On Tuesday, October 11, Amitabh Bachchan played meet-and-greet-the-fans, popping in and out of Pratiksha and Jalsa, his imposing residences in suburban Mumbai’s JVPD Scheme, and Janak, his arty office a stone’s throw away.
It wasn’t exactly open house. The fans, several hundreds of them, maintained a restless and buzzing vigil outside all three places. Some were there from 6am. The outstation ones. Coming from as far as Kolkata. They wouldn’t leave till the lights went out. All wanted a darshan of Bachchan. It was the actor’s 74th birthday.
But this is a day Bachchan is always reluctant to raise a toast to. True, he wasn’t shooting. That’s a concession he rarely allows himself. But he wasn’t partying, either. He’s notoriously reticent in this matter.
In exasperation almost, he told me, “I’m not interested in celebrating. There’s nothing special about the day. Another year’s gone by. I’m stepping into 75. This thing about age exists only in the media. What a lot of fuss and unnecessary attention is given to this day. It’s not as significant as, perhaps, saying a film has completed 50 weeks. Or even 25!”
The best present
A quiet time at Jalsa was all he wished for. With everybody present, except his grandkids Navya and Agstya, daughter Shweta Bachchan Nanda’s teenagers who are studying abroad. I went to wish him around noon. And, since he had begun the inexorable march to 75, to find out what was on Bachchan’s mind in these advancing years. Does he think of old age and retirement? Worry about mortality? These are most people’s fears at 60. When life has tired them out. And all they want to do is enjoy their sunsets in peace.
Outside, the city celebrated Dussehra. Jalsa’s gates were decorated with a heavy marigold toran. Fans from Kolkata added pink balloons in celebration of his last film Pink. Fans occupied the footpath, they spilled onto the road, cellphones in hand, waiting to take pictures and videos when he made an appearance. It was like that at Pratiksha and Janak, too. When the crowds became a hindrance to the traffic, the police requested Bachchan to step out. He did that frequently at all three properties, going to the gates to wave to the frenzied fans, sending up an appreciative and excited roar that could be heard half a mile away.
Seventy-four isn’t a milestone year; it doesn’t call for the kind of festivity that Bachchan’s 70th birthday did in 2012, which Jaya Bachchan brought in with the mother of all parties at Anil Ambani’s Reliance MediaWorks in Film City. That party was a black tie affair that lasted four hours and included an Indian ballet performed to poems by Bachchan’s father, Dr Harivansh Rai Bachchan, the launch of a coffee-table book of paintings of the actor by 70 great artists, and a documentary on his life and times. Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, the family’s couturiers, dressed Bachchan for the night.
That was a defining day in his life. Overnight, he became a septuagenarian. Even as his last film, Ram Gopal Varma’s Department, had him playing a gangster and politician and exhibiting some spark of that old anger, rebellion and controlled violence that he is famous for.
Age had been kind. He didn’t look a day older at 70 than he had on his 50th birthday two decades ago when Shweta and Abhishek, both still in school, surprised him with a party at the Taj. Bipasha Basu told me she found Bachchan “extremely hot” and “far too sexy” for 70. “She’s joking!” he reacted. “At my age, people only want to take a selfie with me.”
He isn’t amused at concerns for his age. Or talk about his indefatigable spirit. And his inexhaustible energy. “So what if I’ll be 75 next?” he argued. “I want to continue working. Why? Because I’m getting work! Of course, it’s not like before. I don’t enjoy the same popularity and attention. But I can live with that. Acting is a profession connected to physicality. Like sports. Athletes can’t perform beyond a certain age. Look at Usain Bolt, at 30 he knows he can’t compete in the next Olympic Games, if he does – he won’t win. Actors also depend on physical presence. If my face is acceptable, and my body responds, I’ll go ahead. But I can’t do certain characters and films. I tried in Nishabd. I explored a sentiment nobody talks about. What happens when a man of 60 gets physically attracted to a girl of 16? The audience didn’t accept me! We must learn to separate an actor from his character. People should understand an actor’s work gets limited due to the physical changes that come with age.”
Rock of ages
That’s partly true. Producers aren’t signing him to romance the heroine. But while Bachchan isn’t the hero of their films, he’s the central character. In the 1970s, he created the angry young man. Now he’s getting scripts written for him that take centre stage. His roles are being redefined. He doesn’t have to go shopping for work. And he’s responsible for giving shape to sensible Hindi cinema.
Modestly, Bachchan disagreed with my assessment of his career. “I didn’t create the angry young man, Salim-Javed did,” he said bluntly. “Actors don’t go out to make an image. Writers do. I was just looking for more work. If the directors thought I was the actor who could enact those roles, then I just tried to do justice to their belief. And if I did Zanjeer and Deewar, then I also did Mili and Chupke Chupke.”
The roles may be limited at 74, but Bachchan’s making the most of them. He’s doing things he never did before. While shooting for Pink in Delhi, he roamed the crowded streets in a pollution mask, unrecognised, and blogged. “This is what life is all about, it’s called indifference, happens to all that were once recognisable.”
In Kolkata on a location shoot for Te3N, he rode a rattletrap of a scooter, and tweeted, “It’s fascinating, such opportunities are rare, one should preserve such moments.” For Piku, also in Kolkata, he cycled along the tram lines, taking bystanders in the City of Joy by surprise. In Wazir, he got the hang of riding an electric powered wheelchair – after trying out 43 models! And in Shamitabh, he sat on a toilet seat and sang the rocking number Piddly Loo!
He’s enjoying his cinema. You can see that in his choice of roles. Especially the challenge of getting under the skin of his characters and into their clothes. His look in recent films has swung between bizarre and breathtaking. And the costumes he’s worn for them have ranged from retro to high street. But Bachchan’s managed to carry it all off with abandon.
“I believe you enjoy what you’re doing or don’t do it,” he told me. “For me it’s all about doing something new. Creativity is not a 9 to 5 job, it comes from enthusiasm. I enjoy being alive, I look for a new struggle, a new experience every day. An artiste has no right to say he’s satisfied.”
“As for my look, ‘manage’ is an apt expression of my predicament. There’s a lot of huffing and puffing and energy drinks on the side. It’s embarrassing at times. But when it’s inevitable, and you have a group of youngsters egging you on with expressions like ‘Cool’ and ‘Rocking’, you actually start believing them and just go for it.”
Matters of life and death
At his age, what are his fears, I asked hesitantly. Does he, like, think about death? That he has more years behind him than he has ahead of him? Amitabh Bachchan proved to be more progressive than that.
He replied, matter-of-factly: “Age to me is the number of years I’ve been alive. And I can’t think ahead beyond a couple of years. That’s life. When I hear some of our leaders talk about the future, about some wonderful project they have launched that will fructify in 20 years, I know I won’t be around to see that happen. That’s reality. Death is inevitable. We all have to die.
“Of course, I have fears. I’ve had my share of illnesses. They have been serious, sometimes debilitating, and I’m a survivor. Yes, I’ve been scared. Not so much for what’s happening to me. But of the thought that I need to get back, to repair and return to work, because I want to secure my family. Each time I went under an operation, I’d ask the surgeon, ‘How many times have you done this? I hope you’re not going to mess it this time.’ I seek reassurance. That, too, is life.”
B-Day with the Big B!
In the midst of the chaos created by thousands of fans outside, here’s an insider’s view of what happened at Janak on Oct ober 11, when Amitabh Bachchan turned 74
Amitabh Bachchan, dressed in a lemon embroidered kurta-pajama and beige mojadis, accepted birthday greetings from the media at Janak then escaped to Jalsa where his family was waiting. They brought in the birthday with him the night before.
But Aradhya, his granddaughter who will be five in November, had been sleeping. The actual celebrations would begin now! It would be over an extended brunch. There was no special birthday lunch. No cake cutting. Simple vegetarian ghar ka khana prepared by a maharaj with his favorite dal-chawal and aloo-bhindi on the menu. Lots of namkeen stuff too, like puri aloo, chana, dosai, idli, and plenty of sweets, shrikhand puri for dessert. There was no birthday dinner outside. He doesn’t like restaurant food. If he ate out, it was Italian or Chinese vegetarian.
Friends were welcome home. Fans, he stepped out to meet. The height of celebration was being home with the family. Work beckoned after this, he was beginning Sarkar 3 for Ram Gopal Varma and Thugs of Hindustan with Aamir Khan for Yash Raj Films. What was special about the day to him? “That it’s also the International Day of the Girl Child and Vijay Dashami (Dussehra). I’m happy that Salim-Javed gave me the name Vijay.”
How did he begin the day? “By wishing Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu for their 50th wedding anniversary!” he said.
From HT Brunch, October 16, 2016
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