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Home / Bollywood / ‘I tried sabbatical once. It was a mistake’

‘I tried sabbatical once. It was a mistake’

Part II of HT’s fifth anniversary special: Big B on decade number 5 in films.

bollywood Updated: Aug 01, 2010, 18:11 IST
Mayank Shekhar
Mayank Shekhar
Hindustan Times

What baffles the travelling 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, learning Hindi to understand our films.

Amitabh BachchanWith 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.

‘I think they’re attracted to the importance of relationships that our films stress upon. It’s fast dissolving around them.’

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) adds 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) Chowpatty 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 Panditji came down from his platform towards Dilip saheb to invite him up on to the podium, winning over hearts of millions!

A celebrity at fault makes big news and that comes with the territory — get accustomed to it’.

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 it. 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.

‘As an entertainer you must expect that you will be asked to deliver irrespective of what your own personal conditions maybe'.

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, as 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.

‘My greatest relaxation is when I am on set’.

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) 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 one is working in a Hindi film, learn the language. Learn the tone and graph of a language — the performance will come on its own’

If you were to deliver a five-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 your way, it goes the Almighty’s). And he/she will always think the better for you. The will of the Almighty will always be the best. 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!

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