ZANJEER: It's 1973: do you know where your screen icons are? Not in Kashmir, romancing heroines to gorgeous songs featuring the voices of Rafi, Kishore, Lata and Asha, that's for sure. But you can find an icon-in-waiting gazing out at the world behind the bars of his window (looking uncomfortably like the bars of a jail cell), scaring his lady love Jaya Bhaduri with his litany of how wretched the world is from up close. Yet Bachchan's Inspector Vijay is no rebel or defeatist -- although he refuses to accept the status quo -- making him a strange sort of anti-establishment figure, one who gave birth to three decades of cinematic non-conformists as well as by-the-book types. And gave birth to so many, in fact, that I was compelled to include him in this list. Zanjeer made the Amitabh Bachchan who existed prior to it almost unrecognizable, and even today one is struck by the "oddity" of an Anand, a Parwana, a Bombay to Goa.
SAUDAGAR: One of the casualties of Bachchan-the-icon has been memory: of an Amitabh who was other than a megastar and an icon, who was in fact an actor of great fineness and subtlety, one of the finest practitioners of the art of minimalism. Saudagar, wherein he plays a decidedly unglamorous gurh-seller from rural Bengal, is not the only film one could cite to make the point, but it is a personal favorite. Bachchan's Moti is utterly, coldly ruthless, yet not insensible to the tug of remorse, and in the final analysis a cramped, small man unworthy of Mahjubeen's (Nutan's) magnanimity. With a lesser actor, Moti might have come across as merely selfish, but it is to Bachchan's great credit that he is able to suggest depth without compromising director Sudhendu Roy's moral vision by evoking empathy. The role (and the film) is akin to a vividly etched sketch rather than a grand canvas, and Bachchan here demonstrates that his talent is not just for the grand gesture.
DEEWAR: Nearly three decades after independence, the halcyon glow had long faded, and not even the euphoria over India's victory in the 1971 war could long hide the fact that for far too many, the Indian dream seemed to have soured, especially as the country careened ominously toward the Emergency and naked authoritarianism, leaving a residue of anger and bitterness, of trauma and wounds akin less to an injury than to an existential condition, of an inheritance that read "Mera baap chor hai". Salim Khan's and Javed Akhtar's script lit the spark, and Amitabh Bachchan answered the call, in what has to be one of world cinema's most iconic performances. The subtlety and nuance, the voice modulation, the walk, and the anger -- not even Amitabh Bachchan, at the fortuitous juncture of recent stardom as well as recent failure, could replicate this magic (which, like all enchantment, required a bit of luck). The audience might have had only a dim intuition of what it had previously been looking for, but Bachchan's Vijay ends all doubts in the warehouse: "Tum log mujhe wahan dhoond rahe the, aur mein tumhaar intezaar yahaan kar raha tha."
AMAR AKBAR ANTHONY: In a sense Anthony was the birth of the other pole of Bachchan's iconicity, the comedic Bachchan. Despite years of Anthony-descendants (ranging from Rangeela's Munna to the two Munnabhais), Manmohan Desai's masala classic never fails to surprise upon re-viewing -- with its freshness, its zany energy, and the compelling nature of Amitabh's and Rishi Kapoor's performances, even in the by-now done to death scenes, such as when Anthony is drunk -- except here he's before a mirror, in a masterpiece of comic acting, not to mention a hilariously literal representation of a split self that would have done Lacan proud. After this film, hardly any major Bachchan role for a decade was complete without a comic element, testimony to the impact and influence of this aspect of the Bachchan persona.
TRISHUL: If the Bachchan of Deewar had the damning tattoo as his cross to bear, the one in Trishul was the vengeful aspect of that Vijay brought to its logical conclusion, determined to ruin the father who had betrayed his mother. Not until Agneepath does one encounter a Bachchan performance so relentless (and Agneepath's Vijay was "justified" in a far more sentimental manner than in this masterpiece by Salim-Javed and Yash Chopra) -- so relentless, in fact, that the film's (perhaps commercially necessary) conclusion always struck this viewer as somewhat unconvincing. The rawness of Deewar has gone, and while one feels the loss it is made up by a greater intensity and focus: this Bachchan seems like he inhabits a different planet from everyone else in the film.
MR. NATWARLAL: An underrated gem of a performance, one that leaves the impression of an ineffable smoothness that is singularly appropriate to a film that is constructed as, and has the feel of, a fable -- or perhaps a tall tale. I cannot think of another film where Bachchan evokes Lord Krishna, but the juxtaposition is curiously appropriate: in his mysterious yet benign persona, in the easy familiarity with which Nattu speaks to the deity, and most of all in his sense of play. Of all my favorite Amitabh performances, I find this one the hardest to get a handle on.
LAWAARIS: It is on Republic Day that Raakhee's character tells her lover that she is carrying his child, and is callously abandoned by her wealthy paramour. Amitabh Bachchan's Heera is the offspring of this union, and in a sense the bastard child of the Republic, of all of us. No Bachchan persona has such a visible and prickly chip on its shoulder, and none is so aggressively lumpen. Prakash Mehra's vision is not the most even (for instance, the scene where Heera feeds chillies to Zeenat Aman's dog seems out of character), but his Heera has a velocity and an anger that you can't tear your eyes from: easily the angriest of Bachchan's "angry young man" roles.
NAMAK HALAAL: Arjun Singh is on my list not despite the mediocrity of this film, but because of it: I can think of few comparable examples of a trivial film so elevated by its lead performance. But perhaps I am being unfair, given that Prakash Mehra appears to have designed this film as no more than a series of skits centered on Bachchan's ability to do over the top comedy without sacrificing his trademark skill and nuance. Smita Patil seemed a trifle embarrassed by it all, but this is doubtless the best loud performance I have ever seen.
MAIN AZAAD HOON: Playing Moti in 1973's Saudagar was one thing; but to try and essay an "ordinary" man nearly two decades later would be beyond even Amitabh's abilities, one would think. One would be wrong: the Bachchan of this film is eerily ordinary, although the symbolic space he had come to occupy meant that the script used his very ordinariness to expose a crisis in the political order. By the end of the 1980s, it was too late for Bachchan to just "be somebody" in a film, but the performance bears no traces of that limitation. In a sense Main Azaad Hoon offers a glimpse of the end of the megastar (before he became a brand, that is): for if Amitabh is ordinary, the film seems to be telling us, there is really nothing for him to do. Fittingly, perhaps, the film ends with the only Bachchan suicide I can recall. After this there are only codas.
AGNEEPATH: And what a coda it is: Vijay Deenanath Chauhan might be seen as Deewar's Vijay had the latter lived, but that is in a sense too naturalistic a reading. As Bachchan's entry shot -- of Vijay planted so firmly on a chair he seems like a growth on it -- demonstrates, Chauhan is a force, not of nature but of something more mythic, a refugee from the lower depths. There isn't much complexity to his character, which makes Bachchan's performance (like the Al Pacino turn in Scarface it is indebted to) all the more remarkable: as in Lawaaris and Trishul the character is relatively monolithic, but never loses the audience's rapt attention. The same cannot be said for our sympathy though: Vijay Chauhan is other-than-human, and while we cannot resist his force, he never has our love.
KHAKEE: A very different sort of coda to the Bachchan phenomenon, a return of sorts not to Deewar but to Zanjeer. DCP Anant Shrivastav is the sort of dissatisfied cop Zanjeer's Vijay would have become had he hung around for three decades. And unlike all the other Bachchan cop roles, Srivastav (who shares a last name with Amitabh) is mortal, his asthma preventing him from nabbing the bad guys, his career stymied by perennial transfers, his personal life preoccupied by his daughter's wedding. Khakee presents us with these intimations of mortality not to cut the myth down to size, but to re-invent it for a more prosaic age. That is, it is not that Srivastav is not cut out for the heroic exertions of earlier Bachchan personae, but simply that his limitations are intended to cast his eventual eruption in an even more noble light. Santoshi is too smart to mindlessly glorify violence, however, brought home in the film's final action sequence features a Bachchan mercilessly whipping the villainous Angre (Ajay Devgan). The latter has certainly been asking for it, but one winces nevertheless: so complete is Amitabh's grasp of the psychological arc of Srivastav's character that this fight comes across as not simply the triumph of good over evil, but as vengeance combined with a desperate assertion of Srivastav's (fading) virility. Justice might have been served, but it is stained. For its ability to convey this failure, for its representation of a more credible Bachchan myth for our times, this performance belongs in this list.