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God In First Person

God In First Person
Photo: Indian Express
God In First Person
A year ago, India's biggest superstar, in his own words, "didn't have any movies, no job, nothing". Then it stopped snowing, on the small screen. A get-rich-quick show called Kaun Banega Crorepati brought in a second spring—a slew of new movie projects (Aks bombed, but reinforced his new, silvery persona), a place in Madame Tussaud's wax gallery of fame, deification with a temple in Calcutta, and revival of his sick production company, and it's a turnaround he can't stop thanking the Gods for. Amitabh Bachchan on an eventful year:

It has turned out to be a pretty busy year for me. Of course, kbc is one of the biggest things to have happened to me during the year. It wasn't anything pioneering that we were doing, we just took a format that already existed and replicated it. We went to England, the country of its origin, met the anchor and I accepted the show.

For me, the transition from films to TV was a tough decision and held its apprehensions—it still does. Cinema is 70 mm, television just a few inches, therefore metaphorically it's a diminishing image; in practical terms it seems a comedown. But I am an actor and if there are six mediums as outlets for this profession, then I see myself as getting associated with just another one. Even abroad, there are some very fine examples—of Dean Martin, a very fine actor, who was doing a serial on TV and also performing on stage, all three at the same time. He performed at Las Vegas with Frank Sinatra, did TV and was a very successful actor.

Looking back at the past year, I am very surprised that kbc has gone on for so long. Initially, I had thought it wouldn't go beyond one or two months. I'm by nature very pessimistic and harsh on myself. About kbc, I felt that perhaps the programme did not have the capacity to go on for long and I wondered why people would want to see it again and again. I am surprised and happy that they do even after a year.

KBC has given me some wonderful moments, moments of joy and apprehension. Each day on it has been exciting, invigorating, because it has given me the opportunity to interact with live audiences. Not that I haven't done it before. But it was the first time I did it in this manner. Sat opposite a rank outsider, a complete stranger and learnt more about him—who he is, what his likes and dislikes are, what his status in life is, what he feels...

One meets so many people, so many fans, but this show has an added attraction from my perspective. It has given me the opportunity to interact with people on a closer level. There are several moments that stand out in the show—contestants who came because they had lost everything and hoped to win some money on kbc and start life afresh. There was this person from Bihar who said he had come with nothing; a son whose father, in response to my remark that he was doing very well, said he had made him study for this moment, otherwise he was a waster. There have been times when someone has wanted to win the prize money and use it for a cause—to treat a deaf and dumb fiance or a cancer patient—strong sentiments that would move anybody. There have been people who have had emotional breakdowns—they had come to the show with a lot of hope pinned on it. It's also wonderful, moving even, to see the bonding between parents and children, between brothers and sisters and other companions. I am particularly impressed when women participate in the show. It's a tough world for women and when they compete against men, and come out victorious, it's heartening.

For others, kbc may be just a gameshow but for me it's a slice of life. I am the host of the show, doing a certain job that has been designed for me. kbc and the set are like my house. I invite somebody to come and spend some time with me and behave accordingly. I treat a person who comes on my show as a guest.

There are several other gameshows where exactly the opposite happens, where the host is actually quite rude and the show goes down quite well; it's part of a particular gameplan. Perhaps the psychology and philosophy of the show demands it. Last month I was in England and watched this show The Weakest Link hosted by a lady who is most rude—like the Gestapo—running down the contestants' knowledge, etc. That was the show's usp and it was massively popular. But kbc's format allows me to treat people like guests. I feel genuinely bad if they lose; I feel pained to inform somebody that they have lost and I am very excited if somebody wins a crore.

It's a game so watertight that there is minimal scope for inputs. But the messages at the start of the show—harbouring close to the morals of life and our ethos—is something I feel very strongly about; I in fact introduced it. I just felt good speaking for those few minutes on some important issues of life, death, morals or our culture. Digging into my father's written work, his poetry, his teachings to us as children has always been very valuable to me and that's what I try to incorporate. kbc is the only show which has this initial brief introduction. It was my idea originally but now we have a team working on it.

Working on kbc hasn't been easy though. I devote anything between a week and 10 days a month to the show, doing two episodes every day—we've even done three a day—starting at eight in the morning and finishing at eight in the evening. The show is taxing both mentally and physically. I'm a bad communicator, so it's 10 times more difficult for me to do this than it might be for anyone else. But that's my job and I try to do it as best as I can.

People ask me if kbc is a performance on my part. It's very difficult to say. I can perform to a given situation but on kbc you have a different situation everyday and you have to be superhuman to do that. I don't possess those qualities, so whatever I say or do is genuinely done. On the show, I'm in a totally different frame of mind—it requires a lot of concentration because everything is ad libbing and needs more focus.

Another thing people ask me is whether familiarity (with kbc) day in and day out has bred contempt; whether there is overexposure and if the number of episodes shouldn't be reduced. I can't comment on this. All these are decisions made by Star. I agree that the number of times a programme is aired does breed familiarity but I'm happy to see that people are still watching it even though the format is repetitive and there is a time-bound frequency. But then there are several other programmes that have been running for many, many years; programmes like Movers and Shakers have been on for almost three years, abroad the Jay Leno show has gone on for years. I don't think this is a very unique phenomenon for television. However, I do agree that four times a week for one year is quite a lot...and that too for one hour because in other parts of the world this show runs for half an hour.So when we say we have finished 200 episodes, in actual fact, we have completed 400.

The Gods have been kind to me.Bestowing some fortunes kindly upon me this year. I'm sure not everyone thinks my doing television is proper—the reverse could also be happening—but it's a very personal decision. I had already been in the industry for so many years, creatively there weren't any roles of any variety being offered to me, it could also have been the particular stage in my career I was in at the time.... Of course there was the fear of what TV would do to me but there was also the other extreme of wanting to explore another medium and TV has become a very important part of entertainment in India.

I am sometimes still accused of not choosing my film scripts properly. But no one deliberately wants to do bad stuff. I am getting roles as a senior patriarch. Unfortunately in our films, that category does not prevail too much. Youth prevails. I'm open to playing villain too. There are shades of grey in Aks and in my upcoming film All the Best, but obviously they are done within limits. Television, it so happened, came my way along with a few films with a different casting. There is no restriction as far as a creative person is concerned—you have bad days and good days and you go along with that.

The past year has also given me the opportunity to do something different, which in itself was very exciting. I did Mohabbatein, Ek Rishta, Aks—all released this year. The Vipul Shah-directed All the Best is due for release early next year. I am also doing a film—as yet untitled—with David Dhawan, which will be released this year. It will star Sanjay Dutt, Ajay Devgan and Aishwarya Rai. Then there's Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gam with Karan Johar, due for release in December. Abhishek and I are doing a film for AB Corp to be directed by Rakesh Mehra; there's another called Kaante, it's directed by Sanjay Gupta and has an all-male cast of Sanjay Dutt, Kumar Gaurav, Mahesh Manjrekar, Lucky Ali and Sunil Shetty. There's also an incomplete film with S. Ramanathan (with whom I worked in Bombay to Goa) which has been on for quite some time. It's titled Zamaanat and has Karisma and Vijayshanti as my co-stars. Apart from all this, there are two or three other projects on the anvil.

I'm excited by the energy that the new crop of young directors have today. I find it frustrating that I was not like that at their age. They're in tune with modern technology, they're on to whatever the latest inventions are and are happy to try that out in our films. I consider myself extremely fortunate to be still around and to be part of the excitement of these youngsters.

They're exciting—Aditya Chopra was virtually born in front of me, as was Karan Johar. They used to play at my kids' birthday parties—play Robinhood and Superman. Now they stand before the camera explaining to me the intricacies of an emotion and doing such a brilliant job that it's amazing. Rakesh Mehra is another exciting new director. Vipul Shah comes from television but they're so conversant with their work, so confident, it's wonderful.

Every age in cinema has its high and low points. The written work today, for example, is not the same as it was, the quality of thinking in a film is not the same. You can't compare a Hrishikesh Mukherji or a Gulzar or a Raj Kapoor or a Shantaram in today's times. But at the same time you didn't have an Adi Chopra or a Karan Johar then. You had a freak Manmohan Desai who started off at the age of 21 and produced a film with Raj Kapoor and made it a success.He was a genius.

I am doing ads too. I was one of the first actors to do ads for the bpl campaign. It was part of the vision of AB Corp; investors had put money into the company because they wanted to see whether it was capable of giving returns. I will continue to do ads if its adds to AB Corp's bottomline.

AB Corp's fortunes too are looking up. We went through a bad patch. We had huge losses amounting to Rs 80-90 crore. I was advised that I shut the company. But somehow I didn't feel nice about the fact that I owed money to people; I would not have been able to live comfortably with this constantly pricking my conscience. So I tried very hard to salvage it and thankfully a large chunk of that salvaging is done. We're not entirely out of the woods, I'm still working at it.

Things are looking better than they have done before. There were a lot of winding-up of cases—50-55 of them—borrowings from banks, institutions, outstandings with government agencies like the Prasar Bharati and Doordarshan, not to mention the several creditors we had within the film industry. We have been able to clear almost 95 per cent of these. Most of this has happened within the past one, one-and-a-half years. It has been a matter of great pride to be able to call up people and say 'we owe you money and would like to pay it'.

We've had some fresh private investments made in the company, we've gone and asked for payment schedules from DD and Prasar Bharati which is quite unique because they say nobody pays the government. There is a genuine effort to pay back. Wherever hard cash was not possible, other services that I could do for them were offered. In DD we're paying Rs 18-20 crore in cash—three instalments have gone and one remains. As far as the huge interest factor is concerned, I have offered to cover that up with my services—like doing endorsements for DD or DD programmes. We are working out a system where my brand positioning is evaluated and used. I have already done several public service spots for DD.

I still don't understand money, but I've always believed in AB Corp's vision. I want to see it prosper. However, having learnt from past mistakes, I do not want to rush into it wildly. We're starting anew very small—with film production. We have five-six people working out of a new place in the Sahara office in Mumbai starting from scratch. We have produced Aks. Two other films are lined up—one with Aamir Khan, to be directed by Mansoor Khan, and another with Abhishek and myself, to be directed by Rakesh Mehra. We are looking at a third film, possibly to be directed by Vipul Shah.

It's overwhelming to have been voted bbc actor of the millennium, to have one's wax statue at Madame Tussaud's, to have a temple in your name in Calcutta. What can you do about these things? The building of this temple, for example.... Somewhere inside you, you obviously don't agree with it, but you cannot question the affection of a fan. How do you stop somebody from drawing your portrait in blood or walking backwards 800 metres as a 'mannat' for my recovery? You can't do anything; you can tell them not to do it when you meet them, but how can you stop them?

Then people say I have become media-friendly; there's a major shift in my attitude to journalists these days. It's not really a shift. I was morally hurt about certain circumstances that resulted in my not talking to the media for 18 years. It began around the time of Emergency.The press felt that I was instrumental in bringing on press censorship because of my relationship with the Gandhi family. They were totally wrong. But the media banned me, said it would not report on anything that happened to me; at any public function the photographers would turn their cameras away. So I thought that if they had the liberty to do this to me, I had the liberty not to meet them. Later, I saw the futility of it all, and changed.

I haven't planned on retiring; nobody plans these things. One fine day you are out of a job and thrown out. At this point of time, I have no plans of opting out. A year ago, I didn't have any movies, no job, nothing, one fine day I said 'Gosh, I'm broke', I had nothing of consequence. So I just walked across to Yash Chopra and said I needed work, give me a job—and he offered me Mohabbatein. It was very kind of him. Now I have films, I have this programme (kbc) which is on till next year. But even today, if there were no roles coming, I'd happily resign and stay away. Then I'd have a lot more time to spend with my grand-daughter. Now that is something that I really pine for.

(As told to Lata Khubchandani.)

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