My look back at Amitabh Bachchan’s debut film from 48 years ago.
I don’t watch much Bollywood these days, but in the 80s, I was a huge fan of Big B, as India’s biggest movie star, Amitabh Bachchan, is often called.
And if you’re in any doubt about this legend’s place on the celluloid icono-meter, just know that in a BBC online poll in 1999, which was clearly designed to get British greats like Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Alec Guinness recognised as the greatest stars of stage and screen ever – they were both pushed into second and third respectively by yep, Sir… well, he-should-be-a-Sir, Amitabh Bachchan.
So much was I a fan, that I probably subconsciously styled much of my look on his lanky Lumbooji persona, to the extent that I’m often told I’m a bit of a lookalike. Both now, largely because of the white goatee, and back in the day, because that’s when I was really in my AB-phase.
You know I had the same hair, and I tried to dress and walk like him, as you do. And of course I’d seen all his movies. Nearly all of them.
I say nearly, because it all depended on which VHS tapes were available to us from the video shops of Jeddah, as we lived in Saudi during that decade. Not every single one of his movies was available you see.
Amitabh’s first movie
Particularly his very first movie – Saat Hindustani. This movie dates back to 1969, released almost exactly a year after I was – no I don’t actually remember that happening, it wasn’t a first birthday gift or anything like that, I just checked the exact date – November 1969. And yes, that does mean that the megastar was been in the movie business for nearly half a century.
Anyway, the good news is that these old films all seem to be available in full on YouTube now (WATCH IT AT THE LINK BELOW). So at last I got to watch a blurred, black and white version of Saat Hindustani. It was worth it though.
Did you know?
But before I get into the movie itself, a few titbits for you.
A clearly low-budget, black and white production, most of the actors were relatively new, apart from Utpal Dutt. Amitabh Bachchan actually came late to the role as it was originally to be played by Tinnu Anand, who decided he’d rather go and learn film direction from legendary Indian director Satyajit Ray.
So on the strength of a letter of recommendation, Amitabh Bachchan got his big break, although the departing Tinnu Anand himself negotiated a payment of just 5000 rupees for the newcomer to appear in the movie, however long it would take – Bachchan actually shot his first scene in February.
But if you think Anand was a bit harsh, he certainly made it up to Big B, going on to become a successful director and featuring the future megastar in major movies including Kalia (1981), Shahensha (1988), Main Azaad Hoon (1989) and Major Saab (1998).
Back to Saat Hindustani, and not only did the actors get paid very little, they also had to rough it. For on-location shoots they all travelled third class on the train, carried their own bedding, shared a room and mostly slept on the floor! So much for Bollywood glamour.
Anyway it turned out to be worth it, because the movie won the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration, and AB won the National Award for the most Promising Newcomer – clearly making a strong impression on his very first outing on the big screen.
Who made the movie?
Saat Hindustani was directed by journalist, novelist, social commentator and Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. He made around 30 films and was regarded as one of the pioneers of Indian neo-realistic cinema.
The movie is compared to the Magnificent Seven and is said to be loosely based on the 1943 novel ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’.
What happens in the film?
Saat Hindustani basically revolves around six Indians from completely diverse castes, creeds, religions and regions, volunteering to go into Portuguese-occupied Goa on a special mission of resistance and revolution.
What happened to the seventh Indian, you’re wondering? That one is already in Goa, in fact she is a Goan girl and a freedom fighter, so immediately you have a strong feminist aspect to this old Indian movie.
And whilst during the mission, each day a different member is selected to be commander and head up the team, it’s clear that she’s pretty much leading the motley band of insurgents once they’re smuggled across the border.
After the six are shown getting special para-military and combat training in preparation, you wonder what their mission will be? Are they an elite killing squad, are they going to blow stuff up, will they try to assassinate key occupation leaders? If this film was made today, you can be sure there would be plenty of mayhem and massacre ensuing.
However, this was made in the 60s, and instead our heroes are told to avoid killing if possible and instead are given seven Indian flags (the Tiranga) to be raised at key Police Stations in place of the Portuguese flags. It’s a symbolic gesture of defiance designed to invigorate the people of Goa, raise patriotic sentiment, and assure them that they haven’t been forgotten by the rest of India.
Now despite Amitabh’s later persona as the macho angry man of Indian Cinema, here he is playing Anwar Ali, a Muslim Poet of a rather tender and sensitive nature who seems to abhor violence and later concedes that he believes himself to be a coward and unworthy of the mission.
Volunteering for him seems to have been partly a case of standing up for his convictions, and partly a dare to himself to prove he is man enough to wear the khakis of a soldier. Things don’t bode well when right at the beginning of the mission when the team is forced to kill a spy, a horrified Anwar Ali absolutely freaks out and nearly gives them all away.
Later on he actually ends up killing too, and is immediately deeply remorseful. The character also redeems himself when they are captured, and he is horrifically tortured but never reveals anything about his comrades.
The film is told in flashback
Interestingly enough the film actually opens in an India a few years into the future which, despite being free now, is still strife-torn by sectarian violence and dissent based around language and territory.
While the female character, Maria lies in a hospital and sends out telegrams hoping to see her former friends one last time, they all seem to have forgotten the comradeship they once shared and fought for.
In Tamil Nadu they’re anti-Hindi, in U.P. they’re pro-Hindi, in Bihar they want only Urdu, meanwhile Punjab is being partitioned. So against these divisive events, it’s particularly poignant that this dying voice from the past recalls and ultimately reunites the disillusioned six.
Building on this message of equality and unity that Khwaja Abbas obviously wanted to get across in his movie, he deliberately cast each actor against their real life identity.
So Amitabh (son of a Hindu poet) played a Muslim Shayer (poet) – and actually took the name of a co-star and off-screen friend, Anwar Ali, who himself actually played a strict Hindu. Utpal Dutt, a Bengali, played a Punjabi and Malayalam actor Madhu was a Bengali.
Meanwhile Irshad Ali and Jalal Agha, both Muslims, played a South Indian and Maharastrian and Muslim actress, Shahnaz Vahanvaty, played a Christian.
What was good about the movie
At first glance, it seems like it will be a war movie. Then you think it will be a story about Indian revolution. Then you’re further lulled into believing there’s going to be lots of action and fighting in the film.
In reality it’s not about any of that. It isn’t even really about Goa or its liberation. It’s actually about the liberation of self and quashing of the vilification and hatred of the other.
It’s about reminding us that caste, creed, culture and where we’re from, are all petty differences that we tend to put far too much emphasis on. Put under pressure, we humans can easily come together, let go of all our prejudices, and foster fast friendships.
But whether they endure, is up to us.
What wasn’t good about the movie
The versions of this black and white film on YouTube are of very poor quality, and it is hard to follow the dialogue in places, not just because of the different dialects depicted, but because the audio is not great.
But on top of all that, technically the low-budget spend, and short-cuts in scripting and direction are painfully apparent. The training scenes are absurdly childish, the actual mission sequences confusing and without a real sense of dread or danger.
The characters are never really fully fleshed out apart from the tragic Maria; the only real soldier, Utpal Dutt’s Joginder Nath; and of course Anwar Ali. So it’s hard to feel any empathy for the ensemble. Indeed the simplistic story-telling doesn’t even evoke a tear-jerking emotional response as it surely should, particularly at the end when they all arrive, too late, at the hospital.
Whilst the story and concept was inspired, the film-making was merely okay.
Amitabh in Saat Hindustani
Considering the bad scripting and non-existent direction for the cast itself, you might have thought this would be a disastrous vehicle for a first-timer trying to make his mark. However the gangly awkward form of Bachchan still manages to make his presence felt in every scene.
And just as Shahnaz was able to stand out thanks to her strong female character and pivotal role in the plot, Amitabh found himself fortunate enough to get the most vulnerable character, a self-confessed coward pushing himself to his absolute personal limits.
Bringing his considerable acting scope to bear, he was able to bring Anwar Ali to life in a way that simply wasn’t available to the actors playing more conventional characters, and which no established male actor could have done. I mean just a decade later it would be incongruous and ridiculous for Big B to play such a timid character, but here he pulls it off very convincingly.
Should you watch it?
You should totally put up with the slow pacing, terrible audio and flat visuals of the 2hrs 20min movie for two reasons: a) to be reminded how easy it should be for us to realise the commonalities and dismiss the differences between us and b) to see how it all started for arguably Bollywood’s biggest ever star.