In India, there is a buzz around the May release of the movie, The Great Gatsby. Hollywood is also just as excited about one of their most ambitious products. From what we have been reading, the buzz is not merely because of the lead stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire, but a certain Bollywood legend, who is reportedly causing the maximum stir. Hollywood, for the first time, got a glimpse of the fabled acting prowess of Indian cinema’s biggest superstar, Amitabh Bachchan, who plays the shrewd and flamboyant Jewish gambler Meyer Wolfsheim in the film produced by Warner Bros.
Big B has apparently impressed everyone, including the critics, with a single scene that marks his rather-late Hollywood debut in the film adapted from American author F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel by the same name.
The other reason for the excitement around Bachchan’s character is because of the fact that this is the first time an actor outside the cultural periphery of the west is portraying it. Meyer Woflsheim was first played in 1926 by Pennsylvania-born George Nash, then by Connecticut actor Ed Begley in 1945; Howard da Silva played Wolfsheim alongside Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in 1974, and then there was Jerry Grayson who played Wolfsheim in 2000.
When we met Bachchan at a suburban hotel in Mumbai for the interview, he expressed utter shock over the appreciations he has been receiving for this miniscule role.
"It’s really a very small role," he informed. The film will open at the 66th Cannes Film Festival on May 15 and, Big B, along with daughter-in-law Aishwarya Rai Bachchan will grace the opening night.
Tell us something about your belated Hollywood debut.
Actually, this is a very small cameo. Baz Luhrmann is a highly recognised director and this is a very renowned subject, which has great literary value. A few years back, he was on a private visit to India with an artist friend of his. They were travelling all over India on a motorcycle. And one day, he called my office and said he wanted to meet me. Well, I was very surprised, because I don’t know him personally and he probably didn’t know me either. But I called him over and met him over a cup of tea. We had a very pleasant conversation. His artist friend painted something for me and presented it to me. And then, a couple of years later, he just called and said, ‘I have something and I want you to do it.’ He said it’s a small role in the film which he felt was not worthy of me. But he hoped that I’d play it, that’s how it all happened.
You were never interested in Hollywood offers in the past. Why?
Well, as much as you would like not to believe it, Hollywood offers never came to me. And, why should they? I don’t think we fit into their culture. But I think, gradually, things are changing. The world is getting smaller and now the west is looking at the Indian market, which I guess will open up many opportunities. We will be offered roles. There are so many films which have been designed around India post Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and, as and when it progresses, I guess there will be opportunity to explore.
Where do you think the Indian film industry stands in respect to Hollywood?
I don’t know, I think that if you look at sheer numbers, perhaps the number of people that watch Indian films is far greater than the number of people that watch Hollywood films. Lot of people might not believe it, but a long time ago, I remember Javed (Akhtar) saab had some statistics and it worked out to be around 3.8 billon viewers for Indian cinema and about 3.2 billon for Hollywood. But of course, Hollywood, commercially, is more successful and bigger, but by sheer demographical reasons, I think Indian cinema is bigger than Hollywood.
But it’s their world, their culture and I don’t see why they should be thinking about us. We don’t think about taking Hollywood actors in our film, because our culture is different. So I guess that’s the equation. But yes, there is a healthy respect for the creativity that comes out from both the countries.
Is this an exception, or do you want to explore further opportunities in Hollywood?
I don’t know; I’m 71 now and, at this age, it’s very difficult to expect that a certain kind of roles will come my way. But yes, if there are people who want to cast me, I don’t mind if something is offered.
Everyone is raving about your role. Can you explain how significant your character is?
Firstly, I am shocked by all the appreciation. I seriously don’t understand. It’s a really small role. Secondly, I don’t look at it as being significant because I did it as a friendly gesture to Baz (Luhrmann, director). We all admire him.
I play Meyer Wolfsheim in the film. Leonardo DiCaprio, Joel Edgerton, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan and the others in the film are just fantastic stars. Meyer Wolfsheim is looked upon as a mentor by Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio). Gatsby always looked upto him and he is also like his father figure. Wolfsheim is the head of a Jewish mafia in the 1900s. The whole story, as you may know from the book by F Scott Fitzgerald, is being narrated by Gatsby’s friend Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and, during the conversation, Gatsby takes Carraway to Meyer Wolfsheim, that’s the portion I’m playing.
We’ve heard you did not charge for the film.
It was a friendly gesture for Baz and I haven’t charged anything for it.
Recently, Steven Spielberg was in India and he suggested that Indian films need to be more aggressive in terms of their marketing in the west. What would you say to that?
I think we, as a film industry, have always been very hesitant with the product (films) that’s been made and I don’t know from where this whole thing comes. Certainly, we need to learn a lot about how to market our creativity, our movies and make them more popular and watchable everywhere. Hollywood does it beautifully, and it has the acumen to do it; we haven’t done it so far. For years, we really haven’t realised the potential of Indian cinema overseas and, suddenly now, we have discovered that there are huge markets for it, which were all throughout functional but we never knew about them. Fortunately, now it’s a recognised fact that Indian cinema has a place all over the world. And we have stars who are very popular.
How is the Hollywood setup different from Hindi films?
I’ve worked with them for the very first time, and I’m incredibly impressed. The amount of preparation and research that goes into each Hollywood production is incredible. The years of research, getting everything right and preparing the artiste is exemplary. Even though I had just one small scene in the film, the amount of reading material that was sent to me, the conversations we had over Skype because of the distance, is unbelievable. I had a voice and dialogue director separately allocated to me, who recorded how Meyer Wolfsheim will speak his lines and this would be evaluated according to what kind of character he was. All kinds of references, huge amount of researchers and the dedication to professionalism is just mind-boggling.
Is there a Hindi or an Indian classic novel you wish was made into a movie?
Actually, I’m not sure. I’m not good at choosing, I would rather leave it to someone to come up with it. It will be interesting.
How was it working with Leonardo DiCaprio?
They are huge stars, and working with them has been a wonderful experience. They could be biggest stars in the universe, but when they are in front of the camera, or part of a project, they are just immaculate professionals — considerate, cooperative and friendly — it’s amazing. If you have to do an over-shoulder shot, they will actually come and sit there for you. They’re very respectable towards you and that is quite remarkable.
Can you elaborate a bit more?
For instance, if I was talking to Leonardo DiCaprio with a close-up of me facing the camera, then he’s not required; but he would still come and sit there with his costumes and give his lines despite the fact that, you know, he’s a huge star; he doesn’t need to do that. But that’s the kind of dedication everyone has there. And the amount of detailing that went into recreating the 1920s is just unbelievable. I’m sure that when you see the film, you will realise it. Also the fact that it’s a new kind of technology they are trying to do a dramatic film on is interesting. So working in 3D was another unique experience. It was just by far one of the best experiences of my life.
Other than you, which actors do you think are popular overseas?
I don’t think I am as popular as any of these stars. We have Rajinikanth, who is immensely popular in Japan; you won’t believe it, some of his films do better than Japanese films. This is true popularity. We’ve seen Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Aamir Khan, who are extremely popular in the west, especially in Europe. These are all wonderful signs. In the past, I think there were very few stars who were so popular overseas. There was Raj Kapoorji who was very popular in Russia and Shammi Kapoor, who was loved in parts of North Africa and the Middle East. Beyond that, I doubt there were other countries that watched Hindi films back then. So yes, with the wind blowing favourably for Indian cinema now, we need to learn the ropes of marketing. I am glad to see that it is moving in that direction.