What makes a retrospective of Amitabh Bachchan’s early films a show-stopper

To paraphrase François Truffaut: it was a beautiful time in life, when people cared more for those we admired than for themselves. That’s how I felt Amitabh Bachchan to grow up. It was an obsession. I crossed borders at boarding school to watch his movies, got kicked out of class for writing notes in my Bachchan journal detailing every movie I’d seen, from Bansi Birju (1972) to Don (1978) to mr. Natwarlal (1979), stood outside his Juhu home as a student, waiting for that momentary glimpse and little wave of my idol. This obsession made me decide to become a filmmaker from my school days. The first time I met him was as a young student at a Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) workshop and I was overwhelmed. I never thought then that years later I would have the opportunity to direct him in several commercials and films for the Film Heritage Foundation and, most importantly, to work so closely with him to save India’s film heritage.

When I started the Film Heritage Foundation in 2014 in response to the colossal loss of our film heritage, I knew I needed a champion — Amitabh Bachchan. No other actor has that towering persona and is still so relevant to today’s audiences even half a century since his debut, representing the past, present and future. Even as he turns 80, he is so easy to interact with people on Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), night after night. He remains one of the busiest actors yet he finds time to tweet and blog and respond to hundreds of requests every day.

The best discovery, however, was that he was a fellow archivist. In a scenario where the original camera negatives of hundreds of classics have disappeared and even prints are sometimes hard to find, Bachchan has been archiving prints of several of his films on 35mm for decades. Where major producers, studios and labs had discarded our celluloid heritage, he had the foresight to preserve his films. He has advocated for the preservation and restoration of India’s film heritage.

His birthday seemed like a perfect opportunity to not only celebrate an icon, but also to show that his movies, like the superstar herself, are timeless. We want to change the perception that classic cinema should be limited to retrospectives. An actor of his stature should have a display case on a grand scale. Ajay Bijli from PVR Cinemas has given us a great platform to screen these films over four days in 25 cinemas in 19 cities, making it the biggest festival the country has ever seen.

There is a “Bachchan Back to the Beginning” exhibition at PVR Juhu that coincides with the screenings curated by film historian and author SMM Ausaja. It will display rare photos and works of art.

It was a mammoth task to convince producers and copyright holders, find the best material from these films and convert them into a format that can be shown in the cinema. The festival “Bachchan Back to the Beginning” presents 11 iconic films, which portray the phenomenon of the angry young man, the poet, the comic, the man next door, the many avatars of an extraordinary actor. These include films like Deewaar (1975), Kabhie Kabhie (1976), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) and Abhimaan (1973).

Watching the movies recently brought tears to my eyes as all the memories and emotions of growing up with Amitabh Bachchan came back – the thrill of watching a Bachchan’s first show on the first day, buying tickets in black, me Feeling 3 meters tall, laughing, crying, singing and dancing with him in a darkened cinema hall… I felt like it was yesterday. And I knew this is exactly how people would feel and want to relive that time and come back to the cinema to see it bigger than life on the big screen, the way these movies were meant to be seen.

The response was overwhelming. People from all over the country have called and written to ask for tickets, including many contemporary filmmakers and actors. We’ve had international inquiries asking if we could take the festival abroad. For many of them, it’s a first time despite the fact that these movies are available on YouTube and other streaming platforms. The sweetest thing I’ve heard is that the cast of Satte Pe Satta (1982) has planned a reunion to go to the movies together.

As Bachchan said, “This festival showcases not only my work, but the work of my directors, fellow actors and technicians from that era. It brings back an era that is gone, but not forgotten. This is why saving it of India’s film heritage is so important, I hope this is just the start of many festivals that will celebrate historic films of Indian cinema back on the big screen.”

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur is Filmmaker and Founder and Director of Film Heritage Foundation

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