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Amitabh, Dev, Raj and BC

In times of trouble, we often find comfort in nostalgia.

I have been reading The Big Goodbye by Sam Wasson; an account of 1960s/1970s Hollywood featuring such characters as Warren Beatty, Roman Polanski and Jack Nicholson. It recalls an era when Hollywood was ruled by charismatic and slightly crazy characters.

 

As I was reading The Big Goodbye I thought back to our own movie industry. Though I was brought up in Bombay, the film industry did not greatly impinge on my life. In that era, the film industry was North Bombay while we lived in South Bombay and rarely did the twain meet.

 

   But my father had a few friends in the movie business, so I got used to seeing Dev Anand come home. Raj Kapoor once arrived late at night, completely sozzled and then wept like a child. (I had no idea what was going on though I could hear the sobs from my room.) And Dilip Kumar was a pal of my father’s, so I was used to seeing him around.

 

   But it wasn’t till the 70s, when I became a journalist that I really got a good look at the film industry. I kept up with the movie business till the early 90s but eventually became more and more disconnected except when I interviewed stars on TV.

 

   In the old days, when the industry was more chaotic and much less organised, it was enormous fun. Apart from the stars, even the backroom boys were real characters. One such person was the distributor Shankar BC, a flamboyant fellow with a wardrobe to match. Legend had it that when he showed guests around his lavishly decorated home, he would suddenly jump on to his bed to show them how springy it was.

 

   I liked BC though he was always reluctant to explain what the letters in his name stood for even when his critics made unkind guesses. He had a surprisingly dry sense of humour. When VC Shukla, the I&B minister during the Emergency declared that there was too much violence in Hindi movies and that no fights exceeding 60 seconds would be allowed, I asked Shankar BC for a comment. “Arrey, it is simple,” he said. “Earlier, Dharmendra would beat up 10 guys single-handedly in five minutes. Now he will do it in 60 seconds.”

 

   I liked Gulshan Rai too. He was one of the industry’s top distributors and liked telling the story of how he had been saved from bankruptcy. Apparently, after a string of flops, he went to Punjab and met a Bhrigu who read his future from an ancient manuscript and told him to go back to Bombay and make a film whose title should begin with the letter ‘J’. Rai came back from Punjab and produced Johny Mera Naam (1970) with Dev Anand. The film became a super-hit and Rai went on to make a fortune producing other blockbusters, usually with Bhriguji’s approval.

 

   Rai was a Punjabi movie mogul of the old school. When he went to film parties, he usually took along a chamcha. At one party, I asked him a question (I forget what it was now but it must have been about Raj Kapoor, BR Chopra or other film industry giants whom he loved to diss). Rai gave a notably acerbic reply. I think I may have failed to be properly appreciative of his scathing wit. No matter. Rai called the chamcha over. “Maine line diya…” he began and repeated his comment. The chamcha was suitably appreciative and dissolved into peals of admiring laughter while Rai beamed.

 

   The stars themselves were even more fun. Dev Anand had been my father’s friend but once he had acknowledged that he had known me as a child, he made sure never to refer to that association again. As far as he was concerned, the past was another country while he had newly regenerated himself (like Dr Who perhaps) into a youthful person.

 

   When I once made the mistake of telling him that when I was a child, they used to put me to sleep by playing Khoya Khoya Chand from his movie Kaala Bazaar (1960), he acted as though he had never heard of either the song or the movie.

 

   His obsession with youth was all-pervasive. He once told me how angry it made him when people called him an “evergreen star”, the preferred cliché of that era. (“What does it mean? Am I a tree?”) In 1979, when he formed a short-lived political party (at heart I think he was a Jan Sanghi though it was not cool to admit it in those days and at a personal level, he was entirely free from any communal prejudice as the notches on his bed post demonstrated), he actually said to me, “It is time for us young people to do something for this country.”

 

 "Amitabh Bachchan was at least two generations removed from these stars. But he transformed the industry more completely than any of them ever had."

   I kept up with him till the end. In one of the last TV interviews we ever did, I finally worked up the courage to ask him a question that everyone wanted to know the answer to. Why did he keep making movie after movie (with himself as the star) well into his 70s when the films kept flopping?

 

   He was probably the most candid I have ever known him to be: “Because if I stopped making movies, I would die.”

 

   Eventually the financing dried up, age caught up, it became harder for him to make movies and the evergreen Dev went up to the great forest in the sky.

 

   I never had the guts to ask Raj Kapoor what he was crying about that night at my house. (And I doubt if he would have remembered anyway.) I was too much in awe of him. Anyway you look at it, the man was a genius.

 

   I always met him at his cottage at R K Studio where he would sit like some Buddha on a gaddi and consume innumerable cups of tea. (A bladder of steel was one of his many strengths.) I would listen to him for hours – he had so many stories from so many eras to tell – and by the time I knew him, he was too rich and too famous to care who the stories offended.

 

   He would talk about Lata Mangeshkar’s crush on him decades ago, about his relationship with Nargis and about his forthcoming movies. My first interview was about Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), a film that had attracted much attention because pre-release stills suggested that he trained his cameras only on Zeenat Aman’s upper body.

 

   Our conversation was a mixture of Hindi and English and sometimes the results were confusing. For instance, he kept complaining about the media’s focus on what he called “teetiyaan” when he had actually made an art film. It was only halfway through our conversation that I worked out that he was taking an English word and applying the rules of Hindi grammar.

 

   I was genuinely sad when he died before completing his dream project: an India-Pakistan Love story. Fortunately his son Daboo took the script and turned it into a super-hit. Raj Kapoor would have been proud of the movie and delighted by its success.

 

   Amitabh Bachchan was at least two generations removed from these stars. But he transformed the industry more completely than any of them ever had. I first met Bachchan properly when I spent over a week with him to write a cover story for India Today in 1980 (I think). He was unlike most stars I had met: the intelligence of Dilip Kumar (and the talent) combined with a presence that ensured that, when he was on the screen, you couldn’t look away.

 

   But what I noticed then was how disciplined he was. In those days, the industry worked in shifts. So stars like Bachchan shot for several different films at a go, spending the morning at one studio, the afternoon at another for a completely different movie and often the night shift for a third.

 

   The morning shift was the worst. It never started on time so stars always came late and then charged the producer for petrol. Bachchan was always there on time, early in the morning, way before the rest of the cast had turned up – and he never asked for petrol money, or anything.

 

   In those days, he was shooting Naseeb (1981) and Shaan (1980) (among others) both of which co-starred Shatrughan Sinha who would always reach hours after Bachchan. They would have to shoot long shots with doubles and then hope to insert close-ups of Shatru. Bachchan never complained, never took it up with Shatru and only made the odd sardonic remark. He would introduce me to Shatru’s double for the shift with a sardonic “Meet Mr Shatrughan Sinha. He changes from day to day.”

 

   It was fun and I had the sense that eventually Bachchan’s style would change the industry. And of course it did. It made it more professional, more disciplined and eventually, more corporate.

 

   But I could never have guessed that 40 years later, Bachchan would still be at the top: more God than King.

 

 

Posted On: 11 Apr 2020 02:30 PM
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