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Big B versus media?

Amitabh Bachchan's upcoming film, after this week’s release Aladin, is Rann, a take on TV news. Roshmila Bhattacharya plays a friendly mediator to hear him taking a dig at media.

entertainment Updated: Oct 28, 2009 23:01 IST
Roshmila Bhattachrya

Amitabh BachchanFor the past 555 posts, India’s most famous man, Amitabh Bachchan, has been blogging daily on the Internet. One pet peeve that’s repeatedly come out of his writing is the Indian press. He’s taken on pretty much every film or non-film journo along the way. His upcoming film, after this week’s release Aladin, is Rann, a take on TV news. Here, we play friendly mediator to hear him out on media in the media.

My interview is scheduled for 6.30 pm. I’m on my way up to the fifth-floor suite when the publicist buzzes. She sighs with relief, “With Mr Bachchan you can’t be late.”

Amitabh Bachchan has just wrapped up a group interview. The first of the one-on-one’s takes barely five minutes. It’s my turn. He greets me with a “We’ve met before.” Yes, at the Bigg Boss 3 PC. He settles down and turns to face me.

It’s “Lights, camera, action...” For the two guys who are video taping the interview for him. I wonder if I’ll find a mention on his blog. Not negatively, I hope. That draws an amused chuckle. Excerpts:

Growing up, what did you imagine a genie to be like?
A huge gentleman with a big paunch, Arabian pants and a long ponytail.

Then, he’s nothing like the genie you play in Aladin.
No, given that Sujoy (director Sujoy Ghosh) has contemporarised the old fairy tale, set it in almost modern times, he’s not all that different from a regular guy.

We’ve taken a few liberties with the hair, the hat and the dress. But for the most part, I played Mr Genie with a chuckle between my lips and a glint in my eyes.

Did you ever wish for a genie friend?
Don’t all of us at some point in our lives wish for magical powers? When I was in school, like my Bengali friend, Aladin Chatterjee, I too was punched around by boys bigger than me and made to carry out menial tasks by these bullies.

BachchanThat’s when I wished I were Batman, Superman or even Peter Pan. There was a time when my parents took on the role of genies because they seemed to have an answer to all my problems.

And now, when they are gone, who would you describe as your genie friend?
Today, at 68, I hope I may never feel the need for a genie friend.

Yeah, now you have your blog on which you can live up to the name you were first christened with, Inquilab.
The blog isn’t about sparking off an inquilab. It started out as a medium to pen down thoughts, talk to myself with a some listening in.

Today, to my delight, it’s helped me connect with the fan on the streets without having to go through the media. For 40 years, I didn’t know what this man thought of me.

Now, I do and while it may not always be complimentary, it gives me a chance to read his mind and try to improve myself in his eyes. The blog has helped me reach out to my extended family whom I can question at any hour, respond to and even take my dilemmas to.

You’ve been pulled up on the blog too by these fans a couple of times.
Yeah, because not all those reacting to the entries are starry-eyed fans. Many are extremely perceptive individuals, some more intelligent than me, who come with opinions on everything, from movies to morals.

There are times when I blurt out things without thought. A few days ago, I expressed my opinion on surrogate mothers, wondering how a woman could bear to be parted from her child.

Instantly, a couple of ladies wrote back pointing to the mental turmoil a woman who can’t conceive a child goes through, and the relief and joy she experiences when another woman helps her fulfill that dream. I had to take back my words.

Would you say that the blog has succeeded in humanising Bollywood’s Shahenshah who for so many years remained an out-of-reach movie icon?
If I seemed inaccessible, you have to blame it on the progress the media has made in the last two decades.

With over 400 TV channels, scores of newspapers, magazines and the internet, the all-pervasive media has taken over our lives.

Every time I step out of my home, my first thought is, “What if they see me?” Then, I find myself thinking, “When was the last time I wore this suit?” If it was too soon, I fear they would put together a bunch of photographs to show how I own just one suit.

You own the air only within the parameters of your home and sometimes even that space is invaded. I hold a prayer meeting on the roof of my house for privacy, and the media is looking in there too.

But is our media as bad as the western paparazzi?
It’s no less aggressive. I can’t stop people from writing. At the same time, they can’t stop me from expressing my views.

Yeah, of late, your blog has become a medium to hit out against the media.
If you truly analyse the blog, you will realise that references to the media are just five per cent. The remaining 95 per cent relate to my experiences viz a viz movies, family, events etc.

In a career spanning 40 years, you’ve had a love-hate relationship with the press. A 15 years ban, followed by a thawing period and now bursts of angry condemnation...

The media is never entirely pro or against any public figure. There are phases when good things are written about you and vice versa. It’s a cycle that has little to do with the person you are. I can understand that as a public figure I may not have the right to privacy. But, simultaneously, I cannot give one community the power to air its opinions about me, pass judgement, without it having to face my opinions and judgement. That’s why today, whenever I feel the need to correct misinformation, I do it, in the language and style I was accused of.

Does it help?
You know what’s most galling is that a half page article on me with a bold headline merits front page or pages 2 and 3. But if I come up with a rejoinder or insist on a retraction or clarification, it is tucked away in the inside pages where no one notices it. The result is that the first one off the blocks is believed and it is the damaging article that remains in the mind of the readers. That’s where the blog comes in handy, to correct misrepresentation.

Your brush with politics was brief but the repercussions continue to this day with references to Bofors and Barabanki cropping up almost daily in the newspapers.
That’s what I meant when I said that people remember headlines, not the retractions in the inside pages. The writing is there on the wall and can’t be erased even in the absence of evidence.

We fought a long battle, moved the Supreme Court, to clear our name. But no one talks about that. Positive pieces on celebrities don’t make good reading. We have name, fame and wealth.

How can we be pure? We are the villains of society who need to be pulled down regularly.

So you think you are being targetted when your name crops up in an FIR filed against Amar Singh or a lady out of the blue jumps up to insist that the land you donated for a girl’s college in UP, belongs to the gram sabha?
I have yet to see that FIR but those who have insist that my name is not in it. But again, no one talks about this because well, it doesn’t make interesting reading.

Similarly, if you study the land deeds, you would know that the plot I returned to the gram sabha earlier was a separate one from the one I donated towards building a college. This one is mine, I can do what I please with it. But no one wants to correct what was printed once.

Would you say then that you were better off in Singapore where you spent a lot of time in the last few months, by your ailing friend, Amar Singh’s bedside, away from the prying eyes of the media?
How far away can you go? Even there, I got my share of criticism, questions and press cuttings.

So, are you happy to be back?
Sure, this is my world. And even though health continues to be a worry—I’m in pain even as I talk to you—I can handle it. After all, I’m a genie now.

Are you going to be taking on the media in Ramgopal Varma’s Rann as well?
Given my past history and Ramgopal’s run-ins with the media, it would be easy to believe that we’ve connived to make something sinister. But actually, Rann is a very pro-media film that touches on the dilemma of whether to let your conscience override your business interests or vice versa.

Do you think Varma was right in reworking the words of the National Anthem to take his Rann forward?
Do you think he was wrong? Yes, there are some who don’t want the National Anthem projected in such a manner. And when there are varying opinions, you go to the censor board and the court of the land in the hope that they’ll see the positives in your film.