A very happy 78th birthday to you, Amitabh.
In the world of showbiz, today’s peacock could well be tomorrow’s feather duster. Not Amitabh Bachchan. His career remains a work in progress. It is impossible to encapsulate my interactions with him in a defined word count since I have had a treasure trove of memorable encounters. So I have handpicked a few.
The first time I met Amitabh was on the sets of Coolie at the far-flung Essel Studio. He kept his distance because he was not on talking terms with the magazine I was working for, but I was happy to watch him shoot a song with Rati Agnihotri, Rishi Kapoor and Shoma Anand. For the scene, Amitabh was required to lift Rati while Rishi had to lift Shoma. Director Manmohan Desai ribbed Rishi, “If you are unable to lift Shoma, I will make her lift you.” And a broad smile suddenly broke on Amitabh’s placid face just like it did in Zanjeer when Pran breaks down Amitabh’s stoic silence with ‘Tera mamnoon hoon tu ne nibhaya yaarana, teri hasee hai aaj sabse bada nazrana.’
The first time I did an exhaustive interview with him was on the sets of Shashi Kapoor’s fantasy drama, Ajooba. Amitabh was at his voluble best and cleared his name in the Bofors controversy, In the course of the hour-long gabfest, also asked him about how the Silsila casting coup had transpired. Amitabh didn’t hum and haw; he revealed with refreshing candour that director Yash Chopra had approached him to request Rekha and Jaya Bachchan to be part of the cast, and he had obliged.
In the span of 30 years, I have done more than a dozen interviews with him (for publications and for my books on cinema — he released two of my books, one by himself and one jointly with Aishwarya Rai). But, my most memorable interview with him was a joint interview with Rajesh Khanna. Getting the two superstars together for a cover story after they had maintained 17 years of professional distance was a high.
Here's an abridged excerpt:
Rajesh: Amit, how did you feel when you became a superstar with Namak Haram and Deewar?
Amitabh: It didn’t affect me at all. I felt that my success was more dependent upon the script, directors and co-stars. I just happened to be there. What did success do to you?
Rajesh: I felt next to God! …I recall reading that when you were in hospital, your heart stopped beating for 30 seconds.
Amitabh: Yeah, I had no pulse and there was no blood pressure…
Rajesh: Has it left you less afraid of death?
Amitabh: When you gotta go, you gotta go.
I remember calling Amitabh the morning after Kaun Banega Crorepati was aired and complimenting him on his new avatar. He told me, “Why don’t you participate as a contestant?” I quipped, “No thanks. I like putting others in the hot seat.”
Amitabh's accessible avatar on KBC holds the contestant and audience in thrall, but it is also real — as real as his going into a shell when he chooses to do so. Once, at a film trial at a preview theatre, Amitabh came at the designated hour in a white kurta half concealed by a shawl and sat alone in the middle of the last row. I was meeting him after some time. When I approached him in the interval, he arose from his seat to welcome me even as I was still mid-way. This is a gesture we take for granted between people who know each other. But few star-actors display such common courtesies.
Over the years that I have known Amitabh, he has always enjoyed the company of people — the Holi dos at his bungalow are warm and fun-filled. Amitabh greets you with a gulal teeka on your forehead before asking you to join him in his best imitation of the Bhagwan-dada dance movements to the bandwallahs’ beat.
Producer Yash Johar invited a retinue of magazine editors to Kolkatta for the premiere of Agneepath. And, Amitabh decided to hold an impromptu bash in his suite. Jaya, Archana Puran Singh and Romesh Sharma were already there. Though Amitabh had requested us to come in pyjamas if we had already changed, I quickly changed from my lungi-kurta into an ironed shirt and jeans. Over champagne and finger food, Amitabh’s recitation of his dad Harivansh Rai’s famous poem, Madhushala left us mesmerised. Since he insisted that we participate with a song, poem or a joke, I mustered courage (the champagne helped) to recite my poem, ‘Buddhapa’.
Next morning, while I was gazing out of the window of the luxury bus, a hand tapped me and broke my reverie. Amitabh had occupied the empty seat next to me. He told me, “I liked the poem you recited last night.” I was flustered.
And, Amitabh in turn was flustered when he called my residence once and my mom answered the phone. She asked him, poker-faced, “I have heard a lot about you from my son. I want to know your opinion of him." I don’t know how he dodged that bullet, but my mom was pleased as punch.