AMITABH BACHCHAN IS THE MOST POPULAR movie actor in the world. And he can prove it: Back in 1999, he was voted the Star of the Millennium in a global poll conducted by the BBC. But if you've never heard of him, don't curse Entertainment Weekly. Bachchan is instantly recognizable only within the alternate universe known as Bollywood a slang term, popularly credited to a Bombay fan-magazine columnist writing in 1979, for the Indian movie capital that turns out more than 1,000 films per year.
Then again, Bollywood is not just an Indian, but a global, phenomenon. "Our films have reached half the world," declares the expat Indian director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding). "The Middle East, all of Africa, all of Russia, the Far East, and the Indian diaspora everywhere the half of the world that Hollywood has not yet recognized." For many of those people, Amitabh Bachchan is Bollywood personified. He's their Robert Redford or Harrison Ford only bigger.
It's October 2001, and Bachchan is on location in downtown San Pedro to shoot Kaante (Thorns), an unabashed Hindi-language remake of Quentin Tarantino's career-launching 1992 indie hit, Reservoir Dogs an adaptation which, as it turns out, will open worldwide early in 2003 (and which plays next week at an L.A. Weekly-sponsored special event at the Directors Guild of America). Bachchan has signed on to this, the first Indian movie to be shot entirely in the U.S., to play the eldest of the criminals involved in Reservoir Dogs' famously bungled bank heist the Harvey Keitel role.
Unfortunately, on the day I meet Amitabh Bachchan, the great man has a toothache. I am informed by my contact on the set that my scheduled interview with the Big B will, with profuse apologies, have to be canceled. The idol of millions is about to be whisked off to Beverly Hills to undergo a root canal. 'A slo-mo walk, familiar to Tarantino fans...'
Bearing up stoically in the face of blinding physical discomfort, the 6-foot-3-inch, 59-year-old Bachchan, dapper in a floor-length black Armani overcoat, looks a great deal like the brooding poets and doctors he portrayed in his youth in middlebrow semi-art movies figures close to his own patrician upbringing as the son of a famous poet. He became a fixture of Bombay cinema only in the mid-1970s, when he went down-market in a string of popular action films, including Sholay (Flames, 1975), the industry-altering "curry Western" whose box-office grosses stood unchallenged in India for more than 15 years, and Mard (He-Man, 1985), in which he laid waste to hundreds of leering foes and could communicate with animals. But now, in the comeback projects of his middle years epic melodramas like Mohabbatein (Loves, 2000) and the gorgeously upholstered superhit Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (Sometimes Happy Sometimes Sad, 2001) Amit-ji has regained all of his missing dignity, and then some, as the most imposing patriarch of the Hindi screen, reinventing himself yet again, this time as a monumental representative of Hindu family values. Twilight of the gods
Still, the brief snippets of ferocious action I witness on the set that afternoon in San Pedro suggest that Bachchan has undertaken a fairly ferocious, Mard-like role in Kaante. There is a pistol-whipping, a plate-glass-door-smashing and a brief gun battle, after which a half-dozen prop police cars are loudly detonated. A few days later, the crew repairs to Century City, where the principal cast of six tough-guy bank robbers does a slow-mo walk, familiar to Tarantino fans, across the pedestrian bridge spanning Century Park East.
Could we be talking crossover here? Stylistically, anyway, the signs and the signifiers all point in that direction. According to Sanjay Dutt, the droopy-eyed "Robert Mitchum of Bombay" who is Bachchan's co-star in Kaante and also one of its producers, "We guys have all grown up with Hollywood films. All the educated people in India stay up-to-date with the films made in the U.S., and we see the quality. It was always my dream to do this, to come here and work with an American crew, and shoot like they shoot here."
IF YOU'RE LIKE MOST AMERICANS, BOLLYWOOD IS at worst a tired Apu joke from The Simpsons, at best a faraway rumor, golden anklets jangling in the distance. If you've seen only a few grainy clips of Hindustani song and dance on TV shows like Namaste America, or in the opening-credit sequence of Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World, or in the snide trailers for The Guru, you can be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that Indian musicals (which, to judge from these glimpses, means all Indian movies) are badly crafted, garish orgies of joke-shop wigs and ill-fitting body shirts. The new faces, etc., of Bollywood