Why This Iconic Bollywood Actor Went to Court to Ban Anyone Impersonating Him

For dozens of Indian men who make a living from impersonating Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan, things just got tricky.
Pallavi Pundir
Jakarta, ID
bollywood, amitabh bachchan, impersonation, copyright, personality rights, celebrity, India
Amitabh Bachchan approached the Indian court after his famous show 'Kaun Banega Crorepati?' was misused by fraudsters to scam people over the phone. Photo: Prodip Guha/Getty Images

Shashikant Pedwal said he fell in love with Amitabh Bachchan’s acting when he was a child. The 50-year-old teacher from the Indian city of Pune says he “obsessively watched his movies,” before starting to impersonate the Bollywood icon 15 years ago as a job.

“For millions of fans, Amitabh Bachchan is completely inaccessible,” Pedwal, who often gets mobbed on the streets as people mistake him for the 80-year-old, told VICE World News. “Through me, they feel close to him.”

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But Pedwal’s long, successful and unusual career is now under threat. Last week, Bachchan, the legendary Indian actor with an estimated net worth of $400 million, won interim legal protection of his name, image, voice and his “unique style of dialogue delivery” at the Delhi High Court. Even though celebrity rights are not codified under Indian law, the court also ordered removal of any content showing impersonations of him online. 

Bachchan’s case was fuelled by a recent scam in the country where fraudsters used his quiz show Kaun Banega Crorepati?—the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?—to fool people. 

“Someone is making T-shirts and started putting his face on them. Someone is selling his poster. Someone has gone and registered a domain name, amitabhbachchan.com,” Harish Salve, a lawyer for Bachchan, told the court. “This is why we have come.” 

For Pedwal, who has done over 3,000 shows impersonating Bachchan, and even met him this year, the news was upsetting, but not a shock. “For someone like me, Mr Bachchan has been a boon,” he said. “But yes, there have been people who misused his public name for wrong things.”

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But he is not the only one feeling the effects of the decision, with the court order impacting a thriving mini industry of lookalikes who have attained fame by perfecting the art of impersonating Bachchan. 

bollywood, amitabh bachchan, impersonation, copyright, personality rights, celebrity, India

Shashikant Pedwal impersonating Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan. Photo: Shashikant Pedwal

“Lookalike artists and impersonators are already worried over this news,” Arif Khan, the president of All India Look Alike Association, told VICE World News, adding that there are nearly 30 Bachchan lookalikes across the country. “Impersonating these famous actors was their only job. Now many of them will lose it.”

In one of the world’s largest film industries—which is valued at $2.83 billion, by one estimate—Bachchan is the most recognizable face. He found fame in the 1970s with his anti-hero roles, as opposed to the romantic leads that dominate most Bollywood films. Despite his advancing years, the 80-year-old remains a fixture on Indian film screens today, playing everyday heroes in films about social justice. 

“He epitomizes the heroism of the Hindi film hero,” culture critic Snigdha Poonam once wrote in the New York Times. “He has handled his fame gracefully.” 

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Bachchan is among India’s richest, and in Mumbai city, where he lives and works, thousands of fans gather outside his house every week to catch a glimpse of him. In a country where vast wealth inequalities have created a deep divide between the ultra-rich and the average Indian, Bollywood impersonators and lookalikes have found their niche bridging this chasm. 

Khan, whose association has 500 lookalike members, said that they play a big role as “patch works” during filming, filling in during scenes where the lead actor doesn’t have a prominent shot. “There is always work for us, but this is an unstable profession,” said Khan, who has done 3,000 shows impersonating Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor. “This is already a threatened artform, and news like this creates a sense of more instability for these artists.”

Firoz Khan is another Bachchan impersonator, who has worked as a lookalike for nearly 20 years. On his Instagram, Khan can be seen picking scenes from Bachchan’s famous movies and enacting them for his 54.4K fans. On YouTube, he has over a million views. On Memmo.me, an Indian website that allows fans to connect with small-time celebrities, Khan makes personalised messages for his own set of fans. 

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But most significantly, he told media outlet The Big Indian Picture, he has also acted as Bachchan in 40 films. “Those movies helped me take care of my family,” he said. 

bollywood, amitabh bachchan, impersonation, copyright, personality rights, celebrity, India

Firoz Khan (left) impersonating Bachchan from his younger movie days in a video at Memmo.me. (Right) Another impersonator called Amit Big B is based in Delhi.

Khan’s career, his lifeline, is at risk of coming to an abrupt halt now. On Monday, Bachchan’s lawyer Ameet Naik told Indian news outlets that the order is “absolute,” even for those who imitate the actor professionally.

He told IndiaTV News that it’s completely up to Bachchan to decide what works and what can be defined as misuse of his personality and image. "The intent of this [order] is not to take away anything from anyone, it is to come to Mr Bachchan,” Naik said. “It should be with his consent and I think it owes to every individual that what you do, must come with your consent.” 

The order is only an interim ex-parte injunction passed in Bachchan’s favour by the Delhi High Court, meaning it’s yet to be passed. But there’s also uncertainty as to whether other stars will follow suit, and if they do, the careers of other impassioned impersonators, which already hang by a thread, could fall apart. 

Bollywood has a reputation of being unforgiving to outsiders—given its history of nepotism, sexual harassment and exploitation—and the power India’s ultra-wealthy stars wield over the impersonators who rely on their likeness to earn a living is pronounced. One performer VICE World News arranged to speak with subsequently backed out of the interview, citing fears of their work being impacted. 

Despite this looming legal uncertainty, Pedwal, who has 586K followers on Instagram, remains sure of the value of his work. 

“I don’t tell people I am Amitabh Bachchan. It’s the people who perceive me as him,” he said. “If that brings them joy, then I’ve done my job.”

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