I walked in for my interview with Amitabh Bachchan with a thumping heart. Would my hero live up to my expectations? Through my growing up years, I had lived in his shadow. I had cried with Vijay, I had sung with Anthony, I had ridden down dusty streets on a rickety bicycle convinced that I too was the angry young man facing a heartless world.
There he was, this handsome rebel, without family, without godfathers, without privileges. Always on the side of the poor, always the coolie, the lovable gangster, the brooding cop or the lonely alcoholic and yet it was he who won in the end, it was he who triumphed over those with money and wealth. Amitabh was more than even a hero, he was a moral statement, in his suffering eyes I saw the storms of my own heart. Amitabh? Amitabh was it.
As I walked in for my interview with him, I prepared myself for disillusionment. What did I expect, for god’s sake? The idealistic hero of Zanjeer come to miraculous life? Jai from Sholay, reclining against a chair?
Instead, I found an elderly gentleman, more courteous than most, an actor of transparent humility and an eccentric example of an India where Hindi and English were spoken with equal ease and fluency. I had expected to lose my hero-worship suddenly.
Instead, I did lose my adulation, but found myself gaining some great conversation.
Through the interview Amitabh spoke with tremendous candour. His English is almost Nehruvian, in its clipped articulate fluency and grace. As he spoke about his land deals, his faux pas about wanting a “grandson”, and his friendship with Rajiv Gandhi, I got the impression of an affable uncle, eager to relive his memories, as charmingly interested in me as I was in him.
Amitabh almost rarely smiles. Yet there’s a strangely self-deprecating humour at all times. He refers to himself by the royal “we”. “We would never do this,” or “we are actually very ordinary.” And when I asked him about his run in with the feminists, I could see that he was dying to laugh, but restrained himself carefully.
His office in Juhu is full of his son’s pictures. Abhishek in different roles, Abhishek with his father, Abhishek is everywhere. There’s even an antique bioscope positioned on a table. He looks a little bent as he sits at his table. Am reminded of all those charming Allhabadis I know, who sit hunched at a table over chai, telling lots of stories, as the sun sets over the Ganga.
If actors like Marlon Brando kept away from the public eye and became almost mystical figures, not so Amitabh. He’s very much in the pop culture arena, from quiz shows to endorsing brands to reinventing himself as a “sexy at sixty” actor. Through many different roles, as the decades have taken their toll on him, the coolie has become a tycoon, the shipyard rebel is now a millionaire brand.
Was Amitabh ever a hero? Perhaps not. Perhaps he was always a creature of scripts, a puppet who mouthed the lines written for him by Salim Javed. Antony and Jai and Vijay after all never existed, they only became icons of young Indian manhood because we yearned for a man who could capture the conflicts we were living with.
I realised through the interview that my hero was fictitious, he did not exist. The man who does exist, is now an indulgent dad, a relaxed conversationalist, who sometimes hangs out with the wrong kind of people. Jai is dead. But Amitabh is alive. And telling some great stories.
Maybe the Big B in Amitabh has transformed into the moghul, Mr Bachchan.