There was a time when irrespective of their popularity, most film stars would not look beyond the big screen. But the days of platforms such as television being a no-go zone for film stars are long gone and in the new world of streaming giants and direct-to-home release of films with marquee names, the OTT format seems to be the place for actors of any stature to redeem themselves. The latest name to join the growing list of film stars descending upon the ‘small screen’ is Abhishek Bachchan, who is all set to make his web series debut in the second season of Breathe.
For a few years, Bachchan junior has been in a strange place where his stardom has little to do with his film work. Rather he has been in the news for his tweets where he puts his quips to good use and his active involvement as an entrepreneur in his Kabbadi and Football franchises. Although a bankable name in the mid-2000s, thanks to film such as Dhoom (2004) and Bunty Aur Babli (2005), Abhishek Bachchan was not able to sustain his run at the box office as the years progressed. There was a time when Bachchan was looked at as the one who could challenge Hrithik Roshan. They both had debuted around the same time but there came a phase where the former’s films seemed to perform better than the latter. Roshan’s bad patch was talked about more as most of his films were one hero projects and the duds like Aap Mujhe Aache Lagne Lage (2002), Mujhse Dosti Karoge (2002), and Na Tum Jaano Na Hum (2002) cast a shadow of doubt on his ability to both choose interesting films and deliver hits.
This was around the same time when Bachchan came across as someone who understood and even connected with the multiplex crowd better. Post-Dhoom and Run (2004), a surprise box office hot, Bachchan starred in Bluffmaster! (2005) and Bunty Aur Babli that made him a darling of young audiences and they also showed how he was not the kinds who would try too hard. He also won critical appreciation for Yuva (2004), Sarkar (2005), and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006), which won him three consecutive Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor. By 2007, Mani Ratnam’s Guru that had Bachchan playing a character loosely based on Dhirubhai Ambani put him in the A-list.
The success or failure of solo lead films often decides the fate of male stars in Hindi films and the failure of Drona (2008) became a red herring for Bachchan. The fantasy film laden with special effects was expected to be his Koi...Mil Gaya (2003) or Krrish (2006) but unlike the Hrithik Roshan blockbusters, Drona did more harm than good for Bachchan. IN the films that Bachchan was paired with Roshan - Main Prem Ki Deewani Hoon (2003) and Dhoom 2 (2006) — the former had him getting better reviews than Roshan but with the latter, the gap between the degree of stardom that two commanded was clear as day.
The next few years saw him in the commercially lacklustre Raavan (2010), Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey (2010), Game (2011) and Players (2012). Even in this phase, Bachchan continued to deliver hits such as Dostana (2008) but the solo lead status was not as strong. By this time, not only Roshan had found his groove but a generation of younger stars like Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor pushed him further away from the leading man space. The 2010s saw Bachchan emerge as a second-lead or the supporting lead in Bol Bachchan (2012) opposite Ajay Devgn, Dhoom 3 (2013) with Aamir Khan, Happy New Year (2014) with Shah Rukh Khan and Housefull 3 (2016) with Akshay Kumar
Lately, Bachchan has tried to reinvent himself by pushing the envelope beyond what could be expected from a second-generation star. For starters, he took a two-year-long sabbatical and returned with Anurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyaan (2018) opposite Taapsee Pannu and Vicky Kaushal and even though his portrayal was appreciated, the film did little for him in terms of breaking new ground. His next film could well be the Sanjay Leela Bhansali production that is a biopic about the love story of poet-lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi and author Amrita Pritam. Bachchan has reportedly replaced the late Irrfan in the film and the original choice for the male lead, Priyanka Chopra, has been replaced by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. He is also playing a character based on stockbroker Harshad Mehta in Big Bull and would infuse life in the serial killer Bob Biswas for a film base don the character that was first seen in Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani (2012).
Amid all the developments, Bachchan’s decision to feature in the web-series Breathe comes across as a breath of fresh air, no pun intended. There is enough on Bachchan’s platter in terms of works but there’s no denying that he appears to have fallen off the radar of the major production houses. He is still cast as the second lead, et al. but considering that a sequel of Bunty Aur Babli, one of Bachchan’s most popular films, features Saif Ali Khan and not him speaks volumes. Ironically, the actor who has replaced Bachchan, too, got a fresh lease of life after foraying into the OTT platform. Post-Sacred Games, Saif’s Jawaani Jaaneman that released earlier this year did good business and convinced the trade that there is still a market for stars such as him.
The way Sacred Games liberated Saif Ali Khan, Breathe could well do the same for Bachchan. In the recent past, actors such as Manoj Bajpayee and Sushmita Sen also ventured into the web series universe with The Family Man and Aarya. Perhaps for the first time in ages, the shows offered material that could match up to the stature of their leads. The baggage that once-upon-a-at-time stars such as Bachchan, Bajpayee, Ali Khan or Sen often precedes them and it becomes difficult to shrug that image. However, OTT is an all-together new ballgame where old rules don’t apply and thank god for that.