Interviewing Amitabh was always a treat
By OM GUPTA
I have interviewed Amitabh six times in my media career. It was always a treat. Five of these times I sought an appointment but I was pleasantly shocked to receive a feeler from his media advisor and a renowned aviation media publisher K. Srinivasan (Srini for friends) if I would like to meet Amitabh in Bombay. I was working for a Times of India’s Hindi Sunday broadsheet Dinman Times But I didn’t believe my ears. But the next day I was flying to Bombay to meet the heart throb of the millions of fans the world over. Today’s Times of India told me that the celebrated film maker Ram Madhvani made a documentary on the Big B for Lincoln Centre in America he was declared as the light. His new film “Neerja” is being released this week.
I landed in Bombay and was lodged in Sun and Sand hotel in Juhu. I was told that my appointment has been fixed at 2 p.m. on the sets of ‘Khuda Gawah’. Though I had been the editor a film magazine but despite my best efforts I couldn’t seek an interview with Bachchan. Since 1970s when Shobha De (nee Kilachand) had started calling his angry old man, he had declared himself out of bounds for media. Still I sent a letter of request for a meeting. Prompt came the reply on his golden embossed letter head, sorry, he was not meeting the media. But as and when he decided to meet again, first interview will be given to me. He remembered his promise and called me to Bombay courtesy Srini.
Amitabh emerged as a politically correct person in his replies. I had prepared a long questionnaire. He caught and clean bowled at every spin and seamer thrown by me. He didn’t mind uncomfortable questions about his relationship with Rajiv Gandhi. He was neither bitter nor critical. He is bilingual with a facility on both Hindi and English. I was conscious of his larger than life but he didn’t try to put me in my place. He took every question in his stride.
Coming from such an illustrious family, how did he reconcile to playing violent, flippant, slapstick comedy roles. He gave a philosophical answer which could have come out from a genius like him. I am given a role by my director. I always go through the script but never any changes. For me the director is god and I never defy. In fact I try to come up to his expectation. But that is my work which I try to do professionally. I know that my fans across the length and breadth of the country of all religious, castes and regions expect a certain performance. I can’t fail them. Their love and affection is soul filling and not soul stirring. But when i walk out of the sets I am my own man. I don’t play monkey in my real life.
But before this invite, I had met his late and lamented father Harivansh Rai Bachchchan– a great Hindi poet of “Madhushala” fame through Lokendra Sharma a familiar anchor of Vividh Bharati. He had conceived and produced a popular radio trial of film personalities called filmi mukadma. He took me to Prateeksha, the literary name of Amitabh’s house in Juhu. I had read the four volumes of Bachchan sr autobiography, “Kya bhooloon kya yaad karoon”, and three others. It is a great piece of literature and an ideal example of autobiography writing. It was an informal tete-a-tete for more than an hour. We talked about his Allahabad days, life as a Hindi advisor to government of India at the best of the then Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru. His wife and mother of Amitabh Teji were close to Indira Gandhi.
I have vivid memories of that afternoon. The two children of Amitabh (Abhishek and Shweta) and his younger brother Ajitabh were playing in the open space outside the room we were sitting. I had a ringside view of the Bachchan’s household but minus AB. I tried to draw Harivansh ji for some finer details on Amitabh but his discretion prevailed over social niceties and he was conveniently evasive but with an infectious smile. I requested him to help me for an interview with Amitabh but he was frank enough to say, he had no say in these matters. The subject came to an end before starting it.
Then came the “Bofors” gun controversy purchased by Rajiv Government in the mid-1980s. Indian Express carried a campaign that money changed hands in this Swedish deal and Bachchan brothers were the conduits. Amitabh was shaken. The media lapped it up because he was the towering hero. He had agreed and won Allahabad Lok Sabha seat beating V.P. Singh. It was a coveted feather in the caps of both Rajiv and Amitabh. But Amitabh was not a politician. He was not comfortable as his role as an MP. He didn’t speak much from the floor of the house and one day, he called it a day. Resigned from the Parliament and returned to his first love the films. He needed press to listen to his story. I met him again. This time in Sopan, the first bungalow in the journalist colony Gulmohar Park in South Delhi. He was waiting for me in starched white kurta-pyjama. Offered me tea, which I readily accepted. (The trick of the trade, never say no to tea if offered by the interviewee. It gives you more time to spend with him). But Amitabh didn’t take tea. Another pointer, he was not a friend but a host..
Then this interview saw a different Amitabh. A hurt friend, a star who was being targeted by media for his supposed role which he never played. He sounded apologetic. He didn’t say in so many words but hinted that he was not being shielded by Rajiv who was Prime Minister. In fact, Rajiv had categorically stated that let Amitabh defend himself. When I asked a pointed question on this, he said, they are rulers and he was a ruled one. His conscience was clean. I am being failed by both politics and friendship. But I know, I will bounce back. And he did.
Amitabh walked out bare-foot to see me off. He asked me how I had come. I said, my car was outside. And my son Sanjog was in it. He was surprised. Why outside. Come, I will meet him. When, my son saw Amitabh coming out with me, he asked the driver to drove off. He was also overwhelmed to see a man as if walking out from the screen to meet him.
(OM GUPTA is a veteran Journalist)