Along with expressions and mannerisms, it is the voice that makes a successful actor. But there are times where the film may demand that the performer just use facial expressions and body language, without any words, to emote – and that can test their calibre. Blessed with a resounding baritone – and a fine singing voice too, Amitabh Bachchan was several times called to demonstrate his prowess in this respect – and never disappointed.
Manoj Kumar described his voice as “a mellow whisper, sounding like the murmurs of a thundery cloud” at their first meeting in September 1967, when Amitabh arrived in Bombay to try his luck in the film industry, the first film that he got – “Reshma aur Shera” (1971) had portrayed him as mute.
This, as per director and producer Sunil Dutt – who fulfilled his promise of giving him a break – and writer Ali Raza, was to evoke greater audience sympathy for him. However, Nargis – whom her friend, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, had tasked with paving the way for Amitabh in the industry, was said not to be convinced with the reasoning. Amitabh, who was just a film old with just “Saat Hindustani” under his belt, kept silent too, despite being entrusted by Hrishikesh Mukherjee with the narration and voice-overs in “Bhuvan Shome” (1969).
Amitabh did leave his mark as the hapless Chhotu in the film where he had to contend with Dutt himself. Waheeda Rehman, Vinod Khanna, Raakhee, Ranjeet, Jayant, K.N. Singh, Amrish Puri – and a very young Sanjay Dutt playing a qawwali performer!
However, while other films in his career did not restrict him from speaking, they did feature some immortal scenes where he foreswore his trademark baritone to use his expressions and actions to demonstrate a range of emotions, to show up someone, or even assist someone in cooking!
Let’s look at some of these.
“Anand” (1971) – Playing a cynical doctor whose faith is restored by the terminally-ill patient (Rajesh Khanna), who never loses his optimism or joie de vivre, recall the scene where Khanna is on his houde’s balcony, singing “Kahin Door Jab Din Dhal Jaye”, Bachchan enters, climbs up the stairs, switches on the room’s light, and then, just stands, arms folded, in the lengthening shadows. The intensity is palpable.
“Zanjeer” (1973) – This was the film that made Bachchan a household name and brought the term “angry young man” into currency. While the crisp dialogues of the film, especially the police station encounter, are known, there is one scene where the intense Inspector Vijay Khanna unbends a little too and romance flourishes as he and street performer Mala (Jaya Bhaduri), whom he has taken under his protection, stand at the window and shoot coy, secret glances at each other as they saw a streetside pair of singers belt out “Deewane hai, deewanon ko na ghar chahiye”
“Deewar” (1975) – While “Zanjeer” made Bachchan’s name, “Deewar” burnished his credentials. Again in a film filled with cutting dialogue, there is the scene when Bachchan is invited by his criminal mentor, Davar (Iftehar in a rare negative role) to succeed, and slowly stands, walks around the desk, lowers him into the chair, and plonks his feet on the table. Not a word is expressed but he conveys his rise effectively.
“Sholay” (1975) – While Bachchan is most remembered for the set piece scene where he plays “matchmaker” for his friend Veeru (Dharmendra), there are a couple of episodes where he silently makes his presence felt without a word. The first is where he indicates to Hema Malini that she should be silent, and guides her towards the back of the deity’s statue where Dharmendra is trying to play god literally and points. And there is the subtle matchmaking scene, where he just gazes at Jaya Bhaduri’s room and her when she opens the window, while playing a mournful strain on his mouth-organ.
“Yaarana” (1981) – While the scene in which country bumpkin Kishan (Bachchan) gapes in studded amazement at “transformation” his friend Bishan (Amjad Khan, in a rare non-antagonistic role) goes after travelling in a lift is funny enough, it pales before the part where Bachchan, lured to the city, is being given a makeover. Take the uproarious vignette where he turns the table on his etiquette instructor (Ram Sethi, a frequent supporting actor in Bachchan movies of the period) by daring him with a physical version of a tongue-twister – slaps both hands on the knees, take your right hand and touch your left ear, use your left hand to touch your nose, slap hands on knees again, repeat.
“Kaalia” (1981) – After teaching Parveen Babi how to wear a sari by draping it on himself, Amitabh brings her home to introduce her to his sister-in-law (Asha Parekh). She promptly lands Babi with a cooking chore and plumps herself in the kitchen to forestall cheating. Bachchan tries to help her with mimed instructions on how to crack an egg but his exasperation leads to some unforeseen and embarrassing consequences for her.
“Satte pe Satte” (1982) – In this rollicking rural romance, the evil Bachchan, though a bit enfeebled by a jail stint, can still subtly radiates menace by the way he just bends to come out of the jail gate, take his first breath of freedom, and slowly make his way to where the evil genius is waiting.