26/05/2016 11:42 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST

Amitabh Bachchan, The Great Survivor, Not The Great Gambler Of Indian Politics

Siu Chiu / Reuters
Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan reacts during the Asian Film Awards news conference in Hong Kong March 23,2010. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu (CHINA - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT HEADSHOT)

Age cannot wither him, nor the Panama papers stale his infinite variety.

It is amazing to think that the BJP is out in full-throated defence of Amitabh Bachchan, the same Amitabh Bachchan who was once BFF with Rajiv Gandhi. The story goes that it was Indira Gandhi, friend of his mother Teji Bachchan, who gave him a letter of introduction that landed him a role in Sunil Dutt’s Resham aur Shera.

Now the Congress is needling the Narendra Modi government because Bachchan, despite being under the Panama papers cloud, is hosting a programme that’s part of the sarkar’s two-year anniversary jamboree. BJP’s Shahnawaz Khan is lauding the superstar’s good work and asking the Congress not to be jealous that people love him more than they love Rahul Gandhi.

Forget who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s petty and who’s pettier. Just stand back and marvel at how deftly Amitabh Bachchan has played his cards. He has been through some bleak times, looked bankruptcy in the face, had his name dragged through mud, but he has somehow managed to always end up on the right side of power and righteously so.

Rishi Kapoor or Twinkle Khanna can land themselves in hot water thanks to one off-colour joke. A celebrity MP like Hema Malini seems unable to speak without offending someone from widows to accident victims. Not Bachchan. Amitabh Bachchan is not a recluse. He is one of our most visible celebrities. He is ubiquitous. He gives interviews. He blogs. He tweets. He carefully numbers his tweets. And yet he manages to never put himself on the line.

Forget who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s petty and who’s pettier. Just stand back and marvel at how deftly Amitabh Bachchan has played his cards.

Like that famous interview with Arnab Goswami, where the nation wanted to know what Bachchan thought of Maharashtra’s beef ban.

Bachchan’s response? “Is there a law? Is there a law that’s been passed?” On being told that indeed there was, he said “I’m vegetarian. So I won’t be able to…”

He told Goswami he just wanted to live a peaceful life. We cannot fault for him that but as Rasheed Kidwai writes in The Telegraph this is not the mellow autumn of the once Angry Young Man. This has been the lifelong modus operandi of Bachchan. He is actually The Great Survivor, not The Great Gambler.

The Angry Young Man, a loner, born and bred in the slums, was tailor made for an India of the 70s and 80s – a symbol of protest against its ills, writes Madhu Jain for the BBC. “The 1970s were turbulent in India,” writes Jain. “There was political unrest and the imposition of the Emergency by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. There was unemployment and labour unrest, and a souring of the post-Independence dream of a new dawn.” Sholay which released during the Emergency was often regarded as prescient with its depiction of cowed villagers crushed under the heels of a powerful figure until the two outlaws roll into town.

Amitabh Bachchan is actually The Great Survivor, not The Great Gambler.

But in real life during the 21 months of the Emergency, Bachchan kept very quiet, writes Kidwai. He looked the other way when AIR and Doordarshan banned Kishore Kumar. He was there at Sanjay Gandhi’s side ostensibly raising money for his family planning programme with Geeton Bhari Sham. But when Indira Gandhi fell from power, Bachchan too distanced himself from the family, much to Sanjay’s anger. He came back with Rajiv Gandhi after Indira’s assassination until the Bofors scandal made him turn his back on politics. But all bridges were not burned. He did become the fourth trustee when the Rajiv Gandhi Trust was established after Rajiv's assassination. A decade later he cozied up to Amar Singh and the Samajwadi Party but Kidwai says when Singh fell out with SP, Bachchan moved away from him as well. “(H)e has a history of preferring discretion to valour in public and political affairs,” writes Kidwai.

ALSO READ: Not Hosting Modi Govt Event, Says Amitabh Bachchan After Congress Attack

(Indian men shout slogans as they burn a poster of actor Amitabh Bachchan during a protest in New Delhi, 19 March, 2007. The polls to India's most populous Uttar Pradesh state are pitting two of the country's most influential families -- the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty and the Bachchans -- against each other, analysts say. The rift between the high-profile families, which began a decade ago, is public knowledge though its cause remains a mystery. But the latest manifestation of the now bitter ties is a series of TV advertisements in which Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan is seen praising the regional Samajwadi Party which is ruling Uttar Pradesh and is a known bugbear of the Congress and its Italian born chief Sonia Gandhi. MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Others go to war for him while Bachchan stays above the fray as the good guy. When Jaya Bachchan crossed swords with Raj Thackeray about Maharashtrians vs North Indians, it was Amitabh who played peacemaker. Even Amar Singh admitted that though someone from that family said Singh got a lot of mileage out of his association with the Bachchans, Bachchan himself “didn’t say it; he still has some grace and humility.”

Jaya once pointedly accused those who brought her husband into politics of not standing by him during a crisis. Rahul Gandhi called the allegations a “bundle of lies”. Amitabh just said he had nothing but “respect and goodwill” for the relationship between the two families. However he could not resist one filmi barb deliciously cloaked in a veneer of humility. “The Nehru-Gandhi family has ruled the country. Woh raja hai, hum runk hai (They are kings, we are commoners).”

He looked the other way when AIR and Doordarshan banned Kishore Kumar. He was there at Sanjay Gandhi’s side ostensibly raising money for his family planning programme with Geeton Bhari Sham.

Incredible Amitabh Bachchan! Politicians should take a master class from him on how to move with the political zeitgeist and never be pinned down. Don ko pakadna mushkil hi nahin, na mumkin hai. The way Bachchan does this is that he swims in the political whirlpool but somehow maintains that whatever he is doing is above politics. The great thing about a baritone as rich as Bachchan’s, is that you want to believe whatever he says.

Thus the India Gate event is for a good cause he believes in – protecting the girl child. He is a host of one segment, not an anchor for the whole shebang. It just happens to be part of the NDA government’s second anniversary celebrations and the PM and his cabinet just happen to be planning on attending. He prides himself on being apolitical. He was only a tourism ambassador for Modi’s Gujarat. He was just breathing in the khushboo of the state not endorsing the politics of Modi. He was not not endorsing them either.

(Actor Amitabh Bachchan (C) sings the Indian national anthem ahead of the start of the World T20 cricket tournament match between India and Pakistan at The Eden Gardens Cricket Stadium in Kolkata on March 19, 2016. PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

Bachchan is perfectly within his rights to host any programme, or hitch his wagon to Modi’s star if he so wants. What’s fascinating though is how he always uses culture as a shield to ward off any whiff of politics. Everything he does from the ambassador of the Kissan channel to singing the national anthem at a T-20 cricket game gives him an aura of righteousness. “I literally begged him to take some money but he said that I am doing it for love and there is no question of money being involved,” said Saurav Ganguly after a controversy erupted on whether Bachchan had charged 4 crore for singing Jana Gana Mana.

As Sandipan Sharma writes in Firstpost, “(H)e has been excellent as polite-to-the-point-of-being-timid, a diplomatic man who feigns ignorance of controversies bursting around him, balks at the idea of discussing politics and politicians, refuses to take a tough stand on social issues and comes up with amusing excuses for avoiding debates.” He is the perfect politician’s celebrity – polite, dignified, articulate yet never veering off script as an Aamir or Shah Rukh Khan might.

He is the perfect politician’s celebrity – polite, dignified, articulate yet never veering off script as an Aamir or Shah Rukh Khan might.

An on-screen Amitabh Bachchan might tell a character “Arre, yeh jeena bhi koi jeena hai, lalloo?” but off screen he treads on as few toes as possible. It works. Even if the meek do not inherit the earth, they can certainly get plum ambassador roles, whether it’s of Incredible India, Gujarat tourism or the Kissan channel, which Bachchan then fulfills with great flourish and impeccable showmanship. Now there’s even a rumour about Bachchan as the next President of India. Not bad for the man rejected twice by All India Radio despite that booming baritone. He is the Incredible Indian of Incredible India!

(Then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, left, looks on as Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan speaks during a promotional screening of his movie "Paa", in Ahmadabad, India, Jan. 6, 2010. AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

This is not to fault Bachchan for not living up to a Salim-Javed script. Kudos to him for being the Great Survivor, for reinventing himself and staying relevant to both politicians and the public at a time when many of his peers have disappeared into the sunset. He has gone from big screen to small screen and sold everything under the sun. He is one of the hardest-working actors in showbiz and a consummate professional. And it’s given him everything – bangla, gadi, bank balance, even the Olympic flame.

It’s just amusing that it turns out the Angry Young Man who never hesitated to take a stand to shake up a corrupt system is actually a man who follows one golden rule – Don’t rock the boat. To misquote The Great Gatsby, where he had a famous cameo, “so he blogs on, boats with the current, borne ceaselessly to whatever you need him to be.”

But one wonders when it’s just him and his tanhai – then kya baatein kartein hain?