To watch Amitabh Bachchan is to see someone embody both worldly masculinity and goofiness, un-self-conscious empathy and hurt distance, always at the same time. A few comparisons: Cary Grant, Chow Yun-Fat and, to a lesser extent, George Clooney, Harrison Ford and Simon Yam. He has the unusual quality of being both feline (tiger or tomcat, take your pick) and wolf-like. He's Jean Gabin and Jerry Lewis rolled into one, dead serious and giddy. There's nothing like seeing his harsh face smile. He sees the troubles of the world, and then he laughs, and then he's troubled again. Of all the big movie stars working right now (40 years in, he still makes a half-dozen films a year), he presents the greatest emotional range with the greatest ease. He doesn't force feelings; he's human, as human as Chaplin.
It's there even in his first big film, Zanjeer, where he plays, as he often does, a wronged man (no one seems so in their element portraying a character out of their element). But it isn't there right away; you have to wait for it. The first time you see him, when he sits up into the frame, waking up from the nightmare of the credits, it's not quite Bachchan, just a young man that looks a lot like him. There are small glimpses -- his facial expression during the job interview, the glint of ordinary sadism in his eye when he comes to confront the red-bearded villain at the market, the way his police uniform doesn't quite fit -- but not enough. But then he's in the hospital hallway, interrogating Jaya Bhaduri, playing a knife sharpener witness to a crime. It's their first movie together. He's a good foot taller, and there's no attempt made to hide the height difference. He sits down, twirling his baton, saying every sentence as if it ended in an inaudible sigh. He grabs her arm. "You're lying," the subtitles read. He drags her into the morgue. He's yelling. He lifts the sheets, showing her (but not us) the faces of the dead. Angrily, he hurls her out of the frame, and the camera bounds forward. For half a second, he's out of focus, and then the camera is staring him right in the face, and there are those great sad eyes, weary and resigned. And that's Bachchan.