If I didn’t get into films, I’d drive a taxi: Big B
A life well lived. Presenting Amitabh Bachchan at 70
Happy Birthday, Amitji. It’s your 70th birthday and obviously a landmark year…
I have always wondered why these years are made a landmark. And, who makes them a landmark? It is just another year in someone’s life. Why is 70 special; why not 71, 72 or 69, for that matter? Of course, I know that for some reason these ages 50, 60, 70, 75, 80 are given designations. Never mind the fuss, today I’m 70.
Looking back, would you remember how you were when you were, say, 10 years?
A few instances, perhaps. It is strange but certain things remain in your mind more prominently when you grow older. I would have to think what I did yesterday. But I could relate an incident that happened in school in a jiffy. I think, most aspects of my life are already known. Everyone knows I was born in Allahabad; I went to the Jnana Prabodhini and Boys High School there, and Sherwood College in Nainital, and later to Kirori Mal College, New Delhi. I was attracted to the stage even when I was young and I used to land up on it on many occasions. I have played the part of a chicken in kindergarten. Every year when there was the school play, I used to be interested in that. Even when I was at home, our group of friends would put up an impromptu stage, put a curtain and put up a play. Apart from that, I had no intentions of being where I am today.
I thought the Filmfare-Madhuri talent contest was the very fair and proper way of getting into the film industry. I was unaware of the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) and of the fact that if you passed out from there, you would get at least a formal audition in the film industry. But because I was not aware of the FTII, I always wondered how one got into films. Not that I had any intention of getting into the movies, but I used to generally wonder how this happened. When I saw the Filmfare-Madhuri print ad, I felt this was the proper way to get into the film industry. It would get me a chance to audition for a screen test; put me on a salary. Of course, I got rejected. And then, I just made up my mind that I had to be in the movies. So I landed up in Mumbai with my driving licence. I hoped that if I didn’t get into films, then I would drive a taxi.
Does rejection always do that to you?
No, it doesn’t. I don’t know how to put this. Just because one has got rejected in a particular direction; it doesn’t fill me up with the attitude of — ‘I will show them’. It is none of that. Yet, if during the process of work, there is an obstacle that comes in the way, I would like to fight that obstacle. And sometimes, great brilliance comes out of that. And as I talk, I am reminded of an incident that may perhaps be able to explain to you, what I am trying to say.
I was shooting for Main Azaad Hoon (1989) in Pune. It was the time when we were being accused of Bofors (1987). And the whole nation was under the belief that we were traitors. Those were difficult times. We could not step out of the house because we would get abused. I used to get abused in the middle of the street. If we were shooting on the roads, the public would normally stop so as not to disrupt the shooting. However, if I was there, people would shout abusive slogans.
You also had a run-in with a students union during Main Azaad Hoon. Right?
I remember shooting a sequence in the theatre for Azaad. It is the scene where the protagonist is introduced. And he has to give a long speech. Anyway, we needed to fill up the hall with a crowd. So the producer gave an ad in the paper asking people to come to the theatre. The hall was full of Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) union wing members who’d come with a rebellious attitude. They charged on to the stage and shouted rebellious slogans. We had no police around because we were not aware that this would happen. I just stood there and allowed them to do what they were doing and then the police came and they were sent out.
The atmosphere was tense. My shot of the speech was to be done in 10 takes because it was a very large piece. I told the director (Tinu Anand) and Habib Nadiadwala, the producer and Javed Akhtar saab, who was the writer that let’s get on with it.
And I did that whole speech in one take purely as a sort of defiance to what I had just been through. That is the kind of thing that I would probably do. I would not take revenge on someone or something. In public life you have to bear with these kinds of things. So I don’t say — ‘I’m going to show you’. I will just do my work. But if there has been an obstacle, I would want to overcome it by trying to do better than what I did earlier on.
You went into semi-hibernation at one point (around 1992)…
Yes, I took this sabbatical. Looking back, I feel it is something I should perhaps not have done. At that point, there were certain circumstances which led me to believe that it was okay for me to do something like that. So I went ahead and did it. Basically, we were trying to corporatise entertainment. We had various meetings in the US and we came back and started out. We got into trouble with ABCL because we were not able to manage that properly. A lot of documentation that went into this was personally signed by me; later this went against me. Suddenly, there were a hundred court cases against me for recovery of dues. I did not know where the money was going to come from. So I thought I would start all over again. Early one morning, I sat up and asked myself — what am I? I’m an actor and I should act. So I walked across to Yash Chopra’s house and told him that I need a job and he gave me Mohabbatein (2000). And then things started to move. These are phases of life that I do remember.
Your decision to do Kaun Banega Crorepati in its first season (2000) also proved to be a landmark of sorts. Till then no icon had made his presence on the small screen…
It didn’t seem so at that point. And I do not subscribe to the icon epithet. But yes, mainstream actors had not really ventured into television. Here we are into the sixth season (two seasons were done by Shah Rukh Khan), and this is my fourth season. Yes, it has been wonderful to be associated with this show and to see the longevity of it.
June 3, 1973 is also a date deeply etched in your memory…
Yes, it is the day I married Jaya. Actually we were planning to marry by the end of 1973. We had finished Zanjeer. Jaya had two other movies that she wanted to complete before she married me. However, around that time a small group of friends had said that if Zanjeer did well, we’d all go for a holiday to London. I had never been out of the country before this so I was excited. When we came to know of the success of the film, we started making preparations. And I told my father, this is what we had planned. He turned around and said — ‘Are you going out alone with this girl for a holiday? Well, you should marry her before going overseas.’ And so, we quickly got married.
Which are the other dates that are special to you?
The birth of my children Shweta and Abhishek and my three grandchildren is very special. I always remember the dates when Shweta and Abhishek married. These are very personal, joyous occasions for all of us in the family.
Is it true that you are very attached to Prateeksha, your first home in Mumbai?
Yes, Prateeksha is the very first house we have had in the entire generation. Before that no one had really bought a house. My father in his autobiography wrote that one generation of his family builds structures; the other generation enjoys the benefits of it. I think it has been proven so far. For some reason, that’s how it happened. Prateeksha has always been there and all our happy moments have been spent there. Both the weddings, Shweta to Nikhil Nanda and Abhishek to Aishwarya Rai, were conducted from there. So it has a lot of relevance in our lives. I go there every day, and sometimes spend days on end there.
Actually, I love Mumbai. The city has given me my wife, children, and grandchildren. It has given me a name. Amazing how it all came from this one city. I’m grateful to God and to the audience that has shown an immense amount of affection not only towards my films, but also to other aspects of my life. They were with me during my Coolie accident (1982); they are with me and my family always.
Speaking of your name, Amitabh means everlasting light. Have you in your 70 years had time to reflect on it?
Amitabh is a very prominent Bengali name. It was given to me by the great poet Sumitranandan Pant, who happened to be in our home at Allahabad the day I was born. He was my godfather. One doesn’t necessarily want to believe in these meanings and look at it as the way you want me to look at it. But I am very grateful and very happy with whatever I may have achieved. Forty-three years in the film industry. And there have been some truly wonderful moments spent with people from various walks of life.
What’s the future work line-up?
Yes, there is Prakash Jha’s Satyagraha; another season of KBC. I’ve just confirmed Mehrunnisa with Sudhir Mishra. R Balki and Sujoy Ghosh are writing their films. There are also several other projects in the pipeline that I need to select from.