Goodbye Vijay, Hello… (gulp) Viju!

Posted on July 13, 2011


What’s the use of fashioning a tribute if you don’t know what you’re fashioning a tribute to?

At the close of Bbuddah Hoga Terra Baap, the director Puri Jagannadh announces that the film is his tribute to Amitabh Bachchan, and it’s important to realise exactly what kind of tribute is being intended. This is not a Khakee-like tribute to the 1970s phase of Bachchan, an excoriating examination of whether the dynamic core of the actor has now, with age, been dimmed. Khakee is a great Bachchan movie – possibly the greatest Bachchan movie after his dazzling phase in the seventies, where he shone brightest as both actor and star, in terms of evaluating his iconic appeal – because it understood, as perhaps only Sharaabi in the 1980s did, that his lofty stature and arresting articulation were but armour around a wounded soul. The Bachchan of the 1970s is often referred to as Angry Young Man, but this anger was simply the most easily identifiable external manifestation of an individual constantly at war – often with the world, more often with himself. Listen closely to the early Bachchan performances and a lot of the time you’ll hear very little. He really was the Silent Young Man.

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Then the eighties arrived and the actor – for reasons best known to him – morphed into a one-size-fits-all entertainer who captivated millions through vaudeville revues disguised as movies (which, I suppose, is its own kind of art) – and a lot of these films are unwatchable today. They are indifferently scripted (if, indeed, “scripted” is a word we can use to describe a process that often involved scenes being written on the sets and thrust into the hands of bewildered stars), the performances are all over the place, and the emphasis is on items – a bit of comedy, a blockbuster song, a stretch of action – that could be strung around a moneymaking machine named Bachchan rather than the kind of organically ripening screenplay that Salim-Javed, among others, wrote for (and around) the actor’s persona in the 1970s. Even Don, which on the basis of its story could be dismissed as “just a seventies’ masala movie,” is very different from the Bachchan masala movies of the eighties – it knows who the star at its centre is and it knows how to exploit his uniqueness, his innate UP-ness, his newfound Bombay-ness, his inner clown as well as his outer sophisticate.

It is the eighties’ Bachchan films that Bbuddah Hoga Terra Baap chooses to honour, and that’s why it’s a mistake for the chartbusting Go Meera – one of the most insipid item numbers in recent times – to begin with strains of Khaike paan Banaraswala. (The other songs are safely from the 1980s – Rang barse, Pag ghunghroo baandh, Saara zamana.) This Bachchan is no “Ganga kinarewala” – he lives by the banks of the Seine and feels compelled, upon his return to India, to keep reminding us that he has a history with Mumbai (which he never did, really; Bachchan was birthed by Bombay, long before it became Mumbai). But the song is a hit, and the question at the back of the mind is whether this is all it takes to get Bachchan fans excited today, the prospect of his shaking a leg in the midst of a dozen imported dancers a quarter his age while mouthing lyrics from a time he was a one-man industry.

This Bachchan – named Vijay, but called (gulp) Viju – is a smug creature shaped by a consumerist society capable of buying things it doesn’t want and need, whereas the older one was a desperate reflection of basic wants and needs, not just food and clothing and shelter but also respect and love and the acknowledgement of peers, younger and older. Khakee got that. But to be fair to Bbuddah Hoga Terra Baap, the film doesn’t even want to go there. All it wants to do is enshrine Amitabh Bachchan as an evergreen star who gave us a good time even in very bad movies. So why not do that? A charitable way to describe this film is that its awfulness is a deliberate throwback to the eighties’ films, that it deliberately introduces characters who appear and disappear at will, that it deliberately structures a fight scene where its hero descends upon eve teasers when he is, at the time, far away, with no way of knowing that these eves are being teased, and that it is deliberately confused about the Bachchan masala movies and the masala movies made in Tamil and Telugu, which are drastically different in pitch and tone and register.

But where, in the midst of this bad movie, is the good Bachchan performance, the shaft of sunshine piercing through this dark, depressing cloud? There is the opportunity for a killer punch line with Viju (just saying that name makes my lips curl, as if they sucked on a lemon) wearing two watches on his wrist, but the resulting line is unforgivably weak and it’s not even built up to. (There’s also an embarrassing burst of eloquence about DNA.) I understand that today’s audience has no patience with the kind of melodrama that would have justified the presence of Hema Malini’s character, but surely they can be counted on to sit through surreal set pieces like the one in Kaalia – very much an eighties’ Bachchan movie – where he found himself in the villain’s lair, on a floor filled with tiles with red lights and green lights, and if he trod on a red light his niece would be crushed to death by shrinking walls and if he trod on a green light the same fate would befall the child’s mother.

This is the sort of inspired idiocy that Tamil and Hindi masala movies of the eighties revelled in, and this is what made them such a hoot to sit through. If Bbuddah Hoga Terra Baap wanted to go there, why not go all the way? Why this lukewarm effort of transplanting a self-referential Bachchan into an action film that – unlike the self-consciously spoofy Main Hoon Na – plays it mostly straight and could have become a more enjoyable (and, frankly, more endurable) vehicle for a different hero unburdened by baggage? This film does pay tribute to Kaalia, invoking the irresistible line “Hum jahan khade hote hain, line wahin se shuru hoti hai,” that he’s at the head of every queue. (Of course, when he uttered these words in Kaalia, Bachchan was a poor man in prison, and now he’s in designer sunglasses in a swank international airport. There – right there – is the story of a certain kind of Hindi cinema: From Deewar to Dewar’s.)

But along with this hero-massaging line, for his loving fans to go berserk over and clap and whistle and re-enact on the way out and subsequently pass down as a nostalgic nugget to the next generation, there were other dialogues, like the one by mill worker Yunus Parvez who was saved from a falling machine part by Bachchan’s elder brother, Kader Khan, and who watched in horror as his saviour’s arms were cut off instead. Later, by Kader Khan’s bedside, he wails, in beautifully purple prose, about the injustice of it all: “Apne dil ke andheron mein apne khuda ko dhoondh raha hoon, aur usse poochna chahta hoon ki Ya Allah, tere karam ki baarish hoti hai to mujh jaise gunehgaaron par kyon hoti hai aur tere qahar ki bijli tootti hai to aise farishton par kyon tootti hai.” That’s what Ram Gopal Varma forgot when he made his version of Sholay and that’s what Puri Jagannadh misses here, that the great seventies’ films and the generally awful eighties’ films were made with a certain sensibility, and discarding the red lights and the green lights and the Yunus Parvez lines while keeping only the star and the goatee he refuses to shave off is not how you fashion a tribute.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi