Amitabh Bachchan is in the hospital, and there is something about him in the paper nearly every day. He is a Bollywood actor. Bollywood is the movie-making center of India, Mumbai, which used to be called Bombay, hence the B in Bollywood. It also refers to a style of movie. All are in Hindi, although on the flight here we saw one (starring Amitabh) that had English subtitles. To my tastes these seem very emotive, even overwrought. The themes are almost all about arranged marriages, or some boy-girl problem or problem in an extended family. They usually involve highly stylized singing, and almost always dancing.
Anyways Amitabh has some mysterious digestive problem, which they haven’t named, even though they have said he has myasthenia gravis, diabetes, and a long list of other ailments that made me wonder how he ever gets out of bed in the morning let alone make 70 movies in a year, a twice a week TV show and countless commercials on TV and billboards.
The following quotes are from a column in the Time of India (10 Dec. 2005) called City City Bang Bang by Santosh Desai:
“To understand the power of Amitabh Bachchan, we have to understand the hypnotic power of Salim-Javed’s Vijay [a character portrayed by Amitabh in a series of movies]…The angry young man, who was in reality more hurt than he was angry told the story of a failed quest to believe in a credible father figure and in turn be accepted by him….In film after film, Vijay is let down by the father …disgraced… disowned… abandoned… discarded.…Vijay spoke for a generation that felt let down by its father figures but one which was doomed to comply with their authority. [The generation he refers to is roughly comparable in age to the younger part of the US Baby Boomers].
Today’s Amitabh has come a full circle—he is, in many ways, the father Vijay yearned for. His authority comes from active performance and not ossified custom. He can out-sing, out-dance and out-fight anyone else and yet be inclusive, accommodative and gracious. It is important for him to be affluent—his legitimacy comes from his success more than from the ideals he hold dear.
For today’s urban India, he reconciles our ritual respect for the past with the need to build a future…
What Mr. Bachchan gives the Indian man is a sense of belief in his own significance. As Vijay, he strode tall all by himself and made India’s marginalized men believe briefly in themselves. Today he helps us believe in an India that does not need to struggle with itself.
As India seeks to move forward, we constantly need reassurance that the past is with us and that it approves.
We need Amitabh Bachchan because he is both credible and inclusive. He tells us that things are fine and leads us into a more inventive future.
As the Pied Piper of modernity, he plays a compelling tune. We follow him because we for once have a father figure we want to believe in. Which is why we will always pray fervently for his well-being”
This essay struck me as summarizing a key difference between Indians and Americans. Americans want the approval of their fathers as much as Indians do, I suspect. But lines like, "For today’s urban India, he reconciles our ritual respect for the past with the need to build a future…" and "As India seeks to move forward, we constantly need reassurance that the past is with us and that it approves" strike me as being very different than American culture. Americans aren’t held back by history, either our national history or a person’s individual history. (Maybe this is because we don’t have nearly as much history as India does.)
Change here in India is difficult because the history people hold onto is not the history of old buildings, but the history of old relationships. Besides some truly positive aspects to that, the negative aspects have to do with caste, and the need to seek permission of numerous officials and/or family members before making any decision, and getting things done by bribery and by whom you know. A lot has changed since 1998, like our ability to get two phones, internet, and airline and train tickets with no mystery. But things remain complicated in ways that seem to us to be unnecessary and counterproductive, but due to history and the reverence for history, are not so easily changed.