“Don’t be late. This is Amitabh Bachchan. He is always dot on time. Please be assured that he won’t keep you waiting like the others.” The person on the other end of the phone was a well-known Bollywood PR agent and at that time, he was the PR-in-charge of a film starring Mr Bachchan. This conversation happened more than 12 years back but the trepidation in his voice is still fresh in my memory. Mr. PR was unerringly polite but he admitted (later on) that he was a little uncomfortable about the fact that the entertainment editor (who usually interviewed Mr Bachchan for the paper) was indisposed for the interview as she was out-of-town.
So, on other days, perhaps I would never get a chance to interview Mr Bachchan but it was one of those lucky days when the newsroom was short of staff. So, the responsibility of doing the ‘big interview’ came upon me. Hence, Parag was told to call me for the interview.
The PR team would later send me three reminder text messages and two calls to drive home the point that I was supposed to show up at least half an hour early at the Sun and Sand Hotel in Juhu where the interview was scheduled. That was the first time I was meeting Mr Bachchan and it would be first of the numerous times that I would meet him over the next 10 years. But as they say, it was the first impression that mattered the most. To my surprise, Mr Bachchan was half an hour early at the venue. The PR team took 15 more minutes to start the interviews. I was second in line and my interview began fifteen minutes late as Parag was waiting for another hot-shot reporter to arrive who was perennially ‘stuck in traffic’ (yeah, some journalists never change). Finally, I was taken into the hotel suite where Mr Bachchan was waiting, wearing a white kurta pyjama, a Gandhi suit and a brown Kashmiri shawl casually wrapped around his right shoulder across the chest. Our photographer followed us.
Mr Bachchan first started with an apology. “I am sorry the interview is beginning late. I wanted to inform you that I was on time. Hello. I am Amitabh Bachchan. Please have a seat.” I introduced myself and then looked around. There were two more people in the room — one was holding a video camera which looked like a handy-cam and the other, a DSLR camera. There was a lapel mike on the table which was connected to the handy-cam. Both the cameras pointed towards me. Mr Bachchan was recording and video-graphing the interview simultaneously. This means, he will have an exact copy of his answers which technically rules out all exit points to escape if I ever misquote him or try to create a controversy out of nowhere. As a newspaper journalist, I was not used to Bollywood actors recording their own interviews, I was suitably intimidated. I thought he was upset as the interview started late. Usually, when film-stars get upset, there is a direct effect on the quality of answers you get from them.
Going by the grim air around me, I told myself that this ‘opportunity’ that the editor had gracefully passed onto me, would be wasted and I wouldn’t get a chance to interview an A-list Bollywood star again. And so I began with questions about the film he was promoting. They were very mundane and routine questions like, “Tell us about your role in the film”. I was carrying a list of questions with me and I kept that A4 size paper beside me on the sofa, never bothering to glance at it even once. After five questions and fifteen minutes later, I was done. There was an awkward silence that hung heavy for 30 seconds.
“Are you done?” Mr Bachchan asked.
“Then why did you stop the interview”
“Sir I am interviewing you for the first time…”
“I know that. You usually don’t take interviews of Bollywood actors.”
“….Err…The other questions I have don’t pertain to the film. Some questions are rather controversial….”
“Would you mind if I asked you those?”
“Please go ahead. I will answer them if I know the answers.”
I asked 10 more questions that day. He answered each one of them till my time was up. I asked every question that I wanted to. Never once did he say, “No comments”. As I stood up, he stood up too. Amitabh Bachchan then took two steps towards me and extended his hand. I shook his palm. The surface of his palm was tough. His grip… tougher. “(I am) Looking forward to read the interview tomorrow,” was Mr Bachchan’s parting note. That day onwards, I discovered a man who is unlike any other Bollywood star. I met many stars from that day on. I met Hollywood stars too, spoke to many others over the phone. I discovered what sets Mr Bachchan aside. What makes him the legend that he is. And why he is the longest surviving superstar in the world.
Two days later the heavily edited interview was published (there was no space to publish the entire interview). The film only found a courtesy mention as the reason why the interview was held. I am sure the PR was upset about it but he never mentioned anything to me. The content of the interview was such that it was carried on page one of the newspaper. I sent him a text message that it has been published. He replied within 15 minutes. He said that he had read it and ended with a small ‘thanks’. It was not a PR who was answering on his behalf but himself. That day I learnt that Mr Bachchan answers all his text messages, himself. From that day to this day, Mr Bachchan has acknowledged and answered every message, every mail, every letter that I had sent him. He has always been polite even when he could not accept my invitation or proposal. From that day onwards, he has recognised me even in a crowd of faces. I have met him everywhere — his KBC set, at Jalsa, Janak, Prateeksha, JW Marriott…. wherever he is usually available for interviews. He has always recognised me and addressed me by my name. Mr Bachchan also gave me a few interviews without his videographer being there, which was a sign of his trust in me.
My interactions with him has not always been smooth though. There were some articles that I never mustered the courage to inform him about. The working relationship hit a low when another reporter did a few gossip stories about Aishwarya Rai’s marriage to his son, Abhishek Bachchan. At that time, Mr Bachchan made his displeasure very clear to us. He even sent us a legal notice when our paper did a story about Aishwarya and Abhishek moving out of Prateeksha to their ‘own’ bungalow in Bandra. It was later revealed that the Bungalow belonged to somebody else. He reprimanded me over a text message when he thought that I had shrewdly brought him into the picture (of a news story) when he had no role to play in the developments. Luckily, I was not sent a notice. One day, as I stopped reporting, the interactions stopped too. But he has always been polite to me. Not once did he refuse to interact with me based on what my paper reported (or any such aberration on my part). He still answered all my text messages. He is the only Bollywood star who I asked for a personal favour once. I asked him for a foreword to a book that my boss (a newspaper editor) had authored. He sent a handwritten foreword on his letterhead without me having to remind him for a second time. Whatever messages I have left with Rosy Singh (his secretary) has always reached him and I have got a call back whenever the message was delivered to him.
Now, to the most important point of the day…
Even after I left reporting for good, he continued to acknowledge me and my communication. Here is the last letter that I received from him when I invited him to my college’s Orientation Day. As usual, my letter had mistakes. Take a look how politely he has corrected me. There is a reason why Mr Bachchan is Amitabh Bachchan. The reason is very simple: All the decisions and communications from Mr Amitabh Bachchan come from none other than… Mr Amitabh Bachchan. PS. He receives thousands of messages on his birthday. I had sent him a birthday wish a couple of years back. He didn’t reply within 15 minutes. He replied after a few days.
Do you know why? He replied with a brief “Thanks” to each message because all my journalist colleagues who wished him, got an acknowledgement! Yes, to my calculation, he was sending out thousands of acknowledgement to people who wished him on his birthday. For the record, the word ‘acknowledgement’ is an alien concept for today’s Bollywood crop.
Today’s Bollywood stars are like HR departments of renowned corporations in India. They never acknowledge that they have received your mail unless they want you to join the company on their own terms. But Big B is different and that’s why he is the legend he is.