Of Wild Asses, Narendra Modi and Amitabh Bachchan’s Two Avatars

Modi’s unwitting embrace of Bachchan’s two phenomenally popular avatars contributes significantly to his popularity among today’s youth.

Narendra Modi and Amitabh Bachchan. Credit: PTI and Youtube screenshot

Narendra Modi and Amitabh Bachchan. Credit: PTI and Youtube screenshot

In a cooler post-campaign moment, Akhilesh Yadav may realise that Narendra Modi and Amitabh Bachchan have more in common than just a Gujarat Tourism ad about wild asses. Modi’s connect with today’s youth – despite being 66, not quite a charmer, and presiding over a government that hasn’t delivered promised jobs – could owe to a perhaps unwitting embrace of the two avatars that have sustained Bachchan for so long.

The key to Bachchan’s phenomenal and continued popularity lies in having kept pace with the moods of an entire generation. During the late 1970s and early 80s, when they were young and the first wave of post-independence optimism was fading, it was Bachchan’s angry young man (AYM) screen persona who lived out their fantasies against everything from patriarchal high-handedness to corruption and other failures of the system.

There had been screen rebels before but none quite like the AYM. Here was someone seething with hitherto unseen intensity, throwing punches like never before, hobbled neither by law nor by norms of politically correct conduct as he battled the severest odds and pursued (his version of) good. More than anything else, it was his anti-establishment tone that resonated.

The transformation to Cool Elder

Once their age of anger had passed and parenting challenges, career vicissitudes and rapid changes in technology and the economy had given rise to an unsettled feel among the original AYM fandom, Bachchan came back into their lives as the Cool Elder (CE). Embracing new media, endorsing multiple brands and public causes, and experimenting with characters he hadn’t attempted before, Bachchan assured them that change wasn’t that bad and that there remained possibilities to explore no matter how messy things looked.

What made Bachchan even more welcome was the wholesome wisdom he came out spouting as the anchor of the immensely popular Kaun Banega Crorepati. Homilies about hard work, respect for elders, the importance of studies, the country’s great traditions, etc., were exactly what the AYM fandom wanted to hear – and what it wanted its children to hear – as it approached middle age.

Bachchan’s renewed contact with the AYM fandom, together with his embrace of the social media, would connect him with another segment – young women and men who the fandom was in a position to influence, not only as family members but as media persons, corporate leaders and minor and major celebrities raised on Bachchan’s films.

The young warmed up to Bachchan, the CE, the dude who kept up with the times, capable of holding his own against younger stars, present wherever the party was and still with time for social causes. Even if he was preachy on occasion, it wasn’t half as bad as the harangues of parents and teachers!

Modi = Bachchan Mark I and II?

Modi’s appeal among the youth, much like the AYM’s, depends on tapping their angers and promising hard, score-settling punches from an anti-establishment pulpit. He might be at the top of the establishment and the youth’s concerns about lack of opportunities and general pace of development may be acknowledged by other rival leaders but it is Modi whose promises of resolution resonate most.

Because he is the outsider-chaiwallah with no attachment to old ways of doing business and the promise of a bold, disruptive course (that demonetisation and surgical strikes have substantiated). That disruptive course has obvious charm for those whose patience is running low and who, in their current (youthful) station in life, are favourably inclined to revolutionary-sounding sounds.

What about Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi’s efforts to capture the AYM space? They haven’t succeeded as much as they themselves would have liked, thanks to Modi’s early positioning and the baggage Gandhi carries from the Congress’s many years in power. In fact, at this point of time at least, a sizeable section of youth may be seeing Kejriwal and Gandhi’s anger being targeted more at Modi and helping the prime minister paint them as villains intent on sabotaging his noble missions.

In the political arena, there may be others eyeing the AYM space but the CE space is exclusively Modi’s. He is tech savvy, gets rockstar-like welcomes abroad, hangs around with global CEOs and has fans among the stars. How refreshingly different is that from the stereotype politician?

The more interesting part though is how Modi’s CE persona adds to his AYM persona. One: It takes the rough edges off the AYM. Two: It allows Modi to present himself as a moderniser and visionary – and thereby encourages his disruptive agenda to be viewed as coming from a place of enlightenment (not whim or arrogance). Which is how the demonetisation disaster gets located in the vision of a cashless society.

Will Modi’s popularity sustain?

None of this means that Modi’s popularity will sustain as long as Bachchan’s. There are fundamental differences in the domains they operate in. Bachchan operates in a controlled environment, a script where narrative and outcome are pre-determined. Obstacles exist simply to be overcome and co-actors’ parts are designed to make him look good. Not so for Modi who, despite having crafted a compelling script for himself, has to perform amidst unpredictable actors and a chaotic set environment. (There shouldn’t be complaints or excuses around that. It’s characteristic of the arena Modi has chosen for himself.)

For Bachchan, the wild ass is an endorsement subject and he is done with it once the shoot is over. For Modi, the wild ass can be anything from good PR to an allusion to his intelligence and failures. At a larger level, the mere act of enacting a script is sufficient for Bachchan but for Modi the script has to be realized. There’s nothing yet to suggest that’s happening.

Manish Dubey (Twitter: @ManishDubey1972) is an independent policy analyst and author of A Murder In Gurgaon.