March 6, 2001


He has two hands, two legs, two eyes, two ears, a nose.

He has no confidence. (Put a cockroach in front of him, he says, and he'll turn tail.)

He rates himself a two or three on a scale of ten.

He wakes up scared every morning. Scared whether things will go alright.

He has never accepted that he is a superstar.

But he loves adulation.

In his own words, that is Amitabh Bachchan for you.

On the face of it, he is supremely nonchalant, perhaps even a tad dismissive, about staging one of the most dramatic comebacks that the film industry has known. At an age when the average star calls his career quits, AB is busier than a 30 year old, jetting from one set to the other, one event to the other.

The credit for it all? Luck. Kismet. Janta. His parents' blessings. An inherently strong gameshow.

Nothing to do with him. Or so he would have you believe.

"KBC is a success not because of me. Not because of Amitabh Bachchan.

"Not even because I speak Hindi. My Hindi is not all that incredible -- it's the same I have been speaking since childhood.

"In fact, there are others who speak better Hindi than me. They haven't succeeded perhaps because of some inherent flaws in their shows.

"The magic of KBC is the game itself; it has an intrinsic strength of its own. It also has a successful model which is a proven hit abroad. So it has an unbeatable pattern, right from the music and the sets to the lighting.

"That's why I maintain that the show would have been successful no matter who had hosted it. It's just another job for me.

"I am told what to do; I do it: Stand here. Ask this. These many times, you have to say, 'Lock.' These many times, you have to say, 'Reminder.' Bolo, Wrap karo. Ghar jaao. (Say it. Wrap up. Go home). It's all fixed.

"The only time a little bit of my own individuality comes into play is when I speak to the participants. There is no need for me to chat them up to put them at ease prior to the show.

"So no, it is not an Amitabh Bachchan role. You are mistaken if you think so."

"For now, I'm bound by a one or two-year contract with Star Plus by which I cannot host any other game show. I am free to do other television programmes, but don't have the time to. But yes, if there is something interesting, I will certainly consider it."

And then there is Kunal Dasgupta, CEO, Sony TV, acknowledging, "Well, Amitabh is bigger than God," explaining why Jeeto Chappar Phaad Ke has a single-digit TRP rating while KBC enjoys a double-digit rating.

That is why the world calls AB a superstar.

"No, I have never accepted nor adhered to the epithets you people (journalists) are so fond of adding before my name.

"I don't believe, have never believed, that I am a superstar.

"I am a normal, ordinary human being. I eat the same dal and chawal. I go to work. I am told to fit myself into a character. I do it. If people appreciate it, I am thankful. If they don't, I am even more thankful.

"But if the public believes that I am a superstar, who am I to dispute it? I respect it. It is sacrosanct. If the common man likes me, I am made. If he doesn't, I break. That's the way it is.

"How do you expect me to handle the fact that people place me at such heights? Why should I handle it, anyway?

"But I won't deny that I love the adulation, the adoration. And I receive it as any artiste should -- as a big encouragement. It is very important to be recognised. To be appreciated for your work. An artiste always craves attention.

"So when people appreciate our work, it is always a nice feeling. Because then, there is the satisfaction that what you did is being appreciated not by yourself, but by others as well.

"Whatever I have experienced has been because of the public. That is why I see this comeback as people's love for me.

"I can't explain the phenomenon. If I could, I would never have done anything wrong in my life. I would have always done right. If I knew the formula..."

But he didn't. Witness some of the wrong turns: The heavy-in-debt Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited founded by him. A not-so-successful political stint with the Congress party. A career that was simply headed downhill, what with Major Saab, Bade Miyan Chhote Miyan and the ilk flopping.

A sureshot path to depression? Sagging confidence?

"I was never depressed. What good would that have served?

"There was no dip in my morale or confidence. Simply because I don't have any confidence. Every day, I wake up scared. I wonder what I will have to do on the sets. What will happen in KBC?

"There wasn't any confidence earlier. There isn't any now. I just get up every morning and go to work. My line of work is such. You are prepared that every day, there are ups and downs.

"I believe in going by Babuji's (his father, the legendary poet Harivanshrai Bachchan) saying: Man ka ho to achha, na ho to zyaada achha. (if something good happens out of what you do, good. If it doesn't, all the better).

"It is all thanks to God. What He makes us do will never be wrong. There must be something good somewhere in the problems that are cropping up. For example, if I had gone on thinking what I was doing was right, I would have had to face some more rough times. So yes, I have learnt from my experiences. That is why I will be thankful to God for putting me through hardships. For giving me the strength to face them with fortitude."

"For example, I have paid off all the debts owed by my company. And am now in the process of restructuring AB Corp. For which (leading stockbroker) Ketan Parekh is helping my company get back on track. Obviously, he thinks it is a viable option. My job is to work hard enough for him to say that his investment is worth it.

"I don't have my old team. I am alone. And yes, I am not a good businessman. But I will try. That is important."

AB undertook another trial, too. Not that that succeeded. Thanks largely due to his friend, Rajiv Gandhi, he entered the political fray via the Congress party. He stood for election and won the Allahabad Lok Sabha seat in 1984. Became a member of Parliament.

Then followed his resignation. AB has never played an active role in politics since.

"I entered politics out of my own free will. I walked out of my own free will. It is not Bofors that made me quit. In fact, it was sheer coincidence that the scandal broke the very next day after I handed in my resignation.

"The Congress wanted me to stay on. It would have been easy to fight the allegations had I done so. But I thought it fair to step out and fight my own battle.

"I hold Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Subhash Chandra Bose in high esteem. Among the current leaders, there are Mulayam Singh Yadav, Chandrashekharji, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani.

"In fact, I first met Atalji long ago when he was a Member of Parliament. He is a great fan of Babuji's poems. He would drop in to meet him often. As to what I think of the present government is my personal belief. I don't choose to make it public.

"As for friends in political circles, Amar Singh (the Samajwadi Party general secretary) is like a younger brother to me. Whatever I am today is because of him.

"But it was because of Rajiv Gandhi, I came into politics. I am still a friend of the Gandhi family."

Contrary to that statement, at one of her rare TV interviews, Sonia Gandhi said, "Not Amitabh Bachchan," in answer to who her close family friends were.

"Well, it is absolutely true, if that is what she thinks. You will have to ask Sonia Gandhi what the problem is. If there is one.

"As long as I am concerned, my doors are open for Sonia."

Opening a door to the future is the next Bachchan: Abhishek. He made a brave, noteworthy debut in Refugee, opposite Kareena Kapoor. Then followed two flops in quick succession: Tera Jadoo Chal Gayaa and Dhaai Akshar Prem Ke.

For Abhishek's father, this is just a teething process. A normal part of the profession.

"It is not an easy path. He has a long way to go. I believe he has the capacity to perform. He has screen presence. Potential. But he needs to work with the right people who can extract that potential. The kind of directors who will grab him by the shoulders and shake him up.

"He is doing some interesting projects now, with Sooraj Barjatya, and his childhood friend, Goldie Behl. So we hope that something positive happens soon. Else he will just have to keep trying until he gets it right.

"But yes, we watch his films together. I tell him where he needs to improve -- it might be his hair, clothes, sometimes his movements are wrong, his expression might have been too loud, his speech is wrong...

"For which I admit that we (Jaya and I) are to blame. We sent him abroad for his studies at a very early age. So he never got to learn and speak Hindi as it is meant to be.

"When he came down for his vacations, he spent his time in Bombay, where the Hindi is totally different.

"I would have liked him to spend a couple of months in Uttar Pradesh and get used to the language before he joined films. It didn't happen. And now, he's busy with his work."

"And then there's Shweta. Let me tell you that of the four of us, she's the best actor.

"She has never indicated that she wanted to enter films. Besides, now she is married. Paraya dhan. So if she does want to enter films, it is up to her husband. Our rights over her ended the day she got married."

And Amitabh Bachchan continues on a gruelling schedule that he has set for himself, attributing it to circumstances. All too readily, he admits that he is not as agile as he was when he was younger.

In the very next breath, he says that he would dearly like to lie down and rest given the rare moment off.

For a man who has not had a chance to explore any interests or pursuits -- fingers point here to his busy schedule -- he insists on one daily ritual: Going through all the newspapers available in Bombay -- Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and English. Not that he is fluent in these languages, but the effort is to gain as much knowledge as possible.

He lives on a diet devoid of tea, coffee, liquor, cigarettes and non-vegetarian fare. His favourites? Aloo, dal, chawal, bhindi. ("I can't cook. I only know how to boil water.")

He speaks with his parents once in the morning before he leaves for work. And once after he gets back. The pattern is pretty much the same with his wife, actress Jaya Bachchan.

"Sometimes, she drops in on the sets.

"She is brave. I have no illusions that I can perform on stage like Jaya. I did once, long ago. But that was for extra-curricular activity than any serious interest.

"Performing on stage, live in front of an audience, is too scary to contemplate. I am not that competent enough. Stage is for great performers.

"Me, I don't need to remember more than four to five lines. And there is the advantage of retakes. Theatre is a different ballgame altogether. A tough one."

If Jaya Bachchan has affected him in any way or exerted any influence over him, AB's the first to speak otherwise.

"But why do you think I need to change? Why should I? I don't need to. Not professionally. Not personally.

"I am the same person I was 10, 20 years ago. I will be the same 10 years hence.

"And no, there has also been no great process of evolution for me. If I had bagged Narayan Shankar's role (in Mohabbatein) while I was doing Vijay (in Deewar), I would have done it similarly. Only thing is I got this now. I got Vijay then. It's the same voice, the same body, the same face. Nothing special.

"I just had good, strong scripts. Good directors. Convincing characters. My own contribution has been nil. Anyone else would have done the same.

"What I am is because of my work. You should be interested in my work, not me. You pay good money to come and see my work, not me.

"Though I will say that the more you work, the more experience you gain. That helps you refine your work -- seeing yourself on screen again and again.

"But yes, each role requires exertion. Physical and emotional. It is immensely tiring."

"Being hurt or upset because your role did not work serves no purpose. It is part of life. You just have to accept it."

That is the point. AB might have accepted it. Might even be content with himself.

The average person? He's a different entity -- one with the normal dips and highs in confidence and nervousness, one who changes over time, evolves…

The average person does not reach raging heights like AB has. Not be almost out of the reckoning and come out a winner like AB has. Not have his name a mantra for success. Like AB.

"My father named me Amitabh Bachchan. Not THE Amitabh Bachchan. Did he call me THE Amitabh Bachchan? No.

"So I am no icon."

The man doth protest too much.

Related link:
The Towering Inferno
Writer: Sita Menon
Interview: Sheela Bhatt, Jyoti Shukla, Sita Menon

Design: Lynette Menezes

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