He’s the pharaoh in absentia. Never mind that he lives hundreds of miles away from the banks of the Nile. Some say he even poses a threat to the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak. Whether it’s at the Cairo airport or in hotels and tourist spots or mosques, you are bound to hear his name: Amitabh Bachchan. And thanks to him, there’s also much curiosity about Indians among Egyptians. In fact, once a local realises you’re an Indian, they’ll start calling you Amitabh Bachchan. In other words, in the land of King Tut, all Indians are called Amitabh Bachchan.
Take a stroll down the Nile or visit the pyramids and people will inevitably come up to you and ask, “Do you know Amitabh? Have you ever met him? Will you please ask him to visit our country.”
After staying in Cairo for a few days, one gets the hang of this Egyptian Bachchanophilia. His films, both new and old, are the rage among Egyptians. Perhaps Don and Amar Akbar Anthony are more popular than his later movies. But then, it really doesn’t matter. Almost everybody is keen to discuss his films. They have watched his movies, not once, not twice, but sometimes a dozen times — and still they can’t get enough.
Only three Indian movies per year are allowed in Egyptian cinemas. But the ancient Egyptian deities have ensured that Amitabh DVDs are readily available. Ashok Mehta, a second generation Gujarati in Egypt, tells me that the tiny Indian community “gets respect” from the locals because they are from Amitabh Bachchan’s land. Neither Gandhi nor Nehru (sorry President Nasser, sorry the non-aligned movement) can match Big B’s charisma. Mehta tells me about how Amitabh came to Cairo in 1992 to attend a film festival. Life in Cairo had apparently come to a veritable standstill. Thousands of people had thronged the Nile Hilton, where he was staying, to catch a glimpse of the Indian star. Three days after Amitabh’s departure, the Cairo Gazetteer published a cartoon showing President Mubarak (he’s been president since 1981) requesting Amitabh over the phone to leave Egypt as he could risk losing his job to the actor.
I wasn’t doing too well at haggling in a Cairo shopping mall. The salesman refused to bring down the price of the replicas of the pyramids I wanted — until I dropped Amitabh’s name. I told him that I was buying the pyramids for Mr Bachchan. “I won’t charge anything from you,” was his prompt reply.