Legendary Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan is back with a bang in his latest film Shamitabh.
With its unusual title, the movie uses the Big B’s famous baritone voice which becomes the star of the show. Directed by R Balki, the movie was written as a gift for the Bollywood veteran to mark his 70th birthday, and the filmmaker has spent the last two years bringing his vision to life.
Bachchan, who stars alongside south Indian actor Danush and Akshara Haasan in her debut performance in Shamitabh, was in London last week to promote the film. He spoke to Eastern Eye about the unusual film, ego and the role it plays in creating a larger-than-life persona, his glittering career and how Indian cinema has changed over the years.
Would you say your career has come full circle – you started out being rejected for news reader roles because of your voice and now it’s turned you into a huge star?
No, it’s just a mere coincidence. And we really don’t know… when I went for a voice audition for radio, whether the result was really up to expectations. I don’t think it should be looked at like that, I don’t look at it like that.
Performances and creative roles are not just about the voice. There are many other things that go along with it, so maybe this question could be answered better by R Balki, who has actually conceived this story. It would be wrong for me to assess that life has become full circle because then, how do I put it, I’m giving myself too much credit which I do not deserve. Therefore, I wouldn’t like to have it looked upon like this.
Tell us about your character in Shamitabh?
This is a story about two individuals. They both have qualities which are required to combine for them to achieve success – it’s the coming together of two people, their creativity, which then takes them to some sort of success.
There’s a journalist who discovers that Danush has something which I don’t have, and I have something Danush doesn’t and how wonderful it would be if these qualities could be combined. And she manages to do that but once they come together and attain success, ego starts coming into play and that is what begins to create the differences between them. Each one of them feels that it is because of them that fame and fortune has been achieved. How this issue is resolved or not is what the story is about.
You mentioned ego. You’re a huge international megastar, so how do you keep that in check?
I don’t understand ego, I don’t know what it is all about. When we play roles in a film, we are those characters, we enact them according to the vision of the writer and the director, but to equate that with your personal life is not something I do.
I don’t carry my characters home, neither do I carry my work home, so I really don’t know. I’m just another ordinary human being. My profession is that I work in cinema, but apart from that, I’m just like any other normal person. I don’t fly in the air, I walk just like anybody else.
Anyone who is in a profession where you first get to see them on a very large screen, and they are doing fantastic deeds; you know, their image is enlarged, the story itself pushes the individual into some kind of a heroic position. And that’s the initial attraction everyone has with someone who works in cinema. And it kind of continues after that, so every time you see that person on screen, you see them doing something that you like, and you become fond of them. You become their fans, or well-wishers and that’s how it happens. But you are in love with that character, not necessarily who played that role. I don’t know whether they would continue to like the actor if they were to first meet him in person and then perhaps see them on screen. But that’s something I cannot answer, you would have to ask the fans.
What would you say were some of your favourite moments in this film?
The entire film, I would like to believe. The role, the character, it’s a unique concept, it is novel, it is very refreshing, it’s a concept that has not been plotted before, I think, in Indian films, and maybe not in international cinema too.
But that’s as far as I can go to describe the film, because if I was to continue any further, I would have to narrate the story and that wouldn’t be correct. The idea of me giving my voice to Danush in the film, why I do that, what are the circumstances, is what the film is about, and the rest of it you’ll have to see for yourself. The title is not there just because Danush and my name matches, it’s not there for any kind of sensationalism, it’s actually a part of the scenario of the film. When you see the film, you will realise that it’s rather interestingly done, and very sensitive to that moment when the title is formed. It is a part of the screenplay.
You’ve been in the industry for over 40 years now. Is there any one point you could say was your career defining moment?
No. I think each year has been a great learning curve, a great lesson, right from the early years when you are looking for a job to finding it. Facing failure, facing a couple of successes, facing indifference, facing relegation because your age is no longer popular, and finding that somebody else, somebody younger has moved ahead of you – you have to contend with that, and that is part of our existence, that’s a part of our life. Many of us do not wish to continue, and stop at a certain point in time and say we have had it. I like to work, so I’m working.
How do you feel about Indian cinema becoming more sexualised over the years?
We have a very strict code of conduct through the censor board and if they feel that something is objectionable, there is something that should not be brought into the public domain, they will put their foot down.
But I think with time, there has been a lot of liberalisation in the thinking of the audiences, and perhaps it is because of television, because they get to see it on TV, so maybe their thinking has changed. Maybe today’s generation does not think too much about kissing and some of the more sexual aspects in cinema because this is very normal, so therefore why shouldn’t it be on screen?
We are still from the old world and we grew up in a very conservative atmosphere and we have refrained from doing that. I will continue to do that, but that’s an individual opinion. There are many actors who do not wish to partake in the kind of freedom that sensuousness has kind of put them in, and that’s a personal choice. But eventually, of course, it’s the censor board that decides what needs to go through and what doesn’t.
You debuted in Hollywood in 2013 with The Great Gatsby. Would you like to do more in western mainstream cinema?
If something worthwhile came up, yes, I would consider it, but Gatsby was done purely as a friendly gesture to Baz Luhrmann, who was in India on a personal visit. He just dropped by the office, wanting to meet me and he talked about India, he talked about paintings and stuff like that. He never talked about films. A year and-a-half later he called and said, ‘I have a small role in this film of mine, and I was wondering, I would be really happy if you did it. It’s really small and not significant enough, but will you do it for me?’ So I said ‘fine, I’ll do it.’
Finally, do you think Indian cinema is taking more risks now with genres that weren’t necessarily explored in the past?
Yes. I believe audiences change. Also, situations in a country – morally, socially – these changes occur and accordingly, you start designing your creative products keeping them in mind.
Technically I think there has been a vast improvement in the quality of our films. I feel that because of the advent of television in India and the opening up of the economy, we now have access to the latest equipment, the latest technology, the best manpower that we can deploy in our country.
And that has made a difference. We have almost 800 TV channels, and that is another factor – because of the increase in TV channels, people get to see what is happening in other parts of the world almost instantly. And when they see something which perhaps could be of a superior quality than what they get to see in the Indian cinema hall, they wonder why we are not matching that quality.
It is a wonderful impetus to us in the film industry, a competitive spur to us to improve our quality and that’s what we’ve been doing.
India’s young generation is the largest in the world, and they dictate their likes and their dislikes to us, and catering to them means we are following the right path. They want to see something progressive, something which is out of the ordinary, or maybe the commercial scope is different to the roles I’ve been playing for so many years. They want to see something different, so there are films that have been made and have enjoyed a lot of success. So they are the ones who decide and therefore these changes have occurred in our cinema.
Shamitabh is in cinemas now.