For much of the late-seventies and eighties, the world, at least the Hindi cinema-watching galaxy, was divided into two groups: die-hard Kaka fans and those who swore by the Big B.
Those in their teens or just out belonged to the second, more rebellious, camp. Others, whose college years were shaped by the Fab Four from Liverpool, the Beat generation and R.D. Burman, were still the romantics firmly rooting for Rajesh Khanna.
When Aradhana swept India in the autumn of ’69, Amitabh Bachchan was still a struggler — his first film K.A. Abbas’s Saat Hindustani, based on the Liberation of Goa, released in the winter of that year and sank without a trace, though the lanky actor did bag the national award for best debutant. Amitabh, who had left behind a well-paying job with Byrd and Co in Calcutta, continued to do the rounds of the studios, often rebuffed by producers who had a problem with his voice or his lanky gait.
All the while, the Rajesh Khanna phenomenon continued to take the country by storm as he delivered one hit after another — Do Raaste, Bandhan, Aan Milo Sajna, The Train, Ittefaq, Safar, Kati Patang…
The biggest banners of the day queued up before his door as Amitabh continued his struggle. But they were destined to meet — a chance interaction with director Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who was then casting for Anand, landed Amitabh his first important role.
But Anand, in spite of Amitabh’s restrained performance as Babumoshai, was a film made for Kaka. The best dialogues, written by Gulzar (Babumoshai, eto bhalobasha bhalo noi), were lipped by the man with the terminal illness who epitomised hope. When Anand dies at the end of the film, India wept.
Anand, which released in 1970, did little for Amitabh’s career while Rajesh Khanna’s continued to soar. Such was Kaka’s stardom that even a guest appearance in Ramesh Sippy’s debut film Andaz (he sings Zindagi ek Safar Hai Suhana before his inevitable death) overshadowed the hero (a grossly overweight Shammi Kapoor). The hits continued to roll out —- Maryada, Haathi Mere Saathi (scripted by the then unknown duo of Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar), Dushmun, Apna Desh and Amar Prem were box-office mega-successes, aided in no small measure by Kishore Kumar, who modulated his voice to match the mannerisms of Kaka.
But by 1972, the murmurs had started. Producers began complaining of Kaka’s lack of professionalism — “he was seldom punctual to shoots, he interfered with scripts”, being among the grouses.
Then the unthinkable happened — three Rajesh Khanna films bombed: Mere Jeevan Saathi, Dil Daulat Duniya and Shehzada.
On the other hand, Amitabh, post-Anand, delivered some 10 or 11 box-office turkeys. But he got noticed in one: Mehmood’s Bombay to Goa, where he was paired opposite Aruna Irani, was a flop but the lanky hero impressed Salim and Javed enough to make them recommend Amitabh to Prakash Mehra, who was trying hard to get the male lead for Zanjeer. The role of the angry-with-life police officer had been turned down by major stars of the day like Jeetendra and Dev Anand, but Amitabh seized the opportunity and brought a hitherto unseen intensity to the screen.
The angry young man was born.
Zanjeer, made on a small budget and released in 1973, set the box office ablaze. Kaka’s films too did well, but it was clear audience tastes were changing. Ironically, it was their next film together — Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Namak Haraam — that spelled the rise of Amitabh. The film, a loose adaptation of Becket, won accolades for Amitabh, who played the underdog. For the first time in his career, Rajesh Khanna’s star billing was hit.
And then came Deewaar. Salim-Javed, or so goes Bollywood grapevine, refused to part with the script to Yash Chopra if he insisted on casting Rajesh Khanna, who had been paid the signing amount. Yash Chopra, who had to bear with the superstar’s whimsical ways in Daag, relented and offered Amitabh the lead role.
The Big B was born.