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'Shahenshah' of Bollywood

Superstar Amitabh Bachchan talks to V. GANGADHAR about cinema, his French experience and other issues.

"There is no need for Indian cinema to change its basic concept to compete for the Oscar awards" Amitabh Bachchan.

FRANCE, SOUTH Africa, London, Delhi, Nashik... It was globe trotting time for superstar Amitabh Bachchan, and difficult to pin him down for an in-depth interview. Finally, it happened in Mumbai's film city on the sets of Vikram Bhatt's "Aitbaar". Courtesy and dignity personified, Bachchan answered a variety of questions:

Let us begin with your French experiences ...

The town of Deauville, northeast of Paris, organised an Asian and Western film festival, the first included a retrospective of my films. Five of them — "Deewar", "Sholay", "Agnipath", "Kabhi Kabhi" and "Mohabattein" — were screened before an appreciative audience that knew a lot about my work. I was made an Honorary Citizen of the town and presented with a medallion, an honour earlier bestowed on only two people, Queen Elizabeth II of England and the Soviet space hero, Yuri Gagarin.

You were in France at the time of the Iraq war when France and the U.S. did not see eye to eye. Did you detect any anti-American feelings during your visit?

No, I don't think so. These feelings did not percolate down to the level of artistes. In fact, Deauville organised an American film festival, which was also a big success.

Director Mahesh Bhatt continues to be critical of the U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq and blamed the Indian film industry for keeping quiet...

We are artistes concerned with our work. We are also individuals entitled to have our individual views on such issues. Mr. Bhatt is free to air his views. Others may or may not agree with such views. We are a democratic nation, you know.

Would you like to play Saddam Hussein on the screen for an international production?

No, Thank You!

Was there any special reason for conducting the recent film awards function in South Africa?

The Indians in South Africa want to be part of cinema which they love, and move among the film celebrities. These awards help to promote Indian cinema among the expatriates. Indian cinema has the potential to match any type of similar entertainment. But today, it is not marketed properly. Every sixth person in the world is an Indian; these awards functions attract huge TV audiences all over the world and highlight the potential of our cinema.

Can we ever make films with universal appeal? Indian cinema, escapist in nature, may be growing in popularity, but it is still viewed only by Indians abroad.

Our escapist type of cinema may appeal mostly to Indians abroad. But the scenario is changing. Indians are now bringing their native friends to watch Indian films. We saw it in South Africa. Many locals were present at the awards function. But as I said earlier, we can make an impact on the world scene with better marketing.

I will be going to Morocco in September to be honoured by the Government. Some of my films will also be shown there ... we are making an impact in the African nations.

Can't we edit some of our best films, I mean, shorten their length, do away with the songs and dances, so that they stand a better chance at the Oscars? `Lagaan', I believe, failed to win an Oscar because of its excessive length and the songs and dances which the Westerners could not appreciate ...

I don't agree with you here. Why should our films lose their flavour and individuality to compete with any international award? Why not work towards creating another institution like the Oscars? Of course, I leave it to the individual producers to make any changes in their films if they feel such changes would make their films more `Oscar worthy.'

On the issue of escapism vs. good cinema shall we ever make films like `A Beautiful Mind'?

Why not? Improve the educational level of our people to those prevailing in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Then the level of appreciation will also go up.

Today, we cater mainly to the Hindi speaking regions and the emphasis has had to be on escapism. Once we have more enlightened audiences, better films will follow.

At 60, you are doing better than ever. More films, big banners, lucrative ads, place in lists like `100 best actors of all time', and the `billionaire' label. Comment?

These rankings and `honours' are computer compilations. The Internet-savvy Indians vote en masse and perhaps we find our names on most such lists. I don't take them seriously. As for the `billionaire' label, I don't know how that came about, must be some totally wrong calculations and assumptions!

Do you believe in astrology? Were there any predictions about the spurt in your popularity and monetary gains?

I don't believe in astrological predictions. But some family members and close friends go on exploring this field and I can't stop them.

Is it true that ABCL had left its worst days behind and is now back on its feet? There were reports that debts amounting to nearly Rs. 70 crores had been cleared?

That is correct. What is left is a small amount, which will also be cleared soon. Instead of listening to the advice of some people to declare myself bankrupt, I chose to work hard, extremely hard and redeemed ABCL. We are now ready to launch new ventures. Two films are being planned, and I will be starring in both, along with my son Abhishek.

Well-known film critic, Khalid Mohammed told me that critics normally went soft on film stars while panning their films because most of the time, the stars had to enact `rubbishy' roles. It was a challenge, which no other film star faced. Do you agree?

He has a point. We, heroes, have to excel in everything — fighting, romance and comedy — whereas Hollywood heroes can afford to be more human and natural. We are presented as supermen, they as normal men and women. We have to look good in our kind of escapist cinema. But things are changing here also.

There was a time in your career when you were saddled with mediocre films. As a senior actor, could you spot them and tell the producer and director what was wrong with the film and suggest changes?

Filmmaking is a team effort. Yes, I do try suggesting to the filmmakers to make changes here and there. But we are professional actors; the director has the last word. Let me assure you that my commitment never gets diluted even if I'm not sure that a particular film may not do well. I put in my best effort in all my films.

Last year, the Maharashtra State Council for Women gave the `Rakshasa' award to the ABCL film, `Aks' for its crude attack on the judiciary and the scenes which showed the murder of a judge. Why didn't ABCL reply to these charges?

We were not aware of the `award' function. Whenever such issues had been raised, I had been presenting our point of view. But it is not possible to do it every time. I regard `Aks' as a brilliant film, a bit ahead of its times. It will be appreciated in the next 15 or 20 years.

How does one react to the `copy cat' charges against Indian film and TV serial makers?

I agree that copyright laws have to be followed, and we are somewhat lax about this. But we are not alone in this. I know of Western filmmakers who lift ideas, scenes from our books, literature and films. Do you know that most of the successful sci-fi movies in the West had lifted ideas from our epics, particularly the Mahabharata?

The U.P. Chief Minister Mayawati was recently in Mumbai offering goodies to Bollywood producers to make films in her State. Are you ready to accept such an offer despite your friendship with the Samajwadi party leader Amar Singh, the political foe of Mayawati?

Why not? If the role is good and the terms suitable, I will do films for anyone. My friendship with Mr. Amar Singh has never influenced my career.

What was it like working with the woman director, Honey Irani, in the film, "Armaan?"

Wonderful. It was a great experience. She and her entire team were so professional. Everything went like clockwork and she had a great team of women assistants.

When can we expect a new version of `Kaun Banega Crorepati'? Do you miss it?

I really have no idea. Yes, I miss the TV show. It brought me closer to the common people, and was a great experience. But the show consumed a lot of my time.

A film star, whenever he got into some kind of trouble, be it a hit and run accident or links with the mafia, swears that he has faith in the country's judiciary and that the law of the land must be upheld. The same film star, in his films, often abuses law and judiciary and advocates taking the law into his own hands. Isn't this misguiding the people?

A film star is a celebrity and even in minor issues is under the glare of publicity. There are thousands of traffic violations or hit and run accidents every day, but only those involving film stars are publicised. They had to stress the point, they believed in the law of the land. Our lawyers, human rights people, journalists discuss in public forums and TV debates, the inefficiencies and drawbacks in the police, judiciary and political system. Films are a fantasy — the hero is often portrayed as a victim of injustice and may speak about it. But that did not mean any disrespect of the law in real life. We respect the system, the judiciary and everything else. The fiery dialogue in the make-believe world of cinema belongs only to that world.

Recently, the role of lawyer Atticus Finch (played by Gregory Peck) in the film "To Kill a Mockingbird" was voted the best-ever role in cinema. If I had the money, I would make an Indian version of the film, with you as Atticus Finch.

(Smiles) That was a great role, and a great movie. Thank you for your offer!

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