Cinema and Media Studies Amitabh Bachchan
Anne Ciecko
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 October 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0310


Amitabh Bachchan (b. 1942 in Allahabad) is perhaps the most enduringly iconic figure of Bollywood. He has appeared in nearly two hundred films and made cultural impacts as television presenter, stage performer, spokesperson, brand ambassador, and social media influencer. “Big B” possesses a tall physique, heavy-lidded visage, and sonorous multilingual voice. After onscreen debut in the epic Saat Hindustani (dir. K A. Abbas, 1969), his reputation and fame were established with anti-hero action roles as corruption-fighting police inspector-turned-vigilante in Zanjeer (dir. Prakash Mehra, 1973), as good-hearted thief in “curry western” Sholay (dir. Ramesh Sippy, 1975), and as tragic gangster in crime drama Deewar (dir. Yash Chopra, 1975). Bachchan’s composite personae represented the populist “angry young man” at a time of political/social/economic crisis. In the pioneering “middle cinema” of director-screenwriter Hrishikesh Mukherjee, including Anand (1971) and Namak Haraam (1973), Bachchan co-starred with the “original” Hindi film superstar Rajesh Khanna, ultimately eclipsing Khanna’s screen currency with his own class-crossing, genre-bending charisma. Bachchan appeared as characters all named Vijay (victorious) in Salim-Javed scripted films directed by Yash Chopra, Chandra Barot, and Ramesh Sippy. He executed his own action stunts, dances, and baritone playback tracks for numerous screen performances. An array of “double” roles, as well as comic films like Amar Akbar Anthony (dir. Manmohan Desai, 1977) displayed his expanding acting range. In addition to classic “buddy”/multihero pairings, Bachchan first shared the screen with actress Jaya Bhaduri in 1973, the year they married. Rumors of relationships with female stars provided abundant gossip fodder, culminating in a love triangle storyline in Silsila (dir. Yash Chopra, 1981). Bachchan’s status as superstar/national symbol was confirmed via public concern after a near-fatal injury during the filming of Coolie (dir. Manmohan Desai and Prayag Raj, 1982), widely covered in the press. Thereafter, Bachchan’s controversial foray into politics representing his home city in Uttar Pradesh, resulted in a screen hiatus and, later, attempted comeback. In the 1990s, his titular production company faced bankruptcy; however, the star accrued new currency in film and across media platforms, topping the BBC News online millennium poll as greatest star of stage or screen and becoming the host of a popular glocalized television game show. His son Abhishek and daughter-in-law Aishwarya Rai Bachchan exemplify next-generation stardom. Amitabh Bachchan has meanwhile remained a fixture in the Indian star firmament as the global Bollywood landscape continues to expand in the 21st century. His socially mediated utterances, advertising campaigns, and philanthropic endeavors regularly become part of public discourse. Bachchan portrayed multiple silver-bearded patriarchs in blockbuster millennial films emphasizing traditional family values, but his contemporary catalogue also includes rogues, renegades, curmudgeons, and outsiders. Bachchan’s contributions to Bollywood’s intertextual richness and influence are also demonstrated by his cameos in Hindi movies, Indian regional language films, and in the postmodern adaptation/remake of The Great Gatsby (dir. Baz Luhrmann, 2013), his Hollywood debut.

Encyclopedic Overviews

Surveys of Bollywood by film scholars, critics, and industry personnel in encyclopedias and similar texts inevitably make significant assertions about Amitabh Bachchan’s place in Indian cinema and Bollywood (or popular Hindi cinema or Bombay cinema) history. Joshi 2002 positions Bachchan as a legendary star; a struggling everyman; the biggest phenomenon of 1970s Bollywood; a filmic avenger of societal corruption in a transitional time of collapsed ideals and national state of emergency; a figure of comic relief in films such as 1977’s Amar Akbar Anthony; a screen idol with galvanizing fandom capable of bringing India “to a halt” (Joshi 2002, p. 206) with the impact of his life-threatening injury in 1982; the founder of a corporate entity that represented liberalization of the Indian economy and new business models of the 1990s, while also showing signs of exhaustion and decline in screen power; and a globally recognizable actor who embraced contemporary directorial styles and genre morphs such as the supernatural thriller Aks (dir. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, 2001). Bachchan is the subject of one of the most extensive entries in the ambitious oversized reference work Rajadhyaksha and Willemen 1999. He is one of the most frequently cross-referenced names, together with prolific Hindi film stars, directors, producers, and playback singers such as Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeskar, and V. Shantaram; Telugu film actor and producer, Akkineni Nageshwara Rao; Bengali parallel cinema and art cinema auteurs, Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray; and Bengali writer/artist Rabindranath Tagore. Generally resisting the term “Bollywood,” the authors identify Bachchan as Hindi cinema’s “biggest star actor” (Rajadhyaksha and Willemen 1999, p. 49) and contend that his productions became Hindi film industry barometers, helping to reformulate Hindi melodrama. They point out the ways Bachchan’s onscreen persona was defined by traditional maternal figures and liberated women, particularly as written by the duo Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar (also known as Salim-Javed). Acknowledging Bachchan’s career dips in the 1980s and 1990s, they end their entry on a rather pessimistic note with negative reception of his 1997 comeback film Mrityudaata (dir. Mehul Kumar), produced by his company Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited (ABCL), which would later be relaunched as Amitabh Bachchan Corporation. In the conclusion, the potential survival of this entertainment conglomerate for film production, media branding, and merchandising is called into question.

  • Joshi, Lalit Mohan, ed. Bollywood: Popular Cinema. 2d ed. London: Dakini Books, 2002.

    This 351-page, lavishly pictorial resource, occasioned by the one hundred-year anniversary of Indian cinema, contains essays by Indian film critics, journalists, scholars, curators/programmers, and filmmakers, with a forward by British film critic Derek Malcolm. Bachchan is specifically discussed in the following chapters: “Bollywood: 100 Years,” “The Classics and Blockbusters,” “Heart of the Movie,” “Making Movies in Mumbai,” “All Time Greats, Villains and Vamps,” and “Bollywood: Next Generation.”

  • Rajadhyaksha, Ashish, and Paul Willemen. Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema. New rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    This expansive 657-page encyclopedia is divided into sections including an introduction, a chronicle of Indian film from 1896 to 1998, charts with film production figures, alphabetical entries by name, film title entries by year, and bibliographic and index information. The Bachchan entry is a valuable time-capsule piece. Big B also makes significant appearances in the historical timeline and in the entries of many filmmakers and co-stars such as Dharmendra Deol.

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