This is a Bachchan story you won't read anywhere else. It's not so much about Amitabh Bachchan. Who, 48 years after he entered films, is still receiving Best Actor trophies at popular Bollywood awards functions for his outstanding contribution to Hindi cinema. No, this is about his distinguished father, the legendary Hindi poet Dr. Harivansh Rai Bachchan, whose 14th death anniversary is today. He would have been 100 this year. The father, I think, was the single largest influence on the son's life.
I met Dr. Harivansh Rai one chilly evening in November 1996. It was his 89th birthday, and he was sitting wrapped up in a shawl among pillows, and watching an Amitabh Bachchan film on video. We were at Pratiksha, the Bachchan family's cozy bungalow in JVPD Scheme, suburban Mumbai; Dr. Harivansh Rai was in a large room on the ground floor.
Fighting tiredness, Mr. Bachchan read his father's works to a packed gallery. What he did to them with his voice and interpretation was absolutely amazing. This was poetry in motion.
I thought the film was a birthday treat for the father. But Amitabh Bachchan told me that it was Dr. Harivansh Rai's practice to see a film of his every evening. He was even at that time frail and unwell, a poet in the winter of his life. And because he could no longer be actively involved with his own work, which was literature, he kept himself occupied with his son's.
Likewise, Mr. Bachchan had a deep interest in his father's works.
I discovered this in 1998. Dr. Harivansh Rai had taken seriously ill and was admitted to the ICCU at Breach Candy Hospital. He wasn't fighting for his life—at his age there was no fight left, but he was just struggling to hold on to it. Mr. Bachchan, ever the dutiful son, camped at the hospital. He sat in the visitors' room day and night, catching short naps in his van that was standing below in the hospital's parking lot.
These were his years in the wilderness. Before Kaun Banega Crorepati like a dramatic film script rewrote his destiny in 2000. His attempt at business had collapsed with the liquidation of his Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited. His return to the screen suffered one setback after another as he made disastrous films that didn't appeal to his old fans. He was embarrassed, in a financial mess, and without too many friends.
I shared one midnight vigil with him outside the hospital's ICCU. Dr. Harivansh Rai was inside, hooked onto life support systems, and Mr. Bachchan and I sat on plastic bucket seats and talked late into the night about his father and his poems. By sheer coincidence, Mr. Bachchan was reciting these poems at the National Gallery of Modern Art the next evening for the British Council. Courteously, he invited me to go with him. I won't forget that evening. Fighting tiredness, Mr. Bachchan read his father's works to a packed gallery. What he did to them with his voice and interpretation was absolutely amazing. This was poetry in motion. I came away impressed. And he went home to get some rest.
Breach Candy Hospital caught its breath, doctors, nurses and ward boys watched in spellbound silence, and Mr. Bachchan gave the hour-long performance all over again.
Later, he told me that early next morning, he woke up unusually disturbed. The house was quiet and empty. Jaya Bachchan had left during the night for a tour of the US; she was acting in the theatre production Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa by Govind Nihalani and shows were being held there. Shweta Bachchan was married and in Delhi. Abhishek Bachchan, I think, was still in school. The domestic staff hadn't yet arrived. And Mr. Bachchan felt a sudden urge to be with his father. So he got out a car and for the first time in many years, drove himself.
Reaching the hospital, he rushed into the ICCU and was astonished to find Dr. Harivansh Rai sitting up in bed, completely off the life-support systems. "How did the poetry reading go?" the father asked curiously. "Fine," replied the son. "Would you like me to go over the evening for you?" Dr. Harivansh Rai indicated that he would. Breach Candy Hospital caught its breath, doctors, nurses and ward boys watched in spellbound silence, and Mr. Bachchan gave the hour-long performance all over again.
At the end, he asked Dr. Harivansh Rai who had been watching him keenly how his recital was. And the father replied, "Fine. Now when are you taking me home?"
At the end, he asked Dr. Harivansh Rai who had been watching him keenly how his recital was. And the father replied, "Fine. Now when are you taking me home?" Dr. Farokh Udwadia, the hospital's resident physician, discharged him that very day. Shortly after, Amitabh Bachchan sent me a copy of his father's autobiography, In The Afternoon of Time. He made a small, thoughtful dedication in it for me. And he also got Dr. Harivansh Rai Bachchan to autograph the book. I like to think that this was among the last times the great poet put pen to paper. Even if only to give me his autograph.
P.S: The portraits of Dr. Harivansh Rai Bachchan, his son Amitabh and grandson Abhishek are exclusively for the Huffington Post by Mumbai artist Bharat Singh. An exhibition of his works for the poet's 14th death anniversary is on at the Kamalnayan Bajaj Art Gallery, Nariman Point, till 22 January. Says the artist, "There is a certain radiance on a poet's face that tells you he is a man of letters. It's what sets a person in the field of arts or literature apart and I tried to capture that on Dr. Harivansh Rai's face." Bharat Singh's exhibition of 13 paintings is titled "Madhushala Chitrashala" after one of Dr. Harivansh Rai's poems.