A battle over ‘Bollywood’ that is too big for even Bachchan?

The star of the upcoming film Wazir regards the word “Bollywood” as a media gimmick that does not do justice to Indian cinema. But even Big B feels powerless to do anything about it.

Amitabh Bachchan portrays a disabled chess player in Wazir. Courtesy Reliance Entertainment
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The man regularly described as Bollywood’s greatest living legend regards the word “Bollywood” as a media gimmick that does not do justice to Indian cinema.

Amitabh Bachchan wants the country's film industry to be seen as a cultural institution in its own right, rather than as a pale imitation of Hollywood.

That same industry is set to showcase his talents once more when his latest film, the drama Wazir, debuts on UAE screens tomorrow.

“I think that India cinema has its own identity," he told Al Jazeera recently. "It’s very individual. I don’t see any reason why it should be compared to another name, from another part of the world.

But not even the man known as the Big B has the power to rename the industry over which he has reigned for so long – a fact that he himself acknowledges.

“That’s the way it goes. Some smart journalist came up with the name and now it’s in the Oxford dictionary. It’s going to be there for eternity now.”

Bachchan's career is as immense as the Indian entertainment industry itself. The superstar, who began his career by playing "angry young men" in the 1970s, now occupies the position of elder statesman. In Wazir he plays the role of a disabled chess grandmaster. Unlike his previous action thrillers such as Sholay and Coolie, Wazir does not feature any spectacular stunts from Bachchan. Instead, his character is an amputee who uses a wheelchair and undertakes impressive manoeuvres on the chessboard. However, (as any wheelchair user will tell you) getting around in a chair requires immense upper-body strength and Bachchan admitted that this role was physically challenging. After all, rather than using his legs and feet, he had to use "the two wheels of the chair".

This is Bachchan's second portrayal of a disabled person, having played in 2009 the role of a 12-year-old boy living with the rare genetic disorder called progeria, which causes premature ageing, in the film Paa.

It's easy to understand why Bachchan found it impossible to resist his roles in Paa and Wazir. After all, he long ago conquered the roles of action hero, romantic leading man and host of television game-show Kaun Benega Crorepati.

Yet for much of the western media, Bachchan only became known with his acclaimed but brief performance in Baz Lurhmann's 2013 film The Great Gatsby, in which he played Gatsby's mentor, the shady gangster Meyer Wolfsheim. A recent profile of Bachchan in the Australian media featured the headline "Megastar you've never heard of".

It's difficult to understand such parochial attitudes to such a hugely recognised superstar. On Twitter, @SrBachchan has 18.6 million followers. Along with Salman Khan, he tied for seventh place on the Forbes 2015 list of highest-paid male film stars, with estimated earnings of US$33.5m (Dh123m). His legendary status in India itself was long ago sealed, after an incident in 1982 in which he nearly died after suffering an injury on the set of Coolie. This brush with death was regarded as a national crisis, with fans filling the streets outside the hospital where he was being treated and the then-prime minister, Indira Gandhi, and her son Rajiv among the visitors to his bedside.

Bachchan’s own foray into politics during the 1980s, as a member of parliament for the Congress party, was brief and undistinguished.

However, he was able to return to the entertainment industry with his stature undiminished, and make the transition to television as it began to rival cinema in the affections of the Indian public. His role in The Great Gatsby led to speculation that he intended to take on more Hollywood roles. But Bachchan himself had denied having any such plans. After all, Bollywood – as he calls it only with reluctance – has already offered him the world.

 Wazir is out in cinemas tomorrow.