The rests his tall, languid frame on a leather sofa seemingly unaware of his own aura. But then if you’re an Amitabh Bachchan— a legend, a star of such gigantic proportions that few even today have managed to touch that image— then, perhaps, you stop being aware of your own greatness, your hallowed place in cinematic history. His answer to what it must feel like to have achieved so much is surprisingly modest, "I’m not unwilling to take credit but I must decide my own worth which I feel is very mediocre. I haven’t been able to achieve anything substantial."
The occasion is the launch of
Amitabh Bach-chan: The legend, editor Bhawana Somaaya’s book on the actor published by Macmillan India Ltd. The legend is sporting a white clipped beard—" for a shoot", he explains— the famous face is lined, but looking better than it has for years— a happy result of exercise. The tone and demeanour is relaxed, yet measured. But the modesty persists right through our interview as well as the book. In one instance, speaking about his adolescence, he says to the author, "The period was exacting for me, and if I’ve ever been irrational or beyond depth, it was at this point. With just a second division in B.Sc, I had little hopes for an academic career. . . Every time suggestions (for a job) were put forward, one only felt more inadequate and frustrated. All parents expect their children to be toppers, but when that doesn’t happen, like in my case, there is disappointment. I saw the disappointment in my parents’ eyes, particularly in my father’s . Being a scholar himself, he would have liked his children to perform well, but when I didn’t, it must have hurt him."
The book chronicles what could almost have been an ordinary life. Average upper middle-class upbringing, an average academic record, the struggle for a job— the everyday humdrum struggles of the educated class. Then came the almost irrational decision to move to Mumbai to become an actor in Hindi films. That caught his family by surprise but, as he says in the book, "It was a gamble for parents like mine who are used to a steady life, they were surprised. But all credit to them, they didn’t let their anxiousness bog me down. They let me pursue what I desired, giving their fullest cooperation." That’s the attitude he adopts with son Abhishek as he embarks on a career in films . Said Bachchan senior to
Outloo k, "I’m not unhappy. He chose it and as a father I did not want to create any obstructions." He would certainly have liked to share his experience in the industry, but the son, he says, "is monosyllabic every time we initiate a dialogue. He has resisted my advice so far. Jaya feels that he might get traumatised by me, but I don’t see why." Says Abhishek about how he announced his decision to join films: "Oh, it was a terrible process. It took me 18 years to finally say it."
Such are the everyday aspects to Amitabh’s personality which are revealed to the reader. Like how he was once in a sulk with then-girlfriend Jaya Bhaduri, and how he did the same with Abhishek too, reason: a disagreement over a shot in a table-tennis match. There are glimpses of the fond fat-her as well. Says Abhishek in the book, "My sister’s wedding was the happiest moment of my life and also the saddest. That’s the first time I realised my father is also human.One thing I feared most in my life was to see him crying. It’s bad enough for the whole congregation to break down, but I just couldn’t believe that my father could cry. It’s strange, because you’ve seen him cry so often on screen, yet when he did in real life it was so different."
Amitabh’s relationship with his children has rarely been written about, specially his bond with daughter Shweta. Reveals Jaya: "With Abhishek he’s more boistero us . He’s friends with Shweta, but it’s on a different level. Like him, she’s shy and reserved, so he better be careful with her. Once Shweta withdraws, it’s d i fficult getting her out of the shell. She’s poised, well-behaved but unapp-roachable, exactly like Amit." Amitabh’s disappointment when both wife and daughter cut their hair is another facet of the actor’s character. The brooderintrovert, the intensity in those eyes, as one gathers in the book, isn’t just what Salim-Javed scripted in their films, but the real thing. This could well have been Amitabh Bachchan, the next-door neighbour, except for the deep baritone voice, that dominating height and his poker-faced modesty. Why, at this stage of his life does he need to do half-baked roles? "But I am not in a position to dictate. It’s a fallacy to believe that. We take what is given to us." But now there are some exciting projects like Aditya Chopra’s (" It’s strange but I have literally seen him being born.")
Mohabatein, a film with son Abhishek, and the soon-to-be released film with Vijayshanti. He reveals himself to be a big pessimist, with "innumerable moments" of insecurity. Perhaps that explains the three rings, worn on an astrologer’s recommendation. The love-hate relationship with the media has somewhat mellowed. The professed ambition for his next life: "To be a journalist because then you can never be faulted. It would be an end to sleepless nights." But while the book offers many new insights into the actor, it disappoints in its design and production quality. Surely a more lavish production would have been more appropriate for India’s biggest-ever superstar.