Over 50 Years After Saat Hindustani: To Be or Not to Be Amitabh Bachchan
Over 50 years of Amitabh Bachchan in Bollywood, journalist and filmmaker Khalid Mohamed on the superstar.
(This piece has been republished from The Quint’s archives to celebrate Amitabh Bachchan’s birthday.)
Throughout my yo-yo’ing career, the Big B has loomed larger than life. Amitabh Bachchan can be down but not out. A sometimes sprightly, sometimes indisposed legend, he has cartwheeled beyond the arc of criticism.
Right off, at the first-day-first-show at Mumbai’s now-defunct Lotus Cinema, I was one of those rah-rah bhakts of AB, monitoring every breath he took on screen. Unlike my college buddies, I became a journalist who went on – eat your hearts out, guys – to monitor the prime actor in real-life, close-up.
And to think his debut act in the black-and-white KA Abbas’ Saat Hindustani premiered more than 50 years ago on 7 November. Bachchan had portrayed an Urdu poet who joins a group of six other nationalists fighting for the independence of Goa from Portuguese colonialists.
I didn’t think he was an unusual suspect. Most did, at the time. Too lanky, so-not-in-your-face, no chikna he. Could Amitabh Bachchan be to the Bollywood manor born? His photographs hadn’t evoked a response from the Filmfare-United Producers’ talent contest.
Movie baron Tarachand Barajatya had said words to the effect, ‘tsk-tsk-go-fly-a-kite’. Lore goes that Satyajit Ray had hemmed and hawed but had recommended him to Mrinal Sen for the voice-over of Bhuvan Shome (1969). Super success stories are made of such speed breakers.
Incidentally, I must be the only one who has been mystified by the Best Newcomer honour bestowed on him at the National Awards for Saat Hindustani. Should have quizzed him on this. Didn’t, a slip-up. Was it a new category instituted just that year, never to be awarded again? Not that the award helped him majorly up the career ladder.
Yesterday’s archetypal struggler has endorsed practically every consumer product from chocolates and cement to jewellery and gel pens, shone a congenial light on the dim-witted television scenario with his long-running stretch on the quiz show Kaun Banega Crorepati, July 2000 onwards. When it comes to chaste Hindi diction alloyed to that baritone voice throw, fist-bashing, off-the-cuff comedy or breaking into songs amidst flower beds, he’s been boss.
Question: Bossy enough to ban the press?
His abiding contention, though, is that the press had banned him. Huh? Whatever. This was on the heels of a report in Stardust about a torrid Bachchan-Zeenat Aman liaison while shooting overseas. Who had banned whom? Whatever the tu tu main main may have been, that brooding silence had to be broken.
This rookie reporter was obsessed – snag the interview with the off-limits superstar. I’d be promoted from the daily crime-grime duty at the morgue. On pestering the wizardly soul, Manmohan Desai, the deed was done.
At the location shoot of Coolie (1983) at Bangalore railway station, my subject of desire sulked for a while in the second-class compartment of a stationary train. And then, like Desai’s no-logic-required, our chat-fest continuing late into the night at a cottage suite of the West End Hotel. Fan-boy khush hua.
I returned to the office, as if I had heisted the safest bank deposit vault in the world. Stop press, I whooped the news editor. “Your friend (friend?) has just been punched hard by some Puneet Issar while shooting. It could be fatal.” The interview was carried in extensive parts on two consecutive editions of Sunday Review. Every syllable he had uttered was considered platinum in print.
Without any hyperbole intended, the nation prayed for his miraculous recovery, as they did again when he was felled later by myasthenia gravis and when he was hospitalised for an emergency surgery.
Privileged, I was then, face-to-face over time, to hear him say that he would combat the gust from the morning shower spray to gauge whose power was stronger, watch him gaping balefully at the mirror at the deepening shades of grey and creases, and sit in a library-like silence at the new Thai restaurant in town. And even receive an SMS the next day, “Jaya tells me I was rude, not speaking. Believe me I had a great time in your company. Regards. Amit.” Awwww, that’s thoughtful, I grinned, but not without a shadow of doubt. Really sir? Kid me not.
Politically mega-correct, he has treaded on the side of caution or at least attempted to. At one time, there would be photo-ops with the Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray. Since years, the actor has served as the brand ambassador of Gujarat and is one of the high-profile faces of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharat Swachh programme. No personal ideological or partisan pronouncements have been advanced, so far.
Any statement could be blown out of proportion.
In fact, mea culpa of sorts, on this account. In 1985, when I’d interviewed him during his tenure as a Lok Sabha MP for The Times of India, all hell had broken loose. His quote alluding to his childhood friend, Rajiv Gandhi, “I was flown from Bangalore to be dumped into the cesspool of politics”, was headlined front-page. Instantaneously, top-notch power-wielders of the Congress, tongue-lashed: how dare he call politics a ‘cesspool’?
The quote was denied by Bachchan. Mercy be, I was away in Los Angeles. Disneyland on my schedule, not the furore which was rocking New Delhi then.
Some months later, I did ask the stoic Bachchan if he had denied the quote. “Let’s forget it, if you don’t mind.” I didn’t.
How could I? My critical faculties were still high on the screen performances of an actor of spleen and due diligence. Dozens of worshipful interviews unspooled. Alternately, he could be deeply self-analytical or he could be bottled-up, talking this far and no further. Yet when it comes to being articulate, cherry-picking his words (out out, cesspools), no one compares to him.
That steady diet of Amitabh Bachchan interviews was packed, for me, with all the requisite proteins, culminating with the coffee table book, To Be Or Not To Be Amitabh Bachchan (2002) published by Jaya Bachchan to mark the actor’s 60th birthday.
Accompanied by a feisty team, I’d filmed a documentary on Bachchan’s life and cinema, following him to Europe, complete with a photo-shoot in Paris, London, Paris and Monte. Tres exotique.
Many of those clicks made for terrific photo-spreads in the book. The documentary, cut from some 40 to four hours by ace editor Sreekar Prasad, was scrapped abruptly by Jaya Bachchan. I still can’t fathom why. The chronicled material must be rotting somewhere. Just one of those disappointments I’ve had to forget with a metaphorical shrug. Still, the Amitabh Bachchan interviews on print stay with me on pen-drives.
It would be pointless to go amnesiac, though, about the hullabaloo minutes after my review of Bhoothnath (2008) in had panned (honest!) his performance. The actor wasn’t in form, and I didn’t know why I should mince my words.
I’m a journalist dammit, not a courtier in a Bollywood star durbar. Once, he’d even gruffed at me, “Stop behaving like a journalist.” Kasam paida karnewaale ki I couldn’t. By the way, the actor doesn’t approve of the Bollywood word, with the logic that comparisons are odious.
The ‘Ghostnath’ review detested by my superstar led to wild wild words exchanged on blogs and in print. Among other things, I was guilty it seems of swilling litres of “exclusive and expensive wine”, tinkling cheers, bon santé in the company of Jaya Bachchan. Exit Jalsa and Prateeksha, the swanky Bachchan residences at Juhu, where I’ve never stepped in again, and am the saner for it.
Such trifles had to be dealt with, used as bookmarks in novellas, faded and half-forgotten. Down the ages, I suspect every star-journalist equation has seesawed. In the event, it’s prudent to stay out of range. Unsolicited advice to star trackers: if you’re called a part of the family, just go stone deaf.
That’s why 50 years after Saat Hindustani, for me, Amitabh Bachchan the actor is best admired from the distance of a balcony or rear stalls. Hell, I didn’t even ever ask him for a selfie.
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