As he completes 50 years in cinema on Nov 7th 2019, I share here why I am no longer Amitabh Bachchan’s fan, but his devotee!!!
My dentist, whose name I don’t recollect, unwittingly, introduced me to Amitabh Bachchan.
We lived in Jaipur then. The year was 1973. I was around 6 years old. My dad had taken me for a dental procedure after which I was advised not to eat anything for at least a couple of hours. As we stepped out of the dentist’s clinic, my dad, looking at the cut-out of a tall man in the theatre across the road, suggested that we go for that movie. The idea was to keep me away from craving for food. The movie we went to was playing at Jaipur’s iconic Prem Prakash theatre (now it is, I understand, called Golcha and has three screens). The movie was Zanjeer and the tall man was Amitabh Bachchan. This was my first time in a cinema hall, it was my first movie experience. I had perhaps not heard the name Amitabh Bachchan until then, nor did I recall the name of that movie until when I watched it again in my teens, many years later! Yet that day at the theatre, that man’s screen presence and that scene are still etched in my memory. That scene – which Bollywood researcher and author Diptakirti Chaudhuri, in his book Written by Salim-Javed, describes as the precise moment that marks the arrival of the Angry Young Man in Indian cinema – where Amitabh Bachchan, as Inspector Vijay, thunders at Sher Khan (Pran): “…jab tak baitheney ko na kaha jaaye, sharafat se khade raho! yeh police station hai, tumhare baap ka ghar nahi!…”
I still recall being mesmerized by the intensity of that moment. I was just a kid. He was 31. A struggling actor, who, after a string of flops, had miraculously landed this role in Zanjeer because a. the film’s director Prakash Mehra’s preferred hero Raaj Kumar had turned down the role – apparently he didn’t like the smell of Mehra’s hair oil; casting Dilip Kumar, Dharmendra and Dev Anand too had not worked out for various reasons and b. Salim-Javed had strongly recommended to Mehra that Amitabh best suited the character of Vijay Khanna that they had written so passionately. So, as I was to realize much later, Amitabh gave it his all, more than his best! Perhaps it was that intensity in him, or perhaps because I had never been to a movie before, or perhaps I was an innocent kid who had still not been distracted by other influences and opportunities in Life yet, I am not sure what it exactly was, I just felt I wanted to be like that man, like Amitabh Bachchan!
Yes. It is weird. I don’t remember the name of the dentist who we visited. I don’t remember the name of my class teacher at St. Xavier’s, Jaipur, where I studied in those few years we lived there. But I remember me watching that scene in the dark in Prem Prakash, I remember wanting to grow up and be like Amitabh Bachchan.
As Vijay Khanna in Zanjeer – 1973; Image Copyright with original creator Was that my original fanboy moment? It surely was. But as I was to realize later on in Life, that moment was much, much more.
Over the next several years, Roti Kapda Aur Makaan, Sholay, Faraar, Kabhie Kabhie, Amar Akbar Anthony, Trishul, Don, Muqqadar Ka Sikandar, Suhaag, Shaan, Naseeb, Silsila and so many more of his movies, classics most of them, were seen by me in theatres. Each one left me more starstruck than before.
I remember, after watching Naseeb, at Santosh theatre in Gulbarga (Karnataka), I resolved to be an actor drawing inspiration from Anand Bakshi’s line in the song, John Jaani Janardhan (Mohd. Rafi, Laxmikant-Pyarelal): “…har picture dekh ke socha, main bhi actor ban jaaun…”! Although I am very driven and ambitious, I still can’t explain though why I never followed through with that resolution. Maybe just the resolution of wanting to be like him, was fulfilling enough? Much later, thanks to Dubsmash, I did dub a couple of my favorite Amitabh scenes much to the dismay of my family (who implored me to stop forthwith)!!!
I was 14 when Silsila released. And although Kabhie Kabhie had already seeded romance in me with its immortal gems, Main Pal Do Pal Ka Shaayar Hoon and Kabhie Kabhie Mere Dil Mein Khayaal Aata Hai, I felt the incurable romantic in me stir awake with Amitabh’s deep, soulful, rendering of Javed Akhtar’s (his first film as lyricist) classic Main Aur Meri Tanhayee…!!!
Over the next six years, through my teens, I dreamt of meeting that lover who would be my soulmate, often imagining the romance I would have with her – and almost every time, the feeling, that imagination would be complete only when I would recite this poem to myself:
Main aur meri tanhayee, aksar yeh baate karte hain
Tum hoti to kaisa hota
Tum yeh kehti, tum woh kehti
Tum is baat pe hairaan hoti
Tum us baat pe kitana hansti
Tum hoti to aisa hota, tum hoti to waisa hota
And, of course, she arrived. As Vaani. And, hold your breath, she arrived in my Life, singing the Amitabh-Jaya classic Tere Mere Milan Ki Yeh Raina (Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, S.D.Burman, Majrooh Sultanpuri) from Abhimaan at a college cultural event in Madras (Chennai) in November 1987 – I was barely 20, and she was 21!! Read the full story in my book Fall Like A Rose Petal or watch me tell it here, in this documentary Rise In Love.
The coaster on our front door!
So, in a very serendipitous way, Amitabh and Jaya, have inspired the companionship, the loving (in the present continuous) and the resilience (to face Life) in Vaani and me. But it all began with Vaani singing that song on stage – even today, the front door to the apartment we live in sports a coaster with the line Tere Mere Milan Ki Yeh Raina celebrating that magical moment when I fell in love with Vaani! And we have named our daughter Aanchal, inspired by a beautiful line from the same song – “…jaise kheley chanda baadal mein, khelega woh tere aanchal mein…”!
Strangely, I have no recollection of praying for him when the Coolie accident happened on 26th July 1982. I was around 15 then and I had too many questions on God, religion, prayer and such. Maybe that’s why there’s no memory of any prayer for him then! But I do remember reading The Hindu daily at home in Kollam (Kerala), tracking its coverage of the accident, and his miraculous progress and recovery over the next several weeks. I must also confess that the fanboy in me died in the late 80s and in the decade of the 90s when he made some very forgettable movie choices.
During the turbulent weeks of the furore over the Miss World Pageant in 1996, which Amitabh’s company ABCL had brought to India, I reached out to him. Vaani and I ran a Reputation Management Firm then. And we offered to manage the crisis for his company. His secretary Rosy Singh got back to us saying that “Mr.Bachchan isn’t interested in the strategy or the service” which we were offering.
ABCL eventually went bankrupt and for the next few years it was so heart-rending to see the media trash him and Jaya for their financial mess. I recall being traumatized reading reports of his house being attached by his bankers to recover their dues. Little did I know then that this experience of the Bachchans would be pivotal to Vaani and me dealing with our own Life-changing upheaval in some years.
Sometime in 2001, I remember watching an interview that Amitabh gave Vir Sanghvi on Star World. And intuitively I had it recorded and saved on a CD when a re-telecast of the interview was announced. I can’t stop thanking myself for that decision. A segment of this interview, available here on my YouTube channel, has been the reason why I am even around today sharing a part of my Life’s journey and celebrating a man who now means so much more than just an actor to me.
Let me quickly explain. It is common knowledge now that the Firm that Vaani and I ran went bankrupt in end-2007. It is a phase in Life that we still endure, 12 years on. This phase has been peppered consistently with several long spells of worklessness and pennilessness. In the initial months of knowing that we were dealing with a bankruptcy, through all of 2008, we grappled with the darkness that engulfed us, cowering in fear. We did not know what to do. What do you do when you don’t know what to do? That’s when, fortuitously, while searching for a particular document in my office, I stumbled on the CD containing the Amitabh Bachchan-Vir Sanghvi Star World interview recording. The CD was not even labeled. So I played it on my laptop to check what it contained. I watched the interview. Then I invited Vaani to watch it with me.
We watched it again. And again. And again. We watched it several times that evening.
Here was a bankrupt superstar who was telling Vaani and me how he and Jaya dealt with their darkness, their loss – of money, of reputation – and their crisis and how they clawed their way back. He was brutally honest, authentic and profound, all at the same time. His debt was Rs.90 crore. Our is Rs.5 crore. In the last 12 years, we have watched this video so many, many, many times. Every time we feel low, we feel like we can’t go on any further, we have watched this interview. Through sharing his experience, Amitabh has inspired us both to be resilient, to hang in there, to last one more day. “If he and Jaya could do it, we too can do it,” we have told ourselves, every single time that we watched the video.
Besides resilience, we have learnt the art of reinvention and relevance from him. His choice to do TV – through Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) – 19 years ago was the virtually the first move ever by a movie superstar to embrace the small screen. That is the truest, most visible, practical and inspiring example of going with the flow that you can ever get. As he shares with Vir Sanghvi in the interview, he was out of work. But he had the humility to not just go ask Yash Chopra for work (which led to his role in Mohabbatein), he was willing to “climb down” and embrace the opportunity to host KBC, which has now become synonymous with him. Though he believes otherwise, I guess everyone knows that the show continues to thrive, – it is now in its 11th Season – only because of him. Now, this was no upstart, struggling actor asking Yash Chopra for work, this was no also-ran movie actor agreeing to do TV because he needed the money. This was the Shahenshah of Bollywood, out of work, out of money, deep in debt, who decided to do what he loved doing and what he was best at – acting – choosing to reinvent himself at 58, an age when most people retire. Not just reinvention, he has taught the world how to stay relevant. If you watch KBC, you will see how compassionately he engages with people and their stories. He’s no ordinary game show host. He makes an extraordinary effort to be ordinary as he explores the Life journeys of his ordinary guests, the contestants. His choosing to do remarkably different character roles over the last several years – Ekalavya, Nishabd, Black, Cheeni Kum, Paa, Piku, Teen, Pink, Badla – is also a pointer to the consummate actor in him, who is willing to experiment, willing to break free from the trappings of the image of the hero, the superstar. Yet scripts continue to be written with him in mind and brands believe he can still sell them better than other ambassadors can – clear signs of his continued relevance not just to my generation, or to my father’s, but to at least three generations that follow mine!
Life is not only about going after name, money, success, fame and fortune and getting all of them. It is also about how you live with humility, dignity, and discipline when all of what you attained and acquired are taken away from you. Resilience and equanimity cannot be developed and deployed in simulated environments. They are always discovered within you, when you stand in the middle of the battle of Life, in the chaos, in the eye of the storm. It is by facing Life and learning to be happy, to be useful, despite your circumstances, that you become stronger. That’s how you repair, rebuild and revive – after a crisis. This is the message of Amitabh Bachchan’s Life – whether it was his choice to do Silsila with Jaya and Rekha when he was rumored to be having an affair with Rekha or his coming back from the jaws of death after the Coolie accident or his decision to fight and win a protracted court battle to clear his name in the Bofors scandal or face and overcome the bankruptcy that he and Jaya encountered.
Clearly, I am no longer the fanboy who saw him first on screen at Prem Prakash theatre in 1973. In fact, I am not even his most ardent fan – I don’t claim to know every little trivia about every film, every role, of his. As I confessed earlier, I even exercised the choice to stop following him as a fan when the films he chose failed to interest me. I still disagree with his choice of wardrobe and style sense on KBC and I believe his ‘wife jokes’ are sexist – I definitely intend sharing these views with him when I do get a chance.
Even so, I am comfortable in my skin as his devotee. His presence and influence in my Life cannot be measured – it was through him that I was introduced to cinema, it was from him that I learnt romance, it was again through something that he and Jaya were part of that I found Vaani and found love, it was through him sharing his learnings from Life that we found the ability to survive and endure this prolonged bankruptcy that we are still dealing with. It is again through him that I realize that being world-class with your craft and being celebrated by the world is not as great as it is to be human, be humble and make the other person feel comfortable in your presence. This is what he does repeatedly, episode after episode on KBC and on post after post on social media.
It will be 50 years on November 7, 2019, since he appeared on screen in Saat Hindustani. I wish I could do a lot more than write a Blogpost in celebration of this rare milestone. But, given our bankruptcy, this is all I can do presently. As a devotee, I will, however, use two simple words, which the wise say is the best prayer: Thank You!