MUMBAI — Amitabh Bachchan is 63 years old. This is usually way past the sell-by date for actors in Bollywood, but he obviously doesn’t know that.
Bachchan, Bollywood’s most enduring star, is also the busiest. He has eight films in various stages of production. This is a slowdown from last year, when he appeared in nine pics, more than any other leading actor in Bollywood. A recent release, “Black,” in which he plays the cantankerous teacher of a deaf-blind girl, was critically hailed.
He is slated to start shooting 85 episodes of the second season of gameshow “Kaun banega crorepati” (the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”).
His fame has translated outside of film and TV. He is endorsing 10 products, including Pepsi, Parker pens, Reid & Taylor suits and Cadbury chocolates. In 2000, he was honored with a statue at Madame Tussaud’s in London — the first Indian thesp to receive the distinction. In April, New York’s Lincoln Center held a retrospective of his work.
“These are interesting times,” he says in his trademark baritone. “There is so much opportunity.”
Bachchan is running the gamut of roles. In “Sarkar” (Master), inspired by “The Godfather” and directed by Ram Gopal Varma, he is the head of a powerful family. “Bunty aur Babli” (Bunty and Babli), a high-octane road movie, features him as a cop chasing two con artists across north India. He is the family patriarch trying to rehabilitate his widowed daughter-in-law in “Babul” (Father). In “Virudh,” (Against) he is a middle-class man who battles the system for justice after his only son dies.
He also is working in the upcoming projects of Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Karan Johar and arthouse director Rituparno Ghosh.
What excites Bachchan is the freedom to be anything. He’s never shown any interest in directing, but has produced several films including “Mrityudatta.”
He says: “This is a stage when you are not burdened with playing the leading man and worrying about getting the girl and looking good. As an actor, you always want to play different roles, but I did not have the courage to go against commercial expectations. Now it’s great fun.”
Bachchan exists in a unique sphere. Earlier stars such as Dilip Kumar did select work at 60, but Bachchan continues to be an A-list, in-demand actor. Bachchan’s first film, “Saat Hindustani” (Seven Indians) was released in 1969, and directors and writers are still creating roles especially for him. In “Black” and the 2003 blockbuster “Baghban” (Gardener), he is the lead. Even when he plays a supporting character, his presence is pivotal to the plot.
Says Taran Adarsh, editor of Trade Guide magazine: “He does not have the box office clout of the Khans (Shah Rukh, Salman, Aamir) but his presence gives respectability to a project.”
Bachchan has often himself being directed by the children of the talents who propelled him to stardom — Aditya, son of director Yash Chopra; Karan, son of producer Yash Johar; and Farhan, son of writer Javed Akhtar.
In fact, Karan was so nervous directing Bachchan that on the first day of “Kabhi khushi kabhie gham” (Sometimes Happiness, Sometimes Sadness), he fainted. “He is a unique phenomenon,” the helmer says. “I don’t think there is any other actor globally who occupies this position at this age.”
Bachchan has seen bothspectacular success and abject failure. In the ’70s, he played Vijay, a brooding, sullen urban vigilante, in three seminal films, all written by the team of Javed Akhtar and Salim Khan: “Zanjeer” (Chains), in which he was an honest cop traumatized by his parents’ massacre; “Sholay” (Flames), in which he was a taciturn mercenary who sets out to capture a bandit; and “Deewar” (Wall), in which he was a tragic haunted gangster.
Over the next two decades, the angry young man image hardened into a stereotype. By the late ’80s, Bachchan was playing a poor facsimile of himself. An ill-conceived foray into politics enmeshed him in an arms scandal involving then-Prime Minister and friend Rajiv Gandhi. While married to popular thesp Jaya Bhaduri, tabs gossiped about affairs with another actress.
Burned out, he took a five-year sabbatical from 1992 to 1997.
Bachchan returned in a series of surprisingly substandard films, which flopped. Directors and writers seemed confused about how to portray an actor who was also a myth.
To make matters worse, the Amitabh Bachchan Corp., a company he formed in 1995, went bankrupt. Shrill headlines proclaimed the death of an icon.
The tide changed in 2000 when Bachchan made his television debut as the host of “Crorepati.” The show became a phenomenon. In 10 months, the show received more than 20 million calls from aspiring participants.
That same year, Aditya Chopra’s “Mohabbatein” (Loves), which featured him in an age-appropriate role, revived his faltering career.
Doctors repeatedly advise Bachchan to go slow but he’s not listening. He works 20-hour days, seven days a week.
“I love being in front of the camera,” he says, “I still get nervous each time. I will do it as long my body wills it.”