Been there, done that and still going great guns. During the course of four decades and still counting, he’s seen it all. The man of the moment, quite literally, needs no introduction. Here’s Amitabh Bachchan in conversation with Vajir Singh
70 years… You have been ruling the industry close to four decades. Did you ever imagine the journey would be this incredible?
I don’t feel like I have been ruling the industry. I am just happy that I have been working continuously for so many years. God has been kind to me, the audience has been very affectionate and directors and filmmakers have had the desire to make a film with me. So I feel very blessed and honoured.
Everyone feels that his/her journey as a filmmaker is complete only after they work with you.
This is their perspective and their graciousness. But it is equally important for me to work with new directors. I see their magnificent work and, hopefully, I will get a chance to work with them too.
Over the years, so many things have changed in the film industry… filmmaking, promotion, the way we function.What is the one thing that has remained constant?
The basic commercial, escapist cinema content has not changed. And I am happy about that. We used to get criticised, people were very cynical, especially people in the West, of the kind of films we made with songs and dance. But that is the factor they are now enjoying very much.
I am happy we have not changed that concept. I keep saying this all the time that the reason our films have this content is because it caters to a denominator of our audience who were very hardworking and earned ` 8 to 10. And then to come and spend that money on a film, and see a film that has been made on their own lives, which is what realistic cinema does, would be a waste of time for them. They want to see a film that is colourful, bright, with music and dance, and beautiful people because it is a nice entertainment distraction for them.
But, yes, lately, there has been a huge interest in plotting the stories we make and it is not necessarily the typical commercial cinema, which, in the past few years, not only satisfied you creatively but also satisfied you at the box office. We have seen a number of great young directors who are doing things for the first time, whether you see a Paan Singh Tomar, Vicky Donor, Kahaani, Barfi! or Gangs Of Wasseypur.
Do you feel a sense of pride when you watch these films?
Yes, I feel good to see such cinema. I am happy it is getting a lot of acceptability. And also that the younger generation is not afraid to venture into subjects like these and make it possible to put across their point of view through such cinema. They are not afraid of whether their films will run or not or whether they will be commercially successful.
Eventually, every director and producer wants their film to run but I see a lot of confidence among the younger generation, who makes these films. Even with limited budgets, they are able to put across something that is creatively liked by the audience. The audience has also matured so well that they are patronising this type of cinema. I mean, look at Barfi! It has crossed the Rs 100-crore mark. And most films that are made with limited budgets have brought huge returns. So we are building an audience that is prone to watching good cinema. There will be space for commercial cinema but it’s nice to see a new space being created for these films too.
Looking back at your journey… Did you ever attempt a different type of cinema that didn’t do well?
I never went about saying ‘I have tried this, now I must do other things’. I just did what came my way. I was very fortunate to have started my career with Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. The kind of cinema he made was very socially conscious and had a lot of meaning. I have been very fortunate to have worked with Salim-Javed, dynamic storytellers… Prakash Mehra, Manmohan Desai, Ramesh Sippy and Yash Chopra.
At the same time, I was doing films with Hrishikesh Mukherjee and also Basu Da (Basu Chatterjee). I have never shied away, it’s just that sometimes if I have not liked what I am going to be been doing, or if that film is going to have a reflective effect on some of the other films I am doing, it becomes difficult to make that choice. Not that I don’t like the subject or that I don’t like to work on that film. There is a certain exploitation of star value and so everybody doesn’t restrict themselves to the kind of budget a film should have. Therefore, sale value should also reflect the budget. In the past, if a film had a star in it, the price went up even if it was not possible to cover that price with the content of the film. That was one fear that would haunt me. Perhaps, that’s why I didn’t do those films. But I always had this wonderful balance.
A few years ago, during an interview with Ramesh Sippy, I had asked him what went wrong with Shakti. He said the movie was ahead of its time. What’s your take on it?
I don’t think so. I think the father-son conflict had been portrayed in many films before this, and some of the more perceptive audience liked the film. Dilip-saab and everyone gave a great performance and it had a wonderful star cast with Smita Patil and Rakhee. I don’t know why it didn’t do as well as it was expected to. Maybe you couldn’t add too much of the commercial aspect in its story line.
If you notice, in most Salim Javed stories, they were so strong on the subject that they didn’t need music. I mean, apart from Sholay, which was great fun. But even there, I think it’s the one example where the music picked up only after the success of the film. Before that, no one talked about it and now it’s almost become iconic. It was the same with Deewaar, Trishul and Kaala Patthar.
There were fewer opportunities to put in that excitement of the song. Maybe Shakti lacked that also. We tried to show Smita Patil as one of those classical singers, a ghazal singer, at a restaurant. But I think that was the most we could do in a storyline. Therefore, I would say that if you were to release Shakti today, it would perhaps get greater appreciation. In Kahaani and Barfi!, there are no memorable songs or situations of the kind you would find in a Manmohan Desai or Prakash Mehra film, or even earlier on, in the films of Bimal Roy or Guru Dutt.
Today’s actors are attempting films like those of the ’70s and ’80s. Are we going backwards?
I have not been able to understand why that is happening. But I think it is a natural phenomenon. I think it also happens in the West, where remakes are made of films gone by purely because one generation enjoyed those stories and the next generation needs to be told about them, and therefore, they have been successful.
A lot of the films of the ’70s and ’80s are being remade and are doing equally well. Perhaps the story content and writing were a lot more prominent in the ’70s and ’80s than they are now. I was talking to some young filmmakers and they said that today’s audience wants to hear a spoken language, the way you and I would talk when we walk on the street.
Earlier, the language was flowery and it was literary… literature flowing… whether songs and their lyrics or dialogue. And, yes, they were more beautifully constructed. But today’s generation prefers the way you and I would talk and is not interested in this flowery stuff.
According to you, what is ‘commercial cinema’? Is it a successful product at the ticket counter or a film that the audience appreciates?
This is an eternal debate. In France, for example, they do not talk about collections; they talk about how many feet entered the theatre. That is an assessment of the value of the film and its commercial value. So there will always be this debate and I don’t know who is correct.
Yes, money is important, but you could fill up a balcony and make money and yet your stalls could be empty. And you can have a theatre of 1000 seats and have 200 seats filled up but 800 seats are empty. You say you have made money but how do you count popularity? By the amount of money you have made or by the number of people who have watched the film?
So many films that have been deemed ‘successful’ or that have ‘not been successful’ are being looked upon as successful. I was recently reading something on how great Silsila is, or the success of Shakti and that Kaala Patthar was a blockbuster. But they weren’t, at that time. They are being looked upon as hits due to their lasting effect. But Silsila was not a traditional hit, neither was Trishul. Even Deewaar had limited appeal compared to Sholay. It was not as big as it should have been. The story was very popular and the moments and dialogue. But it didn’t have the monetary benefit of, say, a Zanjeer or a Sholay.
Your fans are waiting to see you return to the big screen.
I had surgery so I took six months off. I knew I was going to start Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) so now I will start shooting by December for Satyagrah for Parkash Jha, and Mehrunissa with Rishi Kapoor directed by Sudhir Mishra and a few other films.
Under the AB Corp banner or outside the banner?
Some outside. One or two will be with AB Corp but they are still being written.
No interview with you is complete without discussing KBC, where you meet your fans face-to-face and reward them. What does it feel like?
Regardless of who the anchor or host is, the value of the show comes from the fact that there are more than 80 countries running it and still it’s doing well. The other part, meeting contestants, gives me an opportunity to learn about their lives and to be able to project their lives to the outside, which is very rewarding. I feel for the contestants, I feel for the backgrounds they come from. All these experiences have been life-changing; they have been holding on to the moment of sitting in the hot seat.
Loan liya hai, ghar banana hai, such terrible stories from middle class India. I enjoy sitting with them and talking to them. This season, there is a huge amount of preparation on the part of the contestants. The fact that they answer some of the questions with ease reflects their knowledge. So yes, it’s been a wonderful experience.
Once again, more than three decades… so many years, what has kept you going?
Just the love of the audience and the fact that there is someone who appreciates your work and wants to see you back on the screen. Apart from that, there are commitments. If I get a commitment, I would like to contribute to it and want to fulfill it. I have been fortunate there have been commitments every year. But as you know, all of this must end at some point of time. We will allow it to go as long as it can and it will eventually stop.