MUMBAI — He’s been a voiceover artist (beginning with the 1969 “Bhuvan Shome,” the first-ever film of which he was a part, followed by “Bawarchi,” “Lagaan,” “Parineeta” and more), actor (this innings began with him as one of K.A. Abbas’ “Saat Hindustani”), singer (after a few lines in the 1977 Kalyanji-Anandji’s “Adalat” and Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s “Amar Akbar Anthony,” as a full-fledged playback singer from Rajesh Roshan’s “Mr. Natwarlal” in 1979), unofficial producer (“Abhimaan,” “Khuda Gawah” and “Bade Miyan Chhote Miyan”) and India’s first and visionary dreamer of corporate filmmaking (when he launched Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited or ABCL, now defunct).
Finally after “Mohabbatein” in 2000, Amitabh Bachchan became India’s first sustained superstar at 60-plus, which Dilip Kumar had been earlier, but for only a decade and in far fewer films.
His triumphs have been many, and his defeats and controversies relatively insignificant in degree and quantity. His 10-year ban on the press from the ‘70s was notorious, but even more so was his abortive affair with politics in the ‘80s and ‘90s phase, when he contested and won a Lok Sabha seat only to have his name dragged into a scam.
However, his serious accident in 1983 saw a nation, and even fans from around the world, pray for him. And his debut television show, “Kaun Banega Crorepati” became the channel driver for top name Star Plus.
By the early millennium, after slogging his way through films, ad campaigns and television, the actor actually cleared his debts of several crore (because of ABCL and its later avatar AB Corp) and became the epitome of sustained superstardom who showed that world that nothing, truly, was impossible – and that where there was a will there was a way. Above all, he proved that age was just a number.
Two National Awards for Best Actor (for “Agneepath” and “Black”) endorse this triumph, and of course, as per “filmi” convention, no one can yet think of a Lifetime Achievement award for him — as Bachchan is far from anything remotely near retirement! And after the Padma Shri, the Padma Vibhushan (awarded just days after we meet), perhaps, is the next step towards becoming a Dadasaheb Phalke laureate, if not also the winner of the Bharat Ratna.
In “Paa,” Bachchan played a Progeria-affected child who was shown aged, and actually played son to his actor son Abhishek Bachchan. Earlier in “Cheeni Kum,” he was the elderly gentleman in love: just two of the path-breaking films in his later bouquet. And now in his third film with R. Balki, “Shamitabh,” the actor plays an aging superstar in a plot not yet revealed.
When we meet the actor at the J.W. Marriott, he is humble to a fault and in extreme, if usual, self-deprecating mood. Excerpts from an interview (read the extended Web version of this interview at indiawest.com):
Q: “Shamitabh” and everything about it is shrouded in mystery. Do you treat a Balki film different from your other movie assignments?
A: Balki offers me these adbhoot (strange) characters every few years. I always tell him that he is inebriated when he thinks of them for me! But so far, it’s been a challenge every time. As for the film, there are two ways of promoting any movie — one, tell almost the whole story, or two, hide the subject, as in this case. Yes, we give a hint or two to make it more attractive and raise expectations, but we do not reveal the story in advance because that deprives the audience of the surprise factor.
Q: Is the title coined from the last two letters of Dhanush and your name, or does “Sh” stand for the first two letters of Shah Rukh Khan’s name, as he was the original choice for the role done by Dhanush?
A: No, no, neither of that is true. If you have watched the second trailer that is out now, you might have figured the truth. Otherwise, you will know why the title is there only when you watch the film.
Q: This is smart marketing, like in “PK,” as Aamir Khan says that marketing is creating a desire to consume.
A: Oh, I am nowhere as intelligent as Aamir, so I would not know these things. I am barely managing to be in front of the camera!
Q: Both Dhanush and Akshara stated that they were very comfortable with you after an initial nervousness. By the way, did you recommend Dhanush for this role?
A: I think that it is a wrong thought that people get intimidated by a senior or big star. We were all doing a job! These youngsters all work hard. Yes, I did recommend Dhanush, and why not? He is a very accomplished actor and a huge star down South. I have known Dhanush for years and watched so many of his films there, besides “Raanjhanaa.”
Q: You recently expressed a wish that you could romance today’s young girls. What do you think of the young actors of today?
A: They are all so good at their jobs!
Q: Having worked with the crème-de-la-crème of filmmakers down the decades from Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra, Ramesh Sippy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Yash Chopra to later whizkids like Mukul S. Anand, Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and R. Balki, how do you look at the younger lot now?
A: They are all so wonderful that it’s a great time now for Indian cinema. Their talent is amazing. I hope that some youngsters have the capacity to think for me and make me do something I have yet not done in my films to come. I don’t have that capacity myself! In “Piku” directed by Shoojit Sircar, I have a nice role.
Q: How do you approach such diverse roles from “Saat Hindustani” to your latest films? Has that changed over the years, and are there any films you regret having accepted?
A: I do not disown a single role I have done. I always go with the likes, dislikes and vision of my directors. I have liked all my characters and for an actor, there is a challenge in each film because we are definitely not the person that we play in them. (Waves his arms expressively) Kahaan hum dus-barah logon ko ek saath maarte hain? Hum mein kahaan who kshamata hai? (Where do we beat up 10 or 12 people in real life? We don’t have that ability!) And where do we romance such beautiful women all the time? I am also not an alcoholic, as I played so often, and I do not smoke, like I am shown. Someone asked me once if I would do a film on my life. Such a film would be a disaster!
Q: One area for which you have achieved fame is for your singing, more often than any artiste after the era of the singing stars.
A: I am a very besura (off-key) singer, whose voice is set right by his composers with the “machines” (software) currently available. So I sing in my way and after I leave, they have to correct my voice!
Q: Yet you have sung so well even before such “machines” were available in India. Do you have any favorites, or came across songs that were vocally challenging?
A: (Shakes his head). I am sure that I must have been an immense disappointment to you! Look, I am petrified of singing, but in certain circumstances, everyone feels that I should do so.
Q: Coming to your music, after “Zanjeer,” “Deewaar” and your other films, the popular notion was that your superstardom destroyed the musical era of Hindi cinema from the ‘70s. But composers like Kalyanji-Anandji, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Rajesh Roshan and Anu Malik are just some of the names who challenge this, stating that your persona inspired them to give their best. What is your take on this?
A: They are all giving me far too much credit if they have said this, taking away from their own immense talent. They are being far too generous. I do not accept it!
Q: Why do you think your maiden serial “Yudh” flopped? Would you now do another serial?
A: Why not, if I get something I like? In “Yudh,” we tried to break away from the current style of storytelling on television. Audiences said they liked me, but what is the use of my performance being appreciated if they did not like the show itself?
Q: As an active blogger and tweeter, do you look into the column your daughter Shweta has now started writing in a Mumbai paper?
A: No, no! I am no writer! But Shweta has inherited my father’s talent. I am happy that her work has been praised and that she has got this column on her own steam.
Q: How do you look back at your extraordinary innings as actor and being so busy at this age?
A: Yeh sab mera saubhagya aur Ishwar ki krupa hai (It is all my good luck and the Almighty’s benevolence)! I am not the only person working hard. And I think everyone is busy in their own ways. In particular, look at Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha – they started out as such successful villains and still made the transition to frontline heroes. Then they went into politics and became so successful there as well. Achieving all that is not easy, you know.
Q: The majority of your films in the ‘70s and ‘80s were multi-hero movies. How was the experience – was there camaraderie or rivalry?
A: A healthy rivalry makes for a positive competitive spirit, as long as we do not damage each other. I enjoyed working with all of them!