The contemporaries of superstar Amitabh Bachchan are almost half of the history of Hindi cinema. So, it is fitting that everyone, apart from the vintage, has a story of Bachchan (Big B) to tell.
For example, 87-year-old super-villain Prem Chopra told me from his relative youth, working with Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor in Yash Chopra’s Trishul (1978), when they used to shoot in the morning but party all night. Could, though. Shortly before call-time, when he should have attempted a power-nap, Chopra recalls, Bachchan would bring on his sitar and recreate it with his quick performances. We know Bachchan as a legal playback singer, beginning with Mr Natwarlal (1979).
He also composed the music, we learned, because that’s what he did for director R Balki to express his thoughts after watching his film Chup (2022). She plays Big B’s composition, on piano, in the end-credits of Quiet!
How did Bachchan become a professional actor? Well, comedian-filmmaker Mehmood and his brother Anwar Ali were his early mentors, yes. Mehmood’s Bombay to Goa (1972) showcased Big B’s prowess as an entertainer. The Ali brothers regularly recommended him for roles.
For the earlier story, I searched for a book called Raj Grover – Legends of Bollywood. Grover was a close confidante of Sunil Dutt, who had sent him to meet Bachchan in Calcutta, where he worked as a freight executive at Bird & Company. All this happened because Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had called Nargis Dutt. they were friends. So were Mrs Gandhi and Bachchan’s mother Teji.
According to Grover, who was assigned to look after Bachchan for five days – for which he had come to Bombay on leave from work in Calcutta, Big B screen-tested for BR Chopra on the sets of producer Mohan Sehgal. None of this came. Bachchan had earlier entered the Filmfare-Madhuri Talent Hunt. No luck there either.
Of course, Dutt offered Bachchan a part in his ensemble cast, Reshma Aur Shera (1971) – where Big B, who was later fondly known for a ‘Rich Baritone’, played a mute character!
To be honest, Big B’s name first appeared on any film credits for his voice-over in Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (1969). The credited name was ‘Amit’ – Amitabh was seen too long.
During the shoot of Rahma Aur Shera, Big B and actor Ranjith, who turned stock villain in the 70s, were roommates. He remembers his first memory of Bachchan as a calm, young man who never left his prayers and letters to his parents.
However, how did he land his first role in KA Abbas’s Saat Hindustani (1969)?
Then aspiring actor-director Tinu Anand says he had to play that role. Since Tinu had left the Catering College, his father, the great writer Inder Raj Anand suggested the son to help Fellini or Satyajit Ray. Inder knew both. According to Tinu, Fellini’s crew would not be familiar with English, so he asked for an appointment and started working with Ray! So Bachchan got his acting debut.
Salim-Javed’s screenplay Zanjeer (1973) brought him irreplaceable stardom. After this, it could be weeks with eight Big B releases in theatres.
Superstar Rajesh Khanna—just before Amitabh Bachchan—was notorious for arriving late on the sets, causing heartburn and a hole in the pockets of the producers.
In contrast, Big B’s professionalism was first defined by his punctuality. Ranjeet says that this is also because the workaholic Bachchan sleeps very few hours. No one can deny his decreased appetite/ambition; Rarely rest on their past feats.
For example, actor Naseeruddin Shah told me about a script with three lead roles. During the writing process, as each lead became stronger, better defined, a superstar decided to separate the three!
While Naseer never mentioned Bachchan, I am pretty sure the film is Mahan (1983).
As a journalist, I have a lot of Big B stories. With a major question- ‘feels like my mother’ – when his onscreen mother Nirupa Roy passed away, he asked Iraqi militia to release captive Indian truck drivers from Baghdad. Urged – they were the terrorists themselves- Big B fans confessed. That’s a game!
Countless film talents in Bombay have signed or lying citations in their drawers when their work has been noticed by Big B. He does it naturally, including wishing co-workers (even his kids) the best of luck on their birthdays.
My second favorite Big B anecdote (best saved for future), pertains to a ‘letter to the editor’ in mid-day about an uproar at the 2003 Zee Film Awards in Dubai. A gentleman from Borivali accused Big B of being a “media creation” who should not treat “ordinary people” as lesser creatures – simply because he was asked to sit in the seventh row at the award show.
Big B e-mailed a piece of 1,000 words, asking me to pass it on to the Borivali resident. He countered the first point, saying that his greatest years as a superstar (since the mid-70s) were when the media banned him—so much for producing it. And he realized that everyone was extraordinary (or ordinary, for that matter).
It was only a matter of time before Big B started blogging. Impressed by the quality of the piece, I asked, “Will you write a regular column? You write very well.” He replied, “Not like you!” My jaw dropped, and has been lying on the floor ever since. Thus you conquer the world with grace and charm.
Mayank Shekhar has tried to make sense of the people’s culture. He tweeted @mayankw14
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The views expressed in this column are those of the individual and do not represent the views of the paper.