We catch Amitabh Bachchan in a unique mood. In a long, candid chat, he veers from being misty and nostalgic about his father and the other people who shaped his life, to being upbeat and excited about how he still manages to get challenging roles
He walks in exactly at the scheduled time for the interview. Yet again showing that his penchant for punctuality hasn’t taken a beating even after 46 years in this industry, which is full of people who have scant respect for other people’s time.
He is dressed in a kurta pajama with a shawl across his shoulders, reminiscent of his dad — the celebrated poet late Harivanshrai Bachchan. Talking about his father, Bachchan says he truly wishes he had the willpower that his dad did.
He goes on to narrate two amazing anecdotes from his father’s life to reiterate his point. “My father’s dedication to whatever he thought of and making sure that it was achieved purely by his willpower was phenomenal. I must tell you about these incidents. Pandit Nehru once asked my father to translate a biography written on him by Micheael Brecher from English to Hindi. He wanted to publish it by his birthday, (November 14) which was just about three months later.
My father had so much to do in such little time, so he would sit in his study for hours together. He would hang a painting outside the door, so that we know that we should not be disturbing him. But one day we got worried because he hadn’t come out of the study for about 20 hours. When I went in to check on him, I saw that he had kept his left hand in a bowl of water. When I asked him about it, he said, “My left hand is paining. Actually my right hand was paining because I have been writing non-stop, so I willed the pain to go from right to left, and now the left hand is paining so I have kept it in a bowl of water to get some relief’,” he says.
Anothertime, when we were staying in New Delhi, he would go for his morning walk around 4 am. He would find some figurines on rocks in the area and he would bring them home and paint them. One day, he came back from his walk and woke me up. He was standing next to a huge boulder just outside the house. He wanted it brought in as he wanted to paint the garud (eagle) on it. The boulder was so huge that I had to get some four or five people to take it inside. I asked my father how he managed to bring it till outside the house. So he told me that he had seen it some time back and so, for three months, every morning he would push it about three inches towards the house, till he managed to get it outside the house. That’s the kind of willpower I am talking about. He was just amazing,” he says with a sigh that seemed mixed with a tinge of regret at having lost him.
Band of friends
Ask him if older also means lesser friends and lesser people you love and admire, he nods. He says, “I always believe that once you are someone’s friend, you are a friend for life. Once you share a part of your life with someone, you cannot disown them. I will always have that respect for a friend, irrespective of whether the other person respects or not. Yes, as you grow older, there are fewer friends around you. My samdhi, Shweta’s father-in-law (Rajan Nanda), once told me something very pertinent when a friend of mine passed away. He told me over the phone, “Now is the time when you don’t make friends, you lose them.” It is very sad, but it is the fact of life. As you grow older, so many people are gone from your life.
Deepika Padukone and Amitabh Bachchan in Piku
Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, the gentleman who gave me a break in my career, is gone, people who shaped my career like Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra, Shakti Samanta... they are gone. SD Burman, RD Burman, so many people. When you are with them, you are full of vigour and joy and never imagine that there will be a time when they are not going to be around, even if you want to, you won’t be able to see them again.”
Cashing in on that emotional mood he’s in, we ask him whether he is still romantic at heart, he laughs. “I hope so. Yes, filmmaking itself is a romantic thing. Love necessarily doesn’t have to be a male-female equation. I am in love with my granddaughter. I could be in love with my phones. Every two seconds I am looking at them. We are all married to our phones. Romance has different connotations...’ But what about male female romance? Does he have infatuations?
“It is not the age for that now.” Tell him romance is ageless and he agrees, “Yes, I am envious and sad that I am not young enough to play the leading roles with girls like Deepika (Padukone), Kangana (Ranaut), Vidya (Balan), Alia (Bhatt), etc.’
His role as Deepika’s eccentric father in 'Piku' was well appreciated. Congratulate him about it and he chooses to be modest. “I think on moments like these you should give credit to the person who thinks and writes such characters. I would give all credit to Shoojit (Sircar, the director of the film) and Juhi (Chaturvedi, the writer).
Tell him his role role of an eccentric character needed a lot of restraint as there was a danger of it going overboard and he nods in agreement. “That’s a very good observation because most of the times when we do caricatures, we tend to go overboard. What worked for us was that we were all made to be immersed in this world, a typical, conventional Bengali home in CR Park, Delhi. There is no story as such. It is just how people converse. Most of the Bengali community in Delhi stays in CR Park, if you notice that happens everywhere. Every community builds its own area if they are out of their home state. So there was this setting of the house, which was so typical.
The whole ambience of the house, the photograph of the maa… we didn’t feel like we were playing those characters, we were those people. I actually wanted more Bengali in the film, but some of the portions, there were some lovely scenes like where there is a banter between Moushumi (Chatterjee) and me had to be sadly edited out. The producers felt that they didn’t want anything to go over the head for Hindi speaking audiences.”
Shoojit’s film set-up reminds him of a Hrishikesh Mukherjee movie. “I doubt that I have felt anything like this after Hrishida. And that’s wonderful for Shoojit because Hrishida had that capability of walking the middle path, not too left and not too right. I would also like to give credit to the audience for having noticed the undercurrents and also having gotten attached to it.”
He says it’s time we recognise the intelligence of the audience, “We should be kicking ourselves now. We have a wonderful audience which is so ready to patronise different kind of stories. But we are still stuck on thinking that only those typical extravaganzas do well.”
Bachchan says he’s familiar with the Bengali culture that worked in his favour. “I have lived and worked for seven years in Kolkata and since Jaya and my in-laws are Bengalis, you pick up on little things.
This success, which he says came as an absolute surprise to the team, must have been a relief after the debacle and disappointment of his last film, 'Shamitabh'.
“I don’t know what went wrong with 'Shamitabh'. Balki (director of the film) and I did have a chat about it wondering what went wrong. I had loved the concept which was unique and different. But I am happy I did the role, in fact, I am just grateful that I still get to do such challenging roles. It is funny that when you are younger and playing lead roles, you don’t get the opportunity to play such diverse roles. As a leading man, you are just romancing a girl, doing action and that’s about it,” he says with a broad smile. “This is just a wonderful time. Not only do I get the satisfaction of doing things that I have not done before but also being on the same frame with the actor of younger generation. They are all fabulous. I really feel that by far the actors of Indian cinema are the most fascinating talent. Every actor is an evolved actor and when we entered films, we were so lost. I am not evolved even after 46 years and still learning. But these youngsters know bang on from the first film. They find it very odd that I don’t have a manager or a stylist and they say, why do you do things yourself? Who reads the scripts for you? And now I realise we carried all the responsibilities all this while and they have diluted their pressures so easily by delegating work. There is a method in what they do, whereas we just went on with whatever came our way. Look at Kangana, she is incredible in 'Tanu Weds Manu Returns'. I would struggle to do something like that. Look at the other actors around her in the film, everyone is absolutely marvellous.”
Bachchan’s next film, Bejoy Nambiar’s 'Wazir', is produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Rajkumar Hirani.
“I don’t have the permission to talk about it, but I can say this much that I am on a wheelchair throughout the film and Farhan Akhtar plays a cop. There are some relationship issues which are common to both parties. Technically Bejoy is very sound. The dramatic thriller will release in October.”
Ask him if he’s proud of his baritone and the way he modulates his voice, and he says with a hint of a blush, “What baritone? A lot of guys have voice like mine.”
Has it ever worked against him?
“I like it if my a voice can be put to good use. There have been instances when I tried to go away from the voice, like in 'Agneepath', but it worked against the film. I had to redub the voice, because the audience started attacking the theatre owners thinking something is wrong with their sound system. I try and use my voice for social causes, I am more than happy to do that,” he says just before bidding us adieu in that very sexy voice.