Today the man known as the Big B is bigger than ever. The last two years have seen a string of box-office successes and a level of critical acclaim unprecedented in his 35-year career. Bachchan shot 11 films last year and has signed up for nine more this year, up from only four in 2002. He has endorsement contracts with a total of 17 brands, from Parker Pens to Pepsi, making his white goatee and neat brown hair common on billboards and TV screens from Jakarta to Johannesburg. And in August, he returned to host a second series of the blockbuster television game show Kaun Banega Crorepati, the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? "He's a mythic figure," says Bend it Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha. Bachchan's friend, Reliance billionaire Anil Ambani, calls him "the biggest star India has ever known."
When Bachchan first faded from view, it marked the end of a remarkable run of hits, starting with his first lead role as a cop fighting corruption in 1973's Zanjeer. The biryani western Sholay ran for six years in Bombay on its release in 1975. In 1983, when Bachchan was injured on the set of Coolie and fell into a coma, India ground to a halt. Millions prayed, thousands gave blood and kept a candlelit vigil outside his hospital and on his recovery one fan ran 800 km backwards across India in jubilation.
In an industry where casting criteria other than talent—family ties, sex appeal, mob pressure—are often rumored to play a role, Bachchan rose to superstardom by delivering consistently towering performances. It also helped that he gave a lot of them: Sarkar ("boss" in Hindi), a stylish interpretation of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, is his 152nd movie. But Bachchan also had a profound connection to his public. In the 1970s and 1980s, as India stagnated under an autocratic government and the suspension of civil liberties during Indira Gandhi's 1975-1977 Emergency, Bachchan played a series of angry young men who dared to take on a venal, feudal establishment. To millions of cinemagoers catching a brief respite from their hardscrabble lives, he was the Indian rebel with a cause.
But the bigger Bachchan got, the less people knew him. For decades he played essentially the same part: the outsider. India adored him for it, but Bachchan, trapped in two-dimensional roles and some truly corny plots—"You get the girl, fight the villain, and get the girl again," he sighs—was able to show little of himself on screen. Off screen, wary of a near-religious level of adulation—hundreds of shrines were built to him across India—he revealed even less. "Everything you do is noticed," he tells TIME. "You need to be always on your best behavior." As India liberalized in the 1990s, opening its economy and embracing rising prosperity, Bachchan's screen persona began to look tired. By 2000, he simply didn't fit the new India. "Down and out," wrote the Hindustan Times in one review of his career, calling him "a has-been superstar."
Bachchan owes his comeback to two decisions. In debt and with his film projects stagnating, Bachchan agreed to host Kaun Banega Crorepati beginning in 2000. It was a masterstroke. On television Bachchan appeared older and wiser, with a natty beard and banker's suit. And to its delight, India found that the brooding action man of the 1970s was now sophisticated, self-deprecating and witty, exuding comfortable prosperity rather than rebellion—just what was needed at a time when India was dreaming about getting rich. Industrialist Ambani calls Bachchan's new incarnation "the avuncular older citizen who embodies the materialist aspirations of India's emerging middle class."
Bachchan's second decision was to start breaking a few Bollywood molds. With the industry leaning towards buff young tyros like Hrithik Roshan and Shah Rukh Khan for its male leads, Bachchan was an unlikely choice to play conventional romantic roles. Yet for a new generation of filmmakers keen to break new ground but in need of a star to pull in funding, he was the perfect choice. Bachchan was only too happy to find work. And so he accepted a series of roles in some of the most experimental films Bollywood has ever produced. There was 2003's Boom, a crime comedy in which he excelled as a white-suited gangster obsessed with Bo Derek; Baghban, also released in 2003, when he played an ex-bank manager exploring the loneliness of retirement; and this February's much-lauded Black, in which he plays an alcoholic, Alzheimer's-frazzled teacher of the disabled. Sarkar, his most recent release, has classic elements of the old Bachchan—killer eyes, melodrama—but the film has depth and subtlety expressed in the actor's weathered features. Performances like these have returned Bachchan to center stage, and reinvigorated an industry that seemed in danger of creative death by formula.
At 62, Bachchan is delighted to find himself at a whole new peak in his career. The opportunities are quite remarkable," he says. "The chance to play different characters, read different scripts, work with different directors. I look forward to every morning. What else can I do?" As Bachchan and India are discovering, more than either once thought.