The country’s most famous actor was going through the worst phase of his career, having made little-remembered duds like, Sooryavansham, Kohram, Ek Rishthaa: Bond of Love, Hindustan Ki Kasam, etc. in the previous year. Worse, his production company ABCL, had famously gone bankrupt the year before, leaving him indebted to banks who were threatening to seize even his much beloved Mumbai bungalow, Pratiksha.

When we approached him for a cover, he was, not surprisingly, in a rather sombre mood through much of the interview with screenwriter Kamlesh Pandey, lamenting about the lack of meaty roles for men his age in Hindi films. “It is ironic that just when an actor is ready to give his best, he is least wanted,” was the saddest quote in the article.

What he didn’t talk about was a TV show, whose first few episodes he had just finished recording. Bollywood actors in those days looked down on television and we didn’t know whether it was big enough to be discussed in the article. Within three weeks of the magazine’s release Kaun Banega Crorepati had its first airing on Star TV, on the Monday of 3rd July. The rest as they say is history. It went on to become India’s most successful non-fiction TV show ever, making him tons of money and more importantly, it propelled his career back into an orbit where he still shines spectacularly bright.

 

Excerpted from MW June 2000

 

In the new millennium, there is one face in India, and perhaps the only one, which can claim Gary Cooper’s inheritance – ‘no actor had words fail him more eloquently’.

Amitabh Bachchan’s. It is rewarding, for writers and photographers, to rediscover Amitabh’s face in the new millennium. It has aged like precious wine. For a photographer, it offers shifting shadows of moods without any discernible change of expression. The smouldering eyes of Deewar have deepened with experience. They also seem to hide better stories than Amitabh Bachchan is offered to read nowadays. The smile is amused and often self-deprecating.

We finally have an actor who can rank with Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro, but one who finds himself in the company of far lesser beings. Not that he does not enjoy their company.

“Brando and of course, our own Dilip Kumar,” – Amitabh Bachchan chooses his words with the same minimalist care that he brings to his performances – “I think they both broke the rules without being aware of each other and without being aware that they were clearing a new path for all future actors. Before Brando, words were very important and were supposed to be spoken loud enough to be heard at the end of the last row. And not only because that’s what theatre required. Brando almost dispensed with words and introduced a minimalist style that did not throw itself at the audience saying, ‘Hey, look at me!’ but instead, invited the audience in to look inside an actor’s mind. Brando delivered in four lines and a look what traditional actors might have needed four pages of dialogues to deliver. That was the advantage of a close-up on screen offered an actor. Dilip Kumar did the same here. He changed the grammar (of acting). We are all indebted to him and anybody who says he has not borrowed from Dilip Kumar is lying.”

That’s probably the reason why Brando has had a more powerful and longlasting impact on actors than Lawrence Olivier did. Not only Brando, but Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Spencer Tracy, to name a few. Among the new crop, Amitabh’s favourite is Al Pacino. “Pacino is explosive without unnecessarily drawing attention to himself. Jack Nicholson, on the other hand, though he is an incredible performer, is more of a visual exhibitionist.”

But is the minimalist style really suited to our films? Though he himself subscribes to this style, his own effort to use it has not been entirely successful. He recounts his courtroom scene from Shahenshah. “In our movies, there is a prescribed approach to every kind of scene. For example, a courtroom scene has to be loud and melodramatic, though no one really speaks like that in court. In Shahenshah, I persuaded Tinu Anand to do the courtroom scene differently. And I did it. But Tinu wanted to do it the regular way just to be on the same side. And he was right. Because when I did the scene differently, there was no reaction from the crew. But when I used the prescribed formula, there was a clap on every line.”

 

 

So where does that leave an actor like Amitabh Bachchan?

Things are changing. Actors like Manoj Bajpai, Naseer, Nana Patekar and Sayaji Shinde are changing acting. They are going against the prescribed approach. Shah Rukh, Sanjay Dutt and even Salman and Govinda have shown that given the opportunity, they can understand a moment and deliver a performance that is refreshing and breaks the mould. Others too can but they are not tested yet. Anil Kapoor has become a very interesting actor. His performance in Pukar, specially in the scene where he is brought in for the inquiry, is an intelligently restrained and delightfully mature performance. It reminds me of my scene in Kala Patthar.”

 

Has he ever been scared of a scene?

“Every day, or rather every night is a nightmare. Even today. How am I going to do that song? How am I going to do that fight? How am I going to do that scene? The last scene of Anand, where Anand dies, gave me sleepless nights. From the day it was narrated to me till the day it was actually shot, I was preparing for it and literally going through hell. But when that scene was shot, Hrishida told me it was nice, but it was not what he wanted. He wanted me to be angry, not sad! That’s the beauty of this profession. You keep surprising yourself.”

 

Does an actor improve with time?

It is ironic that just when an actor gets ready to give his best, he is least wanted. I am at an age where I don’t need to be self-conscious of my looks. I do not have the obligation to look younger anymore.

I enjoy the lines on my face. I am reconciled to my ambitions, fears and desires, which can be so distracting when one is young. There is a lot more happiness and contentment in me now. I am ready. But where are the stories?

 

Are there stories looking for Amitabh Bachchan, probably the most eloquent face in our cinema?

“I hope so,” he smiles. And I am reminded that stars live in fear, actors live in hope. And I suddenly realise that Amitabh has crossed that line from being a superstar to being just an actor. He is confident enough to merge the superstar into the actor. Only great actors can do that.

 

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