Abhishek Bachchan holds up his hand to show the thick orange-strapped diving watch from the brand he endorses and says, "It’s shark resistant, which means a shark may eat you up, but the watch will survive."
It’s these attributes of loyalty and humour that have stood by the junior Bachchan almost as much as his famous lineage and popular spouse. For, if he didn’t see humour in life, he would not have survived 17 flops in four years and still hung on bravely.
But the once happy-go-lucky star kid was not always so good-humoured about his career. After the series of flops, he told his father he thought he had made a mistake entering this profession. The Big B, no stranger to struggle himself, “got very upset and said, I did not bring you up to be a quitter. I brought you up to fight and I am telling you that you have it in you. You are improving with every film. Go out there, train, improve, work hard and things will turn around,” Abhishek says.
So the actor accused of not working hard enough on his roles, took his father’s advice and also that of childhood friend Aditya Chopra, and immersed himself in his profession.
“Adi once told me it takes a lot for the audience to love someone. Don’t disrespect that. So you have to be conscious of what you are doing and how you are doing it. Never give the impression that you are sleepwalking through something because they come with expectations.You cannot slight that.”
From then, Junior became more conscious of his job. He went from being “a kid in a candy store”, excited to be doing what he had always dreamt of doing without really understanding the craft or technique, to gathering the tools. “I was very immature and not prepared at all. Today I feel far more equipped. You learn something new about life and work everyday and every day you learn something new as an actor.”
Chopra also gave Abhishek another gift, Dhoom, which is counted as his first big hit. Ten years in the industry and 40 films later, now a 33-year-old man, Abhishek has had both success and failure. Only now has he become a real part of his family company, AB Corp. He was launched by J P Dutta with Refugee in 2000, and in 2009, he stars alongside his father in the AB Corp production, Paa. He also wears a second hat – that of producer.
“I am trained as and used to be a production boy on Mrityudaata and Major Saab during the ABCL days. So to be in the producer’s chair now is a bit weird. But it’s also challenging to be wearing two hats. This is the first time I am working for my dad’s company. After 10 years I have got the honour. I am very happy I took on the stress because Paa has turned out exactly as I wanted it to. You usually envisage a film in a particular way and it either surpasses your expectations or does not match up to them. Paa meets them exactly. At a time when you see some astronomical budgets, I managed to make the film in just Rs 15 crore all inclusive,” Abhishek beams. Did father and son get paid? “Yes we did, but I was miserly with dad and made him take a huge discount!”
Just then a Motorola phone beeps and Abhishek checks the message that comes in on his ‘dad phone’, a dedicated connection between father and son. The other phone, also a Motorola, is the everybody-else phone, including for wife and mother. The only other gadget around is a digital recording device that one assumes is to keep a record of interviews in case of misquotation, or to protect him from controversy. Abhishek denies this.
“I have never been in such a situation. I record my interviews for selfish reasons. When I am 70 and sitting in my rocking chair, I want to hear this interview again. It’s not vanity. I document everything I do. As actors, we lead very privileged lives, see and experience a variety of things. I could keep a diary, but how do I record a public appearance? For instance, I was at an event in a mall in Kolkata recently where almost 10,000 people showed up and the mall had to be shut. I have that on video because this memory of people’s love for you is worth preserving.”
Person to person
You wonder if Abhishek has ever known a life out of the spotlight. He explains that celebrity status is not only thrust upon you by fans and the media; it also comes from an awareness of your responsibility towards your fêted parents.
He says, “Although I was just another student in Switzerland and the United States, I was acutely aware of whose son I was. There are a lot of Indians everywhere and many watch Indian films. I was very conscious of my responsibility towards my family. Also, I have never been a party animal who wants to do stupid things and behave badly. Having said that, unlike today, in the mid ’90s it was still possible to go places unrecognised.”
Today, when Indian cinema and its stars have become global exports, this privacy is rare. Yet, the Guru and Dostana actor says he does “normal” things like go to Mumbai’s Worli Seaface for bhutta. “My dad used to take me as a kid. I still go with dad.” Crowds don’t hassle them, he says. “People approach us and ask for autographs which is fine. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing has to change depending on how you approach your fame. You can do whatever you want. You can go to the cinema and watch a movie with the audience, but if you walk in with 50 bodyguards who push people out of the way, you will be noticed. If you go in after the lights go down and quietly leave, it will be fine. What will happen? They will shake your hand, say good job or bad job, ask for an autograph. You make films for the audience and then you want to run away from them. I don’t understand that and I don’t understand actors who don’t like to be photographed, etc.”
In a business where the private nicknames of star children – like Dugu, Gattu, Bebo, Baba – seem to have become public property, Abhishek Bachchan has got away with the far-less embarrassing tags of ‘AB’ and ‘Junior’. But he has also been dubbed the brat of the film industry, a title he finds incomprehensible just as much as his reputation of being a ‘prankster’ baffles him.
“I have never understood this label of ‘prankster’. I don’t think I have ever pulled a prank on anyone. If you have ever worked with Sunil Shetty or Ajay Devgan, then you know what pranks are. You are never safe when they are on set,” says Abhishek. “I just have a lot of fun and am very hyper. I need a casual atmosphere when I work. I cannot work if things are tense.”
But he cannot shake off the brat tag easily. As the son of superstar parents, AB Junior is to the manor born. He claims he is the same person he has always been. “I don’t think I have changed at all since I was a kid. But I have no idea why people say I am a brat. I like to think they say it in a nice, loving way. I do like to have fun. I have never understood why filmmaking should be like going to school. I look forward to going to work every morning and I hope my colleagues feel the same and look forward to working with me.”
The performing arts student left his American degree incomplete and returned to India “for emotional reasons. ABCL was going through financial troubles and I felt I should be with my father. Dad’s very self-contained and likes to sort out his own problems, but just knowing his family is with him gives him a lot of strength. Morally, as a son, I felt I should stand by him, even though I was not qualified to do anything. I could not take over or run the company, so I worked as a production assistant, carrying lights, making tea, driving people.”
His parents were naturally disappointed that he did not graduate, and did not take his decision to return very well. “They always said, although you want to be an actor a college education is very important, but once they knew why I wanted to come back they were okay with it. I think they appreciated the sentiment behind it,” shares Abhishek.
American talk show host Oprah Winfrey introduced Aishwarya and Abhishek as the most ‘famous actor couple in the world’ when they appeared on her show recently. Does he really think they are more famous than, say, Brad-Angelina? “Oprah’s a friend of Ash’s. She called and said she was doing a show on the most famous people outside America and was keen on doing something with Ash and I. We had a week off from Mani Ratnam’s shoot so we flew to Chicago, did the interview and spent time with her. She’s a wonderful, loving lady, very intrigued by Indian culture and society. They have this huge thing about how we all live together. Their society and culture is different. Children leave at home at 18, we don’t.”
The suggestion that when he appears on Oprah or walks the Cannes red carpet, he is the ‘plus one’ ruffles Abhishek’s feathers. “Oprah was profiling us as a couple. Not a ‘plus one’. I go to Cannes to accompany my wife because she asks me to. When I ask her to accompany me for my premieres, shows, etc., she does, so why not the other way? I find this thought regressive. I don’t do it for profile or to walk the red carpet at Cannes. I do it because it makes my wife happy. If your wife is expected to be by your side, why should you not be by her side? You don’t question her, then why me? Are there different rules for men and women?”
This seems a good time to ask another sticky question – about the elusive ‘solo hit’. “Please explain what a solo hit is. Dhoom 2 was a big hit, but you call it an ensemble film. Guru was the second biggest hit of its year, and it was also an ensemble film. You cannot discount the work of other great actors like Vidya, Ash, Madhavan, Mithunda. This is a double standard by the media when they want to label things conveniently. I prefer ensemble pieces. I like it when lots of actors are on set. It would be terribly boring to do single hero films.”
Live and learn
Abhishek watches his own work repeatedly. He has identified flaws and begun rectifying them. “Friday mornings humble you – whether a hit or a flop. I watch all 40 of my films in the order in which I have done them, starting with Refugee, then Tera Jadoo Chal Gayaa, Dhaai Akshar Prem Ke, Bas Itna Sa Khwab Hai, etc.” Is he still learning things? “Shockingly, yes! Most recently I learnt that my walk changes too much. Currently I am concentrating on my hands. I find I use my hands a lot. Certain characters might not use their hands as much, so I am working on keeping that in check. Today, I have one hand under a pillow and one stuck behind the sofa.”
He’s knocked off the 20 kg he put on for Guru. How did he do it? “I just went back to my normal life of eating right and working out. People sometimes forget that actors can’t dictate the way they look – the films dictate the look. I was criticised for putting on weight, but I have to look the way my character requires. I put on weight for Guru, lost it for Jhoom Barabar Jhoom and regained it for Sarkar Raj. I want variety and am glad I have never been labelled in a particular image. My first big success was Dhoom, an action film, followed by Bunty Aur Babli, Sarkar, Bluffmaster, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, Umrao Jaan, Dhoom 2, Guru, Drona, Dostana and Delhi 6. So I have not always played safe. I proudly showed my 20 kg pack when others were building six packs. Today I have a flat stomach.”
The one thing he hopes he never has to do for a role: shave his chest. “If your character demands that you have to shave your chest you do it, I just wish I never have to do it. I’d hate to. My mother used to teach me – never trust a man who doesn’t have hair on his chest.” It’s just as well he didn’t have to lie in a tub of rose petals in a recent soap ad with his wife. “I think that would be a scary sight.”
Once called ‘Gurubhai’ when he went to small town India, Abhishek is now referred to as ‘Sir-ji’ from his IDEA mobile campaign. “When I was driving to work the other day, someone knocked on my window and said, see I am on the phone, and I’m walking. You have to do things that are going to make a difference. As Maya Angelou said, ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’.”
“I am superstitious when convenient. Like ‘Touch Wood’. I wear one pendant my mom gave me and my wedding ring on a chain. I used to wear rings because they made my mom happy. But I didn’t know why. Then one day I just didn’t feel like wearing them anymore – or maybe I just forgot – I don’t know.”
As a style icon
Proud of: The trademark stubble. “It’s wonderful to see people growing stubble now. The men are back in our films.”
Regrets: The hair band. “That was a major faux pas. I had grown my hair for Drona. I am a boarding school kid and cannot handle long hair. The hair was getting annoying so I just wore my niece’s hair band to keep the hair off my face. I never knew it would become a rage. Kids on bikes would see me when I was driving to work and point at their hair bands and I was like ‘Please… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to!’”
Work in progress
Paa, directed by Balki, releases December 4, co-starring Amitabh Bachchan, Vidya Balan, Paresh Rawal
Raavan, directed by Mani Ratnam co-starring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, will release in summer 2010
Currently shooting for Ashutosh Gowariker's Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se
Shoots for Abhinay Deo (working title Crooked) and Rohan Sippy next year
Also has Dostana 2 and films with Abbas-Mustan, Neeraj Pandey and Anees Bazmee
Best and worst
“I have never been able to pick the best and worst of my films. I can’t say ‘I wish I had not done (that film)’. Then I would not have done it. I only do a film when I am sure that 50 years down the line I am fine that I did it, regardless of it being a hit or a flop.”