AB@80me@61by Aparajita Krishna November 1 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 13 mins, 21 secs
Aparajita Krishna writes a letter to Amitabh Bachchan, recalling her relationship with him while she was growing up over the years, and snippets of conversations about him with stalwarts Om Puri, Govind Nihalani and Amol Palekar.
Dear Mr. Amitabh Bachchan, better still, Babu Moshai,
Big B is now 80-year-old (born in the Quit India Movement year) and working and taking admirable physical and professional strides! One cannot help gasp sighs of admiration watching your last-leg of walk onto the KBC set’s frame wherein you run up to your position. And KBC (2022) rocks with your presence. I am very sure that you are taking back from this program, from the interaction with common Indians, far more riches than just the crores as your fee.
Cine-actor AB is 53 years young. You debuted with Saat Hindustani in 1969. You had in the same year given a voice-narration in Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome. In Reshma Aur Shera (1971) you played a mute Chhotu with remarkable restraint and emotions.
The Hrishikesh Mukherjee AB had first grabbed my 10-year-old senses in Anand (1971). Then came Reshma Aur Shera (1971), Parwana (1971), Saudagar (1973), Namak Haraam (1973), Mili (1975) to further baffle me. Saat Hindustani (1969), your debut film, I would watch later. I continue to believe that AB as Babu Moshai, Chhotu, Kumar Sen, Moti, Vikram Maharaj, Shekhar Dayal was a far greater actor than the Salim-Javed construct, Vijay, and the successive angry young man AB that followed in countless mediocre mainstream films.
The Salim-Javed films upturned the implosive, simmering angry lava within the characters of, say a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film driven roles, into an explosive erupted volcano. But, no doubt that the Salim-Javed Vijaysss made you the victorious popular star.
I think what instantly connected me to you was the Hindi belt lingo-touch in your dialogue rendition. The Poorbi, Awadhi, Bhojpuri, U.P-Bihari lehja/way of speaking. It is still so wonderfully audible in your KBC talk wherein at the earliest opportunity with the contestants you revert back to that lehja.
I come from Bihar with deep connection to U.P. Allahabad/Prayagraj-Muzaffarpur naturally blend. Also, the deep internalization, economy of gestures and the angry lava that rested even in your non-angry scenes perplexed me. The humour, as in the clown act in many films to follow, made your repertoire greater. There was also in it an element of the bhaand.
Your and my relationship is a complicated one. Er pardon me, not in the R…A way (smiling emoji). It is far, far more complicated than any that I have had in even non-reel, real life. And you do not even know me! I have also had arguments over you with my late father. You see, my old man, a professor, a Marxist, was a very keen cine-goer in his young years. But the mainstream-ization or the commercialization of AB as a product-actor and a most reluctant citizen with no political views, perhaps, rankled my old man about my tall-man.
Your familial connect with Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi and family could possibly not have left you completely apolitical. You had also fought the parliamentary election and won it (1984). In all probability the huge success and its liability and safe-keeping made you pose as political-neutral and capitulate or rather align with persons, politicians of all kinds, including Amar Singh, Subrato Roy, Mulayam Singh, Bal Thackeray, Narendra Modi… But let me tell you that during the last few years of his life, my old father had become vocal and admiring of you as an actor. He would watch your old films on television. By then the tide had changed. I was less of an admirer.
I had written an article in magazine Outlook, dated May 30, 2005, at the kind invitation of Namrata Joshi. Big B Stole My Cinema! 17 years hence this Note is to you. I am now 61. This one partly revisits the old piece, and updates it with my newer inputs.
Quoting from that earlier article:
One evening in 1969 a tall figure appeared on the screen, who then, all through the formative years of my life, helped me indulge even more in those filmi daydreams. Amitabh Bachchan went on also to serve, as I grew more discriminating, as a benchmark to help me decide or remain undecided on the question of the rise and fall and rise and fall and... of Hindi Cinema. Ironically, however, my academic study of Hindi cinema and exposure to world cinema came at a point of time when my passion-play and innocence as a cine-goer had already waned. I had by then started losing Amitabh Bachchan to his alienating reincarnations of the mid 1970s-1980s.
The Amitabh of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, so real and closer home, had begun to get eclipsed by the Salim-Javed construct. He was becoming more attractive no doubt, but, perhaps precisely because of that, less and less real. He no longer reminded me of an uncle I knew, of a shyness I had seen, of an anger I had brushed past. It is the Hrishikesh Mukherjee school of Amitabh Bachchan who articulated for mainstream Hindi cinema the superior acting vocabulary of early Dilip Kumar, Motilal and Balraj Sahni. Some of the best of Amitabh was the Amitabh that failed at the box office: Amitabh in the dismissed Parwana and the most tragically forgotten Saudagar. The latter film was truly among the precursors of the rural-realism of the art-house movement of Hindi cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. Saudagar's Amitabh was, in a way, the first draft of Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri's individualistic realism. Even within the film's relatively flawed parameters, his performance in Saudagar was not too far removed from Naseer's in Paar.
The Amitabh of Hrishikesh Mukherjee versus the Amitabh of Salim-Javed: the sedate and shy and romantic, his implosive anger, occasional laughter versus the explosive and the semi-lumpen hero. It is these two Amitabhs who loomed large over mainstream Hindi Cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. Save for an occasional Amar Akbar Anthony, or Kabhi Kabhi, all other Amitabhs were clumsy varieties of the Hrishikesh Mukherjee or Salim-Javed kind. They neither had the realistic emotional connection of the first nor the grace in anger of the second.
Now, in retrospect, Amitabh Bachchan's journey on the highway of fame, glory and adulation seems one lonely marathon. His characters had deserted him midway. And my wonder for cinema had forsaken me. I had stopped crying to be taken to the movies. Black came a little too late in the day.
Now back in the present of 2022. Even lovely star-actors like Alia Bhatt and Ranbir Kapoor’s hydra-headed-marketed stardom cannot imagine what Rajesh Khanna and you meant to me-likes of the late 1960s, 1970s. You are rocking in KBC 2022. So, I partly take back the last paragraph of my old article.
At one point of time in the early-mid 1990s, while working for media house Plus Channel, I had in my head ideated a feature wherein Javed Akhtar interviews AB. But then it would have got kind of mutually too over-familiar. Plus Channel and ABCL/Saraswati TV offices were in the same premise too. Yet, I never attempted to cross your path.
I did see you on stage once. Sorry, at 61 if I suffer from a memory lapse of the precise name of the occasion, then my senility is on-way. I recall you reciting from some works and you were very good.
Just once in my life I walked up to meet you. The rare time I took my parents for a shooting was onto the set of KBC in its early avatar days. It was thanks to some kind of proximity with the production-team. Wading through memory what I can distinctly recall is the graciousness with which you got up to say namaste or hello to our approaching you. We ourselves were very conscious of the fact that it was a working environment and so soon after the customary greeting withdrew from the scene.
Future calendar will still rank Dilip Kumar as a greater star-actor. For the Bigger reason that Dilip Kumar chose to work in a far better selection of films. Maybe the creative times were such back then. I am also sure that he would have resisted the inflow of cash via mediocre route.
KBC’s AB (Govardhan Ghee advertisement notwithstanding) still makes me glued to your acts and help overlook many of my disenchantments with you.
Cine-India looks forward to your upcoming films: Uunchai, Project K and others. At 80 you are still a work in progress. And your discipline as an actor continues to be most exemplary.
What a talent and achievement!
Sharing some inputs from your colleagues that I had gathered over time in some context, but they pertain to you too. In my talk with OM PURI in 2006 I had brought you in as a reference. He had admiringly assessed you and also lamented his own position vis a vis you.
Ardh Satya was a watershed film for you.
It gave direction and made an impact on commercial cinema also. So many police films after that. Every hero was playing police. I think for Ardh Satya Mr Bachchan was also approached. Which he refused. Thankfully. Later I told Bachchan Saheb, “Apne kuch 25 saal pehle mere upar ek ehsaan kiya tha. Main shukraguzaar hoon. Woh Ardh Satya aapke paas aayi thi. Aapne manaa kar diya tha.” (laughs)
Zanjeer and Ardha Satya though belonging diametrically to two different schools of filmmaking were quite similar in theme and dramatic core.
Ardh Satya was your Zanjeer.
Ya, Ardh Satya was my Zanjeer. Choti thi zanjeer meri. Itni lambi zanjeer nahi thi jitni unki hai. Unki zanjeer toh abhi tak chal rahi hai. Meri zanjeer itni mazboot nahi thi.
Right. Coming to your contemporary actors today. A lot of his roles could come to either you, Boman Irani, Paresh Rawal.
Or Amitabh Bachchan. He is a character actor now.
But the point is that even today he towers over a film script. He was in recent years very good in Armaan (2003). Perhaps his roles are specially written, constructed. It gets difficult to talk about him along with anybody else because the comparison ends up being neither fair to him nor to the rest of the actors. Don’t you feel marginalized by mainstream contemporary cinema?
Of course you do. Of course you do. I mean there is no challenge for character actors really. Why I brought in Mr Bachchan was because films like Khakee, Black, Apharan, Sarkar or even Family now, they are character-roles, which Naseer, Paresh, me, Boman, we all can do it.
But they will not trust any of you with that central role?
Yes, yes. That’s the tragedy. I mean one is not saying, “Why Mr Bachchan?” Even Dev for example. Even I could have played Mr Bachchan’s part. Not that I did not play it. It was like Aaghat, Ardh-Satya, Drohkaal. So, if today there is any strong character role, it will go to Mr Bachchan. But what we get are secondary character roles jahan pe hero heroine are more important and we have a character where we are supposed to enhance the hero and heroine. We are used as enhancers. One does not have much of a choice. Obviously, I would want to do roles that Mr Bachchan is doing now-a-days. I would want to do Sarkar. I would want to do Black, Khakhee. Which I am capable of doing, but those roles don’t come to me. Now see in Ardh Satya I was not a known face. Nobody knew Om Puri. But the movie did well because the script was good. If you replace Mr Bachchan in Khakhee I am positive the movie will do as much business as it did.
But they say that his movies get the initial at the box-office.
Haan initial lag sakta hai. Par initial toh Ardh Satya ko bhi laga tha. Ardh Satya by mouth publicity became a hit.
Your success as an actor abroad in British films has not it seems translated into benefit in Hindi films. Do you think the two are mutually exclusive?
Yes, of course it hasn’t helped. Otherwise, I would be doing Sarkar and Black.
Coming back to you AB, I now refer to my valued exchange in the past with director Govind Nihalani. Although I have serious misgivings about your role in film Dev.
Govind, you have worked with Amitabh Bachchan and Om Puri. How individualistic are they in comparison? Are there differences or would both address a role in the same way.
Amitji is far more experienced. He has played so many different characters. And he is senior to Om. Wo experience ka advantage hai. Amitji’s understanding is brilliant. Absolutely. I think both of them have different styles of addressing a role. Dono ke internal mechanisms are slightly different. Dono ki memories alag hain.
They come from two different worlds also.
Yes. There is a scene of Amitji in Dev. After cremating (his son) he comes home and describes the scene to his wife. That moment is unbelievably beautiful. He created that. There was no rehearsal for that. After the shot I said, ‘Ek shot aur kar lete sir. Lambe shot mein liya.’ He said ‘No, no. I am exhausted.’ I said ‘Will have to take another shot. At least half the scene.’ He did.
The internal processes of Amitji and Om are quite different. How they prepare I don’t know. I used to speak to both of them (during Dev). Both of them can create great moments in their performances. They were supposed to be good friends in the film and they got along together so well. Ek humne photo session kiya film se pehle. Amitji ke ghar pe hi kiya. At the end of the photo shoot Om pulled out two copies of Amitji’s book that Jayaji had brought aur bola, ‘Aapka sign chahiye. Kisi ko dena hai.’ (laughs).
Will there be another Amitabh Bachchan kind of actor-stardom in Hindi cinema of the future? A question like this brings to my mind a recall of a talk I had in 2007 with Amol Palekar, a formidable theatre actor and film star-actor of his times. He also directed you in the film Paheli. It was in another context, but fits in well here. He had said, “With a face and personality like mine, or, Om, Naseer, I don’t think, we, even in the wildest of our dreams, thought of replacing (anyone). I can talk of myself. When I came into the industry Rajesh Khanna was very much around, Dharmendra was very much around, Jeetendra was very much around, Amitabh Bachchan was very much around. With these four different faces of stardom, I did not even in my wildest of wild dreams think of changing, replacing any of those faces. I said ‘I am Amol Palekar and I have my own identity, which I think people will like because I am not any of them. I am here and I am giving you this.’ There is always space for something, which is original, different, not a carbon copy. So, there is always going to be space.”
So, Hindi cinema in particular waits and watches for your successor. One who can create his own space, command his own place and generate his actor-stardom over decades as well as give a new definition to it. As for KBC, er well, they tried with SRK too, but……hmmmm.
At 61 I give my best wishes to the young and future cine-goers for their wait. A tall order!