The mark of a truly great artist is the ability to capture the zeitgeist and, at the same time, change the medium's face. And, the truly remarkable ones end up doing this on more than a few occasion.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Amitabh Bachchan's 'second innings' that started at the turn of the century with Mohabattein (2000). What began as an experiment set the ball rolling for one of the greatest comebacks in Indian cinema.
The following year, 2001, Bachchan featured in Aks, Ek Rishta – The Bond of Love, Kabhi Khushi, Kabhie Ghum that allowed him to push the envelope as far as the 'parallel' or 'second lead went, but it was the game show Kaun Banega Crorepati (2001) that tied everything up.
Since then, Bachchan 2.0 has gone from strength to strength and featured in a few of the last two decades' landmark films and blazed the path for both male and female stars across generations to look beyond the classic 'hero' or 'heroine' mould.
One of the biggest screen idols in the world, Bachchan had redefined the leading man with his embodiment of the Angry Young Man character in films written by screenwriters Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar. For over a decade, between Zanjeer (1973) and the early 1990s, there was hardly any male star that dominated the industry and the conscious minds of the average film viewer as Bachchan.
Like most leading male stars that preceded him, Bachchan found himself floundering as the classic hero in the early 1990s with the arrival of a new breed of male stars. Through the 1980s, Bachchan had been facing heat from up-and-coming stars such as Anil Kapoor, and Sunny Deol, but the advent of the Aamir Khan and Salman Khan made him look out of place.
While Bachchan was hardly in the same situation as Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand in the late 1960s or Manoj Kumar and Rajendra Kumar in the early 1970s, his failure was due to trying to hold on to the classical leading man template.
For an Agneepath (1990), or a Hum (1992) that featured him as close as possible to his age, there were more than a handful of films that made you wonder what went wrong – Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi (1988), Toofan (1989), Jaadugar (1989), Indrajeet (1991), Ajooba (1991).
Following the release, Khuda Gawah (1992), Bachchan took a five-year sabbatical, something Dilip Kumar had done on two occasions in the 1970s. Dilip Kumar featured predominantly in special appearances between 1972-1976; he did not act between 1976-81.
The first 'break' ended with a lacklustre triple-role in Bairag (1976), but the thespian's second attempt yielded better results when he made a comeback in Manoj Kumar's Kranti (1981).
In Bachchan's case, the comeback was nothing short of disastrous, thanks to the horrendous Mrityudata (1997). What made it worse was Bachchan's company, Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited (ABCL) had produced the film.
It sent a signal that Bachchan had failed to take stock of things and that he was desperate to hold on to slipping glory.
The following few films only cemented that notion – Bachchan could not look at himself beyond the 'leading man.' Much like Mrityudata that made Bachchan look out of place, the slew of films that followed - Major Saab (1998), Lal Baadshah (1999), Sooryavansham (1999), HindustanKiKasam (1999) and Kohram (1999) all failed to change the narrative. The only film that did well Bade Miyan Chote Miyan (1998) was treated as a 'Govinda' film more than being a 'Bachchan' film.
Amid this conundrum, Bachchan approached Yash Chopra and asked for a role to help him find his new calling. Chopra had directed Bachchan in classics such as Deewaar (1975), Kabhi Kabhie (1976), Trishul (1978), Kala Patthar (1979) and the ill-fated Silsila (1981).
He again proved to be a deus ex machina and gave Bachchan a shot at regaining lost ground with Mohbattein. Writer-director Aditya Chopra cast Bachchan as a strict disciplinarian elder who can't accept specific generational changes, and the actor made the most of it.
Initially written for Amrish Puri, the role fetched Bachchan many accolades and sent out a clear signal – Bachchan was done with the run-of-the-mill leading man roles.
The success of the role could be gauged from the fact that the careers of typical supporting actors such as Amrish Puri, Kader Khan, Suresh Oberoi and many came to a grinding halt of sorts when Bachchan shifted gears.
The following year proved to be a goldmine for Amitabh Bachchan as he found the sweet spot across different formats. In films, Bachchan played the leading man but closer to his new-found aura in Aks, and although the film was a washout at the box office, it gave Bachchan his new 'goatee' look.
With KBC, Bachchan made a new connection with a generation of fans and admirers. Soon, his 'real' life persona seen while bonding with the contestants helped audiences rediscover the 'reel' icon.
When asked what made him worthy of a Presidential Awards, there is a famous urban legend where Miles Davis said he had changed the face of music five or six times.
In Amitabh Bachchan's case, too, the star had changed the narrative on many occasions. In the 1970s, his action avatar altered the way the leading man appeared in popular Hindi films.
Later in the late 1990s, his second-innings inspired the likes of Rishi Kapoor to look beyond his much-celebrated lover-boy persona. In between, Bachchan also ensured that writers came up with ideas that feature his vintage as the protagonists in films.
As a result, Cheeni Kum (2007) and Nishabd (2007) became possible, and later Piku (2015) and Pink (2016), as well as the more recent Gulabo Sitabo (2020), are now regular features.
The impact that Bachchan 2.0 has had on the medium can be best gauged by the kind of roles leading men of the 1970s and 1980s got post the second-innings of Bachchan – Dharmendra in Life in a... Metro (2007) and Johnny Gaddaar (2007) or Rishi Kapoor in Do Dooni Chaar (2010), Agneepath (2012), Chashme Buddoor (2013), Aurangzeb (2013), D-Day (2013), and Shuddh Desi Romance (2013).