Abhishek Bachchan recounts an experience he had in his first year as an actor. He was shooting a ‘dance sequence’ for Tera Jadoo Chal Gaya in Switzerland, not far from the boarding school he had grown up in. “I was shooting a Hindi song in Europe, with fifty dancers from Chennai behind me, wearing weird shiny dresses. I was petrified that someone from my old school would come to the shoot and recognise me.”
Bachchan’s clearly a reluctant movie star, even if he may not admit it. We are sitting in his spacious office in Juhu, paintings of the actor donning the walls, masala chai accompanying the conversation. “It’s embarrassing sometimes, having people come gawk at portraits of myself,” he says. It’s the first Tuesday after the actor’s latest film set the weekend cash registers ringing at the box office. He brushes it off, claiming that he doesn’t care for trade figures. But you know there is relief. A hit’s been a long time coming.
Over the next hour, Bachchan talks of his time as an art history student, displays a penchant for number-crunching (“We are the only country in the world that calculates the net collections of our films, which is pointless, given the varying tax slabs in different states”), and cribs about the state of the city. “It’s insane — you can’t go anywhere.” I wonder if he’s talking about Dhoble’s crackdown on Mumbai’s nightlife but he clarifies it’s the monsoon that bothers him. “I have met a lot of people who worship Dhoble,” he adds, without really offering his own point of view.
Finding his ground
Films are what he’s most comfortable discussing. “The film world was alien to me (despite my roots), because I went to Switzerland at 9 for schooling. I remember reading early reviews which said I was an awkward dancer. Of course I was an awkward dancer! I can dance bloody well at a party, but it’s weird doing that in a movie.” Over the years — 12 since Refugee released — Bachchan’s shrugged off some of that awkwardness, painstakingly growing into the role of a Bollywood actor, much like he would for a character in a film.
The early years were anything but smooth — constant comparisons with his father, a number of flops, and scant praise as an actor. The first few hits were attributed to luck. Then Yuva happened. Bachchan’s portrayal of the uncouth Lallan Singh made people sit up and take notice. The tide seemed to be turning. “Suddenly, I had three hits — Sarkar, Bunty Aur Babli and Dus — playing in cinema halls at the same time. I finally had my Amitabh Bachchan moment,” he grins.
It’s the period from then to now that has been most puzzling. For a while, Bachchan seemed to have found his space — the urban, wry humour he presented was a contrast to his old man’s angry-young-man image. Somewhere along the line, however, he started making wrong choices.
“I don’t see it that way,” he says obstinately. “No actor can ever tell with absolute certainty that a particular film will do well. And without taking names, there are actors who have given as many flops (as me). But they are still very much around.”
Facing chin music
A director friend of the actor points out in his defence that Bachchan’s biggest flops came with Ashutosh Gowariker, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and Mani Rathnam, who were considered among the more reliable filmmakers at the time. Yet, it’s the actor who copped most of the criticism.
Bachchan says he’s learnt to take it on the chin. “When your films don’t do well, you panic. All actors do. The whole star exterior is a defence mechanism. No one likes uncomfortable questions. With me, I had to deal with it from the word ‘go’. I guess I am fine with it now.”
The insecurities never end though. “I have been flown first class to outdoor shoots, lived in a big suite, during which time a film of mine released and flopped, and I was sent back in economy. One time, I was on my way to the ‘look test’ of a film that had already been started with another actor in my place. Script locked, dates finalised, money sorted and yet dropped, only days before the shooting was to begin. I was once slapped by a member of the audience at Gaeity cinema who thought I was an embarrassment to my family.” He says all this without a break. “What do you do?”
Star in a Rohit Shetty film is one possible answer. With Bol Bachchan having set the box office humming, Bachchan has something to cheer about. In a scene in the film, he dances suggestively to a medley of songs in the garb of a gay Bharatnatyam dancer. You may find the scene corny or squirmy depending on your taste, but the single screen audiences are lapping it up. “As an actor, you do everything the story demands. The director had faith in the scene, who am I to question it? The character’s in a desperate situation, and doing what is the only way out for him.” You wonder if Bachchan’s talking about himself.