Big B on decade No 5
On HT Mumbai’s fifth anniversary special, India’s longest serving super-star speaks to Mayank Shekhar on what’s changed in his 41 years of films, and the society it reflects.india Updated: Aug 02, 2010 13:24 IST
There are perhaps two key reasons to account for Amitabh Bachchan's unparalleled record as the longest serving leading man in the history of Indian films. Besides of course an obvious 'actorial' talent and a rare presence that is relatable at once to the contemporary and old, the urban and Middle India.
One, he came in as that rare beacon of professionalism at a time Mumbai's film industry was held ransom to heroes' whims, and their laid back arrogance. He was to become, quite instantly in the mid '70s, a producer's delight. Most filmmakers still consider him "addictive" to work with. You could set time to Bachchan's scheduled entry into a film set or any function. If the two didn't match, it was said, it may be your watch running late -- not Bachchan.
But equally significant is that in spite of about 200 films for a filmography, stint on television as daily show host, countless brand endorsements, quite a few biographies, personal blog updated daily, tweets by the minute, thousands of press interviews (this being the nth); by design or otherwise, Bachchan has somehow still managed to remain an impenetrable public figure.I've met no one who can truly (or rightly) claim to know him much beyond his public self, which is largely humble to a fault. Or lately aggressive, in response to the media, in particular.
Some could call him, for the same reasons, a frustrating interviewee, careful with every dot and cross, while you’re left to read between lines. Yet, the mystique around his persona somehow still endures. He never quite ducks a chance to redefine or play around with his own screen image either. It's been 41 years since his film debut. He remains just as hungry a performer. He still canvases for roles, he says: “I’m still insecure about my work, talent, and what future holds for me.” Really, some precious lesson there!
You’re on your fifth decade as a leading man of films. In that span, while mainstream movies have changed, so has India. By association you’ve been an active participant in the latter process as well. What do you find has really changed about this country over the years, and that gets reflected in its mass culture (or commercial movies) as well.
In one word: liberalisation. Liberalisation of the economy drew this country out from the clutches of ‘license raj’. With economic boom came opportunity. The middle class became richer. If the figure of 350 million is correct, then it represents the entire population of USA. The euphoric rush to catch up (with the West) was reminiscent of, ironically, the Gold Rush of America in its early years of discovery.
The rich became richer. The poor went further down. Political attempts are being made to bridge that gap. One wishes for its success. But the lure of better financial profiles drew many an interior and small town inhabitant to the metros to enhance living conditions.
A national cinema
Cinema the world over has reflected the state of the nation. Purists will scoff at this assumption, but I have my arguments. Study the cinema of the ‘40s and ‘50s and even the ‘60s. There was ‘thehrao’ in the substance being projected. Characters took time to express feelings and written lines. There was space and time to listen to elegance of the written word, lyricism of poetry in songs, and musical notes. There was emphasis on that trolley shot that moved within that slow, quiet space of time. There was 'time' for it. Today there is no time. Speed has become the password for normalcy. Your window on the laptop, if not open within a nano second of the depression of a key, will result in a change of the machine. Your weeklong wait for a booked international call to New York through an operator is completed within seconds by your own hands, driving in some remote region of the country. Where are dacoits and Thakurs?
TV shows and films release simultaneously the world over. Your TV is virtually free. You go to the theatre to see the latest film expecting it to outdo what you may have just seen for free at home, lounging on your bedroom sofa. The ticket price, travel, popcorn for that evening could bill up to Rs 2,500 – 3,000: annual earning for some of the poor in the country.
To match the finesse and technology of the West, the Indian filmmaker is pumping in large money, and wants to recover it in the first week. This is possible only in the (affluent) metros. The B and C centres do not matter to him so much. I have on occasion heard prominent filmmakers express disinterest in the collections of their film from UP and Bihar, because those are not regions they expect will bring back their investments. Metros, overseas and ‘satellite’ (television rights) done, huge grosses collected: time to head to the Marriott to party on the Monday of the very first week!
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, we waited for silver, golden and platinum weeks to register, before the order for trophies could be made!
Issues have gone through a metamorphosis as well. Where have the dacoit and the ‘Thakur’ films gone. Where is the story of the untouchable and deprived classes, glorification of the minority and secular-balance that our Constitution promulgates? Where has all the action gone -- the defiance and standing up against deprecated values and systems? You get to see more of it on the Parliament Channel, inside the august houses of peoples’ representatives! Escape from TV…
With horrors of terrorism and street violence screened before us every second of 400 TV channels’ ‘Breaking News’, we really do not want to spend Rs 2,500 to see it enacted by our popular and leading stars of the world of illusion. With all due respect, others are doing it better. And it’s live! So escapism rules. We were accused of this term throughout our career of 35-40 years. Now we are ‘escaping’ from the rigours of reality TV to whet our appetite with laughter, romance and frivolous deliberations: “I don't want to wrack my brains, trying to solve problems and issues that trouble society. If I feel strongly about it, I have my own voice now. I’ll Tweet!” says the common man.Just as your reflex action towards time has changed, so too the reaction time for cinema: film on release; get on to the Internet; read review; speak to a few friends… "Ok, avoid. Not going." Six weeks later, browsing, come across same film on the idiot box... "Arre yaar! Achhchi film thi! (It was a good film!)"
This generation moves on
Marketing and promotional acts have introduced new business practices to get that first week’s full house, recover money, and move on. We remember even the interlude music of the songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s. We do not remember the songs of today’s films. Or maybe they do! Maybe the younger generations do! Maybe this generation registers what it chooses to, and moves on. Maybe we have gone irritably slow. This generation talks and thinks faster. My grandson of 8 teaches me how to install my BlackBerry and my iPad. Maybe I am the wrong person to be answering a question (on change). Who knows!
Is there a way you can succinctly describe the decades and what they've meant for India through its films – ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and the 2000s.
I’d be inadequate in generalising particular decades. But if you were to read between the lines, a fair assessment would be visible thus. The ‘70s were dominated by ‘anger’ against the system among the youth. The oppressive ‘Emergency’ stifled all that a free democracy had stood and fought for. A lone warrior or vigilante seemed to be the toast of the nation’s psyche. The good looking romantic hero was giving way to a tough demeanour: no-holds-barred leading man, who did not necessarily have to sing his way into the audiences’ hearts. Yes, the romantic (hero) was there too and he fared well alongside, but the other guy, the underdog, was getting admired more. This trend continued right up to the mid ‘80s and beginning of the ‘90s. Then liberalisation took over. Establishment, the wronged, the oppressed, seemed played out. The audience wanted to be happy, fall in love again, and not get drawn into mundane social ailments. From then on, youth, energy, beauty, laughter took over. The ethics and culture never left us. They shifted base, came closer to us in our drawing rooms through TV, where Ramayan, Mahabharat and the ‘saas-bahu’ socials dominated.
Want fun and romance and joy and excitement, and a stroll through the mall ending up with popcorn and soda? Get to the multiplex. Want your daily lesson in culture, epics, a good cry? Stick at home in front of the tele.I think stars have been followed from time immemorial. But along with them in the earlier years, the makers, writers, composers were equally, if not greatly remembered. I believe stars are followed still. Perhaps the writer and maker and composer has somewhat been left behind as a fallout. There are exceptions, but few and far (between).
Are there instances where you felt a film of yours (from any decade) had made an impact on the viewer beyond what you may have obviously imagined, something that truly surprised you.
Our only barometer is the box office. This may not quite be the desired standard for ‘impact’ but there it is. A box office success indicates the audience was impressed enough to see the film. It would not be incorrect to assume that ‘impression’ for ‘impact’. Tough argument, but one that the entire world has paid heed to. Masses are Gods, they are never wrong -- in film, in politics, in any walk of life that demands public endorsement. Whether this is correct is debatable. Much like that oft repeated adage -‘Each country deserves the politician it elects!’
Having said that, I remember an incident that could perhaps funnily demonstrate ‘impact’. It was the late ‘70s or very early 80’s, driving home from work, I was stuck in a traffic jam near Andheri (traffic jams were a phenomena even then). After half an hour, restless drivers started to get out of their vehicles to see what the problem was. One such gentleman, having peered through my tinted glass window discovered that it was indeed ‘I’, sitting inside! I asked him what the problem was, which he described and then expounded with extreme sincerity -- “Arre sir, aap yahan baithe hain! Aap bahar ja ke ek lafa mariye, sala abhi 2 sec mein traffic jam ok ho jaiyega! (Get out and whack them, the jam will clear up in two seconds!).” Role impact on audience?
A common observation made about current films mourns both the loss of language, and the dialogue itself. People can quote lines from films (even lyrics of songs) of back in the day, but none from the recent past….
As I said earlier (in response to the first question), speed, communication, issues – their relevance was different then, different now. Each generation thinks theirs was the best. This generation will look obsolete in a few years. Who knows! Count the number of editing cuts for a film of the ‘50’s; compare it with that of a film of 2010. The cuts will be three times more --100 then, 300 now. “Ok we got the point now move on, stop dwelling on it” --it’s the TV centric philosophy that teaches us that remaining with a visual for more than a couple of seconds is committing harakiri for a programme producer.
You’re yourself son of a famous writer. Are there any instances where you’ve made writing suggestions in a film: a scene, situation, dialogue, anything that you can recall from your movies.
Professionally I have never ever attempted to change a single comma, once the script is with me and I have signed on the dotted line. That is beyond my professional ethics. I had no reason to doubt, being in the company of such great writers as Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Khawaja Ahmed Abbas, Salim-Javed, Prakash Mehra, Kadar Khan, Prayag Raj, Shukla, Gulzar and many other renowned personalities. What they wrote remained final. What I get today also remains final -- my professional conditions prevail.
But there have been two recent occasions when I have sought help in structuring a dialogue that I felt was most essential to the final outcome of a film. One was the final speech of Baghbaan and the other the final speech for Teen Patti. In both cases the respective directors first came up with the issue that they were somehow not entirely happy with the content. We sat down jointly to address it. For Baghbaan we went to the trusted and ever helpful Javed saheb (Javed Akhtar) and even though he does not enter into such intrusions unless he is writing an entire film, he did a personal favour and gave suggestions. The final outcome is a mix of his inputs, the official writer’s, and some stuff that I suggested. For Teen Patti too we had several discussions on the last speech and Leena Yadav (the director) and I sat for days working on the final outcome. Some suggestions of mine were incorporated.Another common observation about our popular films relates to the changing architecture of the hero's body. In the ‘70s, you were a lanky figure, sometimes even unkempt, who could flatten several at one go. Audiences didn’t question it. The hero now must necessarily go in for a super-fit body, six-pack abs, muscular biceps, shaven chest…. He could even take his shirt off. What does this culturally say about us?
I thank the Almighty that the audience never expected me to take my shirt off in my films, where valour and strength were to be exhibited. But seriously, in the films of yore or my time, strong situations were created through the story’s screenplay and dialogue. These were sufficient to project valour, strength, muscle, without actually showing them. Today’s stories do not require that kind of presentation.
Body-beautiful is part of a beautiful actor’s personality. Audiences like to see a shaped up human, not necessarily to smack someone, but merely to admire as asset. The famous statue of David by Michaelangelo that represents the perfect form for a male was made, I would presume, for just that reason -- to appreciate the perfect male form, not to depict its value as an instrument for battle.
I also believe that audiences today desire to ‘see’ and not be discreet or quiet about this aspect. Maybe audiences of the past had wished or desired it too, but felt socially or morally indiscreet to talk about it publicly!
One cannot ignore the interest I am certain that must have been aroused in seeing Sunil Dutt saheb ‘bare-torsoed’ in Mother India, or that famous Dharam ji bare torso scene in Phool Aur Patthar when he approaches a sleeping Meena Kumari. Not to forget of course all of Dara Singh ji’s films and his immense muscular frame.
Most super fit bodies, six-pack abs, strong muscular biceps, shaven chests of today are not there to flatten several baddies. They are there more as Michaelangelo’s David -- pictures of the perfect male form.
A facet also unique to our pop-culture is reference to leading men as ‘Shahenshah’, ‘Baadshah’, ‘King’… What exactly is this kingdom? Do you think these references come from a society's feudal obsessions with monarchy, or idol-worshipping mythology?
All these glorious epithets that you speak of are the creations of the media. None of the artists actually believe in them, at least I don’t. Maybe the media is obsessed with feudal monarchies. You would be able to answer this better. Giving titles and constructing interesting headlines is one of media’s greatest accomplishments. It makes for good copy and attracts immediate attention, an attribute that I’d imagine any media conglomerate would employ. And no, I do not think it comes from a society’s idol-worshipping mythology syndrome. Though I must admit that mythology does incorporate itself in other forms in our social milieu.
An area where a hero’s contribution is uncontestable is in style and popular fads. Have always wanted to ask you this: Your longish hair, parted from the centre, side-burns meeting the ears in a unique triangle… Millions over generations have sported this haircut at some point. You’ve never quite changed yours. Where does it come from? Is there a story, given there were no professional stylists back in the day…
I never deliberately designed anything, it’s just something I discovered through trial and error and then went to my hairdresser Hakim and he did the needful. I never changed it because nothing else ever suited me according to my own assessment. My shape and my physical configurations are somewhat different from most others, and so I have remained with it, always strengthened by that story about the greatest American hero, John Wayne – He never got off his horse in any film throughout his career!* *
Your return as leading figure of pop-culture in the 2000s is often attributed to the television show Kaun Banega Crorepati. This is when you appeared in the grey goatee, and instead of fighting it, were seen to be embracing age as a badge of honour and gravitas. Would you consider this a conscious transition where most heroes before, faded out still romancing nubile women on screen.
I can only speak for myself, and yes this is what I felt suited me in the 2000 era and afterwards. I have stuck with it. I like it and that’s what matters. I do not mind the grey and neither do I mind disclosing my age because that is what it is. Manmohan Desai when criticised for making the same stories again and again on the lost and found brothers, would comment, “ Meri gaadi patri par achchi chal rahi hai. Mai apni gaadi ki patri kyun badloon? (My train’s on the right track. Why should I change the track?).”
As for romancing nubile women on screen, I have no choice. I must play roles commensurate with my age. There have been exceptions. KANK (Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna) had me playing a happy, fun-loving lothario; Nishabd was about a disturbing relationship. Ironically, the only time I have been kissed on screen, note, I have been kissed, not of my own desire, has been in two films that I did in my 60-plus years – Black and Nishabd!
'I tried sabbatical once. It was a mistake'
What baffles the traveling Indian is the incredible reach of Hindi films across the world. The words Amitabh Bachchan greet him everywhere! It’s something that’s traditionally happened over years, without any marketing to support it.
It is astounding, in West Asia, Far East, Central Europe, East and North Africa, Nigeria, even down to South Africa… This reach has always been there, we’re only learning about it now. My second largest fan-base is actually from Israel!
The first time I went to Russia in the ‘80s, I was stunned by young girls at the airport, them learning Hindi to understand our films. With Russia of course (USSR then), we had a barter trade agreement, which never got accounted for in the film financials. This influence spread later into satellite countries of the Soviet. And we never really thought about these things back then. It’s only now, with systems in place, that we’ve begun to reap benefits of a market that always existed. People across the world have always been attracted to the content of our films.
This following appears quite bafflingly organic. What do you think attracts these people to our films?
When my dad was unwell, we often watched my films together. I’d ask him the same question. He’d say, “Poetic justice in three hours -- something you and I don’t get in a lifetime!” Also I think they’re attracted to the importance of relationships that our films stress upon. It’s fast dissolving around them.
Another set that gathers around film personalities in particular are politicians, even bureaucrats, who like to link themselves to the world of glamour, as it were. What do you make of it?
Celebrities from the world of films and glamour are automated magnets for the masses. People collection, mob hysteria, crowds, attention… come naturally to them, wherever they go. Their profiles that cause this attention are created by their creativity, their products, their films, which the masses endorse.
Any element that can attract such phenomena is greatly valued by the politician. Numbers for a politician mean power, his strength, his following, his belief, and his votes in a democratic set-up to win elections. It is natural therefore that the politician will get attracted to such individuals. For the celebrity too, the association with power of governance is an asset he would love to possess. And why a celebrity, any individual would. There is therefore a natural coming together.
Numbers count and the presence of a celeb at events (rallies or public addresses) add to the hysteria. Whether or not it brings the votes is another matter. We see many examples of politicians deploying a celebrity for their election rallies. We have seen politicians realising the importance of their presence too.
Who can forget the well-documented incident of Pt Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous presence at (Mumbai’s) Chowpati for a rally and the audience, in the middle of the speech, getting attracted to Dilip Kumar, who was passing by! They left the rally and rushed towards him. The ever-gracious Pandit ji came down from his platform towards Dilip saheb to invite him up on to the podium, winning over hearts of millions!
Showbiz figures also then become more susceptible to being vilified by the state, and political authorities: they can serve up as soft targets for publicity’s sake. Do you think political contacts then become important for protection from such occurrences or nuisances?
I would not like to believe that a politician or a bureaucrat would deliberately go out to ‘get at’ a celebrity, even though I myself have on occasion perhaps talked about it, only to discover later that it was not entirely correct. But yes, we are vulnerable.
A celebrity at fault makes big news and that comes with the territory -- get accustomed to it. In a socialist, democratic republic, the rich and the famous will always be looked upon with suspicion. Have an accident on the road? Be prepared to be lynched by crowds. Reasons and legalese will come later.
I have come to understand certain basics of this business. If you have done wrong, NO one will be able to save you, irrespective of which high powered politician you may know. And if you have done NO wrong, nothing in the world will be able to touch you. There will be speculations, press headlines castigating you, negative talk, accusations…. Bear it, go to court, and clear the accusation. Because no amount of personal clarification is going to work. From Bofors to Barabanki, that is what I have done: got my legal clearance, and moved on.
Also, never defend (yourself) publicly or through media. They will never listen to your story or believe you. And most importantly, once cleared by the honourable courts, do not gloat over it. Remain quiet, and live your life. A very wise common man that I once made acquaintance with quite by accident advised me this, almost 30 years ago. I give the same advice to my children.
One of the pains of being an entertainer perhaps is no matter how sick you mentally or physically feel from within, or what's going on in your personal or professional life, you still have to go out there, smile, talk to fans, give autographs, or perform to a paying public. Can that get to you after a while?
No, it has never gotten to me! I consider it my obligation to do so, and I like doing it. I write a blog, read through all responses everyday. I answer as well as I can. I tweet and I respond to as many as I can that follow me. I try. It is impossible to answer all, for many of them only show up after some weird computations on the site. I acknowledge fans on the street and attempt to give that photo opportunity or that autograph. Sometimes it is not possible to attend to each one of them. It would be a statistical nightmare. But if stationed at a location, the (autograph) books are brought to me, and I attend to them within the confines of my private room. For 28 years, every Sunday, crowds have gathered outside my residence in the evenings. If I am in town, I go out and meet them, wave, shake hands, give photographs. There are some situations however when I desist. I do not respond (to fans), for instance, when at a funeral. I do not give any (sound) bytes or meet press. I think it is inconsiderate and insensitive of the media to accost me on such occasions, or for me to talk about the moment. Also on set, in the middle of the concentration required for a shot, I discourage such actions.
Yes, as an entertainer you must expect that you will be asked to deliver irrespective of what your own personal conditions maybe. There may be a tragedy in your house, but you have a comic or song situation to enact – that will have to be contended with.
Did you at any point consider a more relaxed, retired, been-there-done-that life: gardening, grandchildren…. Do you consider it still?
I tried it once and took a sabbatical (in the early ‘90s). It was a mistake. I should never have done that. I would like to continue doing what I am doing as long as I can. I’m still insecure about my work, my talent, and what my future holds for me. I worry about what work I will get or not tomorrow. I still canvas for it, and seek opportunities that could enhance my creativity and position. My greatest relaxation is when I am on set. If you were to ask any other artiste this, they would say the same.
Yes, my grandchildren are the apples of my eye as are my family and children, and my wife. I take time out with them whenever I can, or they wish I can. And yes, I can say with a certain amount of pride that I tend my own garden in Prateeksha (bungalow in Juhu, Mumbai) among all the other things that I involve myself in today. And that it is perhaps the largest and most secured piece of green in the entire JVPD Scheme, where I reside!
Your mother, it may not be as widely known, was also an actor. She performed on stage, and in fact had thought of being in films herself. Did she in any way shape your earliest influences as a performer?
My mother encouraged me to do what I felt I wanted to. She was only too happy to see me wanting to pursue a career in films just as much as she was happy when I got my first job as an executive in Kolkata. She was a critic of my work and films, and always encouraged me to take interest in the arts and crafts. She would take me to art exhibitions, music festivals, stage performances and we would discuss many aspects of creativity in whatever we observed. Obviously the early influences remain ingrained in humans. I certainly gained from it.
What’s your earliest memory of being enchanted by a film?
Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight: It kept me awake for several nights, because of its music and pathos. Later, Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz ke Phool
If you were to deliver a 5-minute master class on acting, given a lifetime’s experience on the subject, what’s the one lesson you would certainly impart to your students?
The one lesson I would give would be to tell the student to learn the language of his creativity. If one is working in a Hindi film, learn the language. Once the comfort of speaking the language is achieved, it takes care of, in my opinion, 80 per cent of your performance. Learn the tone and graph of a language -- the performance will come on its own.
And listen to your colleague in a shot in film as though you are hearing them for the first time, even though you may have rehearsed the lines a hundred times. That’s the quality of a good actor. I would judge an actor’s performance by these very simple yet effective guidelines.
And as a public figure who’s seen several ups and downs, and ups again, what’s the one personal life lesson you’d share for subsequent generations to benefit from.
A lesson I learnt from my father when still in school- Man ka ho toh achcha. Man ka na ho toh zyada achcha (If it goes your way, good. If not, even better).” Why zyada achcha (even better)? Because when man ka na ho, then it is the ‘man’ of the Almighty (When it doesn’t go you way, it goes the Almighty’s). And He/She will always think for your betterment. The will of the Almighty will always be the best for you. Which is why ‘zyada achcha’ (even better)!
And in life, never give up. Keep trying, even if you have to start from the bottom again.
Finally a question I’ve always wanted to ask: that exclamation of yours, Aayein, with a unique intonation at the end, is something all mimics pick up when they imitate Amitabh Bachchan! Where did you pick it up from?
It’s nothing unusual and neither is it a unique intonation. Everyone from my part of birthplace – UP, Bihar and the North – grow up with it as normal part of conversation. It’s colloquial, like any other Indian intonation. I do not see why so much is made of it. It’s just an expression that denotes so many impressions and expressions; like “What?” or “What!” or “Really!” or “Really?” or “Oh, I see!” or “What are you saying!” as in a confirmation, or “Do you agree?” as surprise… The examples are just endless!