Less than two years after recovering from his injury on the Coolie sets, Amitabh Bachchan was back in hospital battling a debilitating disease that threatened to kill him. Millions of people were riding it and the whole industry pretty much came to a standstill. What was this disease?
Amitabh Bachchan of Coolie Ensembles
Once Upon a Cinema is a series that will illuminate the dark and unexplored crevices of Indian cinema. In it, the writer will introduce long-forgotten stories and faces, share uncommon perspectives on stars and filmmakers, and tell stories that have never been told.
June 1984. Lying on the bed in room no. 317 at Breach Candy Hospital, Amitabh Bachchan told a veteran film reporter, “I know I’m pretty sick. It seems like I’ll never be able to face the camera again. Either way, the people are tired of me doing the same role over and over again, aren’t they?” India Today wrote, “His confession stunned the Bombay film industry which had until then believed Bachchan had been admitted to hospital for routine checks due to exhaustion.” Just four years prior, the same magazine had a cover story about how Bachchan literally carried the entire film industry on his lanky shoulders, referring to him for the first time as a “one-man industry”.
Every time he left his house, they said, more than 50 crore investment rupees weighed on him. Vir Sanghvi wrote in the May 15, 1980, issue: “The brooding, taciturn star is in such demand that the hordes of impatient producers who line up outside his dressing rooms are told they can’t expect big dates. shooting before the beginning of 1983. And yet, the offers follow one another. As French producers Alain Chamas who unsuccessfully tried to sign him for Crossings opposite Jon Voight and Richard Dreyfus finally pointed out in exasperation: “This man is not just a star. Amitabh Bachchan is an industry .”
Now, almost exactly four years later, the industry lay in a hospital bed, struggling to accommodate him on his six and a half feet. But that was nothing new. On August 2, 1982, he was released after recovering from a near-fatal injury on the sets of Manmohan Desai. Coolie. Fans across India were desperately praying for his return as they too feared the worst. Mithun Chakraborty, a colleague in the industry but also an obsessive fan, is said to have sliced his chest, praying for his well-being. As he walked out, recovering from his injury, August 2 became known as Amitabh Bachchan’s “second birthday”. In just 22 months, he was back with another serious illness that once again threatened to immobilize him and derail his career. And again, it happened while he was filming for a Manmohan Desai movie. An industry already cornered by the video onslaught and the middle class turning away from movie theaters wondered what would become of the various projects the superstar had agreed to star in. But what was wrong with him? Something had happened on the sets of Tuesday, for which he was filming in Bangalore.
Filmmaker-actor Tinnu Anand had just signed him for Shahenshah. After Tuesday, Bachchan was scheduled to shoot for his film, which was also scheduled in Bangalore. He told me during an interview about the making of Shahenshah, “A fifteen-day schedule was to be held in Bangalore. I think Bachchan was aiming for Tuesday at the time, and once the shooting was over the next day, he would join my unit in Bangalore. We were going to shoot in Bangalore and Mysore, and at that time Dimple (Kapadia) was the heroine of my film. I received a distress call from Mysore asking me to come to Bangalore as that is where Amitabh was. He was about to go to Madras for a check-up. Something had happened on Mard’s sets.
While filming in Bangalore, Amitabh Bachchan was beset by a strange affliction. His knee hurt excruciatingly and he developed a tingling sensation in his eyes, associated with a throat infection. Everyone thought it was due to exhaustion and overwork. They weren’t wrong. Stress and overwork were some of the causes of what ultimately happened. Things took a turn for the worse when he realized he couldn’t even drink a glass of water. Instead of swallowing it, it ran down her face. He was flown to Madras and finally to Bombay. And it was then that the doctors clarified his condition. Amitabh Bachchan suffered from myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease that causes skeletal muscle weakness. It is thought to be caused by a breakdown in the connection between the nervous system and the muscles. Basic functions like eye movements, chewing, swallowing and breathing are affected. If left unchecked, the disease spreads to the trunk and heart muscles. Amitabh Bachchan, once again, was near death.
There were at least 15 producers whose projects, all Bachchan stars, were in various stages of development. The Hindi film industry had not yet been formalized as an ‘industry’. Producers often borrowed money at exorbitant interest rates to pay advances and advance their films. After the exuberant 70s, the 80s saw a major crisis in the Hindi film industry. Bachchan was the only bankable star who could guarantee a big opening day, and even his films weren’t doing as well as they had before. Coolie was the last big hit and Sharabi had a decent run. But regardless, he was still the alpha in the jungle. It was a time when even moderate success marked a “silver jubilee”, which meant a continuous run of 25 weeks in a single theater!
There was a lot going on about this superstar, including the dozens of fans who were crazy about him. A team of doctors fought tooth and nail to get him back on his feet. He was put on a strict regimen involving medication and therapy. Finally, he was reported to be responding well to treatment, although the fact that he has asthma seemed to be a problem. But he was better. Within months, contrary to his own prophecy, the hulking figure of Amitabh Bachchan was back on set, smashing the bad guys to a pulp. The “industry” was back in action.
Amborish is a National Film Award-winning writer, biographer and film historian.