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Forever Big B

Adversity doesn’t spare even superheroes. But the dignity with which they overcome setbacks only adds to their aura. And that is what makes Amitabh Bachchan’s longevity and enduring appeal the stuff of legends

Published: Dec 23, 2013 06:47:06 AM IST
Updated: Dec 23, 2013 03:02:53 PM IST
Forever Big B
Image: Vikas Khot

It is 8.15 pm and we are ushered into a study on the first floor at Janak, Amitabh Bachchan’s office bungalow in the upscale Juhu suburb of Mumbai. Janak is a couple of houses away from his residence, Jalsa, where, every Sunday, hundreds throng to get a glimpse of the 71-year-old superstar who has straddled Indian cinema like a colossus for nearly half a century.

Even before we meet Bachchan, we are surrounded by his presence captured in Parisian black-and-white photographs and a wall-sized painting, in award statuettes lining the shelves and in a chest of drawers containing books ranging from those by American writer Saul Bellow to Nelson Mandela’s autobiography.

Bachchan, known for his punctuality, is running a little late. However, he ensures we are kept abreast of his schedule and told that he would meet us as soon as he gets in. After a few minutes,  the staff at Janak begins to bustle, indicating that he has arrived.

We are taken to the second floor where the door opens to Bachchan standing in the middle of a large room with his  hand outstretched waiting to greet us. He is wearing a white Pathan suit with a green-and-yellow Bengal shawl draped around his shoulders.  After the pleasantries, he gets to business (“So what is this interview about?” he asks). What follows is an engrossing discussion on the life and times of one of India’s most enduring icons; a discussion peppered with wit, humility and wistfulness in equal measure; quintessentially Amitabh Bachchan.

Q. You are among the longest lasting icons of Indian cinema and the country in general. What does the fame and attention mean to you?

I have never believed in these epithets and I don’t know that I have been in the industry long enough for you to say that I am the ‘longest lasting’. There have been many others before me, many established and more credible people. But, yes, I have been around for 45 years. I came into the industry in 1969. I don’t know… it is a job that I enjoy.

Q. Sure there have been others as you say. But nobody has had this impact. Look at the people outside your house on Sundays.

I think it started off primarily as… I don’t know what to call it. When I was in the hospital after my Coolie accident in 1982, I was quite surprised. I didn’t know what was happening outside but when I came out I found that there was great love and affection. Many people had done penance, prayed, went through personal agony: That was a very moving experience.

Actors know when they get appreciated for their work. They walk on the streets and people recognise their face; some wave out to you, a couple of them ask for your autograph. But this was unique. Thereafter, when I reached home, every evening people would gather outside the gates just to see me, I think try and get some kind of confirmation that I am alive. So I would go out and shake their hands. For some reason, it has become a practice.

Q. Cinema is often looked at as a reflection of the times. In the 1970s, it was about ‘the angry young man’; it reflected the angst of the people. Should cinema be pure entertainment or actually manifest the mood and maybe even offer solutions to the prevailing problems?

I will do a counter to that. If you look at all the films that have been successful at the box office, they have some kind of a moral approach in them. The very concept of Indian cinema or, perhaps, of cinema around the world is the fact of poetic justice in three hours. You don’t get that in a lifetime or even several lifetimes. There is a moral message that crime will be punished, good will prevail over evil, relationships in families are important, the integrity of women… all that is incorporated in our films. And it can be made entertaining as well.

Q. On the subject of the real world, what are your views on philanthropy—about giving back to society?
I think it is personal where everyone wants to do something more. And if they are in that position—that is their own decision. If you are able to improve somebody’s life, provide some help to those who want it, then why not do it?

Q. Do you think it should be spoken about?
I have not spoken about it. There are two approaches, one of which is you silently go ahead and do it—and, for me, that is the right thing to do. Tom-tomming it appears a little arrogant. I am the United Nations (UN) ambassador for polio; I am the UN ambassador for the girl child as well. We have worked on polio for many years and India was finally in a polio-free situation last year, and this year again. We have to do one more year before India can be declared a polio-free country. There is great satisfaction in this. But it puts me in an awkward position to have to describe it in the form of this interview.

Q. In the West, a lot of influential people lend their names to quite a few causes, such as ensuring better governance. Not necessarily activism, but they support it. That doesn’t happen too much here.
It does happen. And a lot of people do it. It’s just that you do not hear much about it. I think the people in the West are far more educated, a lot braver in the case of a cause and their views; they take sides. And that is understood. I don’t think a similar kind of temperament would prevail here—that would take time. I would rather do something very quietly, on my own and not talk about it. It is not as though we are not concerned. There are many people who talk about it and the whole world says ‘my god, what a fantastic guy you are’. But I would rather do charity than talk about it.

Q .Then let’s move back to the movie business. We don’t see too many movies being co-produced by AB Corp [as it was rechristened] these days.

Because we did not know the job as well as we thought we did!

Q. But you had said in an earlier interview that you would do co-productions.

Yes, but we have quite a hard time being creative enough. And I am not conversant with management. At the time of the initiation of ABCL, it was advised that since the management is salaried, you can get the very best. So we did. But it was a sunrise industry. Though the management was very qualified, it wasn’t adequate for the film business which has its own pitfalls and is difficult to understand. I still don’t understand many aspects of this business. They were unable to do it and, yes, we went into near bankruptcy.

Happily, we have come out of that. We had about 300 employees all over the country—I now have one, a chartered accountant. If I need to do a production or co-production, I would hold hands with someone who knows the job; I would share equity.

Q. You are not interested in growing AB Corp into a larger entity? Not even with Abhishek at the helm?
Right now, he does give a lot of inputs on decisions of commerce. But that is his prerogative in the years to come.

Q. You have had a huge comeback after a major setback. Are there any important lessons from that?
I just keep working. I don’t think there is anybody who has not had a setback. The biggest and greatest companies have had bankruptcy problems. They have had problems with financing, funding, setbacks… all of us are used to that. It is just that I wanted to carry on doing it. It is the only thing
I knew.

Q. But it led to a kind of revival of Brand Amitabh Bachchan.

I am not able to understand the modern lingo of most of the management gurus of the world today. I don’t really know what it means. If it can be given a phrase or expression, I leave that to you; I am just happy doing my work.

Q. To redefine and position yourself the way you did made brand experts take serious note.
The word ‘brand’ is used so often. When we started AB Corp and the whole question of brand came up, people from your own profession used to be quite cynical about this fact—‘you’re an actor, but you’re calling yourself a brand. That’s not on’. But now it is an accepted format.

 [When ABCL started], we had no plant, machinery, formula—terms normally given to attract investors for your seed capital. For the first time there was a human that was evaluated. So Jaya and I got evaluated.

Today it is looked upon as a very common thing—how to build your brand, how to market it, where to position yourself [sighs]... all these complicated words. I don’t know this terminology.

Q. The repositioning and revival of your brand…

These are words I keep hearing. I was without a job. So I went across and asked some people for a job and started working, that’s it.

Q. Is that what people who have a setback should do? Just go ahead and keep doing what they know?
I don’t know what others would do. I had zero money in the bank, my houses were all attached. Every day I would meet bankers who had earlier clamoured for me to borrow from them—I saw an entirely different face of theirs. They would sit in front of me and abuse me and ask for their money. That was embarrassing—very, very embarrassing. And you wonder what’s going to happen then. You sit back and say ‘what is it that I can do? I am an actor and I should act’. So I started acting. And gradually I paid back everybody’s loans, every creditor, from one rupee to crores of rupees.

I went to their houses and offices personally and said, you may not know this but I owe you this money and here it is. This includes Doordarshan, Prasar Bharati. I was the only guy that did it. A lot of people still owe Prasar Bharati money but nobody talks about it.

Forever Big B
Image: Vikas Khot
“People would gather outside the gates just to see me, I think [to] try and get some kind of confirmation that I am alive”

Q. You have not looked back since…
Look back is a wrong term to use. Anything can happen to me just now and I could lose everything. I think the eventuality of that should never be forgotten. There is always going to be a risk; if you are aware of that risk and the fact that it could happen at the drop of a hat, perhaps that is what drives you to not fall into that situation again. There’s always going to be that fear, that anxiety that you may get back into that situation which was horrendous and most embarrassing. So I guess you just continue working to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Q. Somewhere in your subconscious, is that the reason that drives you to keep working?
I don’t know whether that is the reason but I think that is a fear.

Q. When situations like these come up, it makes companies hugely risk averse.
Risk averse? What does this terminology mean?

Q. It means you don’t want to take any more risks considering the situation that you faced.
I don’t think that you can equate the two things. That is a company and I don’t know what companies do. We are in a creative field. Maybe there are certain similarities. If a company is producing something that is not being bought or marketed or appreciated, I guess they will have the same temperament as a film that is not being seen. Yes, we would want to be working in films that are successful because that ensures our longevity. Or it just perhaps ensures your next film. And when that is over, you immediately think of the next thing—okay fine, thank god this is over, what should I do tomorrow? Or, oh gosh, this has not worked, what should I do tomorrow?

Q. Another thing you have set a trend for is of well-established film actors entering television. That was also timed with the revival of your brand. You seem to love it now.

I would have to say that I love everything I do. If I didn’t love it, I shouldn’t be doing it. But I think television came as a very fortunate opportunity. It was very welcome because it provided me with a certain amount of income which helped me in paying back my creditors. The other reason was that I liked what they asked me to do. And then it went on from there.

I think television is big—and it’s going to be huge. It is already earning twice as much as films. I think films are about Rs 12,000 crore and TV is about Rs 22,000-24,000 crore and likely to become three times more in the years to come. We have about 300 million people watching TV, maybe 350 million, and projected to touch 500-600 million in the next five years which is massive. It is immediate, unlike cinema which takes a year or year-and-a-half for people to finally see it.

The realisation came when I did my first couple of KBC [Kaun Banega Crorepati] episodes. Within three or four days I went on a pilgrimage to Amarnath. The pilgrims were talking about KBC which was only three days old!

Q. The way you give out figures for TV and movies, you seem to be good at numbers…
I think it’s more practical knowledge than anything technical. You don’t need to be….what is that degree…

Q. An MBA?
An MBA, yeah, to be able to gauge that. It’s just practical knowledge. You may wonder why I say ‘practical’. I’ll walk into a restaurant, a public place, and there will be some response, some heads will turn. Five minutes later, a TV star will walk in and there will be chaos. That is my judgment on how important TV has become.

Q. Is it a real example or the fabled Bachchan humility? The TV star got more attention than you?

Yes, yes, this was some years ago. There is a lot of identification with TV stars. They are now into cinema too.

Q. With so many young talents coming in, do you see yourself in a mentoring role as well?

No, I don’t have the capacity or capability to mentor. I am just delighted to be in their company. I find them extremely talented, just a joy to be with and to see them work. In their very first films, they come out without any mistakes. I am just amazed at where they get this talent from and how they are able to project themselves so well. They are so confident and aggressive; it is a fabulous feature of the younger generation in our country. I am just overwhelmed by their potential and what they are doing.

I keep meeting them and I feel awkward because, you know, I am 71 and the average age on the set is about 25. But I just love how Indian cinema is shaping up. I see a great, great future.

Q. Do they ask you for advice or guidance?
I would be unable to give them advice. I would rather learn something from them.

Q. Equally, there would also be other newcomers without adequate contacts who wouldn’t know how to go ahead in the world of films. Would you help them by putting them in touch with the right people, for instance?
You come across people who want to work and I can put them on to somebody. I am very bad at being able to assess talent or, er… [pauses]. My HR is poor. I am unable to pick the right people—I would rather somebody else did that. But if I felt very strongly about somebody, I tell some people I think this guy is good, you should be working with him.

Forever Big B

Q. When you say you observe and interact with the younger generation, how does that manifest itself?
I don’t know how it manifests but I just enjoy being with them. Much like we are talking here, we have done sessions for some magazines who want to call some actors, directors and we all sit and have a chat and it is all printed or recorded or whatever. It is wonderful to know what they are doing and what they feel about it. They are extremely confident. I am still learning and they are already past masters.

Q But you seem be a master too. You are a phenomenon on social media. You have a massive following of over 7.3 million on Twitter. Though you came in a bit later on Facebook, you are hugely popular there too. And there is your blog.

Somebody came and told me there are about 150 websites of yours on cyberspace and none of them are correct. They said you should have your own website because there is a lot of wrong information out there—date of birth, where I studied, how many degrees I have and all that. Somebody said I had two degrees and so on… it was rubbish. They said they would design a website. I asked them how long that would take and they said six months. I said why can’t you do something which I can start tomorrow? They said you can write a blog.

So I wrote a blog, whatever came to my mind. Next day I got a response. I said, oh boy, this is terrific. So I responded to the response. I took that person’s name in the next day’s blog saying thank you so much for writing to me. Next day I got five responses and so it went on. And as it went on, I found most of them were normal, appreciative people who were almost like me sitting across a dining table and talking to my family. So I gave them a title—you are my ‘Extended Family’. I gave them an abbreviation—EF. And now we have three million hits almost every month and 500-600 respondents every day.

I don’t know any of them, and neither do any of them know each other. But during this time period, and because of the length of association, they have all got to know each other. That’s not all. If I am travelling to a certain part of the world, and if there’s an EF there, he or she will want to come and see me. Just to take a photograph or to say hi. I say fine, so they come.

I had a performance in Paris at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees where I recited my father’s poems. And about two or three months before this, I wrote about it in my blog. Around 30 of the EF from all over the world, South Africa, America, Germany, the Middle East, contacted each other. They are not all of very good means, so for three months they saved money to come to Paris. They timed it so that they could all meet at the airport there. They stayed in the same hotel. They came to the show together to see this performance of mine, and all they wanted was—‘can we come backstage and say hello to you?’ And now, wherever I go, they meet.

If there is a group of them travelling to India, the reason for their visit is, ‘we want to be in that crowd on Sunday. We just want to come and be a part of that crowd’. So the Mumbai EF contacts them, they stay in their houses, move around together. They have this fantastic feeling of a family.

Just a few days ago a whole group—15 to 20 of them from various countries—had all come here. All they wanted was to wish me on my birthday. A lot of people were from within India too. Eleven of them hired a small hall somewhere and stayed together. They are pretty well off, married, etc, but they all stayed together and they said, ‘sir, we have never laughed and enjoyed ourselves so much in our lives as we did this time’.  

Q. So you are the catalyst…

It is a fantastic family that has been created. They are so communicative. They have a problem, they write about it and 50 other people come up with solutions. Someone says, it is my birthday, sir, nobody wishes me on my birthday—500 people come up with birthday wishes because I put his or her birthday on my blog. I have made a data sheet now, so I have all their names, dates of birth, addresses, email IDs. I announce it very boldly and artistically on my blog, that today is his or her birthday. And then they all get wished. For them it is huge—they say they haven’t ever got so many wishes in their lives. It is a feeling of great camaraderie.

A family of EF came from South Africa to meet me. They are originally from Gujarat. On the way back, they land in Dubai and one of the members gets seriously sick. This lady doesn’t know what to do. She suddenly remembers there’s a Dubai EF. She rings him. That person drops everything, rushes to the airport, takes her to the hospital, gets her taken care of and puts them back on the plane.

Many of them now want to do charitable work. In Dubai, they have opened a blood bank. They look after differently abled children in some other places. It is a nice community feeling.

Forever Big B
Image: Vikas Khot
Celebrities also need to maintain a certain conduct in public because they are always going to get looked at microscopically

Q. With you as the common factor…
Yes, and I write every day, so…

Q. You get time to write every day?

I have to. I can’t miss out. I somehow feel empty if I don’t. I am on Day 2,045 or 2,046.

Q. But for someone who’s known to be rather private, isn’t it like opening yourself up totally?

Yes, but this is different. It is a great experience for me because not everything that I say is appreciated or agreed with. And some of them are fantastic writers.

If you are not there, they will start sending messages: ‘Sir, where are you? I am feeling sleepy and you’re not yet online’. Someone in America will say, ‘it’s ok, it is daytime here, let him be’. So they kind of keep provoking you to write.

Q. You also do a lot of endorsements. How do you decide what to endorse?  
Absolutely. It is a difficult choice and one that needs a lot of thought. And again I guide myself by what I experience publicly rather than by reading a management report. I want to know what the credibility of the company is, what their standing is in the market, what is the product, what am I going to be saying or doing.

Apart from building brand equity, I think celebrities also need to maintain a certain conduct in public because they are always going to get looked at microscopically; more so now, with one billion cameras following you wherever you go, through mobile phones. A certain amount of credibility is needed because you are doing something for the product and you are asking people to buy it.

There have been a couple of examples—Cadbury’s had a problem. They had worms coming out of their product. They said we want you as our brand ambassador. I said, ‘Will you tell me very honestly why you have come to me now. You have been around for so many years and never had a brand ambassador.’ And they said, ‘Sir, we are surprised you’re asking us this question but because you have been so candid, we will tell you. We have a problem with our product. We see you as a credible person to talk about it, because our credibility has come down. We have lost a large percentage percent of our market and we need somebody with a certain amount of credibility to bring us back again’.

They said we have changed our product, added double wrappings and so on. I said I want you to take me to your factory, I want to personally see how you are doing it. I went there, they filmed it. I saw how the chocolates were made, where they came from, how they went into the containers, how the wrapping took place, etc.

Once satisfied, I then said I will write my own lines, not what your marketing team says. I just want to look into the camera and say: ‘I am Amitabh Bachchan. I am here to talk about Cadbury’s. Cadbury’s had a problem, they made a mistake. I have personally now gone and seen everything and I am telling you it is clean.’ They agreed and they are back up again.

I feel admitting to a mistake is a very powerful thing when you are on the backfoot or when an error has been made. It is always good to admit that we made a mistake but we are trying to repair it. So this is what I did.

I was in Jaipur at the opening of a girls’ school and one girl stood up and said, ‘Mr Bachchan, you are endorsing a soft drink. My teacher has told me it is poison. Why are you endorsing it?’

I didn’t have an answer. I wrote to the soft drink company. I told them what happened, that they had better
answer the girl which they did and clarified.

Q. Finally, the question of the Bachchan legacy.
I don’t look upon it as a legacy. My only legacy is my father’s. So long as that is alive, I am happy. You will forget me in a couple of months. But my father you will remember for hundreds of years!

Q. Are there plans to, perhaps, set up a foundation in his name?

I already have a trust in his name and we do charitable work there—The Harivansh Rai Bachchan Trust. We did one event just last week. It is the electrification of 3,000 villages across India through solar energy through another organisation called Urja Foundation—also United Nations and my trust. I announced it on my birthday, October 11, and just last week actually initiated it.

These events don’t get reported because they’re not valuable enough for entertainment value [laughs], which I said in my speech.

(This story appears in the 27 December, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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