In a freewheeling conversation with Indrajit Hazra , Amitabh Bachchan talks about the media, his views on being described as a ‘propagator of superstition’, Amar Singh, his advice to his son and cracks a Jewish joke.
The last six months have been interesting times for you — your career as an actor is in the spotlight again, your son got married, and there were cases filed against you in the courts. How has it been for you in the last half year?
What I’ve been realising over the past two days I’ve been talking to the media is that a lot of things that we felt were trivial have been actually taken up quite seriously [by the media].
You didn't expect that?
Obviously not. Because we thought that some of them were laughable. For instance, the whole manglik thing [about Aishwarya marrying Abhishek would bring a curse into the family]. And because it was so ridiculous, we never paid attention.
But when you heard about it, didn't you immediately want to scotch such talk?
You know, if I was to sit down and try and scotch everything that comes out in the newspapers I wouldn't have the time for anything else.
So how did this sort of thing come about?
<b1>I think it all began with the electronic media suddenly airing…. no, it actually began earlier with the association, or the media's attention on the association between Abhishek and Aishwarya and the speculation of some kind of union. And what happened subsequently were perceptions, speculations that were astrological in nature. Then one day we saw some astrologer coming on television saying that this is her [Aishwarya's] horoscope, its not right, so on and so forth.
Then you had shots of my brother [Ajitabh] being interviewed saying that he didn't know anything about this. The accusation was that my brother took Aishwarya's horoscope and this is what the astrologer said. Even I haven't seen Aishwarya's horoscope till today. Neither has she. Two people have decided to get married. That's all that matters to me. My son called me from New York - he and Aishwarya had gone for the premiere of
. "I've proposed to her and she has said yes," he said. I said, "Come home". We still don't know what this manglik is.
You don't think this is part of the larger political campaign against you? The court cases involving farmland and tax evasion?
The government has more important things to do than to hound me. Everyone of us has the law to deal with. These things come up in a routine fashion. And if I may say so, sir, it [the manglik business] still hasn't stopped. And that's very tragic. That even after she has become the wife of my son, they are still saying she's this and she's that. I believe she's a blessing to the family. We will not tolerate any of this nonsense.
Do you regret iconhood and the downsides that seem to come with it?
I've never believed in these epithets. I don't want to believe in it. These are in the minds of the media and some people. Please explain to me what being an icon is. How do you define it? I haven't been given a script. I don't know what the dialogues of an icon are.
How do you respond to charges that you're superstitious and by being in your position you end up encouraging superstition for millions?
<b2>I'm just practising a very normal human practice of going to the temple. But the insinuation is that they [the Bachchans] are going to the temple to get the manglik removed. This is rubbish. Four instances, I'll tell you.
The first one was when we went to Benares. It was the 27th of November, my father's birth anniversary. When my father passed away [in 2003], the Government of India issued a stamp in his honour the next year. The stamp was released by the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Atalji and my father had been very close associates. He came to inaugurate the function and in his speech he said that he wanted every year on the 27th of November to be celebrated with a Kavi Sammelan in Lucknow. For the past year, my mother has been critically ill. She has been hospitalised with Alzheimer's and dementia. We have traditionally always celebrated Holi and Diwali as festivals opening our house to everyone. We did not celebrate last year because we felt that this celebration would be insensitive. When my father's birthday came up last year, we all felt that it would be improper to have the celebrations. Jaya was shooting in Benares… Laga Chunari Mein Daag, I was in Bombay, Abhishek was shooting in Delhi. Aishwarya happened to have been passing through Delhi, they were seeing each other. Jaya said, "Look, it would be nice if all of us could come and pray in the Sankatmochan Temple in Benares. Its dad's birthday, the whole family will get together." That's all that it was. The whole thing just repeatedly came coming that they've gone there to get rid of the manglik curse.
Then they got engaged in the early part of January. 24th January was Amar Singhji's birthday. We went to Vidyanchal. It's a temple that he believes in. He wanted to marry off 50 underprivileged couples. He said that he spends a lot of money throwing parties in Delhi …rather give it to charity. It's a temple where his children had their mundan. So we all went there. That's all we did.
Then the whole thing was put up 'Oh he's going to Siddhivinayak Temple to pray.' I've been there many times. Siddhivinayak, every Tuesday, has a very fine aarti and people walk on Monday night at midnight from all parts of the city. I've done that many times. But now it's being insinuated that I went there for the manglik thing.
The notion that you propagate superstition by repeatedly going to temples has been doing the rounds.
I ask you, as a citizen, is it a crime to go to the temple? And if I am propagating superstition by going to the temple, then the whole country is propagating superstition. And what about the TV channels and the media? Please stop those TV [religion and faith] channels immediately! What about the print media? Don't you print horoscopes? Some people quoted works of my father and said his father was a staunch agnostic, he never believed in all this, how come his son is propagating superstition. My father was nothing like that. He is not alive to defend himself. I think it's unethical for people to refer to him in this manner.
Do you miss the time when there was a clear division between Amitabh Bachchan on the screen and Amitabh Bachchan in his private life? When did you think it started? Once you associated yourself with politics and politicians?
I'm not in politics. I left it years and years ago. I've accepted that I was a failure in politics. I was not qualified for the job…
You did win by a landslide in 1984 against a stalwart like Bahuguna. Then you quit in 1987. Why did you join politics in the first place?
It was an emotional decision. Mrs Gandhi had been assassinated; we all felt very close to Rajiv and felt that we should stand behind him. He asked me to fight an election. Fortunately or unfortunately, I faced a huge adversary and won. I ended up in Parliament and soon discovered that emotion really doesn't have any place in politics. It's a much more intricate and complicated game and I just didn't know how to play it. Neither was I interested. Almost at the same time there were allegations against me and my family - the Bofors issue. I decided I would resign… a lot of people advised me not to resign, to stick there and fight it. But I thought, no, my conscience and my morality did not allow me to do that. I resigned, I fought against allegations in five countries, won and, well, the truth is before us now - who is involved and who isn't. <b3>
Do you regret getting into politics then?
No, I don't regret it. There were very valuable moments. I decidedly wanted to work hard and do something for the people of my country. The only regret that I have is that I was not able to fulfill the promises that I had made to my constituency, to Allahabad.
In 2018, your son will be the age you were when you started your stint in politics. What will your fatherly advice be to him if he does decide to…
I…strongly advise him even now that he must not. I've advised every member of my family…
But your wife…
Jaya's a member of the Rajya Sabha, but that's…that's not politics. She just enjoys the fact that she sits there…she's almost like a little girl in school, goes through questions and then answers.
But you are very close to some politicians. Do you detect some media hostility towards your closeness to Amar Singh?
I don't see why there should be. If I have chosen Amar Singhji as my friend, it's got nothing to do with politics.
How did you and Amar Singh meet?
How do you meet a friend?
I'm just trying to…
No, I want to ask you. Because whatever you would say would apply to me. What makes you come close to someone and have him as a friend? You enjoy his company. You feel that when you talk or he talks, you understand each other. And you feel that he is somebody who will stand by you when you're in some kind of trouble, or stand by you and be happy with you in moments of joy. That's what Amar Singh is. We're great friends. But because of his… being a politician, everyone is assuming that there is more to it than that.
But can you name me anything that he may have done for me, or that I have been a recipient of any kind of political largesse? Has this family been the recipient of any kind of political largesse? My father was a Rs 500 lecturer in Allahabad University when he came to know Jawaharlal Nehru. He was an Officer on Special Duty in the Hindi section, because he was called by Panditji to head that department. When Mrs Gandhi was the Prime Minister, I joined the film industry. I worked on my own. When Rajivji was Prime Minister, I was doing my own thing. And we're still doing the same.
What about the theories that do the round about your friendship with Amar Singh?
Name me a theory.
That he came to your help when you needed help after the collapse of ABCL.
In what way? Not a single financial input came, nor has there been a presumed financial input from either Mr Anil Ambani or Mr Subroto Roy. I had huge outstandings, creditors at my door and everyone advised me that this is business, if you go you should declare bankruptcy, pack your bags, enjoy your life, go home. But I felt that that was not what my conscience was telling me to do. I just felt that if there were a company that bears my father's name, it would be my moral duty to pay back everyone. I worked, and I worked hard and I paid back everyone. And I'm happy that my company has got back in black. That's about it. But yes, there were friends who just came and stood by me. When somebody holds your hand in an hour of trouble [shows an embrace], that's it, that's all that you do. That's just a gesture, showing your solidarity, your strength, almost your abstract physical strength to that person.
And Amar Singh is that person for you?
I believe that Amar Singhji is that man. I believe that he's a more practical person than I am. I believe I lack that practicality because I'm in the creative world. I'm not aware of the intricacies of the system or the law or all these things. I used to get managed by my brother. He left to settle down abroad and there was a vacuum, a gap and…I knew him [Amar Singh] much before he became what he is.
You say you haven't gone into politics since the 1980s. What about in UP?
<b4>The UP Development Council was formed by the UP government headed by Amar Singhji under the patronage of the Chief Minister [Mulayam Singh Yadav] - not a government organisation, but almost a quasi-…where several dignitaries were invited to come and join as advisors… well, not advisors but people who give suggestions. Anil Ambani, Adi Godrej, Kumar Mangalam Birla, Subroto Roy…all these people were on our board…board meaning panel. We sat through several meetings. We discussed how and what we can do to bring in investment into Uttar Pradesh and to see it together. We had marvellous meetings. We had people coming in from overseas, with concepts and ideas, a lot of them actually executed. How do you propagate what is happening in Uttar Pradesh? How do you invite investors into the state? That was the next question and they felt that I could be made brand ambassador, either through my contacts, my deliberations. I was doing brand ambassadorship for Cadbury's and all kinds of other things. Why not for my own state? I was born and brought up there. Seven generations of my family have lived and died there. So these were campaigns that we did. What have I talked of in Uttar Pradesh? I have talked…glorified the state; I've said that if I'm ever born again I would like to be born there. Then a huge hue and cry was raised about crime in the state. What did I come and say? I'm quoting from a Central report - not a UP state report - it's a Central Home Ministry report which states that UP is 26th or 27th in the line-up of 'crime states'…the degree of crime. I have not said that jurm idhar nahi hai [there is no crime]; mein keh raha hun ki Uttar Pradesh mein anya rajyon se jurm kam hai [I am saying it is less than in other states].'
But surely that's being very technical and the timing was rather bad with Nithari and…
Nithari? What is Nithari? I believe it's a social ailment. You have a man-eater, or whatever… alleged man-eater. There's something wrong with society. What's happening in Chhattisgarh? Every day we read someone getting raped, someone getting stabbed… But if you're deliberately going to go after some person or some area… So we have refocused the attention [through the UP Development Council promo] and have succeeded in destroying that image.
With the change in government in UP, do you expect a witch hunt against the friends of the previous government?<b5>
I don't think so. If you've done something right, nobody will be able to touch you. If you've done something wrong, nobody will be able to save you.
And the court cases related to farmlands in UP and Maharashtra and the charge that you're evading tax?
These are sub judice matters. I won't be able to comment on them now. As for a campaign against me, I am a nobody, just another citizen of this country.
Surely a little more than just another citizen?
No, I sincerely believe that.
You've fared crises before - your injury during the shooting of Coolie, after leaving the Congress during Bofors, the failure of ABCL, now these court cases. You seem to always bounce back.
You know, I'm always reminded of this famous Jewish joke. A Jewish man died and went up to the gates of heaven and asked God, "Lord, is it true that we are the chosen people?" And God said, "Yes, my son, you are." The man replied, "You mind choosing somebody else for a change?" I don't know. This is destined for me. I hope that I have the strength and the ability to overcome it. You can't always be successful. Who knows? I may fail. We're all human. We have human failures. But I would like to say in all these matters that I have great respect for the judiciary in this country and the judicial system. And I will follow it. I will also do two more things: I will follow my conscience, and I will follow what is morally right.