from Pad Man, he has heard every script of mine that I have done with other actors,” he shares.

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Growing up with a love for cinema, if there was one actor whose movies Bejoy Nambiar ensured he did not miss, it was Amitabh Bachchan. “He was my favourite actor when I was growing up; someone I adored and admired,” says Nambiar. From an early age itself, Nambiar had his entire film catalogue and by the time a new film of Bachchan’s came up, he ensured he was up to date with all the earlier films of the actor. The filmmaker did not just admire the man, he also studied his craft. “The fact that we are still talking about him after all these years shows how relevant he is and how he’s been consistently doing something right,” he adds.  

So, when Nambiar got an opportunity to direct the actor in Wazir, it was not just a dream come true but even beyond it. “I was just two films old, and Wazir was my third, but he was so humble and sweet about working with me. He gave me a lot of faith as a filmmaker and after two days of being starstruck, I felt normal around him,” says Nambiar who cannot help but praise the actor’s sincerity and honesty towards his craft. “He behaves as if it is his first film. Even before you tell him anything, he is trying to figure out what all he can do with a scene. That level of commitment and the way he preps and rehearses for it, and at this age when he has done so much already, is remarkable,” says the director, adding that working with the superstar was an absolute joy and an experience he would cherish forever.

Asked to name his favourite film of the actor, Nambiar finds it difficult to choose one but ultimately picks the 1982 crime drama, Shakti. The Rakesh Sippy directorial brought the two powerhouses of Hindi cinema - Dilip Kumar and Bachchan together onscreen for the first time. “It was unlike a Bachchan film. The role he played and the intensity he brought to it - he must have done something close to it in his later films but not anything as intense and powerful as that. Shakti stands out in that aspect,” he signs off.  


Photo: Instagram/Amitabh Bachchan; Respective filmmakers

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