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