Celebrating Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood superstar and global icon

By Ollia Horton - RFI
Europe  Festival des 3 Continents
DEC 10, 2023 LISTEN
© Festival des 3 Continents

Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan, or "Big B" as he is fondly known, was the focus of a new documentary and major retrospective at this year's Festival des 3 Continents (Three Continents Festival) in Nantes. RFI spoke to the star's daughter, who says the world's interest in her father underlines the universal appeal of Indian cinema.

Among the hundreds of filmgoers at the 45th Three Continents Festival was Shweta Bachchan, who flew over to Nantes from India to represent her father, 81-year-old Amitabh – a legend in the world of Hindi cinema.

"I was happy to see that there were mainly local French people. It's nice that people from other countries show an interest in Indian films and especially my father's works, which are now many years old. That was very encouraging," she told RFI.

Crowned "Superstar of the Millennium" in 2000 at India's Filmfare Awards, Bachchan has a reputation that is larger than life. He has made over 200 films and been a TV show host, politician, businessman and father to two children.

Among his numerous awards, the government of France honoured Bachchan with its highest civilian honour, Knight of the Legion of Honour, in 2007 for his exceptional career.

Face of a generation

"The French audiences are very discerning. I can see by the way the festival has been attended that they are very open to foreign language films. I would hope that they would understand what Indian, Hindi films mean to the Indian common man, what it has represented for years and how it is one of their main outlets of entertainment and how woven into our social fabric Hindi cinema is," Shweta said.

For her Bachchan was just like any other dad. She and her brother were sent off to boarding school and lived a "normal" life, "sheltered from the film business". It wasn't until she reached adulthood that she understood the true impact of her father's work.

"A lot of the angst my father was projecting in the 1970s and '80s was an angst that the young and disenfranchised in India at the time were feeling," she said.

"He portrayed it very convincingly. Maybe people recognise what their struggles are, what their causes are or what they should be.

"I do think cinema can change things. It is also the greatest mirror to society."

'Beautiful escape'

Despite his reputation for serious roles, Shweta Bachchan says she prefers her father's comedy films, such as "Amar Akbar Anthony", which was screened during the festival along with eight of his other works.

"On a day-to-day level, a lot of people in India have a hard life and it [cinema] is a beautiful escape from that life," she explained.

"I think, as my father often said, in the space of two hours you have a resolution. You have an issue, it is sorted out, there's a little song and dance, and by the end of two hours you have gotten justice and you leave feeling very satisfied and complete in a way."

During her time at the festival, Shweta Bachchan was treated to the screening of a documentary of her father's career by young French filmmaker Cédric Dupire.

Between fiction and reality

Although Dupire contacted the Bachchan family to let them know about his project, he deliberately chose not to interview the "Big B" himself. 

For "The Real Superstar", he approached the subject in an experimental way, completely different to a classical documentary, immersing himself in the actor's career through his various roles.

What emerges is a kind of mash-up of scenes spanning a 50-year career, with the original sound, and no commentary.

Dupire had already made two films in India and was interested in the public's fascination with Bachchan. But then he began to wonder how one man could possibly sustain such an existence.

"There are elements of his real life that are sometimes in the films. I created a character between fiction and reality. I didn't want the real figure with whom I exchanged to disrupt the mechanics of creation," Dupire told RFI.

'What a life'

Is Bachchan real, Dupire asked himself: how is it possible for one man to play so many roles and be adored by so many millions of fans? And which Bachchan is the authentic one? Does his life mirror cinema or the other way around? 

It's not necessary to be a Bollywood expert, he says, to enjoy the film. He hopes French audiences will walk away with the feeling of wonder, having been introduced to one of the industry's most productive and admired actors.

"Beyond the sheer abundance of his work, I want people to say, 'what a life'," Dupire says.

"The film shows a cult that is being built and an actor who has aged over the years but who continues to interpret heroic and symbolic figures in relation to society and social problems. It's quite unique to go through the career of an actor like that, so huge."

World cinema

The Three Continents Festival, which celebrates cinema from Asia, Africa and Latin America, is held in Nantes and surrounding towns every year.

This year saw 251 screenings of 89 films from 40 countries, with ten films in the running for the main competition. Special tributes were paid to Safi Faye from Senegal, Ann Hui from Hong Kong and Vietnamese cinema.

On 3 December, the Mongolfière d'or (Golden Hot Air Balloon award) went to Zhang Lu from China for his film "The Shadowless Tower". He received €6,000 from the City of Nantes.

The silver award went to "The Spectre of Boko Haram" by Cyrielle Raingou (France/Cameroon), who received a grant of €4,000 from the Loire-Atlantique Council.

The international competition of the Three Continents Festival will be screened from 24-28 January 2024 at the Arlequin cinema in Paris.