“Good afternoon, Manjari. This is Amitabh Bachchan,” echoed the voice over the phone, even before I’d finished introducing myself.
Bachchan had just stepped out of a shooting for Kaun Banega Crorepati, the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, last Friday to talk to tabloid!. Though he won the People’s Choice Award for the most popular TV host in October, with the conclusion of each session, speculations fly whether he would be part of the show next season, or would there be a next season.
“Firstly, I haven’t heard any of this,” Bachchan trashed any such notions. “I’ve never indicated that and neither have any of the channels I’ve worked with. It’s been 12 years and a fantastic journey, a great association. I’ve always enjoyed playing this game show”.
Put him in the Hot Seat and Bachchan laughed he won’t survive beyond the second or third question. However, he’s happy to interact with the contestants each weekend on Sony TV. You see him hanging on to every word they say, laughing or sympathising with them, gently encouraging when they speak of a tough life situation or are faced with a tough question.
“Many a time, we don’t get to know them till we have them in front of us and when they narrate their astonishing and amazing stories, it’s very moving. By coming on to KBC many people have travelled to Mumbai for the first time, have sat in a plane for the very first time, lived in hotels that are air-conditioned for the first time. These are our countrymen. We don’t know what conditions they live in. Then they suddenly find themselves on this medium with a chance to win large sums of money, only because they educated themselves to reach this position to make a life-changing decision. One feels very satisfied when one sees the hope that they come with getting fructified. That is one of the most wonderful experiences”.
With a lukewarm debut in Saat Hindustani (1969), Bachchan’s first true success came with Zanjeer (1973), which earned him the title “angry young man”. With award-winning performances in action to romance, from lead to multiple roles, we’ve watched him make the audience laugh and cry with him — when he applies a bandage to his battered face in the mirror in Amar Akbar Anthony or pretends to have a hearty meal while talking over the phone to his wife (played by Hema Malini) in Baghban. But, when it comes to having himself being remembered, Bachchan feels he’s no better than the guy next door.
“Just like another name,” came the modest reply. “I don’t think there’s anything special about it”.
But Bachchan is not just a name. It’s a brand name, something which is quite evident in the adoration on the sets of KBC. Recently, one of the contestants said that his mother claimed Amitabh Bachchan is from their time. But he believed Amitabh Bachchan was from his generation and tomorrow his children will say he is from theirs.
“I’m very proud of the surname because it belonged to my father, it was created by him and his creation and his contribution is going to be immense. I can’t possibly compare myself to him,” said the man, who claims doesn’t know poetry at all, even when his father was a renowned poet. But he is just “happy being, or trying to be, an actor”.
Something no one can debate having given blockbusters such as Zanjeer, Sholay, Deewar, Abhimaan, Saudagar and Chupke Chupke to name just a few. It was Yash Chopra’s Deewar that re-inforced “the angry young man” in him. Bachchan has always maintained that Chopra was not just a director but a great friend.
“He followed his passion which was filmmaking — a passion which didn’t necessarily match the times. But, he believed in doing what he felt strongly about. As a director he was a wonderful, wonderful person to work with. His knowledge and way of storytelling, his sense of music, what he wanted to do with a particular script — whether it was a Deewar or Trishul, which were much more dynamic and dramatic as opposed to a Kabhi Kabhie or Silsila which were more poetic – there was an entire repertoire of his which one can refer to with a lot of affection. And a lot of his personality used to reflect in the kind of cinema he made. There was always an Indianness about his subjects, yet he never failed to portray a more updated version — or one which a lot of people in the west did not associate with – of India. We are always looked down upon as this poor country but he was very good at presenting a very modern India and to weave a story around that.
Bachchan makes his aversion to the term “Bollywood” quite clear, though he feels it has made great progress in its 100 years of existence.
“Obviously [being] 45 years in the Indian film industry, there have been lot of changes technically. However, I feel the written word is not as prominent as it used to be. But then I don’t blame the present generation because it is exposed to a lot more to television, the internet and so on, [instead of] just a singular act of cinema-going in the early years. There was no other form of entertainment then and fewer distractions, so, a lot of value and attention was given to it. The pace of life was much slower. The writing and intricacies of the written word and the story-telling also reflected in films of those times. Now of course, speed in communication has taken over. If a window on your laptop doesn’t open within the millionth of a second, it’s you feel that is not a good machine. So all these factors go into the building up this younger generation’s thinking, that wants to think fast, talk fast, come to results as soon as possible and move on. Cinema is almost inter-related to technology. Keeping that in mind films being made today are fine because that’s what they want, else [the films] wouldn’t succeed”.
The past year has been particularly harsh on the industry with legends such as Dev Anand, Rajesh Khanna and Yash Raj passing away, almost like an end of an era. Bachchan agrees it makes him reflect on life.
“When we lose the stalwarts from our industry it’s very depressing. An entire era has gone by with Yash Chopra, with Dev Anand, with Rajesh Khanna. Other than reflect on it and say those were the days and those were the times, one can’t really do anything else. This is a very normal procedure of nature and in time to come, the next generation or the generation after that would also like to reflect on hopefully what we are doing here and say ‘those were the days’”.
From Nutan to Jaya Bhaduri, Hema, Rekha and Sridevi to Vidya Balan and Preity Zinta, Bachchan has shared screen space with some of the most beautiful and talented women in the world. Ask him, however, which would be the best era of heroines he’s worked with and he simply refuses to comment.
“I can’t possibly comment on my own generation, on the people I worked with, as that would be a little impertinent on my part,” he said. “Every generation has fantastic leading ladies and they’ve all made huge contributions and are extremely talented. If I was to look back, I would like to say the era of Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rehman, Nargis, Madhubala, Nutan — they were the greats and will always remain that. But I’m sure the generations that will come after me will be able to say [the women I’ve worked with] are some great leading ladies”.
Neither does he have an issue playing secondary to a female lead…
“That depends upon the story and upon the kind of films we make. There have been many occasions where [my role] has not been the most important role but which is adequate for me and good enough. I’m happy to do it”.
Ask him however what he would advise newcomers, he feels he’s nobody to give advice.
“They should be sincere to their work and must keep trying. There will be successes and failures, so don’t get too discouraged. If they have the talent and the confidence of the talent then they will certainly succeed”.
Box: From Paa to Grand Paa, who is Amitabh Bachchan when he’s not on screen?
“Oh I’m just like any other grandfather. I’m just like any other father. I like spending time with my grandchildren and with the family. That’s the best time of the day”.
Box: The Great Gatsby experience
“Great Gatsby is being directed by Baz Luhrmann. It’s a Warner Bros production. You can’t even consider it a blink-and-miss role. It’s almost just a couple of seconds. It’s just done out of a healthy gesture for the director. Baz happened to be visiting India in a personal capacity and he sent a message that he desired to meet me. I met him very casually – we talked of everything under the sun except cinema – and then last year he just called me and said there is this role that he’d like me to participate in. ‘It’s nothing but, you know, it’ll just make me feel good if you’d do it’, he said. And I just went ahead and spent a day there. There’s no monetary involvement in this”.
Box: Social media savvy
Known to be one of the first members of Indian film industry to take up social networking with twitter and blogging, Bachchan still feels India needs time to reach on par with the rest of the world.
“We are still at a very nascent stage but the moment we come up on grade, undoubtedly we’ll be the number one nation in the world – purely because of our population denominators. You know what will happen when 1.2 billion people will come on the net or come on to consumerism. The more computerization and the information technology seeps into the rest of the country, the more people will realise its worth to be able to communicate”.