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Bachchan, Robert de Niro, Al Pacino
By Parsa Venkateswar Rao Jr
Amitabh Bachchan is a mediocre actor. This will offend all those people who had started seeing movies some time around 1969-1970. It was a time when some people came into the Bombay Hindi film industry from a place called the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), somewhere in Pune.
It was also the time when that brainless phrase, 'generation gap' gained currency. And someone called Shatrughan Sinha wrote in The Illustrated Weekly of India about how the new generation of actors and actresses are better than the older lot like Dilip Kumar because the older ones picked acting while working in films, while he and and his friends have entered the job with the required qualifications to act. It is true that Amitabh Bachchan does not belong to the FTII crowd like Shatrughan Sinha, Jaya Bhaduri, Shabana Azmi et al.
But he belonged to that crowd with that attitude. At that time the word 'attitude' did not have the connotation it has now. But with hindsight, it can be said that Sinha, Bachchan and the rest of the FTII-wallahs had plenty of 'attitude'. These people preened themselves on the fact that they were all well educated, that they did not belong to the entertainment tribe which dominated the film industry.
These people also felt that they had life beyond films. For all these reasons, they ended up being mediocrities when it came to acting. As they went along, they did unlearn all that FTII stuff and did some good acting. Shabana Aazmi and Shatrughan Sinha, and at times even Jaya Bachchan, showed traces of good acting. But they could never achieve their potential because of the education they received at FTII.
Bachhan was not from the FTII but he showed all the bad qualities that the institute imbibed in its students. Behind his reserve and modesty was a certain kind of arrogance of the so-called cultured man, the educated man. When he mingled with the industry people, when he did all those roles which came from the heart and imagination of directors like Manmohan Desai, he performed them with a certain detachment, even with a certain contempt about the absurdity and melodrama of such stuff. He was untouched by all that. He knew that they gave him money and fame, and he was no fool to spurn them.
So like his FTII friends in the industry, he used skills, craft, intelligence and also intellect. But never his heart. That is why, there is no warmth of any kind in any of Bachchan's performances, from 'Anand" to 'Cheeni Kum". He does the job competently and goes home. And when somebody interviews him and refers to the Hindi cinema industry as 'Bollywood", he objects. But it is not out of any sense of solidarity. It is pure professionalism. The industry has provided him work, and he would remain loyal. It has nothing to do with emotions and with the heart.
In contrast, Raj Kapoor was emotionally engaged with Hindi cinema. That is why, when India's official film festival included a section on mainstream cinema, he spoke passionately about how the 'tamashawallahs" have been allowed into the hallowed precincts of the film festival.
Bachchan, the intelligent actor with an intellect and a flair for the English language like all good Indian middle class individuals, has never faced intelligent criticism. He has been surrounded by fawning journalists, who went on to write starry-eyed biographies.
So, if he is told that he is a mediocre actor, Bachchan would not know what to make of it. That is why, it becomes necessary to give him examples to prove the point. Thw two great mediocre actors in Hollywood in the last 40 years or so - coinciding with Bachchan's time in the Hindi cinema - are Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Both de Niro and Pacino are method actors.
They study their roles, get under its skin, get the accent right, get the gestures right and deliver a dramatic performance which never rises to the heights of greatness. Robert de Niro's performances in 'Taxi Driver", 'Godfather II", "Raging Bull" were all studied performances, great examples of affectation. So it is with Al Pacino in 'Dog Day's Afternoon", 'Godfather II", Bobby Butterfield" (with Martha Keller),and 'The Insider".
Both de Niro and Al Pacino can be very exasperating because they do their roles with such methodical rigour. It never occurs to them that they are sucking out the heart and soul from their performances with their dedication to skillful acting.
Bachchan has the same problem. He executes every role with a thoroughness that is frightening,and leaves you wondering why such a good performance fails to move you. The reason is simple: He puts everything into the role except his heart.
That is because he is too educated to be a good artist. He did not ever get a good sentimental education. All that he got was a good English language education which leaves one quite uncultured.
This article has been reproduced with special permission by the author. It first appeared at his famous blog: http://parsareport.blogspot.in/