Two days in London, then eight in Nasik followed by 10 days in Ladakh and 20 in Vancouver. You can send your photographer wherever convenient,” is the answer I get when I ask Amitabh Bachchan to do a photo session for us. Yes, I know he’s the busiest star going these days, but I have to try my luck, you know.
As for our interview, it happens in short bursts in the middle of a photo-session for an ad campaign for Sahara Housing at Filmistan studio. The mood is upbeat as the photographer sets up his lights. Bachchan sways to the music wafting across the floor; “rocking” is how he describes the tunes as he complies with the photo-grapher’s every request for every angle. And my questions.
You recently announced that you’d cleared 99 per cent of your debts. You must be a very relieved man.
To be honest, this happened over a year-and-a-half ago. That’s when the photographs of my handing over a check to Doordarshan were published in the papers. It’s sprung back into the limelight only because someone brought up the topic at the IIFA press conference. But I am glad and relieved that I’ve managed to clear 99 percent of what I owed. Only some odds and ends remain.
Was your debt burden the reason you’ve been working so hard for some years now?
Partially. My conscience wasn’t permitting me to be in a situation where I owed money or my company owed money. I was told that losses are a normal phenomenon in business and that I should shut them out of my mind and move on. But I wasn’t very comfortable doing that, so I chose to pay everyone off.
Now that you’re reviving AB Corp, will you stick to producing films or will you get into television software and bring back the Big B music label?
To begin with we’ll stick to making films. We’d rather not be too ambitious. We’ll start slowly and see how it goes. As of now we’ve signed Rakesh Mehra and Rajkumar Santoshi to direct two films for us. It’s too early to say anything about the music label.
What’s happened to the ABCL project you’d signed Aamir Khan for before you closed down?
We’d signed Aamir as well as his cousin Mansoor Khan, the director, in 1995. There’s no progress on that front so I really don’t know where I stand.
Well, Britain’s Channel 4 has decided you stand among the top 100 actors of all time.
That was just a computer game. Somebody formulates a question, puts it on the Net and millions of people who have nothing else to do except surf the Net, punch in their choices. A voting pattern emerges and some sort of conclusion is reached. And suddenly you find yourself in the headlines. That poll is not to be taken seriously; I certainly don’t. I am obviously not among the top 100 actors of the world; there are several more deserving candidates than me.
Would you have liked to be at No. 1?
No, I don’t have the capacity to be.
You’re being rather modest.
No, I’m being very honest.
The buzz is that you’re now so much in demand that you’re being paid on a per-day basis. True?
No, I’m not being paid on a daily basis. I’m still charging 1-2 crores rupees (US$ 200,000-400,000) per film depending on the project. And sometimes I charge nothing at all. That’s a personal decision; I don’t want to take money from certain people.
Would you say you’re busier now than ever before?
Not really, though it may seem so. The number of films I’m doing is still approximately the same; it only seems a lot more because the number of days spent on a film has reduced. Earlier, when I played the lead, I’d allot 100 to 150 days to a film; today the characters I play only entail 20 to 25 days of work.
Have you, as reports have it, signed Shekhar Kapur’s film, Long Walk To Freedom, based on the life of Nelson Mandela?
I have spoken with Anant Singh who’s producing the film, and Shekhar. We’re looking at the possibility of my playing a character in the film, but things are at a very preliminary stage right now. A Hollywood actor will be playing Nelson Mandela.
Rajkumar Santoshi, who’s directing you for the first time in Khakhi, thinks no director has been able to really tap your talent so far. Would you say he’s taking extra pains over your character?
No. All my directors have worked with sincerity and honesty on my performances. As a matter of fact, I think Raj is a far better actor than a director. He enacts scenes to show his actors exactly what they’re required to do and he has the amazing quality of being able to perform the leading lady’s role, the hero’s role as well as those of the character artistes. He’s really tremendous.
You seem to be experimenting a lot in terms of the characters you’ve portrayed in your recent crop of films.
I don’t think so. Today I’m playing character roles that offer a greater opportunity to be different. The leading men in our films tend to get stereotyped. And most leading men prefer not to experiment once an image is established; they tend to stick to it. At 61, I’m getting the opportunity to play a variety of roles and I’m enjoying myself since I’m doing something different every day.
You certainly look as if you’re having fun in the Adnan Sami video, Kabhi Nahin.
That had more to do with the mood of the song rather than anything else. The dress and setting had to be conducive with the fun and funky song. A jovial atmosphere was vital. And we did enjoy shooting the song. In any case, one must enjoy whatever one’s doing. Even if it’s a sad sequence.
You’re singing a song with Abida Parveen too, aren’t you?
Yes, it will be the fourth song we’ll be recording for Ravi Chopra’s Baghban; I’ve already sung three songs for the film. In this one, she sings while I recite my dialogue. Contrary to rumours, there’s no private album we’re working on.
Aadesh Shrivastav, the music director of Baghban, and you work well together, don’t you?
Yes, we’ve worked on several tunes together in the past too. It’s fun because we both understand each other. Apart from a professional relationship we also share a personal relationship. That helps.
He says you’re Ram to his Hanuman.
He’s being over-gracious.
The public watches Amitabh Bachchan’s films for entertainment. What do you do for entertainment?
I really feel sorry for the people out there who have to watch my films. I don’t know whether I’m material enough to take care of their entertainment. For myself, I’d love to go out and see a movie in a theatre, eat at a restaurant with family and friends, be with my children and grandchildren.
You didn’t have much time to spend with your children when they were growing up. Now it’s the same with your grandchildren. Does that upset you?
Surely, it’s very upsetting not to have the amount of time you’d like to spend with your loved ones. But that’s life. If I had all the time to spend with my grandchildren, I’d probably be without work. So it’s a bit of a give-and-take throughout life. You win some, you lose some. I’m happy that whenever I do manage time to spend with them, it’s very fulfilling. I’m also happy that there are these gaps of desirability, because if they weren’t there, perhaps we wouldn’t enjoy our time together so much. So I’m happy with the way things are.
Life has its vital associations, its vital moments. Whether I’ve managed to give of myself as much as I wanted to in those associations and moments and whether my children were satisfied with the time we spent together is what really counts. That can take care of a million moments.
You’ve been quoted as saying that if your friend Subroto Roy asked you to sweep the floor, you’d do so. Did you really mean that?
Yes. I’d blindly do anything he asked me to. That’s my relationship with him. He’s a very close friend and our families share a deep emotional bond. We have a common friend in Amar Singh whom I look on as my younger brother.
Your son Abhishek’s career has failed to take off. What do you think is holding him back?
Nothing is holding him back. Life is a learning process. I have been learning in this business for over 30 years and he’s going to have to do the same; just as any other actor would. It’s an unending training process. If you’re a true artiste, you should be prepared to face challenges every day. Because that’s what this profession is all about. And he’s doing just that. He’s firing on all cylinders every day and he’s putting in his best. The rest he has to leave to the Almighty and to the whims and fancies of the audience.
At 61, with your hands full, do you ever felt like putting your feet up?
I do get the time for that once in a while even when I’m working. But if you’re talking of giving up work, well, I did try it once but I didn’t like it. It was good while it lasted but I think I should have really continued to work. You lose touch with people and progress and tend to stagnate. And when you want to get back, it turns out to be a long drawn-out process. You have to get to know everything all over again. If I’m fortunate enough, I’d like to continue working in films till the industry eventually tells me to get lost.
That’s not likely to happen.
Wishful thinking, but it will happen.
How do you approach each day?
I get up every morning and I look on life as a challenge. There’s something new to achieve every day. I have never set myself any goals or been ambitious. I just go wherever life takes me. It’s a struggle every day and that’s the way it’s going to be.