I first met Amitabh Bachchan in the lobby of St. James Court Hotel in London. We were both in the city together with key members from Star TV to meet the team behind Millionaire, and witness recordings of the show.
He was typically withdrawn, laconic, monosyllabic and guarded. He wasn’t at all certain about the switch from the big screen to the small, from actor to anchor. This was the visit on which he was going to decide whether or not he was going to do the show.
At a conclave on the morning after our first visit to the set, his condition was that if we could match the content, production values, and atmospherics of the British original, he would do it. All eyes turned to me. I said an emphatic yes, we’d deliver, as long as Star backed us up with funds and support. Sameer (Nair) and Steve (Askew) assured complete assent, and we were on.
Later, on the same visit, we had the first taste of magic when we recorded a few promos with him on the London set. I was in the control room. I remember asking for the big heartbeat, the blue lights changing to limbo, and the technocrane tracking in as we cued the Big B to set out the basic drama, with lines he’d written - “ Main yahan, Aap wahan. Hamare beech 15 sawaal. Aur aap jeet sakte hain. Ek karod rupaye.” That rich baritone, measured delivery, and pure presence raised gooseflesh on the British crew. The local producer remarked “My God, with a voice like that, who needs a set and all the rest of it?”
He was the first and only choice for the show. Sameer and I were toying over the feasibility of the show over a cup of coffee in Delhi, when his name casually floated up in the conversation. Who’ll present? Amitabh Bachchan? Sameer asked. Incredible as it then sounded, I had little doubt about how right he’d be, and responded - If you can convince him, absolutely.
And indeed, who else had the charisma, the bilingual eloquence, the stature, the sense of drama, to pull it off? Nowhere else in the world did the show have a film star as host, while still being the top show. But here, Star’s objective was to achieve a seismic shift to reposition themselves from a distant No. 3 to the top of the table, and a force multiplier was called for. Sameer said he’d work on it. A few months down the line, we were all in London, and on our way.
There were a lot of Cassandras who feared he’d be diminished by the small screen. Instead, he enlarged it.
He’s a conscious and conscientious performer, launching a performance on a bedrock of preparation and practice. Thoroughly familiarising himself with content, mastering the nitty gritty of online multi camera recordings, the flow of multiple sound, light and computer cues, background on the contestants, and all the rest of it. From programme number one till the 305th one, he didn’t let up in either the pre-recording preparation, the briefings in the breaks or the reviews after the recording. All of which is a director’s delight.
I’m not a regular Hindi movie watcher. I had seen a number of his films though, for an academic paper on the outsider-revenge genre post Zanjeer, and thought he was a powerful performer. What I particularly appreciated was the class and high style he brought to mass appeal.
The talent with which he’s been gifted, and the discipline and the detail with which he approaches his craft are admirable. He’s very private as a person. Our association was essentially professional. Who knows of history before it gets made, but with him, there’ll certainly be magic once we start working together.