Amitabh Bachchan with VP Singh. (HT Archive)
Amitabh Bachchan with VP Singh. (HT Archive)

Excerpt: A Rude Life; The Memoir by Vir Sanghvi

This excerpt from Vir Sanghvi’s memoir rewinds to Amitabh Bachchan’s disastrous foray into politics in the 1980s
PUBLISHED ON JUL 30, 2021 06:13 PM IST
488pp, ₹899; Penguin
488pp, ₹899; Penguin

I am still not sure why Bachchan agreed to join politics, something he had often assured me he would never do. When he did become an MP he offered two reasons, both of which may have been part of the story.

The first was that not only was Rajiv his childhood friend but that the Bachchan and Gandhi families had always been close. For instance, when the young Sonia Maino came to India to marry Rajiv, she stayed in Delhi with the Bachchans. She continued to tie rakhis on the wrists of both Bachchan brothers.

When Mrs Gandhi was assassinated the Bachchan family was swept up in the wave of grief that followed. When Rajiv succeeded his mother he told Amitabh that he would only be able to do the job if his close friends helped him. So when Rajiv asked him to join politics during that emotionally charged period, he found it hard to refuse.

The second was what Bachchan called the ‘1982 episode’. That was the year when a fight scene in a movie went wrong and Amitabh was punched hard in the stomach. The blow caused internal ruptures and Bachchan remained in hospital for weeks, hovering between life and death.

Stars have been injured or fallen ill before but there was no precedent for the way in which India reacted. The whole country came to a standstill and millions prayed for his recovery. The prayers took the form of fasts, rituals and logic-defying stunts. One man kept front rolling (like multiple somersaults) for several miles from his home to a temple. He believed that God would reward this gymnastic display by restoring Amitabh’s health.

Till that point, Bachchan had been famously professional saying that acting was just a job. But the public response to his injury stunned him and made him rethink his relationship with the Indian people.

Perhaps it wasn’t just a job, after all. Perhaps he owed something to the people who had prayed for him. Perhaps he should look beyond acting.

And he did. He joined politics.

Amitabh Bachchan addressing a rally. (HT Archive)
Amitabh Bachchan addressing a rally. (HT Archive)

He found that something happened to him after the Allahabad campaign. Most MPs win their elections, periodically visit their constituencies and get involved only when there are major issues to be discussed. The rest of them depute MLAs and municipal representatives to handle the situation on the ground.

But Bachchan decided that he would adopt Allahabad. Every conversation I had with him in 1985 was about how hard it was for the poor in Allahabad or about how he would do something new each month to help his constituents.

Such attention to a constituency is unusual among MPs. And when the MP in question is not just India’s most famous man, a hero to the masses, but also the prime minister’s best friend, his interest in the city worries local politicians. In Bachchan’s case it was VP Singh, Rajiv’s finance minister, who was troubled by Bachchan’s obsession with Allahabad, which he regarded as part of his own backyard.

Though VP Singh was now nationally famous, he never forgot that Allahabad was his base. No Congress leader of note was allowed to emerge in that city. And the local party unit acted as though the Congress in Allahabad was VP Singh’s personal property. Everyone who tried to make an impression was doomed to fail.

Almost every initiative Bachchan launched in Allahabad unravelled and he could never figure out why, so subtle and skillful was the manipulation. To his face, VP Singh would be uniformly friendly and respectful and when Bachchan went to him to look for help with the initiatives that had unravelled, VP Singh would be sympathetic and say things like ‘unfortunately, the toothpaste cannot be put back into the tube’.

I had known Bachchan as an actor who ruled the industry from a distance. He rarely socialized, had very few film friends and yet, because he was such a box office draw, the producers kept knocking at his door. He had faced his share of down moments but especially after his ‘1982 episode’ there had never been any doubt that he had the love of the people of India.

Now, he seemed less sure. In Allahabad, they arranged stunt after stunt to shake his hold on the city. If he failed to visit the constituency for two weeks, they put up ‘Missing’ posters. Nor did he seem to have the kind of lofty power in Delhi that he had enjoyed in Bombay. In Rajiv’s inner circle, Arun Nehru always treated him as a novice (which he was) with much to learn.

At first Bachchan seemed to get along with Arun Singh, another of Rajiv’s close friends and his closest advisor, even renting a farmhouse on the outskirts of Delhi from him. But that relationship turned sour and Rajiv had to keep his two close friends apart.

I can’t remember when the negative stories about Bachchan started but I think they began around the time that his brother Ajitabh moved with his family to Switzerland. In those days, even more than now, Switzerland was known for its numbered bank accounts and it was soon put about that Ajitabh (Bunty) had become a Swiss resident only so he could look after the Bachchan family’s illegal money. (In some versions, Bunty was looking after Rajiv’s money too.)

These rumours would have faded if they had been based on mere guesswork but they survived because VP Singh’s finance ministry always suggested — off the record, of course — to journalists that officials were prevented from probing the financial affairs of the Bachchan brothers. Who knew what an independent probe might reveal?

Somehow, Bachchan managed to become a sideshow when VP Singh decided to go to war against the Ambanis of Reliance, claiming that they were crooks who had to be stopped. The rumour mill had it that Bachchan — who knew Anil Ambani socially — was the conduit for communications between Rajiv Gandhi and the Ambanis. When two obviously forged letters, purportedly from Michael Hershman, an American investigator, surfaced, suggesting that VP Singh’s targets included Rajiv Gandhi’s family, Singh’s officials told journalists that Bachchan had carried the fake letters from the Ambanis to Rajiv.

Given that this whisper campaign was well underway before the Bofors scandal erupted, it was easy to work Bachchan’s name into the story. Without any evidence at all, those claiming to be in the know in Delhi began to suggest that the Bachchans had accepted kickbacks on behalf of the Gandhis.

Even when The Hindu named others as Bofors agents, the rumour mongers found a way to drag the Bachchans into the story. Was it not a fact, they asked, that the Hindujas had financed producers who made movies starring Amitabh? And now that The Hindu had named the Hindujas, wasn’t that conclusive proof that the Bachchans were involved?

It was during this period that I got to know Bachchan well. In private, he can often be a silent, brooding presence, quite unlike the characters he plays on the screen. But now, I thought, it had gone even further: he was becoming a depressive presence.

He had no idea where the rumours were coming from, no way of quashing them and feared that he was becoming an embarrassment to Rajiv. More than that, I thought, he didn’t know how to cope with the absence of public affection. He had always been the idol of millions. Now the millions were beginning to have doubts about him.

One fine day, he suddenly resigned from parliament. He gave no interviews but only repeated what we already knew: he was not cut out for politics.

Rather than ending the campaign against him, it only fuelled it. Why had he resigned? Had Rajiv thrown him overboard? What was Amitabh scared of?

Rajiv Gandhi, Amitabh Bachchan and his mother Teji Bachchan at the Asiad Inauguration on 20 November, 1982. (HT Archive)
Rajiv Gandhi, Amitabh Bachchan and his mother Teji Bachchan at the Asiad Inauguration on 20 November, 1982. (HT Archive)

These questions were raised again and again when VP Singh decided to stand against the Congress candidate at the by-election necessitated by Amitabh’s resignation from parliament. Glad to be back in Allahabad, VP Singh turned the entire campaign into a referendum on Rajiv’s integrity. And Amitabh featured in every speech.

Rajiv was the raja, VP Singh would say in his folksy manner, but every raja had a parrot. The raja’s soul lived inside that parrot. Catch the parrot and you have caught the raja. In India’s case, VP Singh continued, Rajiv was the raja, Amitabh was the parrot. Catch Amitabh and you bring down the raja. (I always thought that this little folksy tale was a bit ironic with its talk of rajas, given that everyone on VP Singh’s staff called him Rajasaab — he was, after all, the raja of Manda.)

VP Singh won the by-election easily and things began to look increasingly glum for Amitabh through no fault of his own. He was still close to the Gandhis: he was the man who finally persuaded Sonia Gandhi that Rajiv needed RK Dhawan (whose appointment she was resolutely opposed to) in his office. But in the eyes of the public, this closeness to the Gandhis made him took even guiltier.

I remember sitting with him in his attic/den on top of Pratiksha, his bungalow in Bombay’s Juhu-Vile Parle scheme as he tidied his desk (he is a neatness freak) and worried what would happen if VP Singh became prime minister.

We agreed that VP Singh’s ascent was inevitable but that, I said, was preferable to the current situation where Bachchan was fighting smoke and shadows. There were no charges against him and he was required to prove a negative. How can you prove that you didn’t take a kickback? He would be better off fighting charges when they were actually levelled.

In the event, VP Singh did become prime minister and his investigators took off to Geneva to catch the parrot, as VP Singh would have put it. They were sure that with their Letters Rogatory, they would get the Swiss to reveal the names of the Bofors account holders. They asked for five accounts to be frozen but were surprised when the Swiss told them that Bofors had also paid money into a sixth account.

The CBI officers were professional enough to wait to see who the sixth account belonged to but the political appointees among the investigators quickly leaked to the media that they had found Ajitabh Bachchan’s account. It was the sixth account. ‘Bachchan caught redhanded’ became the headline all over India.

As we all subsequently discovered (and the Bachchans already knew), Ajitabh had nothing to do with the sixth account. But the certainty with which the press reported the story crucified Amitabh in the public eye.

A strange transformation took place. Whereas earlier Amitabh had been a brooding, non-drinking, vegetarian, he changed before our eyes. He was on a British Airways flight from Bombay to London and when the cabin attendant came over with a tray of champagne before take-off, he suddenly said to himself, ‘Oh screw it!’ and took a glass. He tuned partly non-vegetarian. And became an angry middleaged man in real life too.

He read a letter to the editor in a newspaper denouncing him. He got into his car and drove from Juhu to the letter writer’s home in south Bombay, rang the doorbell and when they opened the door, dumbfounded, said, ‘Hello, I am Amitabh Bachchan. I believe you have some doubts about my integrity.’

He left only after he had convinced the surprised man that the charges against him were false.

He considered taking legal action against the Indian newspapers that had carried the sixth account stories and only held off when he was told that the cases would take years to come to court.

But, he discovered, the sixth account story had also been carried by Dagens Nyheter, a Swedish paper. He checked with Ajitabh who had moved to London by now and discovered that he could sue a Swedish paper (which was also circulated in England) for libel in a British court. He asked Bunty to file a case immediately.

I was in the London court when the case was heard. Amitabh had been told that he would have to testify. Rather than make him nervous, the thought excited him. He wanted to get on the stand and declare his innocence.

It was not to be.

Vir Sanghvi (Courtesy the publisher)
Vir Sanghvi (Courtesy the publisher)

When the case began, the counsel for Dagens Nyheter got up and told the court that the paper had been misled by the investigators and was withdrawing the allegation which it found to be false. It would pay damages to Ajitabh.

This was a huge victory — the first that Bachchan had won in many years — but rather than exult in joy, Amitabh seemed frustrated. He went to his lawyer’s chamber and took calls from a variety of journalists at Indian newspapers who had read about the case on the news ticker. His tone was combative. Asked how he felt, he said, ‘I came here ready to fight but the fight was over even before the first round.’

He had strong words for VP Singh and for the Indian newspapers that had carried the story (‘Because the truth exposes us all’) and poured all his pent up aggression into those interviews.

He flew back to India the next day and was greeted at Bombay airport by cheering crowds. One consequence of the scandal had been that all his films were flopping. Now, as the verdict came in, ticket sales for his current release, Aaj ka Arjun, one of the worst films he had ever acted in, soared. It became his biggest hit in years.

And just like that, suddenly, it was over.

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