It is always exciting to know the man behind the star, the darkness behind the light and the sweat behind the success, and when the luminary is as dazzling as Amitabh Bachchan it is difficult not to get star struck! So when he turned up in Delhi recently, we decided to let Big B speak on the city that gave him the momentum to shine on the marquee. He is a little surprised as journalists no longer ask him to rewind. No fault of theirs, the man is marching forward even in his late sixties.
He takes a long pause, makes definitive eye contact and opens the Delhi diary. “When Babuji (Harivansh Rai Bachchan) was transferred from Allahabad to Delhi, it opened a whole new world to me. I had come from a small town and was overjoyed to see the greenery, big roads, monuments and political personalities in the Capital. We used to live in South Avenue and later shifted to Willingdon Crescent. One of my favourite activities used to be watching and running after Panditji’s car (Jawahar Lal Nehru), when he used to go to Teen Murti. Babuji used to have poetic soirees at home. Listening to the likes of Sumitra Nandan Pant, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar and Mahadevi Verma had a great impact on me in the formative years.” He retains that interest still but could never put pen to paper. “I could never write poetry.”
The art of poetry is on the wane and it disturbs him. “I try my bit by reciting Babuji’s poetry at different places and institutions, particularly those which are not known to be centres of Hindi literature. We organised an evening at the British Council, but I don’t see the young generation taking to the joys of Hindi poetry. It remains a great concern, for our vibrant literature should not get lost in the march of civilisation,” notes Bachchan, who was fondly called Munna by his parents in his formative years.
Cut to his days at Kirorimal College, and Bachchan’s eyes light up with nostalgia. “I did my graduation in science but it was at the college that my interest in dramatics took shape. I remember getting the opportunity to perform at Miranda House. That was a big draw in those days for any male student. I think it still is.”
He emphasises on the name of the play, “The Rape of the Belt”. “The story was based on an ancient Greek legend. It had three male actors. I was one of them.”
Bachchan recalls he was not one of those outgoing types. “I used to hang around the college canteen but sometimes we used to go to Volga. Is it still around?” It is…but it gives an impression as if the angry young man took birth somewhere inside him during the college days. And few know that his father initially wanted to name him Inquilab (Revolution). “Not at all. It was the creation of my writers and directors. I just played the part.”
Four decades later he continues to be the quintessential director’s actor. “I must tell you that I am a great pessimist when it comes to my films. When I am shooting a scene I would invariably think how can this work? Then I leave it to the director because I am just looking at the part, he has a vision about the whole film. And most of the times I have to zip my mouth up! Sujoy Ghosh’s Aladin is the latest example.”
But off screen he has become a lot more vocal. He no longer keeps his emotions to himself and his blog is seldom politically correct. “I don’t say I am above fault, but yes I have become vocal because of time. I have not much time to clear my record.” He tells a small story. “When my name appeared in the Bofors scam, I kept quiet as people close to me said don’t speak as you have done nothing wrong, and let the law take its own course — and eventually I was cleared of the charges.”
But one day he read a coffee-table book published by a leading newspaper on 100 years of India. “The year 1985 showed me as a traitor. That day I decided I will speak out, for I don’t want to leave it to my progeny to defend my name.” On a lighter note, he adds, “Somehow it has become part of my life that when everything is going fine, some controversy, some rejection comes from somewhere.” The first one, or say, well documented one came in Delhi itself, when he was rejected by All India Radio. “Yes, but it didn’t hurt me. I had just come out of college and was looking for a job. I just felt bad because I was rejected both in Hindi and English.”
Was it his mother who pushed him to give films a try? “No, though she was active in theatre circles in Allahabad and Delhi, it was my brother Ajitabh, who came with this Filmfare issue where there was an advertisement asking youngsters to apply.” He felt that he had arrived when on the first day of “Anand” he happened to drive to a petrol pump in the evening. “I used to go there regularly but that evening the attendant and the people around recognised me as Babu moshaiya.” The rest, as they say, is history.