It’s with good reason that actor Amitabh Bachchan is respected for his discipline in the Hindi film industry. Wrapped in a white shawl, the veteran actor waits patiently in his office at the agreed time to speak to us about his latest film, Pink . Just the previous day the actor had injured his foot, forcing him to cancel his evening appointments. But within a day, the 74-year-old sprang back to action to discuss the courtroom drama-thriller directed by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury. Showing us his bandaged foot, he is hopeful that it will be better by Friday, when Pink releases.
Bachchan plays a lawyer in the movie (which also stars Taapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari, Andrea Tariang, Piyush Mishra, Angad Bedi and Dhritiman Chatterjee). The film is the story of three independent girls who get into trouble during an evening of clubbing, ultimately giving way to a courtroom drama. It has already triggered discussions on crime against women and the social morality codes imposed on them. Bachchan’s open letter to his granddaughters, published in a daily newspaper, also led to several debates online on the notion of patriarchy. In our chat with Big B, we discuss what he thinks the film stands for and whether women-centric films cut through the clutter in Bollywood. Excerpts…
What is it like working with so many new faces?
With due respect to artistes working in the film, I have to say that when you see [ Pink ], these are the only faces that you’ll remember. These three girls and four boys are all new faces. You won’t see anybody else. That’s how good they are. And that’s how well they’ve performed, and that’s what amazes me, because I am in awe of them. I’m so appreciative of this generation, of how beautifully they interpret every character that comes across.
You’ve spent more than four decades in the industry. What’s the difference you see between newcomers then and now?
I’ll have to talk about myself, I can’t look at the others, but I’m not prepared as well as they are even now. I still struggle. I want to know how they’re able to relax and be so natural in front of the camera. That’s a huge learning opportunity for me, and that can come through a sense of observation. I see all their films, and I’m so amazed. I’m appreciative of their work.
When it comes to Pink , which touches upon crime against women, what was your reaction when you first read the script?
I was told a concept by [the producer] Shoojit Sircar, which lasted two minutes. I said okay to the concept. I didn’t even know what my character was or whether I was going to play a character. I didn’t know what the story was, or what the screenplay was. It all came afterwards. I really was not interested in how the story was going to be developed. I was just interested in the concept.
What do you think was the biggest challenge you faced during the film?
We had some other methodology of shooting in this film. Because of digital cameras now, there’s no fear that you’re wasting film, which was such an expensive commodity in my time. So the camera can run for hours and therefore we had 15-20 page scenes all shot in one take, and we had seven cameras on set. So nobody was ever out of the frame. I can’t just say ‘I’ve said my lines, thank you, I’m off’. You’re being watched. You’re being put on film, so it just made it a lot more intense. You are a lot more involved, because everything is happening and the shot is running for 15-20 minutes. (Sighs) I’m not used to that.
Is this the first time you’ve done something like this?
I’ve done it before. Ever since digital cameras have come in, you get the opportunity. But I must say that most of the sequences that you’ll see in the film, in the courtroom are non-stop. They may look like — because of the editing — they’re taken differently, but they’re non-stop. It’s fluid.
What’s the message you want to send through Pink , since you’ve called it a “social thriller”?
This is not a film on rape or women empowerment. But I hope that people will sit up and take notice of what is being expressed in the film and perhaps make a change in society.
But in the Hindi film industry, women-centric films are largely an exception. Do you think commercial priorities are preventing more films being made on women’s issues?
No, I don’t think so. We had Mother India and that was not just a social film, but an important comment, and it was a huge commercial success. There have been many successes after that with women playing the protagonist in Bimal Roy’s films like Sujata . Nutanjiand Waheeda Rehman have done it. Jaya [Bachchan] has done some women-centric films. There’s Madhuri Dixit, Sridevi: all of them have had their moments of great importance, so you can’t say that there’s been any sort of differentiation. But yes, sometimes commercially, if you have a Salman [Khan], a Shah Rukh [Khan] and Aamir [Khan], or a Ranveer [Singh] or a Ranbir [Kapoor] film, or a Hrithik Roshan film, the collections are greater.
But there are many films where the leading lady is the hero of the film and that’s equally big and important. Piku was a recent example. Kangana [Ranaut] has played the lead in Queen . All of them have done well commercially.
Would you call yourself a feminist?
Please describe a feminist.
Someone who believes socially, financially and politically a woman must be on par with a man?
Yes, I’ve always believed that women are 50 per cent of the strength of a nation, so as far as that is concerned, yes. But I don’t categorise it with this word. I just feel that women need to have a status in society; they should be given their dignity, respect and importance. There are many things that have been with us culturally through generations, and those taboos keep changing, because society has its own application and thinking on it. Something like sati , for example, is a crime now but it was a social and cultural norm during the days when it was prevalent. So, generational change brings about a change in society. And that has been happening through centuries, and we hope we’re moving in the right direction.
The air-purifier mask that your character wears lends him quite an enigmatic look in the trailer. Who suggested that?
It was my son’s [Abhishek Bachchan] idea, actually. He got this mask. It’s a mask used by athletes to strengthen their lungs. I showed it to Shoojit, and said, ‘Hey, we can use this in the film’, because Delhi is unfortunately one of the most polluted cities in the world. Because this guy is a finicky person, whenever he goes out, he wears this mask.
The open letter to your grand-daughters has been criticised as promotion for the film…
It does reflect what is being shown in the film. Yes, what’s wrong with it being promotional? Everybody works for promotion. But because the emotions in the movie were very similar to what I wanted to say to my daughter and granddaughters, we decided to write a letter, which [a daily newspaper] felt must be made public. That’s how it became public.