• September 30, 2020 12:36 am

Reporting From Delhi

Stars and the city

ByMihir Srivastava

Nov 15, 2019

Amitabh Bachchan, India’s most famous actor completes 50 years in cinema. We are natives of the same town

Last week Amitabh Bachchan completed 50 years in Indian cinema. An actor who touched the lives of most of the Indians, and is the face of Indian film industry. A living legend.

Though his life was not a bed of roses, he had to deal with his share of challenges in life, a prolonged struggle for success, and his tryst with politics and business — the Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd or ABCL went bankrupt — can be summed up by the word ‘disastrous’.

I have had a glimpse of him as a politician in real life. In 1984, when I was a kid but old enough to be a fan of Amitabh Bachchan, Indira Gandhi had been assassinated followed by general elections. The Congress under Rajiv Gandhi won a record 400-plus seats in a house of 540 — with the biggest margin in the history of independent India — was riding a sympathy wave. Amitabh, a childhood friend, was by Rajiv’s side at the cremation of Indira Gandhi and vowed support to his friend.

Amitabh fought elections from Allahabad, now called Prayagraj, a city to which the Nehru-Gandhi, Bachchans and I belong. And the two families were friends for generations, just to refresh memory, Amitabh’s late father was a well-known Hindi poet and writer, at some point in time a professor of English at Allahabad University. He had a cordial relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru. His wife Teji Bachchan was a fast friend of Indira Gandhi, reportedly she played the part of Sonia Gandhi’s family in her wedding to Rajiv by performing ‘kanyadaan.’

My father was a civil servant posted in Allahabad in 1984. He was allotted a house just behind the circuit house where Amitabh stayed for a month to campaign. My family often used to joke, “Big B is a neighbour, he stays behind our house.” He defeated a seasoned politician and a former chief minister of UP Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna by a huge margin and no one was surprised.

There’s a sports complex after his name which is not far from Boys’ High School and Intermediate College, where Amitabh and I did a part of our schooling. Cool, isn’t it? We went to the same school.

There were occasions I saw him at rallies and roadshows. Jaya Bachchan would often come to Allahabad and help her husband in electioneering. I happened to attend a meeting organised by my granduncle in the lawns of his bungalow where Jaya had come but Amitabh couldn’t make it. Jaya told a small gathering that she’s the daughter-in-law of the city and wants her “mooh-dikhayi’ (presents are given when the bride for the first time reveals her face to the family of her husband) —she meant votes. Allahabad, as it turned out, was very generous.

I can never forget my grandaunt having an animated conversation with Jaya, at some point in time, complimenting her for the saree she was wearing, and asked, “Where did you get it from?” I strained my ears to hear her response but couldn’t. Jaya was fairly taken aback by this query.

So often, we’d see girls in a group walking back after shaking hands with Amitabh from the front of our house, and a loud, almost hysterical, conversation would ensue. “Oh my God!” they’d repeat umpteen times jumping up and down, “I touched Amitabh!” Some even made it clear, “I will not wash my hands for weeks. My hands smell of him!” As I child, I took them seriously and would imagine: how would they manage to not to wash their hands for weeks? It’s almost mandatory to do so after certain daily activities. “They’d probably wear plastic gloves,” I concluded.

Politics was not Amitabh’s cup of tea but it took him a little time to realise that. He, like any reasonable man, wants to stay away from controversies. He was even named in the Bofors controversy. He later talked about this smear campaign in a blog: “When my family and I were loaded with the accusations of the Bofors scandal, they painted every aspect of our existence with the darkest colours ever… 25 years later, the prosecutor on the event, makes public the truth — the name of the Bachchans were ‘planted’!! 25 years later…!!.” It didn’t take him 25 years to say goodbye to politics, though. He was fairly prompt.

As is the case with great artists, present and past, political patronage is handy. When Gandhi’s political fortunes tumbled, Amitabh found new friends. He’s currently the brand ambassador of Gujarat Tourism, a state-led by Narendra Modi for 13 years before he became Prime Minister in 2014. The Gandhis weren’t forthcoming in bailing out the Bachchans when the ABCL fiasco happened and Amitabh was on the verge of bankruptcy. An unlikely man came to his rescue, Amar Singh, was a prominent leader of Samajwadi Party (SP) and was one of the most influential power-brokers of his time.

Amar Singh was given the status of a family member and would stay with the Bachchans when he’d visit Mumbai–fairly often. Jaya Bachchan started her political career as a Rajya Sabha member from Samajwadi Party in 2004, and is currently in her fourth term as a Rajya Sabha member. She refused to quit SP when Amar Singh was shown the door by the party.

But then things change, with the political climate, new friends are made, old ones are given a cold shoulder. Amar Singh felt betrayed, so did many others by the Bachchans. Sonia Gandhi has never spoken about it, nor has Amitabh given details of what lead to a rift between two families. But in an interview with Barkha Dutt in 2010, Jaya Bachchan blamed the Congress — the party and not the family — for abandoning them during the Bofors scandal, saying: “I might seem a little biased but they (Congress) have not been fair with me.”

The road to success is not necessarily a road to happiness. And it is very difficult to keep everyone happy. Amitabh, otherwise fairly articulate, is considered the unofficial spokesperson of the film fraternity but remained silent about alleged film censorship, harassment of journalists, minorities and women at workplaces in the film industry especially when big names were involved. A stoic silence to stay away from controversies can be controversial in itself, especially when it comes to Amitabh Bachchan. Even his ardent critics concede he’s the best artist of our times.