Legendary poet and writer, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, famously described himself as:
“A body of clay, a mind full of play, a moment’s life - that’s me.”
Mr Bachchan’s contribution to art and the world depict a moment that is everlasting, as his words, his works and his legacy continues to grow popular by the year, attracting many wandering souls to the illuminating life that the shards of his work reflect. Even the words he chose to describe himself are apt foreshadowing a legacy he set into motion.
These immortal words that have resonated through generations since, could well be an accurate description of the future talents his family have gifted the world. His son and grandson are two of Indian cinema’s most recognized actors, whose minds are in a constant state of play, breathing life into two dimensional characters created by someone else and making them so alive that they live on forever once the screen stops flickering and the lights go on. They live a life of another in motion pictures that entertain audiences across the world and take them away momentarily from their own lives, and the sum of these performances is what adds up to the public perception of the artistes and elevates them to the rank of the world’s best.
Before the arrival of the visual medium, radio dominated the airwaves that would have millions listening attentively in their own homes to poetry and literature that would whisk them away into a familiar yet different life. Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s voice and words shaped many minds and led them in a way no literary master has achieved before or since. There is no dearth of poets and writers at any given time, but what separates those from the ordinary is a unique grasp of the technique of language, an indelible command over selecting the correct words to say much without too wordy an elaboration and the ability to infuse the soul of the writer into his output. One of his best-known and most dissected works, Madhushala is an example of this.
One of the gems Mr Bachchan has used to describe the process, is evident in his autobiography:
“Language is a beast of a burden: the more you use it, the stronger it gets, and it should be evaluated by its potential, not by its presently undeveloped state.”
If ever there’s a concise and inspiring way to begin speaking to a writer, it’s with this description. Many just write and expect inspiration to flow, but studying the craft and language will help develop a voice and this advice comes from someone who turned a wine-house into a piece of immortal literature, lacing it with Persian influence and Sufi dust, while keeping it rooted in the mindset and magic of Hindi and Sanskrit. This understanding appealed to not only the Indian diaspora but also those who accepted language as not a boundary between worlds but a bridge. This remains one of the reasons readers from all backgrounds flock to Mr Bachchan’s works despite not knowing or understanding Hindi. They are drawn to a translation or an English script and disappear down the rabbit-hole of curiousity that leads them to the magic, wonder and fascinating storytelling that encapsulates Mr Bachchan’s work.
Shaping inclusive creations that meticulously danced around the reader’s mind and entertained an international as well as domestic audience, Harivansh Rai Bachchan wrote for himself and entranced the world. On his own use of Hindi, he elaborated:
“My own conception of ideal Hindi is that it should be laced with both Sanskrit and Persian (including Arabic and Turkish) but laden with neither. I would expect the successful Hindi author to have both a reasonable familiarity with Urdu and an appropriate knowledge of Sanskrit; and to some extent I would hope for the same in a Hindi reader also.”
The full impact of Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s thinking, output and creativity on his children will only ever be known to them, but they were able to take the Bachchan name further through exploring their own creative outlets. Many of Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s fans who migrated to the West, clung to stories from their original homeland and had heard Mr Bachchan’s works first hand or in their parents’ home. When visual distractions were introduced first in black and white and then colour, more stories were told courtesy of Mr Bachchan’s family but to a different audience and in an overlapping era. As a poet who could mesmerise and transport the reader with his words, Mr Bachchan’s son Amitabh conquered the visual medium as his father had the literary one. As an actor, Amitabh Bachchan ruled the hearts of millions, spelling box office gold adding to the Bachchan name, cementing its pedigree within the creative field. He continues to be the most successful, recognised and popular Indian actor globally.
An actor is often defined as being only as good as their body of work, which is mostly determined by the output of the era they are working in.
In the 60s and 70s, Indian immigrants that had travelled overseas in search of opportunity and with hope of building a better life for their families and those back home, clutched tightly to the legacy of storytelling and passed it onto their children through oratory experiences and via the magic of film narrative.
Having grown up during a time when the depiction of romantic love was epitomised by the likes of Raj Kapoor and Shammi Kapoor and films that showed the importance of family, country and what was perceived as success (Shree 420, Mother India, Jaanwar, etc), many had already allowed the dream landscape of cinema to permeate into becoming an intrinsic part of who they were and aspired to be. Film no longer was just a form of entertainment, but a reflection of the hopes of a generation. It offered a temporary escape from an alien country and culture, providing a strong connection to the motherland helping to sustain cultural values, language and a manner of storytelling that had enchanted a generation and could be a shared family experience.
In the 70s and 80s, this meant that the hardworking South East Asian community pinned many hopes on the cinema of India as a gateway that took them back to memories of their own upbringing and could show their children in their own language a glimpse of what their heritage was. It was during this era that the name Amitabh Bachchan became a sacred household name.
The “angry young man” image that fought against society’s injustices, promoted communal harmony, protection and respect of women through moralistic stories laced with a healthy dose of formulaic masala that merged action, romance and comedy, became synonymous with a soon to be legendary Amitabh Bachchan. His name was mentioned on a daily basis among Asian workers and in their homes as part of what today is a desired marketing aspiration with its own terminology: “water cooler moments”. The conversations that cannot be contained due to the impact of an artiste, show or phenomena, and influence what we watch, whose work we devour and fuel the need to be shared. The programmes or films that have such an impact on their audience that they are discussed the next day during daily interactions and exchanges encouraging discussion and review, uniting the media consumer while being a testament to a brands success. In the digital world, this occurs when content goes viral and on television accounts for ratings sustained by “must see TV” in shows such as Friends, Mad Men and more recently Homeland and Breaking Bad. The cinema of Amitabh Bachchan defined that generation and was in many cases a shared experience (such as cinema is), due to the lack of affordability of televisions and VCRs. Families struggling to make a living far away from home would get together and watch low grade VHS tapes that were expensive in cost but priceless in what they provided.
Those families have grown up two decades later and continue to show Bachchan’s timeless movies to the next generation. The legendary and still active actor remains a universally loved figure among communities that do not even share the same language. His reach extended to Africa, Asia and dominated Europe and is celebrated across the world even to this day, over three decades after he first appeared on our screens. His performances continue to inspire those who weren’t even born at the height of his success and his stardom spurned the live show circuit that plays such a big part of extending the Bollywood experience today.
In 2008, he embarked on an ambitious world tour taking “The Unforgettable Show” to stages across the globe with special guests joining him on stage at every leg of the tour. The sold out arenas and hysteria was moreso than when he famously conquered London’s Wembley Stadium in 1988, headlining a grand show that was the first of its kind where his lone silhouette on stage only had to recite a few lines from his cult film Deewar to evoke a flood of emotion that brought thousands to tears. Unforgettable seemed an apt title for his 2008 shows which had fans a few years old to those in old age dressing up as him, dancing to the songs that accompany his films and holding placards that confirmed in a remake era that the sheer power of the original can never be matched.
Joined on stage by his family, each of whom have carved their own names in cinematic history, the line up included his wife Jaya Bachchan, whose haunting performances still stir the soul be they from the past few years or twenty (her most remembered films include Guddi, Mili, Chupke Chupke, Sholay and Abhimaan but her portrayal of the quintessential Indian matriarch in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham has allowed her to be an adopted mother to millions of filmgoers worldwide). She has also made an inspirational mark off screen in the world of Indian politics as a Member of Parliament, imbibing values that resonate with a foreign and domestic Indian audience and push debates forward based on merit rather than topical relevance. Not content with just supporting Mr Bachchan and being his real-life (as well as reel-life) soulmate, Jaya Bachchan is an ethereal spirit that cannot be stopped until she has completed the work she feels she is destined to do. Her political activity and bold statements have rattled many in various parties but her stance is always based on careful judgement, research and the benefit of the country and its inhabitants. If there is a shining example of an actor using their popularity and position to make a real difference in their country then Mrs Bachchan exemplifies this. However this has also made her and her family the target of political vendettas which regularly attack her non-political life. Despite this, her contribution to cinema, her country and India’s most famous and celebrated family remain an incredible achievement that cannot be underestimated.
When Abhishek Bachchan was born, his grandfather the late great Harivansh Rai Bachchan described the moment as one when “all my illnesses and weakness disappeared as if by magic, and I felt a new lease of life as I held the baby in my arms. I named him Abhishek.” How apt that to date the lovable prankster with a heart of gold continues to inspire and entertain in a manner that one forgets all the chaos swirling around him and surrenders to his performance, whether quietly captivating with subtle nuances or generating 1000 watt smiles that erupt into laughter, the magic Abhishek weaves is unmistakeably his to conjure and viewers flock to fall under his spell again and again.
Amitabh’s son Abhishek, who earlier faced the gruelling task of escaping the vast expectations that came with being Amitabh Bachchan’s son while taking complete pride in the association, has a cult following of his own. He has been identified as representing a post-MTV generation that celebrates the past, lives in the now and shapes the future. Having survived comparisons with his elders as well as peers, Abhishek has ironically had to face the same struggle that fans of his father were escaping through his films. The constant battle for acceptance in the shadow of a larger entity, Abhishek has not only survived the “ensemble cast” era of Indian cinema which increasingly became more geared towards achieving opening weekend figures rather than create cinematic entertainment that would sustain an audience and have replay value, but also through sheer hard work and determination chiselled his craft to become one of the finest actors in the industry today. His performances have their own unique magic and have captivated a generation like none of his peers. With his mother’s deep soulful eyes, his father’s frame and the best genetic heritage an actor could wish for, Abhishek has forged his own path and revived the prioritisation of an actor’s performance over all else. Stardom is simply a by-product of the empathy his performances generate, the near-impossible-to-manufacture “cool” factor and the entertainment value he brings to any project. He has also consistently been successful in engaging with brand endorsements that are an extension of his image and onscreen art, resulting in campaigns that represent the perfect marriage between brand and brand ambassador. His reach among the youth is no accident, and be it when he’s delivering a powerful performance as he did in Guru, playing an understated character whose every movement dances with the subtext in Sarkar or mastering comedic timing in films such as 2012’s hugely successful Bol Bachchan, Abhishek’s passion for what his craft shines through as a student of acting and someone who revels in it. In 2013’s Dhoom 3, he elevated the main character of Jai Dixit to a new kind of an angry young man. Whereas in the first Dhoom he was introduced as a top cop who did things his way with the aid of the laugh-a-minute dreamer Ali (Uday Chopra), he was side-lined in the sequel. The third film in the series saw him become the rugged-yet-rustic all Indian hero in a Western-set crime thriller that allowed him a playground in which to make a mark. The franchise’s success in Asia and Western markets and increasingly international locations led some to criticise that the film was moving away from India and becoming a Hollywood film in Hindi. Technically a compliment by some standards, but flawed in its assessment. Abhishek’s entry in the film sees him in the iconic symbol of India’s transport – the rickshaw – breaking through walls and overcoming a local gangster’s goons. The scene ends with Abhishek standing with a hole in the wall behind him, from where he emerged reminiscent of some of Amitabh’s early films yet clearly without reference. Abhishek in this moment becomes the Indian hero: larger than life, stronger than the earth and Indian in heart and spirit. This image reminds viewers early on in the film that wherever his work may take him, ACP Jai Dixit is an Indian and is on their side. Through his own determination to better himself and hone his craft, Abhishek has become an icon for a generation and beyond. Overcoming all adversity and pre-judgement, he has fulfilled his grandfather’s prediction and become someone who will take you on a journey and magically weave away your worries, emerging as a complete entertainer and a formidable talent in acting.
Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan is Abhishek’s wife and the face of Indian cinema to a global audience that was exposed to it because of one of her films or performances. Having conquered the world at an early age through the Miss World pageant, Aishwarya has dedicated her life to often under-represented causes ensuring her prominence on the worlds stage has a lasting impact. When she married the love of her life, she was already the biggest female actor to have dominated the silver screen that delivered on every level. Her pursuit of perfection has helped weave immortal magic on screen leaving audiences emotionally massacred as she effortlessly waltzes onto the screen and into our hearts, instilling a connection with the characters she portrays that actually elevates them to a whole new level. Be it in Taal where she made months of dance rehearsals seem like impromptu performances on screen or Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas where her haunting depiction of painful yet passionate love transcended cinema to be etched in audience’s psyche forever, scarring them with an indelible mark any actor would be proud to leave on their audience, Aishwarya is an artiste who has no comparison. If the Bachchans are an institution, then Aishwarya is the only actor with the credibility and talent who could add to the family name that has brought decades of entertainment to millions over the years. Fate has also allowed her to bring back her husband’s grandfather’s name to this generation, as she adopted the double-barrelled ‘Rai-Bachchan’ name to the family as if she was meant to be a part of India’s first family.
Alone, Amitabh Bachchan on stage is an experience like no other and worthy of the “unforgettable” title. With his family by his side, his tour provided an extension of the Indian cinematic experience that would never be replicated and represented the best of the peacock screen in an unprecedented intimate show.
His family is an extension of his legacy, but also a testimony to Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s predictions through his poetry, his talented genes which resonate in those he has left behind and remember him, and proof that genius breeds more creativity, not less. A man who could string together some simple words and breathe life into them to elevate them to a whole new level and allow his poetry to be cherished by the world, the late Harivansh Rai Bachchan remains an eternal entity through all that he has left behind. He lives forever through his works, which are celebrated every year and find new audiences across the world each passing day. He also left the world his family, who have entertained millions for decades becoming icons to each generation and are a product of his example and chosen method of upbringing, that Indian values, morality and respect are often held high overseas by the way the Bachchans conduct themselves and the examples of their lineage. Though often not reported, the Bachchans are passionate about environmental and health issues both in India and across the world. Their ‘Unforgettable’ tour raised awareness of issues such as global warming and energy consumption and Amitabh Bachchan has championed diabetes testing and the eradication of Polio from his country for years. Simply put, the Bachchans that Harivansh Rai has left behind, are making their own lasting impact off the screen as well as on.
“Life is short. How much love can I give and how much can I drink?
They say, “He departs,” at the very moment that he is born.
While he is being welcomed, I have seen his farewell being prepared.
They started closing the shutters of the tavern, as soon as they were raised.”
- Madhushala (The Tavern) by Harivansh Rai Bachchan
Nov 27, 1907 – Jan 18, 2003.