I REMEMBER Amitabh Bachchan’s 74th birthday last year. I happened to be interviewing him for HT Brunch. He was meeting-and-greeting fans at Pratiksha and Jalsa: his old and first home in Mumbai; and, the newer one down the road respectively. Also Janak, his arty office a stone’s throw away, where the media waited restlessly for him to cut a cake. The fans in their hundreds maintained a buzzing vigil outside all three addresses. Some had been waiting from 6 am. They would wait till Mr. Bachchan went to bed.
I was inside Jalsa talking to him. Beyond its gates, blocking the footpath and the road, the fans gathered, cell phones ready. That was the scene outside Pratiksha and Janak too. The police had to ask Mr. Bachchan to step out and wave to the people so that they could move the crowds and allow traffic to flow. Each time he did that, I would hear a wild and appreciative roar from outside.
I’ve never known him to willingly take a holiday. But he won’t shoot on his birthday. That’s a rare concession he allows himself. He wasn’t partying, either. He’s notoriously reticent in this matter. “I’m not interested in celebrating,” he told me in exasperation. “There’s nothing special about the day. Another year’s gone by. This thing about age exists only in the media. What fuss and unnecessary attention is given to this day. It’s not as significant as, perhaps, saying a film has completed 50 weeks!”
Seventy-four wasn’t a milestone year like his 70th birthday in 2012 was. Jaya Bachchan had brought in his eighth decade with the mother-of-all parties at Anil Ambani’s Reliance MediaWorks in Film City. It was a black tie affair that lasted four hours and included an Indian ballet, who performed to poems by Dr. Harivansh Rai Bachchan, the launch of a coffee table book of paintings of the actor by 70 great artists, a documentary on his life and times, and a sit-down dinner, music and dancing. Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, the family’s couturiers, dressed Mr. Bachchan up for the night.
That was a defining day. Overnight, he became a septuagenarian. Even while his last film, Ram Gopal Varma’s Department, in which he played a gangster and politician, had his old swagger, rebellion and controlled violence of 40 years ago. But he didn’t look a day older at 70 than he did at his 50th birthday two decades ago. Mr. Bachchan was semi-retired then. He had no more films. He had grown a salt-and-pepper moustache and beard and reclusively slipped into the role of the retiree behind the high walls of Pratiksha. Yet 20 years later, Bipasha Basu said she found Mr. Bachchan “extremely hot” and “far too sexy” for 70. “Bipasha’s joking!” he reacted. “At my age, people only want to take a selfie with me. That happens with anybody when they first come face to face with somebody they have watched and admired on screen for years. It happened with me as well – with Dilip Kumar saab. Suddenly, I was working with him. I was dumbstruck!”
This year, Mr. Bachchan has shot down all plans for a mega 75th birthday celebration. On his blog on Monday, he wrote that there was no big party, and if anybody was planning one, he would not allow it or even acknowledge it. “I shall not be there,” he threatened. He’s also not doing any interviews. He’s got a packed work schedule which includes Thugs of Hindostan with Aamir Khan, 102 Not Out with Rishi Kapoor, and Season 9 of Kaun Banega Crorepati. Aamir told me that at 75, Mr. Bachchan was performing amazing fight scenes. “He’s back to action in Thugs of Hindostan, that’s always been his forte,” Aamir said.
When I talked to him about his age, and his indefatigable spirit, his inexhaustible energy, Mr. Bachchan was not amused. “So what if I’ll be 75?” he argued, “I want to continue working. Why? Because I’m getting work! Of course, I don’t enjoy the same popularity and attention. But I can live with that. Acting is a profession connected to physicality. Like sports. Athletes can’t perform beyond a certain age. Look at Usain Bolt, at 30 he knows he can’t compete in the next Olympic Games, if he does – he won’t win. Actors also depend on physical presence. If my face is acceptable, and my body responds, I’ll go ahead. But I can’t do certain characters and films. People should understand an actor’s work gets limited due to the physical changes that come with age.”
That might be true, but producers are getting scripts written for Mr. Bachchan, his image is being redefined. Bluntly, he disagreed: “I didn’t create the angry young man in the 70s, Salim-Javed did. Actors don’t go out to make an image. Writers do. I was just looking for more work. If the directors thought I was the actor who could enact those roles, then I just tried to do justice to their belief.” But he’s also doing things he never did before. While shooting for Pink in Delhi, he roamed the crowded streets in a pollution mask unrecognised, then blogged, “This is what life is all about, it’s called indifference, happens to all that were once recognisable.” In Kolkata on a location shoot for Te3N, he rode a rattletrap of a scooter, and tweeted, “It’s fascinating, such opportunities are rare, one should preserve such moments.” For Piku also in Kolkata, he cycled along the tram lines, taking bystanders in the City of Joy by surprise. In Wazir, he got the hang of riding an electric powered wheelchair – after trying out 43 models!
He talked about his choice of roles and the challenge of getting under the skin of his characters and into their clothes. His look in recent films has swung between bizarre and breath-taking. And the costumes he’s worn have ranged from retro to high street. Mr. Bachchan’s carried them all off with abandon. “I believe you enjoy what you’re doing or don’t do it,” he said. “For me, it’s all about doing something new. Creativity is not a 9 to 5 job, it comes from enthusiasm. I enjoy being alive, I look for a new struggle, a new experience every day. An artiste has no right to say he’s satisfied. As for my look, ‘manage’ is an apt expression of my predicament. There’s a lot of huffing and puffing and energy drinks. It’s also embarrassing at times. But when it’s inevitable, and you have a group of youngsters egging you on with expressions like ‘Cool’, you start believing them and go for it.”
He wasn’t about to analyse himself. “I’ve always thought of myself as an actor doing his job to the best of his ability,” Mr. Bachchan explained. “But I feel the film industry is going through a wonderful phase. And I’m not just talking about success at the box office, which is a healthy trend thanks to multiplexes at the B and C centres, but of this whole new acceptance by the audience towards new age cinema and the fact that filmmakers are willing to back a good story with young and unknown talent that’s able to do marvellous work rather than big names. This progress excites me. It was different in our time, we had lots of opportunities to make mistakes – but the actors today, they have to be bang on with their first film, or they face rejection.”
Finally, we talked about age. He was turning 75. What were his fears? Did he think about death? That he had more years behind him than he had before him? Amitabh Bachchan replied honestly, “Age to me is the number of years I’ve been alive. And I can’t think ahead beyond a couple of years. That’s life. When I hear our leaders talk about the future, about some wonderful project that will fructify in 20 years, I know I won’t be around to see that happen. That’s reality. Death is inevitable. Of course, I have fears. I’ve had my share of illnesses. They have been serious, sometimes debilitating, I’ve been scared. At the back of my mind is the thought that I need to get back, to repair and return to work, because I want secure my family. Each time I went under operation, I’d ask the surgeon, ‘How many times have you done this? I hope you’re not going to mess it up this time.’ That’s life.”