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Bachchan: A Life In Chapters

I wrote, two weeks ago, about my adventures as a young journo in the Mumbai film industry in the late 70s and early 80s.

My intention in writing about movies was purely practical: with all restaurants shut, it seemed like an odd time to be writing about food.

I was surprised and a little overwhelmed by the response to the column. Obviously, nostalgia is still exactly what it used to be!


   In particular, I was intrigued that so many of the responses were about Amitabh Bachchan who only made an appearance towards the end of the piece when I wrote about shadowing him for 10 days for an India Today cover story.


   My memories dated back to 1980 and if you had told me (or Amitabh himself, for that matter) then that 40 years later people would still be obsessed with him, it would only have elicited disbelief.


Looking back now, I realise that part of Bachchan’s appeal is that his life is like one of those movie franchises where, every few years or so, our hero stars in a new episode with a new cast and a new plot.


   Bachchan has lived his life in phases. Once a phase ends, he moves on. The angry young man had nothing in common with the MP from Allahabad who had nothing in common with the man Amar Singh used to take to parties who, in turn, had nothing in common with the host of KBC.


   It is one reason why a single Amitabh Bachchan biography would never work. Each phase is a book by itself.


   After I wrote that India Today cover story in 1980, Bachchan remained at the top till he was gravely injured in 1982 in an accident on the sets of Coolie. Doctors gave him up for nearly dead but Amitabh fought on and eventually, as the nation held its breath, he recovered, an even bigger hero than he had ever been.


   I didn’t know him well then but I sensed that he was ready for another adventure. Or, a new chapter.


   It came with surprising suddenness.


   On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated. The Bachchans and the Gandhis had been close for decades and Rajiv Gandhi was Amitabh’s best friend – a big deal because Amitabh has never had many friends.


   It was a grim time for India as massacres took place on the streets of Delhi and the world wondered whether the country could hold together. Rajiv told Amitabh that India needed him. Bachchan agreed to join politics and Arun Nehru (Rajiv’s cousin and adviser) insisted that Bachchan fight from Allahabad and defeat HN Bahuguna, an Opposition heavyweight.


   Bachchan agreed and, of course, he won by a massive majority. But once he had won, the ‘what now?’ questions began. A sensible move may have been to make him a minister. Instead, Bachchan insisted on focusing on his Allahabad constituency and helping the people of that town.


   It sounded noble but it was akin to political suicide. In that age, India was full of political leaders who were possessive about their territory. Allahabad was Finance Minster VP Singh’s base and he was not pleased to have one of India’s most popular figures announce that he would now be looking after it.


   For several months, while the country hailed this new phase in Bachchan’s career, VP Singh did everything possible to sabotage Amitabh’s efforts in Allahabad. It helped that VP Singh knew every trick in the book and that he had the local Congress unit sewn up. It mattered also that VP Singh himself was a nationally popular and respected Finance Minister who revelled in being called Mr. Clean.


  Rivalries are commonplace in politics but a battle between a novice and a wily master is never an equal one. Plus, Bachchan’s name sold newspapers. So, it was easy to plant stories (mostly false) in the media.


   Even this would not have mattered so much if VP Singh had not been in charge of Finance. Stories about Bachchan’s so-called financial misdeeds, his brother’s assets abroad, and his role as a bagman for the Gandhis were manufactured and leaked to journalists.


   I remember interviewing him in 1986, a year and a half after he had been elected and sensing that he was completely out of his depth. On the one hand, he drew cheering crowds wherever he went. On the other, the mood was beginning to turn against him, and whispers that he was a crook made the rounds.


"The image of a dancing Bachchan, his shirt loosely tied at the navel, replaced the brooding, Kurta-clad political Bachchan in the public mind."

   He told me, in that interview, that he wasn’t sure he had done the right thing in joining politics. He told me of taking a chopper to a rally in (I think) Assam. As he was racing back to the helicopter, a young man ran up to him and placed a note in his hand. It said that while everyone (including the author of that note) loved him, he had now made it impossible for his fans to offer him unconditional love because he was asking them to support a political party.


   The note left a deep impression on Bachchan. Was he misusing the love of his fans? Had he won their love by entertaining them on the screen and then tried to encash it for political gain?


   By 1987, leaks from the Finance Ministry had managed to suggest that Bachchan was implicated in every scandal of the day, from Fairfax to kickbacks on deals.


   When Rajiv realised that VP Singh was also targeting the Gandhis, he shifted VP Singh to the Defence Ministry. That made no difference to Singh who then let his friends leak that Bachchan was involved in the Bofors defence scandal.


   Shortly afterwards, VP Singh came out in open revolt against Rajiv and suggested (now, brazenly) that the Gandhis had made money on such deals as Bofors and that Bachchan was the frontman.


   Bachchan did the only thing an honourable man could. He resigned from parliament and said he was giving up politics.


   But that made little difference. Satisfied that he had him on the run, VP Singh increased his attacks, using Hindi proverbs about how the King’s soul is in his parrot and that Amitabh was Rajiv’s parrot. Grab the parrot by the neck and you have captured the King.


   While all this was going on, Bachchan came to another disturbing conclusion. Once you have turned your back on movies, you can’t really go back.


   While the Hindi film industry welcomed him, the audiences were not as enthusiastic. Such big-budget films as Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi and Jadugar were massive flops. So were Toofan, Agneepath and Main Azaad Hoon. Things got so bad that The Illustrated Weekly put him on the cover with the headline “Finished?”


   By then VP Singh had won the 1989 election, become Prime Minister and launched a series of investigations against Bachchan. Things began to look very bleak.


   In 1985, Bachchan was the King of the Bombay film industry (he hates the term “Bollywood”) and the most popular Indian in the world. By 1989, his films were flopping, his personal popularity was declining, there were questions about his integrity and VP Singh’s supporters suggested an arrest was imminent.


   But then VP Singh’s investigators over-reached themselves. They leaked that they had found a Swiss bank account linked to Ajitabh (Amitabh’s brother) into which the Bofors money had been paid. This was demonstrably untrue. But libel cases take years in India. So the Bachchans sued the Swedish paper that had also run the story in a London court.


   Amitabh flew to London to fight it out before the judge. But at the start of the trial, the paper’s lawyers admitted that it had now discovered that the charges were false, apologised to the Bachchans and paid damages.


   At one level, this was just a defamation case against a Swedish newspaper in a foreign court. It had no bearing on the legal case that VP Singh’s investigators were preparing.


   But the impact it had was completely out of proportion to the case itself. I still remember the cheering crowds that gathered outside Mumbai airport to welcome Bachchan back from London.


   It was as though all of India had let out a collective sigh of relief that the charges had been proved to be false. Large crowds would stand outside Bachchan’s bungalow and cheer him as he entered and left.


   Most significant of all, Aaj Ka Arjun, possibly one of the worst films Amitabh has ever acted in, which by some coincidence, was released at the same time as the London verdict, saw a huge boom in ticket sales and became a super hit.


   After that, Bachchan was back. His next release Hum contained the song Jumma Chumma, which went on to become an anthem all over India. The image of a dancing Bachchan, his shirt loosely tied at the navel, replaced the brooding, Kurta-clad political Bachchan in the public mind.


   One chapter was over. And it had a happy ending. Of course, there were many chapters still to come: ABCL, Amar Singh, KBC and many others.


   But then, that’s the thing about Amitabh Bachchan. The episodes keep coming. And like the hero he has played all his life, he always wins, against the odds.


   But only in the last reel!




  • Sudarshan 27 Apr 2020

    Enjoyed reading this write up. True, Mr. Bachchan has reinvented himself multiple times to keep up with the times.

  • Gaurav 27 Apr 2020

    Similar to the Raging Bull story

  • Niraj 26 Apr 2020

    Good coverage but the abrupt ending was more like mithun chakravarti rather than Amitabh.

    Anyway, there is one aspect about him that you or anybody else avoids like taboo. His age.

    Bachchan is aging right before our eyes. He has also battled debilitating ailments and fatal injuries. All that has left him vulnerable. Everyone who admires him has seen the inevitable and it breaks everyone's heart, including mine. I can feel a lump in my throat as I write this comment. ...

Posted On: 25 Apr 2020 02:33 PM
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