Why is Amitabh Bachchan playing it safe?

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And the award for the best actor in Amitabh Bachchan’s role goes to-well, who else, but to the man himself.

Bachchan has pulled it off really well. He has been excellent as polite-to-the-point-of-being-timid Mr Bachchan, a diplomatic man who feigns ignorance of controversies bursting around him, balks at the idea of discussing politics and politicians, refuses to take a tough stand on social issues, comes up with amusing excuses for avoiding debates – “I’m a vegetarian, don’t know about beef ban” – and simply won’t hit back even when prodded, poked and even pummeled. The meek has successfully inherited the greasepaint of the Angry Young Man.

Talking to Arnab Goswami on his show earlier this week, Bachchan was quintessential modesty, humility and pusillanimity. “I feel vulnerable, I am scared of consequences, I think about my own life and that of my own children,” he said. He even went on to argue that there is no point in taking on the establishment or annoying the powers that be. During those few minutes on small screen, Bachchan ruthlessly ripped apart every bit of his own lore of the big screen; he murdered Vijay Dinanath Chauhan in broad studio light.

It is impossible to believe that a well-read, intelligent person who believes in the philosophy of ‘tweet to bed, tweet when rise’ isn’t aware of what is happening around him. Only the credulous will accept that he didn’t feel the country’s pain during the Emergency (it can’t be a case of taking ‘Mard ko Kabhi dard nahin hota’ literally, his family’s friendship with the Gandhis was the obvious reason) and didn’t speak up because he wasn’t somebody important; or that he doesn’t know that beef has been banned in Mumbai. It seems Bachchan is grazing too many holy cows in the meadows of his mind.

In a scathing critique of Bachchan’s inability to stand up and be counted, the Telegraph argued that this is typical Bachchan. “Among old-timers in Delhi’s political circles, though, the actor’s answers evoked no surprise. While Bachchan was perhaps looking to avoid antagonising any section of his fans and followers, people who have watched his career since the 1970s say he has a history of preferring discretion to valour in public and political affairs,” the newspaper said.

But, it wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, Bachchan was known for fighting for a cause, taking a principled stand and throwing back a punch for every poke, both in reel and real life. His decision to join politics to help his friend Rajiv Gandhi, to quit cinema to serve his constituency, efforts to fulfill electoral promises by spending from his own pocket in Allahabad pointed at an emotional man who lived by his principles.

He wasn’t averse to taking on the establishment or the powers that be either.

Bachchan’s tiff with former prime minister VP Singh is legendary, an example of his former recalcitrance in the face of fire. The story goes that Singh hated Bachchan because he felt the film star got him shifted out of the finance ministry in 1987 to stall some probes. In his memoirs Manzil Se Zyada Safar, Singh wrote that Bachchan met Rajiv in Andaman and Nicobar Islands and “poisoned” his ears. “The decision to remove me from the finance ministry was taken there only,” he believed. Singh had his revenge against the slight-perceived or real-when he dragged Bachchan’s name into the Bofors deal and hounded him during the 1989 Lok Sabha campaign.

But, unlike today’s reticent Bachchan, the superstar of the Rajiv era was both pugnacious and loquacious. In 1990, when Bachchan won a court case in London that redeemed his reputation, he mocked Singh, who had become the PM by then, saying he had a lot to answer for the fake allegations in the Bofors case. He then triumphantly told India Today that “the Bachchans do not manage contradictions, they expose them.”

Those were brave words; befitting the man who was once a cinematic symbol of anger, justice, retribution and courage. Today, he is, ironically, struggling to manage the contradictions thrown up by the change in his philosophy.

This safety-first Bachchan is more painful to watch than the eponymous caricature of his own self in Lal Badshah and Mrityudata, the two box-office duds that ended the legend of Angry Young Man on screen. Why should he feel vulnerable, what is he afraid of losing, what stops him from speaking his mind? At 73, why does Bachchan-Padma Vibhushan, Star of the Millennium, Brand Ambassador of Narendra Modi’s Gujarat- act like an insecure aam aadmi? Doesn’t he yearn for confrontation in the cage of compromise he has chosen for himself? Doesn’t he wish to break the Zanjeer that makes him sound so Majboor?

Bachchan himself gives some insights. He feels he has had his share of controversies and should now be left in peace, that the Bofors controversy taught him to focus only on his art and live in his cocoon, that he is scared of the ghosts from the past, of losing what had, lost and then regained, and that he has earned the right to keep it that way. To rephrase Piku‘s tagline, his lack of political emotion is his life’s philosophy in motion.

It is tragic that a flawed script has turned Bachchan into a living contradiction of the image that gave him his identity.

The actor has turned out to be a real hero than the man.

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Why is Amitabh Bachchan playing it safe?

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