THE BIG STORY

He is by far the big­gest star Bol­ly­wood’s seen, but Amitabh Bachchan still wants more.

Friday - - Contents -

Dressed in a natty blue suit, his goa­tee neatly trimmed and salt-and-pep­per hair well set, Amitabh Bachchan, In­dia’s great­est ac­tor, smiles at all those who en­ter the posh meet­ing room in the of­fices of Amitabh Bachchan Cor­po­ra­tion in Juhu, Mum­bai. He’s been at the top of Bol­ly­wood for 46 years, and de­scribed as hav­ing the com­bined star wattage of Mar­lon Brando, Robert De Niro and Clint East­wood. As you are over­awed by the im­age on the wall, the door opens and in walks the six-foot-three-inch-tall ac­tor him­self.

It’s ex­actly 5.30pm, the sched­uled meet­ing time, but then that’s not un­usual – the star is well-known in the industry for be­ing a stick­ler for punc­tu­al­ity.

Look­ing dapper in an im­pec­ca­bly tai­lored white pathani suit and black Nehru jacket, In­dia’s most recog­nised cin­ema icon, who cel­e­brated his 73rd birth­day a few days ago (Oc­to­ber 11), is a pic­ture of el­e­gance. Ex­tend­ing his hand for a firm hand­shake, he smiles warmly, eyes crin­kling be­hind large de­signer spec­ta­cles. How does he feel be­ing a year older? ‘I am re­lieved,’ says the ac­tor in his rich bari­tone, which re­ver­ber­ates across the room. ‘Re­lieved that an­other year has gone by. I’m alive and full of grat­i­tude for the gift of life.

‘I feel blessed for be­ing pro­vided such an event­ful, ac­tion-packed life so far.’

It surely has been ac­tion-packed. A roller-coaster ride even. From be­ing a re­jected ac­tor – di­rec­tors told him ini­tially, ‘You’re too tall and lanky to be a hero’ – to go­ing on to act in more than 180 films, al­most all of them hits, in­clud­ing one Hol­ly­wood movie, The Great Gatsby, with Leonardo DiCaprio – Amitabh’s has surely been an amaz­ing jour­ney. Along the way, he has walked away with a clutch of awards, floated a film pro­duc­tion and event com­pany named, erm, Amitabh Bachchan Cor­po­ra­tion, bounced back from near-bank­ruptcy af­ter host­ing the 1996 Miss World pageant in Ben­galuru and made a splash on tele­vi­sion. He truly has seen it all. Or has he?

The cel­e­brated star doesn’t think so. ‘It would be a hor­ri­ble day if I was to think, I have done it all,’ he says. ‘It would kill any cre­ativ­ity I pos­sess if I was to be sat­is­fied. Any cre­ative per­son should never be sat­is­fied with their work.’

Hav­ing played more than 180 roles, which is the one he is most sat­is­fied with? Which char­ac­ter does he still hold close to his heart?

‘All of them,’ he says. ‘All the char­ac­ters I’ve [played] are close to my heart.’

The hum­ble star promptly cred­its scriptwrit­ers such as the duo Salim-Javed (Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar), who con­ceived and cre­ated stel­lar roles for him in films in­clud­ing Zan­jeer, Dee­war, Sho­lay and Don, for help­ing him to ce­ment his po­si­tion in cin­ema.

‘For any role to be mem­o­rable, you have to first ac­knowl­edge the writ­ers – they are the best ac­tors,’ he says. ‘We, as ac­tors, are or­di­nary peo­ple who breathe life into the char­ac­ters imag­ined by a writer and en­vi­sioned by the di­rec­tor.’

Clearly, if it had not been for Salim-Javed cre­at­ing the an­gry young man per­sona for him in Zan­jeer, Amitabh’s ca­reer per­haps would have never taken off.

In 1969, when he was a strug­gling as­pi­rant in Bol­ly­wood, Amitabh was the an­tithe­sis of the im­age of a typ­i­cal, swash­buck­ling, ro­man­tic hero. Gawky and with­drawn, he was very un­like the flam­boy­ant he­roes of the time such as Dilip Ku­mar, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Ra­jesh Khanna, who were rul­ing the roost in the early Sev­en­ties.

His char­ac­ter in Zan­jeer – a loner who grew up in an im­pov­er­ished neigh­bour­hood, then rose in life to fight against ills such as cor­rup­tion, mus­cle power and nepo­tism – was named Vi­jay, which means vic­tory in Hindi. Amitabh would con­tinue to use the name in sev­eral other films in which he would por­tray an an­gry young man who fights for jus­tice, and all of them would go on to be­come box-of­fice suc­cesses.

But even as he was rul­ing the screen, un­will­ing to be type­cast, Amitabh en­sured he did not re­strict him­self to just ac­tion and an­gry young man roles. He quickly proved that he was as adept at fight­ing the bad­dies as he was por­tray­ing a lovelorn poet (Kabhi Kab­hie), a porter (Coolie), a cheat (Mr Nat­war­lal) and a petty crim­i­nal (Suhaag). Was it easy to slip into the var­i­ous roles? ‘I think act­ing is like any other pro­fes­sion,’ he says. ‘It re­quires a high stan­dard of con­vic­tion and hon­esty.

‘You don’t ask a doc­tor if he does surg­eries with con­vic­tion and hon­esty. That is the min­i­mum re­quire­ment. To me, ev­ery role I have es­sayed has been im­por­tant and I have ac­cepted each one with an equal amount of com­mit­ment.’

Hav­ing ro­manced al­most all hero­ines of his era in Bol­ly­wood on screen – from Hema Malini, wife Jaya Bachchan and

Zeenat Aman to Parveen Babi, Neetu Singh and Rekha – as well as worked with the re­cent crop in­clud­ing Aish­warya Rai Bachchan, who mar­ried his son (ac­tor Ab­hishek Bachchan), Priyanka Cho­pra and Deepika Padukone, what are his views on mod­ern-day ac­tresses?

‘This gen­er­a­tion of ac­tors are all very good, ta­lented and pro­fes­sional,’ he says with a diplo­matic smile. Is there one ac­tor who stands out? ‘I would be as­sas­si­nated if I took just one name – they are all very good,’ he says.

Then, in all hu­mil­ity he con­fesses that he envies the new bunch. ‘I am truly so en­vi­ous of their con­fi­dence, their abil­ity, their pro­fes­sion­al­ism... I’ve been for­tu­nate to have acted with hero­ines of my gen­er­a­tion, and I hope I get more op­por­tu­ni­ties to do so with the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of hero­ines. I look for­ward to that.

‘Of course I can’t play a [lover boy] role op­po­site them; it would be an el­derly fa­ther or grand­fa­ther.’

Is Amitabh happy with the qual­ity and num­ber of fe­male-ori­ented themes in Hindi films that seem to be com­ing up of late? ‘Ev­ery era has had its share of womenori­ented films,’ says the ac­tor earnestly. ‘In the past, we had Ban­dini, Mother In­dia,

Sujata, so it would be wrong to think the par­a­digm shift has only hap­pened now.

‘How­ever, ev­ery five or 10 years, there is a shift in the needs and ex­pec­ta­tions of so­ci­ety and I am glad that women, who rep­re­sent 50 per cent of our so­ci­ety, are find­ing their voice in films [with] strong fem­i­nist themes. It’s im­por­tant to give ex­pres­sion to this sec­tion of so­ci­ety. But In­dian cin­ema has al­ways been re­cep­tive to them even in the past.’

Ver­sa­tile enough to nav­i­gate se­ri­ous, comic and tragic roles with ease, Amitabh’s evo­lu­tion as an ac­tor has been par­tic­u­larly no­tice­able in this mil­len­nium, such as in his por­trayal of an Alzheimer’s-stricken oc­to­ge­nar­ian in Black; a hypochon­driac, pos­ses­sive fa­ther in Piku; an im­pas­sioned Shake­spearean theatre ac­tor in The Last Lear and con­man Meyer Wolf­sheim in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.

Does he think his act­ing has got­ten bet­ter with age?

‘I’ve had greater op­por­tu­nity to do things that are dif­fer­ent, and this comes with age,’ he con­cedes, with­out giv­ing away too much.

Do­ing var­i­ous things is some­thing that the su­per­star has honed into a fine art. Amitabh was the first among In­dian su­per­stars to em­brace tele­vi­sion and ac­cept big as­sign­ments on the small screen when movie of­fers be­gan to dry up. As the host of Kaun Banega Crorepati, the In­dian ver­sion of Who

Wants to Be a Mil­lion­aire?, he im­me­di­ately struck a chord with view­ers with his re­laxed and ca­sual de­meanour. Now, his lat­est tele­vi­sion ven­ture, Aaj Ki Raat Hai Zindagi, a brand-new se­rial on Star Plus, high­lights the need to cher­ish ev­ery mo­ment in life.

The teasers on In­dian tele­vi­sion chan­nels – in one, Amitabh stands alone in the el­e­va­tor with a glint of mis­chief in his eyes, and be­gins to sway and clap – are al­ready pop­u­lar. The ac­tor also has Be­joy Nam­biar’s Wazir, a thriller in which he plays a wheelchair-bound chess grand­mas­ter, slated for re­lease in De­cem­ber.

‘I’d like to con­tinue to work,’ he says. ‘If you get work and are asked to do a par­tic­u­lar kind of role, I would want to do jus­tice to it and hope that in the fu­ture, there will be op­por­tu­ni­ties for me.’

Clearly Amitabh has been do­ing jus­tice to his roles, if the awards he has picked up over the years are any in­di­ca­tion – three Na­tional Film Awards, 14 Film­fare awards as well as the cov­eted civil­ian hon­ours Padma Vib­hushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri, among oth­ers. In fact, he is one of the few ac­tors who has a sep­a­rate Wikipedia page list­ing the awards he has won or been nom­i­nated for. And while he has a huge fan base in the real world, he’s also been busy in the dig­i­tal world, notch­ing up over 21 mil­lion fans on Face­book and 17.3 mil­lion fol­low­ers on Twit­ter.

‘It’s a won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity to hear and feel the fans who love my work,’ says Amitabh, who also main­tains a pop­u­lar blog.

Hum­ble to a fault, he dis­misses the fact that he was voted star of the mil­len­nium by a BBC news on­line poll in 1999 as a com­puter er­ror. ‘I can­not say much about the vot­ing pat­terns th­ese agen­cies de­vise. I don’t be­lieve them. How­ever, I am very grate­ful and hum­bled by the fact that there are peo­ple who are still watch­ing my films. It has been 46 years and I am in­debted to my au­di­ence for hav­ing con­tin­ued to keep me in its mind.’

So af­ter breath­ing fire and brim­stone against the es­tab­lish­ment and un­der­world, is the an­gry young man jaded? At 73, does he think this iconic im­age needs a new avatar to ex­press the angst of a new gen­er­a­tion?

Amitabh is quick to shrug off the re­spon­si­bil­ity non­cha­lantly. ‘This nomen­cla­ture was de­signed by the me­dia so it is in the best po­si­tion to an­swer this,’ he says. ‘Just be­cause a char­ac­ter takes on the sys­tem or the es­tab­lish­ment does not mean he de­serves this ti­tle. I think sto­ries and their con­struc­tion move in sync with the needs of the times we live in.

‘We bor­row from what hap­pens in so­ci­ety – from its morals and its prin­ci­ples. Over time, the think­ing of writ­ers changes; ev­ery five or 10 years there is a gen­er­a­tional change in think­ing and that is re­flected in the sto­ries of the times.’

Right now, what Amitabh en­joys most is fam­ily life. With Jaya, Ab­hishek and Aish­warya – all ac­tors – one would think that films are per­haps the only sub­ject

HUM­BLE to a fault, Amitabh dis­misses be­ing voted as STAR of the MIL­LEN­NIUM in an on­line poll by the BBC as a com­puter ER­ROR

dis­cussed at home. But the truth is far from it. ‘We never ever dis­cuss act­ing or films at the din­ner ta­ble,’ says the ac­tor, of­fer­ing a lit­tle peek into his fam­ily life. ‘We all would have had so much of that dur­ing the day that none of us ever wants to talk about it at home.

‘Our con­ver­sa­tions re­volve around food, weather... we laugh and talk just like mem­bers of any fam­ily would.’

A dot­ing grand­fa­ther, he en­joys con­vers­ing with Aarad­hya, Ab­hishek and Aish­warya’s daugh­ter. ‘She is [about to turn four]. It’s an in­ter­est­ing age and it is won­der­ful to spend time with her.

‘I also en­joy my time with Sh­weta’s [his daugh­ter who’s mar­ried to busi­ness­man Nikhil Nanda] kids, Navya Naveli, 18, and Agastya, 14, when they come vis­it­ing us. Al­though they have grown up to be­come in­de­pen­dent kids, I en­joy their com­pany. It’s ex­cit­ing to sit and talk to them. My grand­chil­dren are a source of great joy to me.’

A stick­ler for per­fec­tion and ex­tremely par­tic­u­lar about his health and diet, Amitabh is up at 5am ev­ery day to hit the gym. ‘The morn­ing reg­i­men is a time to gather my thoughts and have a sem­blance of a re­fined body,’ he says. He pumps iron and does in­tense work­outs un­der the watch­ful eye of a trainer, who en­sures he does rou­tines com­men­su­rate with his age. An avowed vegetarian, he main­tains a nu­tri­tional diet, which in­cludes muesli, skimmed milk, cot­tage cheese, veg­eta­bles, fruits, sprouts, multi­grain In­dian bread and green tea dis­trib­uted across the six meals he has in a day.

So is there any­thing he would have liked to change in his life?

Amitabh leans back, closes his eyes and re­flects on the ques­tion for a mo­ment. ‘No,’ he says fi­nally. ‘I would not change any­thing in my life – the good, the bad, the ugly. I stand by every­thing.’

From a con­man in The Great Gatsby (top) to a not-so-scary ghost in Bhoot­nath Re­turns (above), Amitabh has donned many hats

Amitabh’s par­ents Hari­vansh Rai and Teji Bachchan (above); With his wife, Jaya, chil­dren and grand­chil­dren (be­low right)

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