Exclusive: I can never forget how creditors used to land at our door, be abusive, threatening and demanding, says Big B on his troubled days

Amitabh Bachchan

There is no question of calling time. At 70, Amitabh Bachchan’s enormous appeal and energy haven’t faded. As he pumps hands with his fans and well-wishers, Bachchan is far from winding up his 44-year-old love affair with cinema.

With closure looming large on yet another season of Kaun Banega Crorepati, Amitabh Bachchan is preparing for his tryst with celluloid all over again, after staying away for some time. An affliction and its ensuing surgery kept him away, but the lion in winter with his infectious enthusiasm is back where he belongs – in front of the camera.

A raft of new films is on the anvil with energetic young directors. The scripts have been read, the contracts inked and come February, Bachchan will sashay forth once again.

Wearing a resplendent brocade jacket, he described the road ahead in a longish chat with Mail Today. “I am excited after this layoff because cinema is so much more challenging these days,” he said. “Look at what we have churned out in the recent past – Kahaani , Vicky Donor, Gangs of Wasseypur – completely different cinema, born out of spanking new thinking and channeling of contemporary thought. It is clear that audience tastes and preferences are changing rapidly. The new underpinning credo is disruptive ideation. And one has to be in sync with this new thought process or one will fall by the wayside.”

Bachchan reckons that the neo metier of working with next-gen directors allows expression of creative talent and intent. He said, “I want to be part of this new narrative, it is bold and provides a breakthrough benefit to actors of all hues. There are projects that I have accepted with Prakash Jha, Sudhir Mishra, Balki, and then there is a film with Sujoy Ghosh who made Kahaani. I am also doing Bhootnath 2 given that 2013 is the year of sequels.”

‘I WANT TO KEEP WORKING’

The Paul Muni voice resonates as it goes on to highlight the fact that he wants to keep the grease paint on, 70 be damned. “I want to keep working, I shall continue to do my best,” he said. “Actually, I don’t know what else to do. Life is a blur when one is essaying different roles, it is so fulfilling. As a professional, I cannot afford to be complacent. I want to perform and be tested; I want the vibrant energy of the younger generation of directors and actors to rub off on me. An actor’s career should not and cannot end, the stream should run ceaselessly. Actor should take on fresh challenges because the human mind is a sponge, it soaks up all the time, the process of learning doesn’t end.”

At one level, suspicion and shadows lurk in the corridors of Amitabh Bachchan’s mind. The thespian in his autumn cannot and will not forget his bankruptcy. His insecurity stems from those dark and despondent days. They act as a whetstone for him, a reference point and equally a reminder. In his case, it is the fear of the known rather than the unknown.

“This is the incentive to keep going, to test frontiers because in my mind’s eye, I still fret over what will happen tomorrow,” he said. “We all go through these phases, peaks and troughs are what life is all about. I have been in a situation where I was at the lowest ebb in my life – professionally, commercially and personally. In order not to give up the moment, I was operating on the principle that the Corporation (ABCL, or Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd) must not die, I had to ensure that I paid back every sow that I owed to a vast army of people. I felt it wasn’t ethically right not to return the money.”

RETURN FROM THE ABYSS

Against this backdrop, Amitabh Bachchan clawed back from the abyss of gloom. He paid back over Rs.90 crore he owed to different people, slowly and gradually. Remembering those days, he said, “I paid back one and all, including Doordarshan. When they asked for the interest component, I did commercials in lieu for them. I can never forget how creditors used to land at our door, be abusive, threatening and demanding, and worse still, when they came for ‘kudkee’ at Prateeksha, our residence.

“Without a doubt that was one of the drakest moments in my 44-year professional career. It made me sit and think, I looked at the options before me and evaluated different scenarios. The answer came pat – I know how to act. I got up and walked to Yashji, who stayed behind my house. I implored him to give me work. That is when the worm turned, he gave me Mohabbatein.”

These were difficult times for Bachchan not just financially but emotionally too. After all, here was the presiding deity of Hindi and Indian cinema virtually bankrupt. His spirit though wasn’t broken, it soared. The new signature raison d’etre was Kaun Banega Crorepati based on the popular show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

A NEW PARADIGM IS BORN

When Star Plus came to him with this project in 2000, even Bachchan couldn’t have anticipated its popularity. It resulted in an overnight craze and the creation of a brand new medium in Indian television. Most importantly, a whole new audience rediscovered Amitabh Bachchan, a new paradigm, a new brand with salience and pull was born.

Bachchan acknowledges KBC’s role in his life and how it played a part in his overall turnaround. “I cannot ignore KBC’s contribution,” he said. “It came at a time when it was most needed, like a booster shot. Both professionally and financially, it acted as a catalyst. Believe me, it helped me pay back all my creditors. That is the debt that I always recognise.”

Perhaps that is why Bachchan goes into a KBC show with all his gusto. Twelve years after helming the first season, he is an eager beaver, clapping and enjoying the adulation of the crowd. Meeting people, shaking hands, getting pictures taken – he doesn’t cringe, flinch or react adversely when fans want to hug or even kiss him.

As I stood in Studio 16 transfixed at the man weaving his magic, a contestant, Sapna Jaiswal from Deoria, broke down after winning FFF (fastest finger first). She jumped up from her seat, exulted and leapt towards Bachchan, hugging him and sobbing. Bachchan, calm and composed, held onto an emotionally overwhelmed woman and slowly helped her control what was a torrent of emotional outpouring.

Later he said: “Look at these people, they are from Bharat, they represent an India forgotten by those who reside in urban agglomerates. Their stories are touching and replete with the human quotient. Television is a personal and individual thing, one is not emoting, one is not in character, here I am, Amitabh Bachchan, not the actor, but the person. It has a unique grammar, that is why it is so satisfying. The game has a process. My thinking is that all the contestants and the audience are like guests coming to my house. So, whatever I can do to talk to them or listen to them, I will do, it is largely about touch and feel. These are real people who live in the real world, complete with its drudgery and pain.”

It was important for me to experience this phenomenon called KBC and its centrality – Amitabh Bachchan – and I did. The human face of the last couple of seasons was not lost on me as tales of Bharat have found resonance with the rest of India. On the show, I met a lady called Purnima from Jalgaon, known as Puran Dada for her vivid approach to life despite humungous adversity.

For some of us who grew up watching Bachchan, the journey has been immensely fulfilling. Good cinema, bad films, new vistas with Black, Paa, Aks, Sarkar, Bhootnath and Cheeni Kum, the Bachchan oeuvre has been overflowing. Throw in a bit of KBC and the amazing bonding that contestants and audience share with the iconic star, at the end of the day, it is Amitabh Bachchan’s universal chutzpah that all his fans cutting across generations glued to his emotive skills extraordinaire.

‘RAPISTS MUST BE MADE TO FEEL THE PAIN AND AGONY’

Amitabh Bachchan speaks out against the Delhi gang rape, and for the collective responsibility of the media and the film community.

What is going wrong with all of us is the question uppermost in my mind these days? The recent gang rape has been horrifying and the public at large has given vent to its collective sadness and anger in different ways.

Where are we going wrong is the corollary to my first question? Likeminded people should introspect. In the first flush of the tragic event, I thought to myself that they should be hanged, but is se toh inka uddhar ho jayega (but this will be deliverance for them). Their sentencing should be different; they should feel the pain and agony that the hapless victim went through.

There should be a strict law which should be enforced against such acts. It is time, we analysed why such elements are bred by society? In a nation that practices tolerance and non-violence, why this barbarism and bestiality? My mind has gone through a roller-coaster of emotions, I am very angry. Look at the terrible image of India that has been presented to the whole wide world – that women are not safe in India. Look at the global response to this travesty.

The worlds of cinema, politics and media need to self-introspect and drawn thin red lines; they need to regulate what is objectionable and sensational. It is incumbent upon us to decide what people should consume. Our actions need to be scrutinised.

We should inform and not make an excess. The media and the film community have to come together on board and take a call on what needs to be promoted and shown in the name of art and news. If this influences the minds of the young, then we need to rethink on the way forward. Excess is definitely not the way to go. Let us look to temper our ways.

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