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Masterclass

Amitabh Bachchan in conversation with Imtiaz Ali, Rohit Shetty and Shoojit Sircar discussing Indian cinema Kal, Aaj aur Kal and much more.  Team Box Office India was all ears

BOI: What are your thoughts on the state of the Hindi film industry? Now, even high-content films are becoming blockbusters. What is your take on where we stand today?

Amitabh Bachchan (AB): It’s a very healthy time in our industry, where content is becoming more and more independent of ‘escapist cinema’, which is what we are usually associated with. For an industry that has always been growing, this bodes well for us.

There is always a feeling among distributors and others that “hamari dukaan band ho gayi”… yes distributors do suffer, when a film does not live up to the expectations of the price that they paid for it. But there have been instances of distributors being compensated too by producers, when there have been losses, or a compromise reached in their next purchase.

But the statistics show steady growth despite financial crises elsewhere in the world or even within the country. I have always believed that movies and the film industry in general, are recession-free. When you can’t buy white goods and you can’t buy cars or a house, you go and watch a movie.

Imtiaz Ali (IA): Sir, has the pattern always been like this or do you see a change?

AB: No, I have never noticed any appreciable change. I think creatively, any one of us can come up with an idea. It’s how you package it, how you sell it, how you make it big, and how people take to it that matters. There are so many stories of people going up or coming down, it’s all a part of the trade, all a part of our business.

IA: Do you think cinema has moved on?

AB: Oh yes! Incredibly! I only lament that I was not born in this day and age. Today, the talent you see among filmmakers, among artistes, is phenomenal. With their very first effort, they are perfect. We are still trying to learn how to give a close-up but they are so good and they are growing so well. And you three directors are wonderful examples of this.

Having said this, one can never ever ignore or forget the genius of and the contributions made by, some of the phenomenal iconic makers of the past.

IA: So would you pass up veteran filmmakers for us?

AB: (Laughs) No. I think the economics has always worked in favour of the ones who have been prominent. So if one has delivered many hits, his status goes up and you look up to him. You say, ‘I think he must have done something right and, due to this, people are always watching their work, whether Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra or Salim-Javed or Hrishikesh Mukherjee’, who, incidentally always walked the middle path and experienced success… not as big as the others but still successful and very popular. Hrishida’s Anand was big on popularity.

IA: Yes, we grew up on those films.

AB: Yes, huge popularity. And we have been growing all along. It is very heartening to see that, after every five or 10 years, someone new comes along and brings out something fresh. All three of you have done exactly that.

Shoojit Sircar (SS): Sir, there has always been a debate on our cinema and world cinema since our cinema is very different. You have worked on The Great Gatsby, which has a great cast and a great set of technicians, and you have worked with us as well. Do you have any suggestions for us?

AB: Technologically, the filmmaking process is no different. There is a camera, an artiste and a script. It’s the preparation and the process of coming to the point of filming that is just immaculate. This could be happening for two reasons, because of the enormous amounts of funds they have in the West. The Great Gatsby had a budget of $ 150 million. That’s enormous. We can make 400 films on that budget!

They also concentrate on one film at a time. This is purely conjecture but I guess, if one of us had that kind of budget, we too could exert that kind of concentration and preparation. Somewhere, Baz Luhrman knew he had $ 150 million and the film he was making would earn $ 500 million. He was to make $ 100 million, so he didn’t mind spending four years of his life on one single project.

And their preparation period is so immaculate, it was hard to believe. I just had a one-minute role but it was alarming for me to be asked, four months before the actual shooting, to go there and do some readings, meet some people and meet the co-artistes. I couldn’t go because of my schedule and so they called me a week before. And for six days, we just sat and talked for this one scene which was just a minute long. All the other artistes, Leonardo (D’Caprio), Tobey Mcguire, they are all massive stars there but they came every day and we sat in Baz Luhrman’s drawing room, and just talked, just to get to know each other. And we read that one scene together, that 45-second scene, about ten times over.

And then you break and you move to the studio. He has this cottage inside Fox Studios and it’s decorated with posters, pictures of 1920s New York, and the kind of faces you would have seen back then, which are almost akin to the characters we were going to be playing. And he doesn’t entertain any other kind of talk. If you tell him, ‘You know, Australia is damn good in cricket,’ he will shut you up. He only wanted to hear about Gatsby, about the book, about the environment during the 1920s, that’s it.

You know, hamare yahan ek custom hota hai, jab naye naye kisi ke ghar jaate hain toh gift leke jaate hain. So I took along a small memento, he would accept it and set it aside and say, ‘Yeah, so where were we?’, and get back to the talk on the film. His detailing is impossible to match. Joel, who played the husband… in the book there is just a fleeting reference, just a second, that he was a member of a club called Skull & Bones, a very elitist club. So, in this restaurant scene, a speak easy joint, when I move over, he comes over and takes me aside and tells me, ‘You know, Amitabh, look at my jacket.’ The lining of his jacket has the emblem of the club which had a one-line mention in the book. So when you put someone in that kind of environment, it is impossible not to feel acclimatised with what you’re doing when you’re saying your lines.

The dance troupe, in the scene, was something just happening in the background. The camera pans across some musicians and some people dancing, but they took three months to prepare for that scene. They showed everyone what instruments they were going to play and what steps they would dance. And on the day of the shoot, he said, ‘Everybody just sit down.’ And we watched them perform about five times just so you wouldn’t get surprised when the cameras started to roll. This is the kind of preparation they do.

So, for Rohit’s (Shetty) recent film, if he were to practice similar preparations, he would probably send the entire team to live in Tamil Nadu for a year. Or, Shoojit, for your film, to research the whole history of Sri Lanka. Or for one of your films, Imtiaz, they would just get into that area. It’s remarkable!

Rohit Shetty (RS): If we had massive budgets like theirs, do you think it would have made a difference to the quality of our cinema?

AB: There are two things here. They are playing to an audience which is perhaps more educated. We have to cater to an audience which is very vastly different. We also have a very diverse audience here. Hindi cinema is more universal. It has to cater to all regions. We say, ‘Let’s put in something for the South, or something for the East, or West or North.’ We keep adding sentiments because we want to make it universal. Then the graph suddenly rises when Karan (Johar) and Shah Rukh (Khan) start making films that are slightly more overseas-centric… And look what happened, a whole new overseas territory opened up.

So, to answer your question about comparisons with the West, Shoojit, I feel we have not changed; they have changed in their attitude towards us. They were very cynical. In the ’70s, when I used to go abroad, they were most critical, almost treating our cinema as nothing serious, or perhaps to be laughed upon. They still joke, and this horrible word (Bollywood) that has been coined for our industry has come from there. And it’s got nothing to do with plagiarism or that the city’s name starts with the letter ‘B’.

IA: And, oddly enough, we use that word all the time, without knowing it was coined as an insult.

AB: I never use it because it’s used as an insult or a joke. It’s not used because our city starts with ‘B’; not any more though. And why should we rhyme our industry’s name with theirs? Sometimes, the media says, ‘But, sir, most of your movies are copied from theirs.’ Well if you get into that argument, there will be many things to talk about. Like about our Police Code, or our Parliamentary function, which as you know runs on the pattern of Westminister principles of the United Kingdom. Our Police Code dates back to the British era, when it was a Police State. We are now an Independent nation, but some of our Police laws are still pre independence time. We are an independent democratic nation, but some of those laws still persist.

SS: Sir, from your experience in Hollywood, did you notice any actor-director relationship? There is resurgence of corporate culture here, focused groups, test screenings of films, etc. Sometimes, a director like me gets agitated about these things. I mean, corporate studios have set their own rules. And this actor-director relationship exists alongside. Did the whole corporate culture come into play when you worked with a director?

AB: Fortunately or unfortunately, I have never had occasion to be in direct contact with a producer. I feel I must listen to the story when a director comes to me with a story and I follow what he tells me. For me, he is the captain of the ship. I don’t know anything about marketing; I don’t know the financial aspect. So I just follow the director. Now, though everyone tells me I ought to know about these aspects.

The younger generation is equipped with knowledge about everything… how distribution works, how finances work, how to go about marketing, how to track collections, promotions… they are well-equipped and I envy them. Everyone is so financially savvy; I was never like that.

RS: Do you think films should be tagged on the basis of their box-office performance, like a Rs 100-crore film’?

AB: No, not at all. These are just words, in much the same way the West coined a word for our industry. If you look at the collections of the ’70s and ’80s, and convert them according to the value of the rupee today, each of those films would be worth ` 300 crore or more. I think it’s just the equivalent of 50 weeks or 100 weeks. And why this bogie of a ‘`100-crore film’? It’s equally important to be 99! 99 bhi small nahi hai. (Laughs)

SS: From the point of view of being an actor… You have been a superstar.

AB: Accha?

SS: (Laughs) Sir, has your superstardom ever come between you, as an actor, and a script?

AB: Never. You’ve worked with me. You would know better.

SS: No, but has it ever come to mind?

AB: Well, the first thing is to believe whether you are in that category or not. I have never been comfortable with these epithets that media designs so generously for me. But there have been many times when people have told me, ‘You know, we don’t expect this of you.’ Like Nishabd, for example. It was a very challenging role for me. I feel that Ramu (Ram Gopal Varma) was very brave to have taken up that subject. I looked forward to going on the set every morning because I knew there was something very novel that I would have to do.

But, Amit, who was the DOP on the film, also had a tough time; on this aspect… his wife told him she wouldn’t watch this film. How can Amitabh Bachchan, my hero and one that I admire fall in love with a 16-year-old girl? Sometimes, you have to be wary of things like this. Ramu made a replica of Sholay but, for me, it was just the excitement of doing the film. It is only after the release that you get feedback and you realise, ‘Gosh, maybe this was not such a good idea?’ But the fact is, while I was doing it, I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

IA: But sir, before that, you had done films with Hrishikesh Mukherjee and there is no one as successful as you.

AB: Well, I have not come here to listen to this, Imtiaz!

IA: The reason I am asking you this is that when you played the ‘fitanwala’, did your audience feel cheated like, ‘Yaar, hum toh Amitabh ko yaha aise dekhne aaye the?’

AB: No, but that’s their problem, not mine. My problem is ‘Am I going to look like that ‘fitanwala’, that character, or not?’ I must follow the script. It’s all about how your director wants to represent you. As a director, I would be upset if an artiste told me I shouldn’t be doing this since it would tarnish my image.

IA: Correct.

AB: I’d be hurt.

IA: Right.

AB: There have been a few instances where I have suggested, not suggested, but I have done the shot and had a chat with the director about the scene. I remember, in Black, my character has Alzheimer’s and is in hospital. Rani is getting ready with her degree and we cut to this man in hospital and he is just wandering around. And Sanjay (Sanjay Leela Bhansali) said, ‘Sir, I want you to walk from the bed towards the window.’ Patients of Alzheimer’s imagine things, so he said, ‘I want you to see alphabets floating. And I am going to put that in VFX later.’

I did the shot and told Sanjay later, ‘I am not feeling good as an actor doing this. I don’t know why I am doing this. And I feel I am not being honest with myself.’ He immediately understood and said, ‘Sir, it’s off. Don’t do it. It’s the first time I have heard an actor say ‘I’m being dishonest with myself, so don’t do it’.’ I felt that respect for him for respecting me and to have changed the scene. We didn’t keep the original idea, because I just felt it would have gone into a different plane. The whole film was made for that one moment, that he wanted her to graduate and she has finally achieved that. So I felt that scene was not required. This was the one time I felt that way. Otherwise, I just follow the director.

IA: Sir, since you come from a very literary background and you’ve done some movies that were not up to that standard, did that ever cause any conflict?

AB: No. As I said, I just followed the director’s instructions. I have done so many films with Manji (Manmohan Desai), and they were all quite similar in the way they were cast. So either there was Chintu (Rishi Kapoor) or Vinod (Vinod Khanna), and we would look at each other and laugh and say, ‘Yaar, yeh kya karwa raha hai humse?’ And we used to go and tell Man, ‘Man, yaar kya kar raha hai tu?’ And Man would say, ‘Chup reh saale, dekhna yeh picture ke release hote hi kya hoga?’

So you have an opening shot in a film (Amar Akbar Anthony) with three heroes lying there and there’s one tube going all through of them and that tube is going to the mother. This is against medical history. And we would tell Manji… What are you doing? And he would say, ‘Chup baith na yaar, tu dekhna na.’ And sure enough when we saw that shot on screen, the cinema hall erupted. So you stop questioning. Or that moment when the mother gets her eyesight back, from the roshni that comes out of Sai Baba…

IA: So did you believe in Manji’s kind of cinema?

AB: Yeah! You just have to let yourself loose. And that’s what he used to say. ‘Just do as I am telling you.’ And it worked!

RS: Now that you have started working with new directors, do you miss working with directors like Manji, Ramesh Sippy and Hrishi ?

AB: Yes of course I shall always miss them! Their contribution cannot be compared with today’s times. They were massive and shall ever remain so. I am just fortunate to have had opportunity to have worked with them. But today, I am just so impressed with the new generation, the directors, the artistes, that I feel the need to be working with them in some capacity. I would like to move with the times. I simply enjoy their work and would love to take up something new as a challenge.

SS: Sir, four decades down the line, what does Saat Hindustani mean to you?

AB: Apart from the fact that it was my first film…

SS: You also got a National Award for it.

AB: Yeah, as a newcomer. Now you don’t look at it like a film per se or how it was made.

SS: Obviously not that, but your journey of the film?

AB: It’s more to do with Abbas saab (Khwaja Ahmed Abbas) because he was a socialist and a strong believer in that philosophy. He practiced what he preached. There were seven In dians from seven different parts of the country and he deliberately chose opposite regions for every actor. So Madhu, who was from Kerala, was playing a guy from the North; Utpal Dutt, who was a Bengali, was playing a Punjabi character; I was playing a Muslim; and Anwar Ali was playing a Hindu. We didn’t realise it back then but it was not just national integration in the film; there was national integration in the way he cast for his film.

Wherever we lived and wherever we went, we travelled third class. Aise hi travel kiya. We walked through the jungles in Goa from Belgaum’s border; we walked up to Panjim. Raat ko shooting kar rahe hain, der ho gayi hain. So we used to sleep in the forest. Wahi apna bag laga ke zameen pe pade hain. There were no hotels, no rest houses, nothing. We used to sleep on the floor and Mamujaan (Khwaja Ahmed Abbas) used to be writing the next day’s sequence, lying there on his make shift bed on the floor beside us! And a lantern to give him light because there was no electricity in the guest house!

IA: We have always seen you, with time, always re-orienting, in that has your procedure been the same or ever changing?

AB: I want to change but I don’t know whether I would succeed. I want to be like the youngsters of today because they are the ones moving with the times and being appreciated. I would like to be in a situation where a director compels me to perform differently from what I may have been used to for all these years. I would wish to be educated with recent developments and manner of shot takings. It’s more an educational process really. I find myself being educated by watching some very fine performances from those that work in ad films too!

They are master actors. See some of the ads., and you will appreciate the quality of the director or the person that conceived it, but what of the actors. Nobody seems to notice them. Their calibre is magnificent. I worked with some of them for the first time in R Balki’s Cheeni Kum and it was a joy to be with them. They convey in a few seconds what many of us get to convey in three hours! I would not be able to do that.

I see many of them now getting prominent roles in film and that is most laudable.

IA: Sir, do you feel your values and your basic way of working have changed over the years?

AB: I have never had a ‘way of working’. I was never trained. I took whatever came my way and diligently did what the director told me to do. At the right moment, you feel a trigger and it just comes out. It’s a very peculiar feeling.

I won’t name the actor but there was this actor who had to do a shot where he was to show his face angered and with blood shot eyes. Having seen another actor devise a method of getting his eyes all red and blood shot, he tried the same technique... just before the take he bent down, held his breath and when he was ready said ‘ya ready... take’. He stood up after the clap had gone and simply … fainted!

Some processes of working, as you can see, just do not work.

So you have to devise your own method. For an emotional scene you start thinking of all the horrid moments in your personal life … you know … maa marr gayi, baap marr gaya, bhai marr gaya, kuch ho gaya… and you often question why we were thinking so… and I have often wondered that in doing so, imagining the worse that may happen to a member of your family, when, God forbid, it happens in real life, would the emotion and tears that come at the moment be real? Having done several scenes where the mother or a dear one dies and you have enacted that moment, does the feeling of the loss come at the time when it really happens? In life we shall lose a mother or father just once… in film we have lost them many times over… so what of the emotions… which ones shall bear the real tears! These are fears that I have faced!

IA: Have the emotional scenes you have essayed ever disturbed you later?

AB: I am fortunate to be able to separate them from reality. When I leave the studio, it’s over. But as I just said earlier, the fear of those emotions coming back to you when unfortunate incidents happen is a question I have not been able to answer.

RS: After four decades plus, does a film’s box-office performance have the same effect on you as it must have earlier?

AB: It’s just the same. Because apart from the finances, box office performance is an acknowledgment, or a reflection of your work. If it doesn’t do well, you feel the film didn’t work because your work was not appreciated. Unfortunately, sometimes, when a film doesn’t do well, it just disappears and you might have done a fantastic job in it. As a director, filmmaker or an artiste, you may have done a fantastic job and you will always remember some portions of it. But when it fails no one remembers the probable good work done in them!

RS: Can you name any film that you feel was not appreciated by the audience, in spite of it being a good film?

AB: Nishabd was one of them. I felt it was a very bold subject. The film had moments that I had never done before. Alaap was a good story. It’s a real-life story from Allahabad. The leading man’s role in the film, or the character that I played was the son of a very prominent lawyer. And Main Azaad Hoon was a very strong movie at the time.

SS: Sir, will you ever direct?

AB: I don’t know direction. Shoojit, how do you guys do it? I don’t know camera kaha ghumau, kaise chalau… (Laughs)

IA: Hum bhi waha acting hi kar rahe hote hain (Laughs)

SS: Has it never occurred to you?

AB: No it has not because I really don’t know the craft … But who knows what tomorrow may have in store for you!

SS: Is there any actor you look upto in the world, senior or upcoming?

AB: I have always admired Dilip saab. I admire the younger generation… Naseeruddin Shah, Irrfan and Nawaz. Nawazuddin. What a brilliant actor, remember, Shoojit I asked you why he was doing this chutki role (in a film made by Shoojit not released)? A small portion in a film that will probably never be noticed?

RS: Today, a lot of actors and directors are doing television, which is a trend kicked off by KBC. What were you thinking when you decided to do KBC?

AB: A couple of years before KBC happened, I was on a private visit to New York in 1991-92. Studios like Warner Brothers and Fox used to invite me over to meet them. I used to wonder, kya hai? Mujhe ko kyun milna chahte hain? Initially, I used to ignore these invitations but someone once said, ‘Where’s the harm meeting them?’ We went to Warner Bros or Sony… I forget which studio, and dedh ghante tak uske CEO ne non-stop baat kiya and sirf Hindi film industry ke bare mein.

They shared every detail about how many films we made, who the distributors were, every artiste and filmmaker. And this was in 1991. I returned from the meeting and during a chat with a lawyer-friend there, I shared these details with him. He said, ‘Mr Bachchan, go back to India and get your house in order. The Americans are coming.’ That was in 1991 and they are here now.

Many studio heads that you meet, want to know what they can make here in India … that’s like ‘mere pet mein kyun laat maar rahe ho’.

In the past years Hollywood has entered the film markets of most European countries and destroyed their local produce… coming to India would mean the same. They have made inroads and have been successful to some extent, but due to our cultural differences they will face problems. Fantasy and special effect films and films of action may find better favour.

But to come back to the question, yes many actors and directors are thinking television. My own decision to enter KBC was perhaps more accidental and lead by certain personal conditions, but it did happen and continues for several years… almost 13 to be precise!

Now I am doing a serial and it’s very fascinating. Anurag (Kashyap) sent me a script, which I read. It was fine. Then he asked for another week before he sent me the dialogue. On the first day of the shoot, he said something very strange, ‘Dialogue wailogue aapne yaad kar liya hoga. Ab aap dialogue ko phaadke phek do and say whatever comes to mind. You know the situation, you know, at the back of your mind the context of the scene… forget the written lines and enact and say what comes to your mind in the given situation!

IA: Was he (Anurag Kashyap) shooting with many cameras?

AB: Yes, three cameras, and whether a one-page dialogue or ten-page dialogue, the entire scene was one shot. It was superb. He allows you to take your time and speak, to understand and get into the scene. He is definitely very talented.

IA: Sir, I have to ask you a success-related question.

AB: Okay.

IA: I don’t think anyone will ever see an era as big as the Amitabh Bachchan era. People were breaking down doors at cinema halls, literally. I was there.

AB: Where was this?

IA: Jamshedpur.

AB: I was not aware of this.

IA: Exactly, you wouldn’t know.

RS: I was watching Don and people were throwing coins at the screen. I collected them and bought an ice-cream with them after the movie ended.

IA: Humare yahan toh theka nikalta tha, aaj ke coins kaun collect karega, boli lagti thi. Jamshedpur’s cinemas had iron benches. During the interval, the audience watched one slide of Giraftaar and they broke 20 iron benches and everyone started shouting ‘Amitabh Bachchan!’

AB: I didn’t know about this.

IA: You cannot deny that you have been a cult figure all your life. How have you managed to keep it together? How have you handled it?

AB: I really don’t have the answer to that question. But when I think about it… I think we are all very insecure and insecurity keeps you working harder and harder. So you think, ‘Yeh toh ho gaya, woh wala kya hoga?’ And your focus shifts to the next film. I can’t speak for other artistes but I feel very insecure.

IA: Success went to the head of many of your contemporaries. But that has never been said of you.

AB: I cannot say about my contemporaries… and I feel it would be wrong to make such strong assessments of them. I have never felt very strongly about this aspect.

IA: Did it make you even more disciplined?

AB: I feel this is a temporary phase in any artiste’s life. Every year, I feel like this is it, saal dedh saal aur chalega, do-chaar picture aur lena hain yeh fir toh khatam hi hona hain. I guess insecurity makes me always look for an opportunity. I keep wondering what if this doesn’t work? What should I do? It is quite possible that television was at the point when pack up for films happened. Rohit, let me answer your question about KBC.

The company I launched, AB Corp, went through a rough phase. The enterprise was a new and fresh concept. Advisors told me, executives would be needed to run the show. We hired them, but somehow it did not work out and we went into heavy losses and outstanding payments. Claims to the tune of almost 100 cr faced me everyday. I was bankrupt, with no work and debt collectors on my door each morning, not to mention the tax liabilities and the frightening pressures from the Department – they even put a ‘kudki’ on my residence Prateeksha. That’s when KBC came like a surprise. Three months of doing the show took care of my expenses. And gradually after that I was contracted for more episodes and that is how I was able to pay back all my debts. We had over 200 employees then, now we are streamlined, we have just 2.

But somewhere… I think in 1991, when I was in America, it did come to mind that the business of entertainment in India was very peculiar… quite peculiar to any other format that existed in any other part of the world. At that time, my brother who was in England was associated with starting Asian television there. We were the first people to start satellite TV. And all the popular content on TV then had its origins in films. So our films were being used for content to show on television. Our music and songs were also an asset. Music and songs were also used for stage shows that were hugely popular then, something that I had initiated in 1981 and 1983.

Around that time during one of my visits to Los Angeles, my lawyers set up a meeting with Mr Rupert Murdoch. He met us with all his top executives, and asked me a simple question... ‘How much content do you have?’

Maine toh pahli dafa yeh word suna, maine kaha malum nahi. You should have seen his expression. He said, ‘You know Mr Shah?’ I said, ‘Who is Mr Shah?’ Mere bagal mein mera ek friend tha and he whispered, ‘Dhirubhai Shah.’ Can you believe that in 1991, they asked me about Dhirubhai Shah of Times Audio simply because he had the rights to 3,000 films and those guys knew it! They wanted to strike a content deal with him.

That’s when I realised that content is king. That’s where I perhaps realised that whatever you do in entertainment will become ‘content’, whether you sing a song, or dance or make a film, whether you give a speech, whether you work for television.

KBC to me was a godsend! And that is how the association began…

RS: And you’re still doing it.

AB: Yes I am still doing it! I was unaware of the terminology used by the executives of television to describe success on it, so when Peter Mukerjea came to meet me soon after the first broadcast of KBC, to tell me the TRP’s were very big, I did not know what TRP’s meant. I still don’t! But the ratings were huge and they wanted me to continue and contracted me for another 200 approx episodes.

Each entertainment module is fascinating and exciting, be it film or theatre or television, or any other form that may follow in the coming years. For me it’s a great learning experience and opportunity. I still wish I could enrol in a University to learn acting or any other facet of filmmaking… go to an institute like say Columbia Film School in New York or something...

IA: You should do it; it would be very refreshing for you.

AB: Yes learning new aspects of the business would be most wonderful.

IA: Sir, have you grown up as a confident person?

AB: No, very non-confident.

IA: Before you became an actor too?

AB: Before, during, even now. I have just finished recording three episodes of KBC 7 this season and I am scared because, after two days, I will have to go on the sets again. Every time I go on the sets, it’s frightening.

IA: You don’t think you are good enough or do you not have sufficient self-worth?

AB: I never did. I don’t think that, during our time, we used words like self-assessment and self-analysis. Now, you have professional people doing everything for you. Which is what I like about today’s generation. How they diversify their work, work with a huge team. Everything is structured and somebody takes responsibility of everything.

I have not grown up with that kind of work culture.

It’s a kind of outsourcing that today’s makers and artistes do – professionals proficient in a particular vocation take over the responsibility of taking care of a certain aspect.

Take continuity for example in film shoots... today designated assistants not just keep record on paper, but have cameras, iPads etc to have a fool proof methodolgy in place to justify continuity.

In a Manmohan Desai film of mine, a black mark after a fight sequence moved to five different locations on my face within a span of two minutes film time!

When questioned he would remark, ‘Chalna yaar.. karna tu scene itna detail mereko nahi chahiye.’ He would get upset. What does it matter, idhar ho yah udhar kaun dehkne wala hain? Nobody. And that’s how it was!

Today, more specific attention is paid to this faculty. ‘Mera haath kidhar tha pichle shot mein, kya dialogue kahan kaise bola tha...’ and so on. It’s a great exercise. Keeps the actor thinking all the time, there is a certain dependability attached to it. They must remember what they do, what they say, whether what they say or do is right or wrong, rather than to be fed by a team.

But the artistes of today have done a management exercise on their work. They have a team that moves and works along with them – managers, finance people, legal, PR etc. Essential I would imagine in today’s times. Leading ladies move about with an entire office that guides and takes care of so many aspects of their work, for that is the need of the hour!

SS: People are getting smarter and their understanding is becoming sharper.

AB: Yes, it keeps us on our toes.

SS: They even decide which films to watch.

AB: Absolutely.

IA: Also, I think while dealing with an actor, we should not restrict them all that much with regard to continuity in the next shot, so that he thinks about continuity while taking the shot.

AB: Yeah, that’s one way to look at it.

IA: And how many people will one deal with?

AB: Exactly! I once went for an interview in New York for a program of mine and before me there was a prominent Hollywood star talking to the interviewer. I waited in a side room filled with some other people, who I later came to know were the Star’s team. When his interview was over he first went straight to the team to check if what he had spoken was alright – expressions, language, thoughts, words, legal aspects, brand protection, PR… the works! I had no such team!

I asked Leonardo DiCaprio during the shooting of Gatsby how he managed this. He said, ‘I don’t like to keep a group.’ He is his own manager and decides which films he does and which he doesn’t. Then, he introduced me to two people and said, ‘This is my friend and the other one is my guy.’ That was it… just two people.

IA: Just as a senior, if you could tell us, just sometime, I think about an alternate morality that people of our industry are blamed for, and because our interaction with the truth is perhaps more detailed, I don’t know what it is, but do you think it’s valid? Do you think that people in our work are influenced by more pressure or the conventional morality doesn’t work on them, or ethics really don’t work on them?

AB: I think it depends on your personal belief and thought.

It also has something to do with what you wish to portray in your story that you wish to tell. Playing different characters possessing different moralities, unlike your own in real life could bring up the so called blame that you enquire about. A star or actor may never have gone beyond playing a pauper in film after film, yet he may in real life be anything but that. Is that morally or socially correct? Is there blame attached to it? Is the conduct of the actor or his living condition not in keeping with the chracter he or she plays? Is a director or writer wishing to bring up an issue in the creativity that he actually believes in or is it a mere commercial decision? These are very difficult questions to answer and answers to it could invite differing opinions.

I would like to believe that all those connected with creativity or the creative arts, are socially and morally conscious individuals. And in a free society like ours have the constitutional right to express themselves freely. It may gain recognition; it may invite anger and dissatisfaction, to the extent of it getting abhorred. But putting pressure on content or dictating ethics must come from legal constitutional bodies that are appointed by the system. Alternate morality could come from your own personal take on how you wish your work to be seen – just mere artistics, or is there a modicum of commerce attached to it also, are some of the factors that come to mind.

Rohit feels action of a certain kind needs a presence in his films… ‘jab tak dus baarah gaadi na blow up ho usse tasalli nahin hoti’ fine! That is his point of view and if it is being enjoyed by the audience, he has succeeded.

Imtiaz... you have certain beliefs on the subjects you choose, why you chose to make Rockstar and how you wanted to portray certain visuals or thoughts.

I have many questions on why Shoojit made Madras Café. Why this subject and how did he manage to shoot in such locations, where and how did he get that amazing casting.

Incidentally Shoojit, in the film were those helicopters real or CG effects?

SS: Some were real, some we created digitally.

AB: So as you can see, each of you has a point of view and thought process.

When Manji came to me for Amar Akbar Anthony, I thought he was mad to think of a title such as this at a time when films carried titles in the nature of Badi Behen, Bhai Bhai and so on… a more family social kind. But he was adamant, ‘Tu dekhna picture release ke baad tere ko log sadak pe Anthony bhai nahin bola to main apni naak kaat loonga!’ He was right! But that was his conviction and its strength and his belief.

He lived in Kherwadi, a closed compact common man habitat or colony of the middle class. After success he wished to move out from there and bought a plush apartment in the more affluent region of South Bombay, but felt uncomfortable after living there for a very short time and moved back to his Kherwadi residence, among the common people, where ‘agar haath apni balcony se badhao toh doosre ghar ko chu sakte ho’, where in the narrow ‘gali’ of the colony he would play cricket with a tennis ball with his neighbours.

His surroundings may have been middle class common man, but his thinking was of a revolving restaurant and it catching fire and placing the entire climax of his film Naseeb in it.

He was ideally placed personally to make a film on middle class India, but he made over the top ideas. Who knows why, and who knows what went into his thinking to be so.

SS: Sir, since I am a Bengali, I simply have to ask you… Did you ever approach Mr Satyajit Ray or vice-versa to do a film together?

AB: Yes, he wanted to make a film on the Bhopal tragedy with me. He said, ‘Amitabh we must work.’ I don’t know what happened after that, maybe the issue became too sensitive or international. He never talked about it but I imagined that was because the issue was becoming very controversial and he would not have been able to tackle the subject as truthfully as it had happened. But I did voiceover for Shatranj Ke Khiladi and spent some time with him while he was editing one of his films in Kolkata

At that time we used to have the moviola. You loaded the film on a spool and ran it with your feet, much like the old sewing machines. His decisions were so precise and exact, even in those equipments which we today cannot even think of using. ‘Us zamaane mein, reel chadhate the, phir chalate they, phir rok ke edit karte the, phir usse kaat ke joda jaata tha, aur phir se usse chalate the… Today a laptop can edit an entire film!

IA: And then you can undo it.

AB: His room was a delight for me to watch because it was the most untidy room I had ever seen. There were millions of books, papers and hardly any space to sit. And then suddenly he would get up and start playing the piano. Then he would talk about something, and despite the turmoil in the room, he knew exactly where a book he wanted was. He would always pick up a book relating to the subject he was talking about. We were very lucky to have seen him at work.

Times are good even today. The industry is going through an incredible period!

SS: I think credit goes to the audience and the way they are lapping up stories I never expected them `to. I think the audience is evolving.

IA: They have evolved already; I think they are ahead of us. I think we have to catch up to them.

SS: Yeah, we should not underestimate them at all.

AB: Of course, it has to do with the fact that television is also coming up with best instantly and that, sort of, helps them evolve.

IA: It also forces us to look deeper within ourselves for our own stories.

AB: Yes, every time there has been something different from the regular league, it has always been appreciated. In some of our old films, in just two minutes, you knew yeh villain hain, yeh isko maarega aur yeh ending hoga. That concept no longer exists. Now you don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s interesting. You hasten with the speed of narration, otherwise, the audience will get up to get popcorn, or get busy on their mobile phones. They watch the film as well as chat on their phones at the same time.

And we find ourselves wanting to do the same thing. You want to take a phone call, you want to operate your laptop, you want to talk to someone, you want to watch television at the same time. Everyone is multi-tasking. They say when you multi-task your mind works better… some agree, others do not!

BOI: Thank you so much sir, it has been a great honour.

AB: Contrarily, it’s a great honor for me to be in conversation with these immensely talented and successful directors, and for Box Office India to bring all of us together. We all read what you put out and we all watch and wait patiently what Rohit and Shoojit and Imtiaz shall bring out next!

 


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