Cut & Thrust: Thespian in winter

Mortuus Diu. Amitabh Bachchan is familiar with that expression for he has cheated death twice in his amazing lifetime, once when Puneet Issar punched him in the stomach on the sets of Coolie and then again many years later, a perilous escape with financial ruin. Both times, his grit and determination brought him back. A mistimed jump and punch which Bachchan should have dodged ended up with the star rupturing an intestine. He was rushed from Bangalore to Mumbai’s Breach Candy Hospital for an emergency splenectomy. Round two saw him teetering on financial collapse, as his dream venture ABCL went bust and creditors began to hound him for their money. In 1999, pushed into a corner by creditors and running up losses of over Rs 70.82 crore against a net worth of Rs 60.52 crore, ABCL approached the Board of Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR). It came to a situation that he faced the the prospect of losing Prateeksha, his beloved Juhu house. Working in Plus Channel, fronting and producing India’s first daily morning business show — Business Plus — on Doordarshan, I had a ring side view of Bachchan’s fiscal rigmarole. From my room’s window one used to see the actor blessed with the Paul Muni baritone coming and going to work on the first floor of the same Ajanta Hotel complex which we shared with ABCL.

Fade to Black. Long years ago, Harsh Man Rai and I were sent to Jabalpur to cover an event where in the heat and dust, we decided to watch Shahenshah which had been released. Both of us die hard Bachchan fanboys went to this pokey and dank theatre to watch the movie with the masses and and came out repeating what became a cult dialogue — Rishte mein toh hum tumare baap lagte hain, naam hai Shahenshah. Having grown up on large dosages of Bachchan meds, it was a given that I would see the movie, such was the allure of the megastar who had gone through several troughs. I have had the occasion to meet and interview the man many times, the most recent being when he invited me to his show, KBC, as a guest for a couple of episodes. Travelling to Film City where the Sid Basu team had erected a mammoth set, one could see how Mr B was meticulous in everything that he did.

Despite the frenetic schedule, I asked him for one more interview, partly to listen to the Voice and partly to hear his thought process on working with newbie directors after being typecast most of his career in Prakash Mehra and Manmohan Desai masala blockbusters. One can argue that he was always a star, the actor in him has truly emerged in the recent past and with age he only gets better — Black, Shamitabh, Piku, Pink, Pa, Cheeni Kum, Sarkar 1 and 2, Wazir, Bhootnath 2 - are cases in point. Disruptive ideation consuming him. However, his counter on being typecast came straight off the bat — “I don’t think I got typecast, this is a misconception. For every Prakash Mehra on Manmohan Desai enterprise like Zanjeer or Amar Akbar Anthony, myopically there was a different cinema that I did. Abhiman, Mili, Alaap, Bemisal, Chupke Chupke, Jurmana, Barsaat Ki Ek Raat, Do Anjaane and many more.” Fact, but ignored.

I questioned him about his love affair for grease paint and he answered matter of factly — “I want to keep working, I shall continue to do my best. 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.” 

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 grim reminder. In his case, it is the fear of the known rather than the unknown. He said, “This is the incentive to keep going, to test frontiers because in my mind’s eye, I still fret over what will happen tomorrow. 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) 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.”

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 darkest moments in my 44-year professional career (in 2013). 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.” Bachchan acknowledges the role played by KBC in his life, it became a centrifuge in his return for a whole new generation of people discovered his artform. 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, equity and pull was born. He himself said — “I cannot ignore KBC’s contribution. 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.”

The other night I watched a rerun of Adalat and I found it riveting. The junkie got his fix. As a Bachchan junkie, I could never accept Ganga Jamuna Saraswati or some of the bilge like the intolerable Lal Badshah, Ram Gopal ki Aag that he made in between, but I watched them nevertheless for they were quintessential Bachchan. Truly a Muqqadar Ka Sikander and the song from the same film sum up the man and his oeuvre, penned by Anjaan — Rote hue aate hain sab, Rote hue aate hain sab, Hansta hua jo jaayega, Woh muqaddar ka Sikandar, Woh muqaddar ka Sikandar, Jaan-e-man kehlayega, Rote hue aate hain sab, Hansta hua jo jaayega. Salut to the man, his boundless energy and his craft.

Sandeep Bamzai