The Discreet Charm of Being Amitabh Bachchan

Amitabh Bachchan strides like a colossus in our collective consciousness, any allegations of wrongdoings or indiscretions quietly forgotten.

It’s been a strange week for Amitabh Bachchan: one day mentioned as a prospective president of India, a couple of days later, named as the holder of a foreign account in far away Panama, in a list that includes some fairly shady people.

Neither claim has been officially confirmed. The speculation that his name would be put forward as president by this government was based on an interview given by his estranged best-friend Amar Singh, and as for the notorious list, there is no evidence of any wrongdoing. Bachchan himself has disassociated himself from the shipping companies where he is listed as director; his name could have been misused, he has said.

But think back on his career, and there is a pattern of such extremes – not just the normal lows and highs but deep troughs and spectacular comebacks, all in full public gaze. Scandals that could have felled anyone else have been dealt with, discreetly and efficiently. Time and again, Bachchan has emerged with his reputation more or less intact and perhaps even strengthened. The stain of those scandals quickly fade away, forgotten in the popular imagination and Bachchan forges ahead, taller than ever before.

Today, at 73, he is as popular, if not more, as he was in the heyday of his career and is more in demand than those eager young pups in their 20s and 30s who pull off a new stunt every other day to remain in the news. Directors chase him with roles specially written with him in mind, marketers want him to endorse their products and – if Amar Singh is to be believed – Narendra Modi planned to make him the next President in 2017. Five decades after he made his debut as a young gawky actor, Amitabh Bachchan strides like a colossus in our collective consciousness, any allegations of wrongdoings or indiscretions quietly forgotten.

Among the Indians named in the Panama papers, Bachchan is the most high profile personality and though there are a few other well-known names – K P Singh of DLF being one of them, as also Gautam Adani’s brother – most of the attention has focused on the actor. Bachchan’s glamour value has certainly something to do with that, but another factor has played a role too. Over the years, the Bachchan persona has become synonymous with the idea of Trust – everything he sells, whether rice or suitings, cement or jewellery, is positioned as pure and reliable, because of the trust he exudes. Could someone like him actually hide away black money in a remote island?

Bofors, long forgotten

An entire generation has grown up without any memory of how his name came up in the Bofors scandal. Today, Bachchan is seen as reliable, dignified and above the fray. We had loved him when he railed against the system – onscreen – and articulated our rage; that was way back in the 1970s. Today is he an establishment man, in keeping with a society that is far more conservative.

Amitabh Bachchan in The Great Gatsby

Amitabh Bachchan in The Great Gatsby

He is the national pater familias, a dadaji, and what is more, a somewhat cool one, with old school values of honesty, righteousness and even punctuality. No matter what the situation is, one can rely on him to do the right thing. He stands for tradition and deshbhakti; didn’t he sing the national anthem at Eden Gardens for free? He rarely says anything wrong in public, is impeccably dressed and is extremely well-mannered. He is internationally known and respected. What is more, despite being from another era, he is clued in on the latest gadgets, and also tweets and blogs. Just the kind of person who would make a good ambassador for the nation; had this hiccup not happened, he would have been an ideal candidate for the post of president.

Like anyone else, however, he is human and has his share of weaknesses. Being a public figure, and one from the film industry, those weaknesses have been given an airing in the media over the years. Some of the gossip is muttered in private, a lot has appeared in print; that is the burden film stars have to carry. With a career going back nearly 50 years, Bachchan has naturally had to deal with more than his share of rumours.

But in his case, it is not just his private life that has been under scrutiny. His short-lived political career, the Bofors scandal, his businesses, all have been in the news and not always for the right reason. Occasionally he has been the victim, such as when his bid to set up a film corporation failed. Sometimes he has extended himself, as in his attempt to manage the Miss Universe franchise.

Controversy has dogged him, but he almost always has managed to dig himself out of those holes. His smooth transition from being a close family friend of the Gandhis to a friend of Narendra Modi, via a short detour in the Mulayam Singh camp has been impressive. His friends, such as Amar Singh, may have fallen by the wayside; Bachchan has remain untouched.

It depends on what else emerges from the Panama Papers, but the initial shock of Bachchan’s – and his daughter in law’s – names being in the list of Indians with accounts in tax havens has already worn off. The media has not rushed to investigate further or ask probing questions of any of the people in the list. The government has forcefully declared it will inquire into it and that, as we know so well, is that. Bachchan on his part has disassociated himself from the companies where he is supposed to be the director, so what more needs to be said? As for his candidature for the president’s post, that was never official, so the rumour will die a natural death.

This piece first appeared in The Asian Age (www.asianage.com)