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The many lives of Amitabh Bachchan

April 3, 2010

In the film “Dev” Amitabh Bachchan plays the role of an upright police officer who is horrified by the collusion between ruling politicians and a section of the police during a communal outbreak. The film provides a mirror image of the scene in Gujarat at the time of the 2002 riots. While it was being made, Amitabh might not have thought that he would become the state’s brand ambassador after a few years.

It is possible that he sees no connection between the two. After all, film stars play many roles, not all of which reflect their views and personalities. Problems can arise, however, as they have now for Amitabh, when a matinee idol is perceived as playing two roles — one in the tinsel world and the other in real life.

What is more, if the two performances tend to clash — for instance, if a hero on the silver screen turns out to be a villain in real life — they can have a jarring effect on his fans.

It is worth noting that such crossing of lines has been a feature of Amitabh’s life. A friend of the Nehru-Gandhi family — he gave an impromptu singing performance during Sanjay Gandhi’s wedding — Amitabh had even joined politics for a while before finding the profession to be a ‘cesspool’.

Inevitably, his proximity to India’s foremost political dynasty also meant that the Bachchan family would be involved in one of the major scandals which affected the Nehru-Gandhis — the Bofors deal.

It is not surprising that Amitabh’s less than pleasant experiences at the time made him distance himself from politics for some time and focus on doing what he does best, acting. But the glamour of the film world was evidently not enough for a larger-than-personality like him. Notwithstanding his unflattering perception of politics, he has never totally shunned politicians, presumably on the basis of the adage: hate the sin, not the sinner.

Arguably, however, he has not been wise in the choice of his political friends. In recent years, for instance, he has been close to the well-known gadfly of Indian politics, Amar Singh — an association which may have led to his rupture with the Nehru-Gandhis.

However, even that curious phase of his life — a superstar in the company of a maverick — held no lessons for him. For he has now chosen to be in Narendra Modi’s good books, which has further estranged him from the Congress and may even embarrass Amar Singh.

Amitabh’s explanation that his critics should also lambast industrialists like Ratan Tata and the Ambanis for associating with Modi shows that he is aware of the latter’s controversial persona. But it is one thing for companies to utilize the business opportunities provided by Modi for their own profits and quite another for someone with an iconic stature like Amitabh to act as an advertiser for Modi, who is currently being probed for his complicity in the riots.

It is possible, of course, that Amitabh has no serious political views of his own or that he is uninterested in the complexities of the “cesspool”.

His open mind must have been responsible, for instance, why he never hesitated to be on the right side of Bal Thackeray although, as a resident of Mumbai, he would have known that it would not be advisable to displease the Shiv Sena patriarch in any way.

To many, it will seem that it is but one step from Thackeray to Modi. But saffron inclinations are clearly of no relevance in this matter where Amitabh is concerned. What is relevant is the indisputable fact that the latter’s political links create a greater stir than those of any other film personality. This, in turn, confirms Amitabh’s special status in the film world and outside.

Others in Bollywood like Dharmendra, Hema Malini and Sanjay Dutt, to name a few, can flit in and out of politics without hitting the headlines. But Amitabh’s forays into this field attract wide attention, especially if he is seen to be politically incorrect – or too adventurous – in the selection of his political friends.

Little wonder, therefore, that the responses to his involvement lack restraint. The Congress, for instance, has evidently gone overboard in its castigation of Amitabh, thereby underlining his importance. An attitude of disdain might have been preferable.

Modi, on the other hand, must be delighted. Facing a Supreme Court-ordained probe into his role in the riots — the first chief minister to take a stand in the docks — he will be glad to be seen in respectable company even if his companion is apparently a political innocent.

For Amitabh, however, it can momentarily seem as if he is courting bankruptcy again (as he once did over his financial ventures) in the matter of his countrywide popularity.

Categories: Bollywood News
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