It was meant as a self-deprecating joke when Indian actor Abhishek Bachchan christened himself as this year’s ‘OTT Ka Bachchan’ [the Bachchan on Over-The-Top video streaming], owing to his prolific work on web platforms ever since the pandemic struck the globe.
But the wry comment, meant as smart wordplay by the articulate actor, got horribly lost in translation. Yet, there’s no denying that veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan’s son is fast dominating the digital content space with his steady stream of films, a documentary and a web series.
Even his latest release, ‘The Big Bull’, was originally planned to release in cinemas worldwide but was channelled towards the streaming platform Disney+ Hotstar due to the COVID-19 spike in India.
It’s Bachchan’s fourth project in the last nine months that has premiered on a streaming platform, skipping the traditional theatrical release route. ‘Ludo’ (his hilarious mad caper on Netflix), ‘Breathe: Into The Shadows (his thriller web series on Amazon Prime Video), ‘Sons of the Soil: Jaipur Pink Panthers’ (his sports documentary on his Kabbadi team on Netflix) are some of his successful digital releases.
“It’s a wonderful medium. I can’t lie because they are doing such great and interesting work. What’s really nice is that the digital platforms are a lot more focussed …. They have a completely different approach to cinemas,” said Bachchan in a Zoom interview with Gulf News.
Bachchan, who is the portrait of resilience, re-invention and enterprise, believes that digital platforms can afford to experiment with different kinds of talents with varying clout and star power.
“An actor in a film releasing in cinemas need to lure and attract audiences to leave the comfort of their house, partake in a commute, purchase a ticket, popcorn and sit in a darkened hall … There’s a lot of convincing to do,” said Bachchan, adding that work on a digital platform is less restrictive for an actor and can be viewed while travelling in a metro or when a person is on their lunch break.
Star-led Indian films catering to a big-screen audience have to jump through more hoops, believes the actor.
“An element of your real-life personality has to come into your work for the big screen, because the audiences are coming to the see the star. It’s a big trope of Indian cinema that when you go to see your favourite stars in action, you want to see them do your favourite things. If a kid went to see a [Amitabh] Bachchan film, you want to see him saying certain kind of dialogues. When you go see Shah Rukh Khan in a film, you want to see him open his arms, or when you go see Hrithik [Roshan], you want to see him dance perfectly,” said Bachchan.
Their star wattage outweighs everything else.
“That’s the art of going to the movies. When you go to see [the] ‘Mission Impossible’ franchise, you expect Tom Cruise to run real fast. And that’s not required on the OTT. We need a different skillset and a different approach. I am enjoying that approach because it allows you to unshackle yourself from what you might have had to do for films meant for the cinemas … OTT is more focussed on your craft and that’s very exciting,” said Bachchan.
Excerpts from our interview with Bachchan as we talk about his career trajectory, his digital boom, his latest film ‘The Big Bull’ in which he plays the real-life fraudster Harshad Mehta, and whether greed and ambition is good:
Q: You are on a roll this year with your steady stream of digital releases … The question about not seeing you do enough work has become redundant. Your thoughts?
A: It’s a great thing for an actor. One complaint that I have received over the last couple of years is that I don’t do enough work. At that point, my answer was always that let work happen organically. I have been working round the clock and all that work is coming out in a steady flow now. In the last nine months, ‘The Big Bull’ is my fourth project. I have been one of the few lucky ones that get work. I am happy and I am not going to complain about it.
Q: The underlying theme of ‘The Big Bull’ is ‘Greed is good’. Do you subscribe to that in real life too?
A: I don’t know. As a kid who grew up in the 80s and 90s, I felt Gordon Gekko [Oscar-winning role by Michael Douglas in ‘Wall Street’] looked almost heroic when he said: ‘Greed is good’. I don’t know if greed is good, but we need to stop being apologetic about our greed and our lofty dreams. Our culture and our society teaches us a lot of humility — which is good — but on some level that humility has turned into something you should feel guilty about wanting to achieve. I am not sure if greed is good, but ambition is always good. And, pursuing your dreams aggressively is definitely worth it.
Q: You essentially play an unscrupulous conman in ‘The Big Bull’. What attracted you to that role and how do you choose your films?
A: Ajay [Devgn, producer of ‘The Big Bull’] is family and I cannot dream of saying no to him. If he picks up a phone and talks about a film that he thinks I should do, then I know it’s something that’s going to be worth my time … I lucked out here. I was so intrigued to know that somebody — within a span of five years — rose from a chawl [slums] in Mumbai to live in Mumbai’s most expensive high-rise. My character becomes India’s first billionaire in just five years and how does somebody achieve that? I was keen to get into that character’s headspace and get into the skin of Hemant Shah (inspired by Harshad Mehta’s rags-to-riches-to-rags tale) who managed to accomplish the impossible … I am drawn to very humane characters.
Human frailties are interesting to portray on camera. What excites me are characters that are relatable and real, but who achieve unreal things. He’s far more heroic than some character who’s completely whitewashed and morally above-board. I also feel our audiences’ tastes have changed in the last 10 years. Earlier, we loved that typical heroic character who did everything right. But today’s youth want to see characters that are grey. Finally, we seem to agree that we have shortcomings as human beings, but despite those hurdles we manage to achieve what we set out to do. For instance, with my Hemant Shah’s character in ‘The Big Bull’, he manages to achieve those lofty heights but he falls for the trappings of wealth and success. Let’s face it: anybody who comes into so much wealth and power will be corrupted on some level.
Q: Is there some guilt attached to that?
A: We seem to think that the show of wealth is almost crude, crass and undignified. It can be, but there is nothing wrong in wanting to be rich and there is nothing wrong in working hard get rich. But everybody’s standards of morality differ … Today’s youth are very unapologetic about their wants and desires — be it material or spiritual. I see a lot of youngsters today who are not chasing wealth or success. For them success has an entirely different meaning. It means contentment, health and happiness. I love that about today’s generation. They are unapologetic about what they want. Our previous generations were taught to underplay our desires.
Q: You are rich and privileged. Do you feel guilty about being wealthy?
A: I don’t see why you should feel guilty about it. When you work hard, as we all do, we get what we deserve. Why should you feel guilty because it’s our hard-earned money made from our blood, sweat and tears. You shouldn’t be ashamed of it as it’s your badge of honour … I am not somebody who throws my money in people’s faces because that’s not the kind of personality I have. But I am not going to allow anybody to make me feel bad about the fact that I am earning good money. I work very hard. Without my sacrifice or those extra hours, I wouldn’t have got such results. My hard work is my foundation.