Anjali Rao interviews superstar Amitabh Bachchan for CNN’s ‘Talk Asia’. Bringing you the excerpts of the same.
The Wall Street Journal says that film production in India is down by some 30%. What’s been your experience with the recession?
In comparison to the rest of the world, India has faced the recession in much better shape and has been in much better shape than some of the other western countries.
I think what is important is that you have the desire still to make films, and that hasn’t stopped. And we still continue to shoot and we make our films. It’s not as though everything has come to a grinding halt, and we’re just sort of sitting around idle. We’ve all been working and… at practically the same pace, perhaps with a little less finance, but…but that’s okay.
We have recently seen a closer collaboration between the Indian film industry and Hollywood. What do you think of those studio tie-ups?
I think this has got to do a lot more with economics rather than sharing creativity. The West and Hollywood would have to realize that when they come to India with Hollywood products, there is a difference between the cultures. Not every film that comes out of Hollywood is as readily acceptable as they would be in say, Europe.
I’m actually very happy with our content
But what they are doing now is, they are, obviously because they are very healthy in their finance, they are using their money to invest in productions that are coming out of India. And in that respective, yes, holding hands with Hollywood companies or any other company is now become-an almost a routine.
You recently starred in Teen Patti with Ben Kingsley
And that was heavily promoted at Cannes. Do you think, though that we’re ever really going to see Indian films translate across the board in the West?
I’m not sure that Indian producers are deliberately making products that will reach out to a Western audience, but yes, if there is an opportunity, they will. I’m actually very happy with our content. Even though we were ridiculed, and the West were very cynical about the way we made our films and the content that it contained. You know the songs and the dance and the music was something that was kind of looked down upon many years ago. But that very aspect has now become, it’s USP almost, and people love to see that. And therefore, I would not want to change that. I would expect that this is how and what our cinema is all about.
We all have some elements of performance as we’re growing up
Let’s discuss your personal career. You’ve been in this industry for a good thirty years now. You’re thisâ€¦
Forty years. My word.
I began in 1969. Yeah.
You’re the son of a famous poet. How did you get started in acting?
You know we all have some elements of performance as we’re growing up. When you’re in kindergarten, you’re on the stage, and you do your school shows and you’re little amateur performances. Then when I graduated and looked for a job in Calcutta, I was working for a British agency, managing agency house and there were theatre groups, a lot of theatre… amateur theatre on stage. And I joined those groups, and we did even more serious theatre. Joining the film industry is a huge exercise, and we still don’t know how the heck one gets into movies. There isn’t any kind of a formal procedure. It was during that time that Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, who was a very fine gentleman and made some wonderful films, was casting for his new film. And some of the newcomers that he was wanting were very friendly with my brother who was also posted in Bombay at that time. And he, you know, showed my photograph. They showed interest. I came down to Bombay. That’s how I got my first job.
I think Sholay had many elements that merged with what Indian cinema and the psyche of the Indian audience felt at that time
Sholay remains an incredibly important film. Why do you think that it captured the imagination of Indian audiences the way that it did and that it’s stayed like that?
I think Sholay had many elements that merged with what Indian cinema and the psyche of the Indian audience felt at that time. It was great fun. There was great retribution. There was the conquest of good over evil. There was the hope of widow remarriage, a great moral constraint in our society. There was great camaraderie between friends. There was music, there was song and there was action and there was just such a healthy mixture.
Initially though, it was declared a…commercial flop. Did that worry you? I mean given that it was so close to when things were already taking off.
You know, it’s interesting that you mention that, because it released on Friday and by Saturday it was almost a disaster and Ramesh Sippy and Salim-Javed and myself, we met at our house-my house and we saidâ€¦
It was decided that we should re-shoot that portion and make me alive again in Sholay
That’s the director, the writer and yourself?
Yes, and we said, ‘Gosh you know, this is a bomb and what do we do.’ And we sat down to analyze what had gone wrong. And it was felt that there was-an earlier release of mine called Deewar, which was again written by Salim-Javed, directed by Mr. Yash Chopra where I die in the film. And they felt that perhaps the audience has had enough of me dying in, therefore killing me in Sholay was not such a good thing to do.
Because you deprived the audience a) of my life and b) deprived my life for the possibility of a widow remarriage, which was a very important moral message that was going through. And we said yeah that’s it, ‘what can we do now?’ So…it was decided that we should re-shoot that portion and make me alive again and…
When one individual stood out, independently and challenged the system and came out victorious, he suddenly became a hero.
After the film had already been released?
Absolutely and it was decided that we would all travel on Sunday morning to Bangalore, where we were shooting the film. Finish this by lunchtime, send it across to the laboratory in Madras, it was called Madras then. Get it printed and overnight make thousand prints and put them out into the theatres by Monday morning. And then…hope and expect that things would change. And everything was decided and everyone all got set and ready to travel to Bangalore, units were all beckoned and everyone was sort of-almost put into motion and then, by the evening of Saturday, Ramesh Sippy said ‘you know we’ve waited just 2 days, let’s wait till Sunday and see what happens and if it doesn’t, then we’ll go and see what we can do.’
“I’m an actor and I should be acting.” So I went across to some producers and said, “I’m without a job. I don’t have any money. I need to work.”
And by Sunday, the whole scenario changed and so we dropped the whole idea, happily.
Your acting style saw you earn this persona of the angry young man which um, you said was a term of convenience invented by the media. Still it has stuck, for all these years. Do you think that you have been misrepresented?
Some of the roles that I did during that period had a lot of angst in them. During the 70s there was a feeling of great dissatisfaction in the youth that the establishment and the system are not doing sufficient work to take care of their issues and problems. And therefore, when one individual stood out, independently and challenged the system and came out victorious. He suddenly became a hero.
You endured something of a slump in the 1990s.
And went bankrupt–
Around 2000. Did you think it was all over for you or did you know that one day that you’d be able to come back?
One never ever thinks of it at that point in time. The desire is, or the thinking really is, ‘No, no, no, this couldn’t be happening to you.’ And ‘how do I get out of it?’ The intention really is to survive. And you look for opportunities where you can do these things. I said, ‘I’m an actor and I should be acting.’ So I went across to some producers and said, ‘I’m without a job. I don’t have any money. I need to work.’ And they were kind enough to offer me some roles. I started working. And gradually was able to pay back each and every creditor. So that was healthy.
Your son Abhishek Bachchan was a guest on this program not that long ago, and he is a huge success now, but he spent several years at the beginning of his career being panned by critics and audiences. He told me that you really counselled him through that period, but what was it like for you as a father watching him have to go through this?
Yeah. I think for any father, for any parent it is heartbreaking to see your children suffer mentally, emotionally, physically. It’s a terrible feeling. But at the same time, as a human being, and as a head of the family, as the father, you also feel, ‘I’m happy that this is happening because he is learning something from it.’ So take the best out of it. Learn from that. Learn from your mistakes. Never get put down by adversity. And then determine your mind to say, ‘one day I’m going to disprove these guys.’
I thought Slumdog Millionaire was a very well made film, great story.
We were on set with you during the filming of Sarkar Raj which was the sequel to your hit Sarkar. And that movie Sarkar Raj also stars Abhishek and his wife Aishwarya Rai. What’s it like working with family around you as opposed to working with any other actors?
Well you know, you all get up under the same roof and you pack your lunch and your makeup bag and you all travel together to location and then you put your makeup on and you’re in front of the camera and you’re three different people. You are the characters that you play, that’s all there is to it. Then there’s the lunch break and we all get together and we have lunch together. And we’re back on set. It’s wonderful to have them around. I think the atmosphere is a lot easier because you know, we’re all family.
I know you’re not a fan of talking about Slumdog which everybody knows that, you know, you did not like.
No…whoever told you that.
To accept an honour or be honoured when other members of my country are being dishonoured didn’t seem right
It’s just in everything I’ve read.
Yes sometimes what you read isn’t always correct.
So I hear.
But that was an unnecessary controversy that was put on my shoulders. I write a blog and I invite comments from people who read it. And I get about five to six hundred comments everyday because I write everyday. And all I did was that in my blog, I said you know ‘so and so has said this about the film, so and so has said this about the film, what do you feel?’
And that was cut and pasted by some bright journalist in certain parts of the world and put together as my comments and my reaction to the film when in fact it was entirely untrue. So I was wrongly accused. I did get to see the film. I thought it was a very well made film, great story.
What did you think about the way that you were portrayed?
That’s okay, that’s part of the story. And…
Did you get a kick out of it?
It’s all right. You know you go and see sometimes a film, it was part of the psyche of what society is in India and so on and that’s perfectly ok. And a very well constructed film and so on and so forth. But then, that was something separate. What came across more strongly was, this great accusation that you know, that I was the one that was instigating this hatred towards the film. No I did not. And I cleared it up. I rang up Danny Boyle and I rang up Anil Kapoor and I explained it to them and we all had a laugh.
Most recently you hit the headlines amidst this violence that’s been taking place in certain cities in Australia against Indian students and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says that it’s nothing to do with any sort of racial motivation. Yet you turned down an honorary doctorate from an Australian university, how come?
I just felt very strongly that with all this happening there, with me to, visit the country, to accept an honour or be honoured when other members of my country are being dishonoured, didn’t seem right. And I just took a personal decision and…asked to be excused.
Any kind of recognition had–brings with it a lot of responsibility, not just for yourself or your family but for society and the country that you represent
Ok. You are the most famous man in India.
Don’t look so surprised!
Most certainly not. No.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of having such recognition?
Well any kind of recognition brings with it a lot of responsibility, not just for yourself or your family but for society and the country that you represent or a part of. Obviously our behaviour, our attitude, how we conduct our lives, what we say, what we do…is all so microscopically looked at that at times it becomes difficult to be able to be just another normal human being, which is what we are. But yes, it brings with it recognition and we enjoy that. We love adulation. We like the fans and we love them and we want to reciprocate in as an equal amount as possible. So yes recognition is good. We appreciate that but we also appreciate the fact that they have the liberty to be able to tell us if they feel we are doing something wrong and it is our prerogative to decide whether we want to correct it or want to go ahead with it.