I've known Amitabh Bachchan for long, as fan and friend. Fan, from the time I saw him in Bombay To Goa way back in 1972; right until Khuda Gawah in 1992. Twenty years. That's when he stopped working for a while. And that's also when I got to know him. I think when this happens, when you meet and interact with an idol, see him from up close, warts and all, then the craze you had for him and the reverence you held him in slowly turns into a kind of respectful friendship.
That's what happened with me.
Mr. Bachchan was alone and depressed. He spoke his heart out, telling me things I still remember but cannot repeat.
Mr. Bachchan was in retirement, I don't know why. He was just 50. That's a milestone in anybody's life, but not the age to give up on anything. Look at him today—at 74 he is energy-plus and all over the place; yet in 1992, he had taken a back seat at 50. True, he was no longer the Angry Young Man of such cult films as Zanjeer, Deewar and Trishul. But he was still the biggest actor the Hindi film industry had. And the industry let Mr. Bachchan pull the curtain down on himself when he had so many years of great cinema still left in him. I couldn't understand it.
I think he was at an ambiguous stage in life. Films had tired him out. He wanted a break. And he went into business for himself. Unfortunately, his Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited (ABCL) didn't run on the same dynamic fuel that fired the actor in Mr. Bachchan. It was a disaster that left him embarrassed and in a financial mess.
Reclusively, he slipped into the role of the retiree behind the high walls of his residence Pratiksha in Juhu; he grew a salt-and-pepper moustache and beard, started dressing in kurta-pajama and shawl. People uncharitably said he looked old. Perhaps he did, but at 74 today—he does not look a day older than what he did 24 years ago. Age cannot wither him nor custom stale his infinite variety.
Critics wrote him off. Suddenly he had no more films. And Kaun Banega Crorepati was not even a dream of Rupert Murdoch's Star TV. The films Mr. Bachchan made after coming out of retirement, like Mrityudaata, Bade Miyan Chhote Miyan and Lal Badshah, failed to work the old magic for him at the box-office. They all flopped. The industry began to snigger behind his back. And closed the doors on him.
I hung around with him as Planet M slowly filled up with the socialites and celebrities who made Page 3 happen. They ignored Mr. Bachchan.
These were, I believe, his worst years. I remember sharing a midnight vigil with Mr. Bachchan on plastic bucket seats in the waiting room outside the ICCU of Breach Candy Hospital. His father, Dr. Harivansh Rai Bachchan, was inside, hooked on to life support systems, frail, old and ill. A poet in the winter of his life. Mr. Bachchan was alone and depressed. He spoke his heart out, telling me things I still remember but cannot repeat.
But this incident I must share.
It was 1999 and he was working on Mohabbatein. The story goes that in desperation Mr. Bachchan asked Yash Chopra for work. This tale was being unkindly spread by people who are today back to being his friends. And Yash Chopra, who tragically made his last public appearance at Mr. Bachchan's 70th birthday party in 2012, offered him Mohabbatein opposite Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai.
One evening, the launch of a friend's book at the music retail store Planet M, I ran into Mr. Bachchan. He'd been invited by Parmeshwar Godrej, who was hosting the party. She was the title sponsor of Miss World 1996 that his ABCL had brought to Bangalore. The invite said 8.30pm. He came at 8.30pm straight from the studio where he was shooting with Shah Rukh Khan, thinking he was going to release the book. There was nobody at Planet M except the caterers and decorators.
My friend told me in a conspiratorial whisper, "It's not him, but SRK who's releasing the book." I will never forget Mr. Bachchan's expression when I broke the news.
I reached at 9.30pm, to wish the author good luck, on my way to another engagement. I found only Mr. Bachchan there, looking lost. He hailed me gratefully. I hung around with him as Planet M slowly filled up with the socialites and celebrities who made Page 3 happen. They ignored Mr. Bachchan. My friend, the author, told me in a conspiratorial whisper, "It's not him, but SRK who's releasing the book." I will never forget his expression when I broke the news to Mr. Bachchan. He truly is a great actor. He hid his surprise and hurt and said, "But I was shooting with Shah Rukh and he never mentioned this to me..."
Shah Rukh Khan being Shah Rukh Khan went home from the studio, showered and changed, and came to Planet M after 11pm. By which time Mr. Bachchan and I were sitting on the staircase waiting and talking. When the time came to cut the ribbon and launch the book, Parmesh Godrej graciously invited Mr. Bachchan on the stage to say a few words. He couldn't refuse.
This was like an Oscar moment. He stood there with his head bowed and said, "I feel like that man in the limerick..." And he recited:
"A funny young man from Hyde
On a funeral carriage was spied
When asked who was dead
Giggled and said, 'I don't know I came for the ride'..."
There was pin-drop silence. I don't think there was anybody who had been ignoring Mr. Bachchan that evening who did not get his message. I wanted to applaud. But I didn't. Instead, I silently wished Mr. Bachchan good luck in life and films, because if there was one actor who needed it in the industry most right then, it was him.
From the very next year KBC began making multi-millionaires out of ordinary Indians. But it also changed the fortune and reshaped the destiny of Amitabh Bachchan. I'm happy for him. We are still friends. He wishes me for my birthday and today I wish him for his 74th. The picture of us was taken at Planet M. We are sitting on the staircase, waiting for the curtain to go up.
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