The national anthem has finally gained 100% legitimacy: it has been rendered by Amitabh Bachchan.

The national anthem in the voice of Amitabh Bachchan.

There is little that Hindi cinema’s timbre merchant hasn’t lent his voice to, from cement and hair follicle-cooling oil to the touristic wonders of Gujarat. Bachchan’s baritone has a fan following that is distinct from the attention lavished on his tall frame and brooding visage. What Zul Vellani was to Films Division newsreels and Ameen Sayani to the radio, Amitabh Bachchan has been to Hindi film – the sonic symbol of authority for all ages and seasons, second only to the Almighty.

So what happens when that voice emerges from another actor’s mouth? This is exactly the premise director Balki examines in his new movie Shamitabh. It revolves around a speech-impaired actor, played by Dhanush, whose voice is dubbed by Bachchan. With Dhanush on the screen and Bachchan in the recording studio, the future looks bright until the shadows creep up, as they inevitably do.

The February 6 release is Balki’s third collaboration with Bachchan after Cheeni Kum and Paa. “The idea is that the voice will stand out on a face that nobody is used to,” explained Balki. There were many levels of dubbing in the movie since Bachchan’s voice had to be matched with Dhanush’s facial expressions. “The movie will be a tribute to Dhanush if audiences forget that they are listening to Amitabh Bachchan’s voice,” Balki said. “Amitji’s voice is one that most people would like to have.”

Shamitabh (2015).

It’s perhaps inevitable that Bachchan’s voice has become a plot device. His bass tones, crisp diction and rich vocal texture have expressed anger, anguish, desire, humour, maturity, refinement, expertise and wisdom in the movies for well over five decades. Some actors come to be immortalised in memory as still life photographs and posters, while others are remembered in movement, through songs, dances, action sequences, romantic moments and dramatic gestures. In the case of stars of the stature of Bachchan, it’s possible to consider the .jpegs along with the .wavs – these rare individuals match the visual and the aural perfectly, with every part of their selves deemed attractive and therefore worthy of commercial exploitation.

Bachchan’s voice has such a following that when the late filmmaker Mukul S Anand got the mega-star to lampoon his typical dialogue delivery style in the 1990 movie Agneepath, the movie dismayed some fans (while winning him new ones).

When Bachchan appeared on television for the first time in the game show Kaun Banega Crorepati in 2000, his modulated rumble leapt off the big screen and reverberated through living rooms. Since then, his pile of brand endorsements has grown enormously. But he has also attracted imitators by the truckload. The growing Bollywoodisation of public culture in the last decade nurtured a cottage industry of soundalikes who were able to imitate the voices of movie stars of the past. At first, the stars were amused. But they later felt threatened.

In 2009, Dharmendra’s son Sunny Deol successfully managed to stop a radio show spoof of his father and him, while Bachchan, angered that a tobacco manufacturer had used an impersonator for a television commercial without his consent, threatened to patent his voice.

Bachchan didn’t follow through on his threat (it would not have been legally admissible anyway), but he had sent out a loud and clear message: only he had the right to decide what his voice should sell. If he chose to hawk Daawat basmati rice, it was his business alone.

Agneepath (1990).

However, movie stars cannot be everywhere and are not always multi-lingual. Hence, voice artists such as Sudesh Bhonsle, Chetan Shashital and Ninad Kamat have dubbed Bachchan’s lines for many of his television commercials when he has been too busy to do so himself. The television commercial Bachchan did with Sachin Tendulkar for the cola brand Pepsi, for instance, was voiced by Shashital, who has worked on over 30,000 commercials.

Shashital has done similar voice work for other celebrities, including Shah Rukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan and Rajesh Khanna, who endorsed Havells ceiling and table fans in a television commercial in 2012 a few months before he died. The face and body is Khanna, but since the ailing actor was too weak to dub his lines, the voice is Shashital’s.

“I have done a lot of voicing for Mr Bachchan, such as songs from the movie Kyun! Ho Gaya Na..., and many commercials,” said Shashital, who appears in a short sequence in Balki’s Shamitabh as a voice coach. He distinguishes between mimicry, which is what smaller brands might use when they cannot afford to pay a star’s endorsement fees, and star-sanctioned voice work, which is the domain of established companies and advertising agencies.

“The kind of work that I do, I term it voice design,” Shashital said. “You might have heard Mr Bachchan in the movies – there are so many places where you need to think about how he would deliver the dialogue. The difference between mimicry and what we do is the difference between drawing a caricature and doing a portrait.”

Sona Sona, Major Saab (1998).

Voice work is about creating a character that matches the persona of the star, Shashital explained. “The basic problem is that everybody wants to associate himself with Mr Bachchan,” Shashital said. “If you use an artist’s voice and demean or undermine them in some way, they will object.”

Ninad Kamat, the voice artist and actor who most recently appeared in Crazy Cukkad Family, also dubs for Bachchan, especially when his commercials are replicated in other Indian languages such as Tamil, Telugu and Bengali. “Nobody has the licence to use his iconic voice to sell paan masala and underwear,” Kamat said. “There is a marketing strategy behind using mimicry artists or duplicates to sell brands that are endorsed by him.” There was a phase in the nineties and 2000s when mimicking various actors was common, Kamat said, but that phase has died out after the stars got savvy and began asserting their rights over their voices.

Mimicry artists are unwelcome in an age in which movie stars have successfully transformed themselves into commodities. But it is these soundalikes who, through their stage performances and skits, keep an actor’s fan base energised. Working on the principle that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, mimicry artists trigger fondly held memories of a star’s greatest moments, whether it’s a line of dialogue or a song.

Sudesh Bhonsle, one of the best-known Bachchan vocal impersonators, started off his career as a mimicry artist in 1980. Bhonsle can imitate the voices of a range film personalities, but it is his uncanny ability to reproduce Bachchan’s pitch that earned him fame at stage shows in the early eighties. “I joined the Melody Makers orchestra in 1982, and my specialties were Sanjeev Kumar and SD Burman, but I also used to perform Mr Bachchan’s monologues from such movies as Zanjeer and Andha Kanoon and the songs he has sung himself, such as Mere Saath Aao Mere Doston, Mere Angne Mein and Rang Barse,” Bhonsle said. The first song he sang in Bachchan’s voice was Ya Ali Ya Ali for Shashi Kapoor’s Ajooba in 1991. But it was Jumma Chumma De De from Mukul S Anand’s Hum in the same year that sealed Bhonsle’s reputation as Bachchan’s sonic shadow forever.

Jumma Chumma De De, Hum (1991).

Bhonsle has accompanied Bachchan on entertainment shows in India and abroad, at which he has provided both the vocals to Bachchan’s lip syncing as well as sung along with the actor on the stage. After Bachchan complained that his voice had been misused, Bhonsle made it a point to get a written or oral confirmation from the actor before mimicking him at stage shows.

“There was a phase in between when Mr Bachchan had signed a contract with Star Plus stating that his voice would not be used for any other endorsement and at the time, he called me and requested me not to do his voiceover for anything else,” Bhonsle said.

He continues to dub for the star, such as for a recent Binani Cement commercial, and for the Bhojpuri movie Gangadevi, which was produced by the star’s make-up artist and features a cameo by Bachchan and songs in his voice. One of Bhonsle’s most recent assignments is for the unreleased movie Hasmukh Pigal Gaya, which is a tribute to Bachchan as well as Raj Kapoor. Bhonsle sings the track Kisiki Muskurahaton Pe Ho Nisar from the movie Anari in Bachchan’s voice.

How, according to the voice artists, does Bachchan exercise his vocal cords? “Mr Bachchan knows how to use his words and he knows what his voice is all about,” Shashital observed. “He knows how to get the bass and the highs of his voice out. His voice is a case study – it has evolved over time. In Sholay, it wasn’t as deep as in, say, Laawaris. Even when he shouts, he is completely in control.”

Kamat pointed out that Bachchan has an intense nasal quality in his voice. “I heard that he would sometimes lie down on the floor and record his voice early in the morning for maximum effect,” Kamat said. “He has a voice culture that he has purposefully developed over the years.”

Ironically, one of Bachchan’s early roles was as a mute character in Sunil Dutt’s 1972 drama Reshma Aur Shera. His vocal skills were appreciated early on by filmmaker Mrinal Sen, who got the actor to provide the voiceover for his satire Bhuvan Shome in 1969.

The power of the Bachchan soundscape, whether his own or rendered by a soundalike, can be judged by a short film made in 2003 by film journalist and festival programmer Meenakshi Shedde. In Looking For Amitabh, Shedde interviews Bachchan’s visually impaired fans and asks them what they admire in him.

“Anyone can make out Amitabh is going to enter” a frame, explains one fan. It’s not important that these devotees cannot see their idol in the flesh. They can hear him and therefore feel him, and that is all that matters.