In 1977, as dance master P L Raj choreographed the iconic song Khaike Paan Banaraswala for Chandra Barot’s Don, he kept asking Amitabh Bachchan for multiple takes. “Each new take meant that Amitji had to chew another paan. Through the shoot of that song, he must have chewed about 200 paans. And he never ate paan,” recalls Deepak Sawant, Amitabh Bachchan’s make-up man of four decades.
While shooting Paa in 2008, Bachchan had to sit for make-up for four hours before the cameras started rolling. It would take another four hours at the end of the shift to take off the prosthetics that turned the then 65-year-old actor to a 12-year-old progeria patient. “Amitabh was prepared and knew that the process would take hours. He couldn’t eat through the day while in make-up. So, every day when we shot with him, he’d only be able to eat after pack-up was announced at the end of the day,” remembers director R Balki.
In January this year, Bachchan was in Bhavnagar, Gujarat, to shoot new spots for the Gujarat Tourism campaign. “We had had a really late night and the next morning we had to shoot inside a blackbuck sanctuary. Even though he had had only a few hours of sleep, Mr Bachchan was at the shoot bright an early. Before that we were shooting in the Rann of Kutch and at some point, when the wild asses started running, we couldn’t spot Mr Bachchan’s jeep. I panicked because he was alone in the jeep with the camera person. I got in touch with him on the walkie-talkie and told him that we should return to the base camp. He refused. He kept saying—don’t worry and follow me. I know the way,” recalls director Shoojit Sircar.
It was 45 years ago when a lanky, unconventional-looking actor made his debut with Saat Hindustani. For the first scene he shot, he had to ‘stand up from a sitting position into the frame of the camera and say who I was’. “I remember the moment. We were shooting in an Urdu-medium school in the Parel-Dadar area. I had butterflies in my stomach while we were shooting. At the end of the day, I didn’t do anything special. I wrote a letter home and I spoke to my friends around and then started preparing for the next day’s shoot. I think, we travelled immediately to Goa by train,” remembers Bachchan.
Bhootnath, his 190th film credit as an actor, released this month is like waiting for Tendulkar to hit a double ton. In the intervening years, Bachchan has gone on to become an icon who transcends boundaries. He has seen his share of highs and lows in the last 40 years – finding love with Jaya; tasting the success with blockbusters like Sholay, Amar Akbar Anthony; giving it all up to enter politics; resurrecting his career with Kaun Banega Crorepati; seeing Abhishek find his feet as an actor and play with his grandchildren.
For most, the 70s would be a time to lie back and take things easy. But, again, Bachchan is not like most men. His work diary for 2014 is also jam-packed. “There is R Balki’s film followed by Shoojit’s (Sarkar). We are also finishing my TV serial that should be on air by the middle of the year. And, then we get into KBC and simultaneously work on Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s film which is being directed by Bejoy Nambiar and also stars Farhan Akhtar. These are some of the projects that are already green-lit. There are few more that will only start next year,” he says.
The legend is his typical modest self when he looks back at the 45 years under the arc lights. “I am just very fortunate to be here for so long. I have spent three-fourths of my life in this profession. I am 72 now so it is a long time. I doubt I would have been able to do anything else. I have been associated with wonderful people, made some good, creative work. Every decade, someone new has been coming up and I have been really lucky to work with the talent that has come up,” he says, with a smile.
While most of his contemporaries have faded from contemporary memory, Bachchan continues to be all over—in theatres, endorsing products in newspapers, television and radio and on social media. “I’m just fortunate that I get work to do and sometimes people recognise or reward my work. I believe the greatest reward for any actor is the acceptance of his creativity. I’m happy to be getting work. And, I guess people like what I do. Either that or they are pretending to like what I do. I’m just surviving these years. It’s bound to end sometime. It’s just taking a little longer for me and I’m happy with that. If I have the health and the energy, I would wish to continue,” says the septuagenarian.
“At 71, Amitji is still so relevant. He is a part of our collective conscious. One of the biggest reasons for his longevity is that he has constantly reinvented himself. To be able to survive in one industry, you have to think of what to do next. He understands the importance of being relevant today,” explains Sunil Doshi, a long time Bachchan advisor, who helped the actor sign his first endorsement deal with BPL in 1996.
Sawant believes that it’s the actor’s discipline has that helped him stay relevant. “From the time that I started with him, I have never known him lose focus or be unprofessional. From the time he reaches a set to the time he is told that he is done for the day, Amitji is completely focused on the job at hand. And, he doesn’t leave until his work is done… no matter what,” says Sawant.
In 2012, when the actor was shooting for Sawant’s Bhojpuri film Ganga Devi, he mentioned that his stomach was hurting. “I wanted to call off the shoot but Amitji refused. It was the second last day of the shoot and he didn’t want me to suffer any losses. He worked through his pain that day and the next,” he remembers. Once the last shot was canned, Bachchan was driven from the set in FilmCity to Seven Hills Hospital where he underwent a hernia operation. “He didn’t have to suffer for someone as insignificant as me but he did. That’s the kind of professional he is.”
Stories of Bachchan’s professionalism are as legendary as the actor himself. In Bhootnath Returns, Bachchan’s character is dressed in a jacket and sweater throughout. “We shot in Mumbai where it was really humid and hot and in London, where the costume wasn’t adequate protection against the cold. But not once did he say that he was uncomfortable,” says director Nitesh Tiwari. It’s not just Bachchan’s professionalism but also his humility that impressed Tiwari. “He is very rarely late to the set but on days that he was, he’d actually call or sms to inform me that he was running a few minutes late. He doesn’t have to do that! He is Amitabh Bachchan. It’s not like anyone would pull him up for being 10 minutes late. It just shows that he is courteous and respectful of people and their time.”
The Consummate Actor
Bachchan’s filmography encompasses every genre known in the film world. From the iconic Angry Young Man to the quintessential Bollywood hero, the brooding lover and more recently the patriarch, he has played them all and then some. But Bachchan insists that acting is not a cakewalk for him. “Acting doesn’t come easy to me and I hope it never does. Everyday is a challenge. I don’t think it’s fair to say that your profession is a cakewalk. I would rather be challenged every minute. If you are not learning anything new everyday, then it takes away from your profession.” He says he still gets nervous on the first day of a film, before a shot or on a Friday. “I get very anxious because there is a lot of expectation and anticipation. This is always very prime in my mind. I looked with a great deal of apprehension before we started working on Bhootnath Returns and now again when it was on the cusp of release. This is a part of our lives. It happens with everyone no matter what profession they are in. There is always the question of whether you are going to get approval from your superiors… your bosses. The public is virtually our bosses,” he adds.
“Amitji doesn’t step in front of the camera unless he has rehearsed,” reveals Doshi, adding, “Whether it’s a film, ad or even a public service announcement, he rehearses every single line until he is confident to face the camera.” Sawant, who has been with the actor every step of his cinematic journey confirms that someone as proficient as Bachchan also gets plagued with nerves. “He is nervous before and after he faces the camera. He is always on tenterhooks about his work. He looks to his director and his audience for approval. And, this drives him to keep perfecting his work,” says Sawant.
A Day In The Life Of…
On the day we visited the legendary actor at his office Janak, in Juhu, he was in the middle of promotions for Bhootnath Returns. “After I am done with you I have a flight to Hyderabad for a function,” he says, as he sits down for the interview. This was a day after he launched the first look of Rajnikanth’s opus Kochadaiiyan in Mumbai. The following day, he walked the ramp for a fashion show organised by the Mijwan Welfare Society, an NGO headed by Shabana Azmi. In the middle of launch, flight and fashion show, there were meetings, shoots and dubbing.
An average day for Bachchan begins at 7 am. “He works out for about an hour or hour and a half. Then gets on with work—dubbing or shooting. In the evenings mostly he attends some function of the other. Amitji finds it tough to say no when he is invited. Then he gets home and spends time with his family, plays with Aaradhya. He ends his day by writing his blog. He never sleeps without blogging. At about 2 or 3 am, he finishes his blog and sends out the last tweets before calling it a day. There are fans who actually stay up to reply to him and only then do they sleep,” says Sawant.
His protracted hospital stay in 2012 had worried fans that Bachchan was pushing himself too hard and working too much. When the actor resumed work after the multiple surgeries, Sawant remembers asking him ‘why he pushes himself so hard’. “He told me—‘if I listen to everyone and stay in bed, I’ll just feel sicker’. Amitji has always said that ‘you are old only if you think you are old. You just need the will power.’ He might be 71 but Amitji thinks of himself as a young man,” says Sawant with a laugh.
Back to the Future
This year, the actor will make a debut of sorts with his television serial slated to air this summer. “It’s incredible to think that at this age, there are buyers for him in a new medium. Not only is he a trend-watcher but has also been a trend-setter. From his hairstyle in the 70s, the packed concerts in stadiums like Wembley, endorsements to KBC, he has always set the trend that others have followed,” adds Doshi.
With over 22 endorsements and film rolls that have specifically been written for him, there’s no stopping Bachchan. “Even at this age, Mr Bachchan is asking his directors to challenge him. People like Balki are writing stories specifically for him. My next film Piku, that stars him along with Deepika Padukone, is one of the three scripts that I have written with him in mind,” says Sircar. Doshi has an interesting insight into the Bachchan psyche. “When I met him in the late 1990s, he was going through a really bad time financially. He was very insecure then because he thought no one would give him work. That’s when Mohabattein and Kaun Banega Crorepati happened. Today, he is the most successful actor of all generations but that insecurity remains. He is always worried about where the next job is going to come from,” says Doshi.
Retirement is a subject Sawant has broached often with his employer only to be told ‘I will work till the end’. “Art and creativity should never be jailed within boundaries of age or space limitations. I think creative people would perish if they were told that ‘this is it. You have done everything and you can’t do anymore’. Or, if you were to personally limit yourself. I think every day is still a challenge. Every morning when I set out from the house, there is a sense of anticipation and a fear of how the day will turn out to be; whether I would be deliver what is expected of me. These are not things that we take for granted or think that ‘we don’t this a million times’. No, we still get butterflies and are still anxious with anticipation as to how it will all turn out. That is what art is all about. Anyone who says that I’ve done enough is going to kill creativity,” Bachchan says as a parting shot.