STILL FACES RUN DEEPby Kamlesh Pandey October 18 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 14 mins, 6 secs
Kamlesh Pandey harks back ten years and mines into an interview he did with Amitabh Bachchan, to bring his genius to fore and remember that it is timeless, and ageless too.
It is said of Gary Cooper that no actor ever had words fail him more eloquently. He used his hands and face like a man who had spent his entire life on horseback, riding across open vistas, his eyes reflecting the wonder and the loneliness of those vistas. Henry Fonda could express even the thoughts passing through his mind without as much as moving a facial muscle. He let us look into his mind. Gifted movie actors affect us most not by talking, fighting, making love, killing, cursing or cross-dressing, but by being photographed. They seem to register swift and dramatic mood changes with no discernible change of expression.
Madhubala, the child-woman. Dilip Kumar, the brooding introvert. Brando, the sensitive brute. Great movie actors have features that are ruthlessly efficient. They can illuminate a moment with shock and scorching clarity, without the benefit of dialogue - Dilip Kumar’s whispering eyes, Meena Kumari’s melancholic gaze, Raj Kapoor’s blue-eyed amused wonder, Shammi Kapoor’s cocky swagger, the perfect set of Ashok Kumar’s shoulders, the purposefulness of Dev Anand’s strides, the preening mischievousness of gentleman Motilal, the elegant civility of Balraj Sahani, the self-effacing quiet strength of Guru Dutt suggested the essential nature of their characters. They all brought to the screen a presence that did not depend on smart flash frames, clever backlighting, judiciously placed shadows, searing highlights and unnecessarily intense close-ups. The camera did not flinch from showing them and showing them long enough for us to fall in love with them. And the directors did not flinch from storytelling. No fog drifting at the right time, no shafts of light streaming through giant industrial blower fans, no torch-lit blackness. In fact, no place a boneless story could hide behind, nor cover a paper-thin character could take. Just bare essentials: a good story, full-blooded characters, a clean, almost austere frame, and an actor working hard at what he really is - an actor. And not letting effort show! There was elegance, there was intelligence, there was humility, there was civility, there was truth in whatever they projected.
They were the still faces that run deep. Let’s go back to the matinees.
Remember the sightless Dilip Kumar in ‘Deedar’? The camera unsparingly looks into his eyes that seem like a blackhole, reflecting no light. This is what method acting was long before Brando made the word fashionable. Or, Balraj Sahani in ‘Garm Hawa’? His face, in a single frame, established the agony of a divided tortured nation without a single dialogue. And, Meena Kumari in ‘Saheb, Bibi Aur Ghulam’. Her drunken sensuousness complimented with Guru Dutt’s innocence created a sexual tension in a small room even ‘Basic Instinct’ couldn’t beat. Once again, Dilip Kumar in ‘Mughal-E-Azam’? I do not remember any actor expressing such passion and longing with a hint of an amused smile that foreshadows a future turn of history that this reckless young prince and lover would cause to happen. And all without dialogue and just with the feathers of a quill caressing Anarkali’s face. It is rumoured that he was in love with Madhubala at that time and hence some of the truth did creep into that scene between them. But one has seen Dilip Kumar do the same with Suchitra Sen in ‘Devdas’ when he returns from the city as a young man. And, with Usha Kiran in ‘Musafir’, with Nargis in ‘Andaz’, with Vyjayantimala in ‘Naya Daur’.
Guru Dutt’s face in ‘Pyaasaa’ and ‘Kagaz Ke Phool’ was a palette of every creative artist’s agony and ecstasy. And Balraj Sahani’s face maintained its composure in every adversity with such stoic dignity that he began to embody the tenacity of the great Indian middle class to survive against all odds - as a poor rickshawala struggling to make a living on the streets of Calcutta in ‘Do Bigha Zameen’, or the commander of his outnumbered troops fighting in the bitterest of cold against the military might of China in ‘Haqueeqat’. This was a lived-in face. How do they do it?
In present times, there is one face, and perhaps the only one, which can claim Gary Cooper’s inheritance - no actor ever had words fail him more eloquently. Amitabh Bachchan. It is rewarding to rediscover Amitabh Bachchan’s face in his second innings. It has aged like precious wine. The wonderful landscape of his face is a delight for a writer as well as a photographer.
For a photographer, it offers shifting shadows of moods without any discernible change of expression. The smouldering eyes of ‘Deewar’ have deepened with experience and hold a mystery that can be interpreted at many levels. They also seem to hide better stories than Amitabh Bachchan is offered to read. The smile is amused and often self-depreciating. We finally have an actor who can rank with Gary Cooper, Brando, Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, Al Pachino, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro, but who finds himself in a far less competitive company. Not that he does not enjoy the company. I guess, for him, it is like appearing in an examination for 4th Grade after finishing his Ph.D. His magic, and his generosity is that be it a 30-second TV commercial or a 3-hour film, he still manages to bring to his performance the same level of honesty, commitment, hard work, enthusiasm and excitement that he would bring if he was appearing for a 4th Grade examination for the first time. Great actors are capable of doing it. I admire his patience, that in spite of finding everything so easy, he continues to give his best. His self-mocking cynicism is probably (and I may be wrong) a mask for his frustration at appearing for 4th Grade examinations after doing his Ph.D. He knows he deserves better but is too polite to ask for it.
Amitabh Bachchan’s face is a challenge to both - the photographer and the writer. It seems to say, ‘Come on, surprise me. Throw me a real curved one. Give me something that foxes me completely. Scare me. Scare the hell out of me, if you can.’
Amitabh Bachchan’s face is a challenge to both—the photographer and the writer. It seems to say, ‘Come on, surprise me. Throw me a real curved one. Give me something that foxes me completely. Scare me. Scare the hell out of me, if you can.’
Amitabh Bachchan has been a dream for dialogue writers. In my memory, he is the only actor who hasn’t taken a wrong pause or given a wrong emphasis. Actors from Dilip Kumar’s generation were literate and very comfortable with the language. Even minor character actors had an enviable facility with the language and it showed in their performances. The next generation of actors did not pay that kind of attention to the language, the correct sound and the graph of the language, the rhythm of the spoken word. Hence, the deterioration in their performance. Next to the face, the understanding of the language is the most important tool for an actor. Amitabh Bachchan has mastered that tool. He himself credits it to his roots in Allahabad, the Mecca of Hindi literature, and his journey through Delhi, Calcutta and finally to Mumbai, which enriched his understanding of the language.
Something his son Abhishek and other actors of his generation might need to work hard at because they have grown up in the sound and rhythm of an alien language. In fact, in the middle of school drop-outs, Amitabh Bachchan is a rare breed who understands and respects words and their nuances. In his voice, words become people - they walk, talk, breathe, romance, mock, seduce, kill. From the menacing edge of ‘Parwana’, ‘Zanjeer’ and ‘Deewar’ to the velvety softness of ‘Kabhie-Kabhie’, his voice gives them a face, which often has been a dream for dialogue writers. In fact, today it is a delightful dilemma for a writer to decide whether to give him words or give him silence. Because his silences are as eloquent as his words. I believe a screenwriter should get paid not only for knowing what to write, but also for knowing what not to write, especially, when not to write.
I believe that a screenwriter must be skilful not to interfere with or detract from the moment that an actor’s face illuminates, with injudicious dialogue. He must be very skilful with dialogue and silences to be able to exploit an actor’s performance and place it at the service of the screenplay before he or she has given it. The screenwriter’s expertise is to get the actor to help him to make believers out of their audiences. And Amitabh Bachchan’s face is an answered prayer for a writer.
Television has taken away the patience to look and behold the faces that the camera loves to look at and behold, and the cinema screen turns into legends. It was revealing how Amitabh Bachchan looks at the phenomenon of still faces that run deep.
‘Brando, and of course, our own Dilip Kumar...’
Amitabh Bachchan chooses his words with the same minimalist care and precision that he brings to his performances, ‘I think they both broke the rules without being aware of each other and without being aware that they were clearing a new path for all the future actors. Before Brando, words were very important and were supposed to be spoken loud enough to be heard right at the end of the last row. And not only spoken loud but spoken long because that’s what theatre required. Brando almost dispensed with words and introduced a minimalist style that did not throw itself at the audience saying, ‘Hey, look at me!’ but instead, invited the audience in to look inside an actor’s mind. Brando delivered in four lines and a look at what traditional actors might have needed four pages of dialogue to deliver. That was the advantage a close-up on screen offered to an actor. Dilip Kumar did the same here. He changed the grammar. We are all indebted to him and anybody who says he has not borrowed from Dilip Kumar, is lying.’
Probably, that‘s the reason why Brando has had a more powerful and longer-lasting impact on actors than Olivier did. Not only Brando, but Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Spencer Tracy, to name a few. Among the new crop, his favourite has been Al Pacino. ‘Pacino is explosive without unnecessarily drawing attention to himself. Jack Nicholson, on the other hand, though he is an incredible performer, is more of a visual exhibitionist.’
But is the minimalist style really suited to our films?
He is amused. Though he himself subscribes to this style, his own efforts to use it have not been entirely successful. He recounts his courtroom scene from ‘Shahenshah’: ‘In our movies, there is a prescribed approach to every kind of scene. For example, courtroom scenes have to be done loud and melodramatic though in a court, no one speaks like that. In ‘Shahenshah’ I persuaded Tinu Anand to do the courtroom scene differently. And I did it. But Tinu wanted to do it the regular way just to be on the safe side. And he was right. Because when I did the scene differently, there was no reaction from the crew. But when I did the scene the prescribed way, there was clapping on every line.’
So where does it leave an actor like Amitabh Bachchan who subscribes to the minimalist style? ‘Things are changing. Actors like Manoj Bajpai, Naseer, Nana Patekar are changing it. They are going against the prescribed approach. Shah Rukh, Sanjay Dutt and even Salman and Govinda have shown that given the opportunity, they can understand a moment and deliver a performance that is refreshing and breaks the mould. Others too can but they are not tested yet. Anil Kapoor has become a very interesting actor. His performance in ‘Pukar’, especially in the scene where he is brought in for the inquiry, is an intelligently restrained and delightfully mature performance. It reminds me of my scene in ‘Kala Patthar.’
Has he ever been scared of a scene? ‘Every day or rather night is a nightmare. Even today. How am I going to do that song? How am I going to do that fight? How am I going to do that scene? In ‘Anand’, in the last scene where Anand dies, gave me sleepless nights. From the day it was narrated to me till the day it was actually shot, I was preparing for it and literally going through hell. But when that scene was shot, Hrishida told me it was nice, but it was not what he wanted. He wanted me to be angry, not sad! That’s the beauty of this profession. You keep surprising yourself. And sometimes, the audience surprises you. For the temple scene in ‘Deewar’, I requested Yashji to give me some time to prepare for the scene. It was 7’O Clock shift at Rajkamal. Yashji gave me the entire day to prepare. It was shot at 10 in the night. It was a very odd scene because a scene like this where the hero talks to God had never been done before by anybody. I had no reference point. There was no ‘prescribed’ way to do such scenes. So I had to literally invent the scene from within. But at the premiere, when the scene played, there was such disconcerting laughter in the audience, I was shattered.’
Today, that scene is probably the most remembered, the most copied and the most mimicked scene in Amitabh Bachchan’s entire career. Does an actor improve with age? ‘It is ironic that just when an actor gets ready to give his best, he is least wanted. I am at an age where I do not need to be self-conscious of my looks. I do not have the obligation to look young anymore. I enjoy the lines on my face. I am reconciled to my ambitions, fears and desires that can be so distracting when one is young. There is a lot more happiness and contentment in me now. I am ready. But where are the stories?’
Yes. Where are the stories? For a while, we reflect on this subject because he finds it extremely pertinent. ‘Probably, our social system is behind it. We believe in a joint family. We believe in taking good care of our elders. We voluntarily and respectfully begin to look after even the smallest of their needs. We don’t let them do anything. We virtually retire them from life, from any social interaction. And we do it all with good intention and a sense of duty towards them. But they become confined to an arm chair and so do the stories. The younger generation retires senior actors and takes over. But in the West, the elders continue to have a social interaction because their young leave home at 15-16 and they are forced to fend for themselves, getting the car repaired, buying groceries, mailing a letter, meeting other obligations. They go out and the stories find them.’
And here is Amitabh Bachchan ripe and ready but the stories seem to have taken permanent residence in the valleys of Switzerland with teeny boppers and heart-shaped pink balloons.
Are there stories looking for Amitabh Bachchan, probably the most eloquent face in our cinema or were ‘Cheeni Kum’ and ‘Paa’ merely an exception? ‘I hope not’, he smiles.
And I am reminded that stars live in fear, actors live in hope. And I suddenly realise that Amitabh Bachchan has crossed that line from being a superstar. He is confident enough to lose his superstar into his actor. Only great actors can do that.
POST SCRIPT 2022: Ten years after the article and interview, stories have rediscovered Amitabh Bachchan and let his actor shine brilliantly without reducing the shine on his superstar. But he deserves more because there is more to be mined from the potential he embodies.