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Amitabh Bachchan as the Other in ‘Main Azaad Hoon’

Amitabh Bachchan, the octogenarian icon of Bollywood is a living legend. At 81, the veteran actor is busier than ever. He is working on a
Amitabh Bachchan birthday Main Azaad Hoon
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Amitabh Bachchan, the octogenarian icon of Bollywood is a living legend. At 81, the veteran actor is busier than ever. He is working on a string of upcoming projects and shows no sign of slowing down. On his 81st birthday, we present an excerpt from a soon to be released book ‘Redefining Amitabh Bachchan- The Other’ by renowned film critic Shoma A. Chatterji. 

The title of the film Main Azaad Hoon carries several meanings– literal, metaphorical, individual, collective, and even ideological. Azaad in English means “freedom.” The literal meaning lies in the assumed name of the hero – Azaad. It is an assumed name because no one gets to know what his real name is. Azaad means “freedom”. In the last video recording, this Azaad says – “Azaad is a concept and in this sense, everyone is azaad” and pointing his finger at different members of his huge audience, he states “you are azaad, you are azaad, and you are azaad.” He adds that “azaad” or ‘freedom’ is a spirit, the spirit of freedom everyone has in his/her mind and if the powers-that-be try to curb or control or destroy this freedom with its political and financial powers, then, it is incumbent upon the person to rise against that ‘control’ or ‘suppression’ or ‘repression’ and fight to retain or rescue his freedom in whatever way he thinks fit. 

In no film except Coolie, has the Bachchan screen persona played such a continuous ‘leader’ role among an entire mass of the proletariat as he did in the film Main Azaad Hoon. Even in Deewar, where he became a rebel fighting for exploited porters in the shipping dock he works in, he stood alone most of the time and was not really seen as ‘leading’ an entire group. Therefore, with his impressive and self-imposing physical screen presence which makes him stand out within the screen frame in a major slice of the film, he proves that his screen persona is not confined just to the “angry young man” image.

In 1989, Bachchan was not at all ‘young’ and he was an honest, frank-speaking, moderately educated, unsophisticated man sometimes acting out of anger but not always. This marks out his “Otherness” as the protagonist who functions constantly under the assumed name Azaad over which the audience or even the masses within the film have no choice including Azaad himself. 

In most of the scenes, he is seen moving along with the mixed crowd of young college boys and girls, men and women workers at DCJ sugar factory, farmers of sugar farms from neighboring villages, at the newly set up school in a shed near the sugar factory, in the long march of the masses for donations in the form of foodgrains and vegetables when the sugar factory is locked down and the neighbourhoods drop food grains and vegetables from above into huge vessels the protestors carry along the march singing the song Azaad taught them as he leads the march all the way. 

This evolves into a solid ‘character’ in the film, enriching the entertainment and information value of the entire film– script, dialogue, characterisation and mise-en-scene, all beautifully orchestrated and choreographed with a slightly rustic and unpolished look to the finished product. All this, put together, adds to the “Otherness” of the screen character portrayed by Bachchan much more than it does in other films.

Amitabh Bachchan reinvented himself in the new millennium.

According to Nandini Bhattacharya[1], “The star, in representing fans, must not lose his defining otherness and must be present without absence and fully representative and inclusive. Indeed, his presence must rather always gesture towards a return from the utter abyss of the luminal and the void which the incommensurable hoi polloi represent with their cargo of excess and difference; the invocation of that eternal return as also an eternal separation must never be done away with[2].

In the song sequences in Main Azaad Hoon, Bachchan’s height, body and close-ups of his face sometimes as he leads the song number itne baazu itne sar are drawn on and utlised totally as his body language expresses his “otherness” with his swaying arms- also lengthier than average, his palms – quite long if you notice as he sings the lines – aao, aa jaao jee jaan se, jag mein, chha jaaon and his disheveled hair and costume add to this “otherness” which constantly makes him stand out in the crowd. 

This may be explained as a celebration of the vertical hero’s potential to present a “larger than life” figure of the common man that morphed further the higher it rose into the segmented transcendence of the hero. Bachchan frequently repeated these ‘larger-than-life’ roles in a range of films in the late eighties and early nineties. The commonest shot to photograph him is a full, frontal, medium close-up or low-angle shot, in which he appears indubitably monumental. This is no metaphorical or symbolic “towering” one was to witness later in a Shahrukh Khan or an  Amir Khan film[3].

In the scene in Main Azaad Hoon, where Azaad waits for Rambhau Kaka, the leader of the sugar farmers to return with the decision of all sugar farmers of the fifty sugar mill owners about cutting the source by announcing their stopping of supplying the sugar mills with sugarcane to force the hand of the sugar mill owners to life the lockout and allow the workers to unionise themselves. He keeps awake with Subhashini[4] the entire night for them to announce their decision. 

The sound track fills with the musical notes of the cowbells and the wheels of the bullock carts approaching the village from afar is one of the most touching scenes of the film. All the sugarcane farmers of the villages announce their decision to join Rambhau Kaka, the sarpanch of the village, in the movement. Azaad is requested to address the huge gathering. As he begins to speak, his voice chokes with suppressed tears. He can hardly finish what he is saying. He has become aware of how much he has become one of them and in a manner of speaking, joined in their struggle for a life of dignity through work.  During this trip, when he asks for a glass of water, the glass handed to him is filled with such dirty water that to drink it will amount to drinking poison. He pours the water in a small bottle and puts the bottle in his pocket.  He later produces the same bottle to accuse the Chief Minister (Sudheer Mishra) of not even being capable of giving the citizens in his jurisdiction a glass of clean water!

Amitabh Bachchan waving at fans.

This is how Azaad (Bachchan) not only initiates a movement against corruption and misuse of power by the rich and the powerful over the ordinary man– the students fighting against the shift of their university to a distant city, but also becomes one with it without being conscious of this identification. This sounds a contradiction in terms but so is “The Other” a contradiction in terms.  He speaks in the local dialect with the sugar farmers and in Hindi with the upper-class people he needs to speak to. 

In ‘Bachchanalia’, the monumental collection of Amitabh Bachchan images and stories, author Bhavna Somaiyya writes of Bachchan: “His growing stature from an actor to a superstar is evident from his body language reflected in the film posters over the decades.”[5] To this, Nandini Bhattacharya[6] adds: “Superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s body, I suggest, tropes a vertical notion of the hero, frequently captured in epithets applied to him, such as “towering” or “lambuji” (The tall guy.) Bachchan’s “verticality” – is in fact metonymic of the way new audience relationships to the actor’s body formed and shifted with the novel attention given to Bachchan’s height as he rose to stardom[7]. If this does not make him “The Other” what else can?

Images courtesy: Wikimedia Commons, Facebook & Youtube.

Footnotes:

  1. Nandini Bhattacharya: Hindi Cinema – Repeating the Subject, Routledge, 2013, page 154

  2. Ibid.Nandini Bhattacharya, pages 154-155.

  3. ix Ibid.
  4. The name “Subhashini” is the name of a Leftist leader who is also the daughter of Lakshmi Saigal, one of the leaders of Netaji Subash Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj. Questions were raised by some critics about the naming of the journalist played by Shabana Azmi, daughter of a known Communist poet.
  5. Bhawana Somaiyya: Bachchanalia: The Films & Memorabilia of Amitabh Bachchan, Osian s Publishing and Design House,2009, 2009, page 11 

  6. Ibid, Bhattacharya, page 153

  7. Joshi, Pratik: Male as Hero: Constructing Masculinity in Popular Indian Cinema in South Asian Cinema, Summer, 2001, 1(2), pages 55-60

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has won the National Award twice, in 1991 and 2000. She has authored 26 published titles of which 14 are on different areas of Indian cinema. She holds two Masters Degrees and a Ph.D. in History (Indian Cinema). She has also won a few Lifetime Achievement Awards from different organizations over time.

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