My sister and I were brought up normally, like regular kids.
When you were born, it was at a time when Amitabh Bachchan was as big as it gets. Were you told about any frenzy around your birth? Too many visitors? Prying eyes from the press?
Media was more limited then. I think today, there is more interest and even more avenues to express interest. You were not told about your mum or dad being protective towards you.
There could be people wanting to see you or have your first pictures?
Not really. My sister (Shweta Nanda) and I were brought up normally, like regular kids. My mother (Jaya Bachchan) never brought us up as special children. We had a very normal upbringing.
Since 1982, there have been common people waiting outside your house to get a glimpse of your father. As a kid, it must have been difficult for you to deal with?
He was paa first, and then Amitabh Bachchan, the actor. And it never really got to us. I never went through that ‘Pata hai mera baap kaun hai,’ syndrome. I was nine when I was sent to boarding school in Switzerland. After that, it didn’t really matter.
I’ve been taught that you have to become who you are on your merit. I’m the only star son who wasn’t launched by his father. He never made a film exclusively for me. He never asked anyone to make a film with me. He’s always told me that the pride is a lot more if you achieve things on your own. Contrary to popular belief, he never made phone calls to anyone to cast me in their films... My father was the first person to say that I’d receive no help from him.
He believes no one will listen to him. He’s never advocated me to others. He’s always told me, "You think anyone will invest crores on you till you are not worth it?"
There is less known about your childhood and whatever there is, is difficult to put together.
My first school was a playschool called Tiny Tots, followed by another one called Miniland... Sadly, it doesn’t exist now. It was near Vie Lounge. Then, it was Bombay Scottish. We were 15-16 of us in a car pool. One car would drop us, one brought the lunch and another picked us up.
It was quite a starry bunch. Aditya and Uday Chopra, Goldie and Shrishti Behl, my cousins, sister and I, Jatin, who was Sujit Kumar’s son, Amit and Sumit Mehra, who were Prakash Mehra’s sons, and Hrithik and Sunaina Roshan.
Hrithik was three years my senior and John Abraham and he were classmates. Aamir Khan and Dharmesh Darshan were apparently in the same class. They were our seniors. I was then shifted to Jamnabai Narsee, which was closer to home. Then my father got into politics and we moved to Delhi where I went to Modern School, Vasant Vihar. At nine, I was moved to the boarding school in Switzerland.
When you live in Juhu where everyone knows you, and you move to an alien country, do you feel removed?
Not at all! Children are adaptable. I am still friendly with Adi, Uday and Hrithik. These shifts are no big deal when you’re a kid because you can adjust easily. Once you’re older, it’s difficult.
You always wanted to act?
Yep. As kids, your profession changes with every film you watch. You want to be an investment banker from Wall Street, you want to play a cop when you watch Bullet and a waiter when you watch Naseeb. With time, it dawns on you that you are in love with a profession that allows you to be all these.
The minute you lose touch with the child in you, you stop growing as an actor. It’s a child-like profession, no?
Absolutely! The minute you lose touch with the child in you, you stop growing as an actor. You have to take yourself seriously but not too seriously. You have to be able to laugh at yourself.
You don’t have to lose touch with the sense of wonderment. You have to learn to take criticism as well as praise. If I’m not enthusiastic, I’ll be jaded. That enthusiasm keeps you alive. The day you get satisfied, stop acting. If you feel you know your job and you’re good at it, stop because you’ll soon become arrogant.
I see my father, he takes every day as his first, he learns every day, and he’s polishing his craft even today.
There was a purple patch in your career. Did he advise you?
I had this foolish notion that I will do everything on my own. I wanted my parents to have the pleasure of saying that their son has done it on his own. Back then, nothing was working; I’d worked with the biggest stars, greatest directors, new directors, new actors, and big and small production houses and an array of genres. After a point, I sat at home, jobless. I was so low that I finally spoke to my dad.
The only conclusion I could draw was that something was wrong with me. I thought I needed to do something else. Dad told me that he had raised me to be a fighter and I have to earn my space under the sun. It won’t be given to me on a silver platter. He assured me I was improving with every film, although he didn’t find me even passable as an actor. He advised that I have to spend time before the camera to improve. He asked me to go ahead with any project that came my way. I did.
Ah! There’s that famous line that producers tell newcomers, Tike raho. Is that what you were asked to do?
No, he said keep working. There’s a difference. You get bitter without work. On the sets, you’re continuously working and that doesn’t let the bitterness get to you.
Oh, sorry, we just missed out how you completed your education. Schooling and then?
I went off to Boston University, USA, for a degree in performing arts. Back in Mumbai, my father
had launched ABCL company that was running through bad weather. I felt I shouldn’t leave my father alone in a lurch. I thought, in whatever way I can, I must help him out. I left my studies half way and returned. He assigned me the job of a production boy on Major Saab, where I graduated to be an assistant director.
Vacations were spent watching dad working.
Weren’t you chauffeuring Arshad Warsi around that time?
Yeah, we were producing a film called Tere Mere Sapne. It’s a highly underrated film. Arshad, Chandrachur Singh, Priya Gill and Simran were all making their debuts together.
As a kid, did you always hang around on your father’s sets?
All the time! Vacations were spent watching dad working. The people and the ambience are something that I’ve, in a way, grown up with. There are some spot boys and lightmen who used to play with me as a kid and today, I work with them.
You never felt awkward about what your dad was doing?
I felt it was normal for him to be mobbed, or have so many people waiting outside the house for his autographs. For someone looking in, it was different. And then, when I grew up, it dawned on me that my father is this big star, but even then, all of this seemed fairly normal.
A lot of times, people assume that star kids take their lives and luxuries for granted. I think they do, but that’s common with all of us. We take the surroundings we grow up in for granted because there is no other example that we can refer to.
My father returned home late every night, put us to sleep and left before we woke up. And then one fine day, we’d see him on a big screen inside a preview theatre. It was normal.
It was no big deal to see Manmohan Desai having tea with my father at our place. Or for that matter, have Yash uncle (Yash Chopra) at home. For the world, and for me after growing up, he’s this big producer-director. Back then, he was my friends’ father. So star kids take this life in their stride. They’re not callous, but they don’t see anything new around them.
Watching too many movies won’t make you a great actor.
Since you have known the film environment better than an outsider, would you say you are at an advantage?
I actually got my first film because of my father. The filmmakers chose me because they thought people would be interested to know what Amitabh Bachchan’s son is like.
But you had more experience on the sets than anyone else?
If you watch too many movies, it won’t make you a great actor. I knew the surroundings better, but that’s hardly a plus point.
I am who I am because of my parents and grandparents.
Yash uncle, at the premiere of Refugee, told me that people had thronged because they were my father’s and JP Dutta’s well-wishers. After that, only if I was really worth it would they ever attend another premiere of my movie. There is so much criticism about why I am still around. If you make a chart of star kids, you’ll find it one-sided, with most of them being flops. If someone wants to cast me because of my father, they’d rather cast my father and not me.
As a producer, could you explain to us that if you have delivered 17 flops in a row, how do you still get your subsequent offers?
More than anyone else, I want to know how I got my 18th movie after giving 17 flops in a row. Maybe the directors felt that I could deliver their goods. I didn’t know the business of it then.
Okay, does it work this way? You do a Rs 60 crore film that makes only Rs 40 crore, and so your next film is a Rs 40 crore project…
It depends on how big a star you are. If Shah Rukh Khan makes a Rs 300 crore film and it rakes in only Rs 290 crore, he still lands a chance to move on. But it’s not the case with others. I had flops, after which people stopped approaching me. Whatever films I had on floors were stalled. The business of it has to come into question.
Even the content is questioned. The directors who worked with you delivered poor content in comparison to what they gave in a movie prior to yours.
In retrospect, we know what was wrong. It’s important to know the reason you’re making a film. Our reason has to be to entertain. We don’t have the liberty to do anything else.
I knew Ashutosh Gowariker from before his first film. I agreed to do Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey on the day Jodhaa Akbar premiered. And I had an emotional reason to agree to it. Surya Sen, a school teacher who lead 60 students and freed Chittagong, should have been as popular as Bhagat Singh. The story promised a lot of drama. I wanted the world to know about him. But people only wanted entertainment. And trust me, no actor would ever say no to a director whose last film was a hit. Do you think Aamir Khan would turn down Raju Hirani’s film after 3 Idiots?
We got Jhoom Barabar Jhoom’s setting wrong. It was originally called Sangam Mail and was supposed to be set in Old Delhi with two youngsters at a dhaba, cooking up their love stories. If the setting had been kept, it would have been a hit. I’ve told Shaad Ali several times that if he remakes the film with the original title and subject, it’s a winner.
Bunty Aur Babli was about two people who con the rich. There was a scene shot on the banks of a river in Hrishikesh, where Rani Mukherji (Babli) calls up her parents, emotionally. The audience is behind you to hold you in these situations because they emotionally invest in Bunty and Babli.
In Guru, little Gurukant Desai fails exams and tells his father he’s off to learn trading, which his father is against because he had failed at it. He marries a woman for money and starts trading in a big city on his own. The audience wants him to win.
Everyone spoke only about Raavan’s climax because that’s where one connected with Beera. By then, 180 minutes had gone.
Do you feel let down when you realise your film is going nowhere?
I do, but this is a director’s medium. You have to work with your faith in him. There are so many people involved in a movie. The edit guy may just snip out scenes and the sound guy could add more background music than needed. In theatre, if you know something isn’t working, you can improve in the next show.
Is there competition in the neighbourhood because everyone is entering the same industry and doing the same kind of movies?
I compete with my colleagues, but I don’t plot to pull them down. I take pride in my friends’ success and plan to make myself a better actor.
Have you faced plotting?
You are Hindustan Times and your competition is Times Of India. The objective is to break news first and be informative. But here, I am doing Players, Salman does Bodyguard and Shah Rukh does RA.One. We’re doing different films. If everyone did the same film, then maybe you could compare.
Which of your films do you connect with the most?
I don’t like any of them! When I see my older work, I cringe! An actor doesn’t want to admit to certain things publicly. I watch a film and I know that it’s a disaster, but I also want it to fade out of public memory quickly. But when you trash my film in the media, you don’t let that film get flushed out of public memory. I don’t want you to publicly tell me what I already know.
We’re accused of living in ivory towers. But it’s out of insecurity, not pleasure. An actor, by nature, is insecure and he can’t be that in front of the camera. My first ever outdoor was in Switzerland. I was dancing with a thousand junior artistes, close to my boarding school. I didn’t want those guys to recognise me. They asked if I was the same guy who studied there. I just refused!
You have to make yourself look confident, even if that’s not what you’re feeling inside. There is a film called To Be Or Not To Be. The actor performs on stage every night. One night, when he’s about to deliver his big line in the show, a guy gets up and leaves. And he can’t handle it. As an actor, you constantly want the attention.
We are not megalomaniacs, but we really don’t want the public to go away.
Acting is like a drug. Do actors really lose their mind when they don’t get to do it?
On the Unforgettables Tour, I remember I forgot all my dance steps when I saw this great crowd in front of me. It hits you and then it worries you, what if I don’t get this reception at the next show? Am I losing touch? The day this space goes away, it destroys you. We are not megalomaniacs. But we don’t want the public to go away. We savour public attention.
And it’s a fact that at some point, the audience gets disinterested. Referring to oneself in third person is a defence mechanism. If 50 people say you look great and you know you don’t, you won’t deviate from your beliefs, but you’ll believe people for the time being because it makes you happy.
How difficult is it to research for your roles... Especially if you haven’t met the guy, Lallan Singh in Yuva for instance?
Anurag wrote the film and the character. He’s from Chandauli in UP, where the character belongs. Mani and I worked on his body language, clothes and mannerisms. We built him from scratch. A real character is far easier to work on.
Lately, a lot of your father’s films are being remade. Do your father and you chat about it?
I don’t think dad even knows. I’m doing a remake right now, Players. If tomorrow I like a film and I want to contribute to its story and take it somewhere else, I can remake it. Don is Farhan’s (Akhtar) favourite film, but he never wanted to better it, he wanted to do it in his own way. What’s wrong with that?
—Transcribed by Rachana Dubey