Legends of Bollywood World

Amitabh Bachchan || Karisma Kapoor ||

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Amitabh Bachchan

Surf India's television channels any time of the day and chances are you will find Amitabh Bachchan gyrating across the screen in one of the song-and-dance melodramas that made him a living legend.

It has been over 30 years since the son of a Hindi poet quit his job as a freight broker in Calcutta and set off for Bombay in pursuit of a career in the movies.

Yet he is still the brightest in a constellation of icons that have emerged from Bollywood, India's prolific answer to Hollywood that churns out a new Hindi film every couple of days.

Big B topped a BBC online poll last year to find the millennium's greatest star of stage and screen, ahead of perhaps more obvious contenders Laurence Olivier, Humphrey Bogart and Charlie Chaplin.

Bachchan, who once modestly described himself as "a mediocre actor who can do better with a good director", was confounded by the poll, declaring there must have been a computer error.

In recognition of his fame, the 58-year-old veteran of 100-plus films last week became the first Indian movie actor to be exhibited in effigy at Madame Tussaud's waxworks in London.

Bachchan may never have tried his luck in Hollywood despite being widely travelled, but his gaunt 6ft 2in wax figure now stands tall alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Mel Gibson.

Back home, if there was a success story of 2000, it is his.

Fatherly gravitas

Moving from big screen to small screen as the charming host for Kaun Banega Crorepati, India's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? he brought a prime-time bonanza for Star Television, which is owned by a subsidiary of media magnate Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

Bachchan the quizmaster cast aside the passion that earned him a reputation as "the angry young man" of Bollywood, and -- with a meticulously trimmed silver beard, tightly buttoned Mughal-style jacket and velvety baritone voice -- donned a mantle of fatherly gravitas.

The show's roaring success cannot be simply put down to the prize of Rs 10 million ($214,000), the kind of money that only Amitabh Bachchans could dream of in India before the advent of its infotech barons.

A rival channel's show with a 100-million-rupee prize struggled miserably to compete, and finally its host was sacked.

"Amitabh has tremendous charm. He is polite, sophisticated, educated, he fits in anywhere," gushed media critic Amita Malik.

She recalls one show of Kaun Banega Crorepati when a contestant who was reduced to tears by the pressure of the game dropped her soiled handkerchief on the floor.

Her host stooped down and picked it up.

Bachchan's career now looks set for the sort of happy ending that would do justice to any Bollywood epic, where good always triumphs over evil and the bad guy always get his comeuppance.

But as for so many of India's celluloid heroes, triumph has not come without setbacks along the way.

Before KBC, Big B had made a brief and uneasy plunge into national politics, launched an ill-fated entertainment business and starred in a run of flops.

Friend of the Gandhis

Bachchan was a close friend of the Nehru-Gandhi family which has given India three prime ministers. Indeed, Indira Gandhi visited him in his sickbed in 1982 after he was almost killed during a fight sequence shoot for the film, Coolie.

His friendship with Indira's son and prime minister, Rajiv, thrust him into politics as a Congress Party deputy in 1984.

It was a route many Indian filmstars and scriptwriters have taken, but Bachchan quit politics in a huff three years later after allegations that he had been involved in a pay-off scandal.

In 1992 the actor took a break from the film world, and when he reappeared in the news three years later it was as the head of his own entertainment venture, Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd.

The business launched itself into film distribution and event management, bringing the Miss World beauty pageant to India, but ran quickly into deep financial trouble.

Bachchan's eagerly awaited comeback film, Mrityudaata turned out be a terrible disappointment.

Critics said that despite arriving in late middle age, he had failed to grow out of the character that made his name: the young hero who singlehandedly bashes up hordes of villains between song-and-dance sequences with heaving-bosomed leading ladies.

But Taran Adarsh, a leading film industry analyst and editor, said that the Bachchan legend was kept alive during his lean patch because his early movies were always on television.

"We've all grown up watching Amitabh and have been influenced by his films," Adarsh told Reuters.

It would be hard to overstate the mass adulation that Bachchan earned for those first hits in the early 1970s, like Zanjeer, Sholay and Deewar.

Zanjeer, in which he played a police inspector who avenges the murder of his father by a villain, has become a cult film whose lines can be reeled off by millions around the country.

Hero of the masses

When Bachchan was recovering from his brush with death, the media reported every twist and turn of his health and prayers were said for him in churches, mosques and temples.

"Every day, well-wishers sent me get-well tokens, little bands to wear, medals to put under my pillow, even a bottle of water from our Lady of Lourdes," he told Bhawana Somaya, who brought out a book on Bachchan last year.

Somaya relates that during that worrying time, a stranger turned up at Bachchan's house with a van-load of samosas to deliver a message that if anything happened to the hero his business selling savoury snacks to cinema halls would collapse.

"Amitabh was the hero of the masses in every way," says Yash Chopra, who directed Bachchan in five films and produced the superstar's most recent blockbuster, Mohabbatein.

"I have been working with Amitabh for 25 years and the one thing that stands out is that he is very intense and a great actor. He is the same even today," Chopra told Reuters, explaining Bachchan's enduring stardom.

Asked once why he was paid so much for crass dance routines around clumps of trees, Bachchan replied: "It's very difficult to make something stupid look convincing."

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