Sunday Herald: Milestone memories

Sunday Herald: Milestone memories

Amitabh Bachchan looks back fondly on his early days as an actor...

He began shooting his first film, Saat Hindustani, 50 years ago. As 102 Not Out, released last week, proves, we find the real Amitabh Bachchan on par with his character in the film, a man who has singular energy and youthful exuberance even at 76, his real age.

Instead of a conventional interview, we looked back at his memories in a conversation unspooling specific, interesting memories from his life, work, career, association with 102 Not Out co-star Rishi Kapoor, and even his famous accident on the sets of Coolie in 1982.

We are at Mumbai’s iconic and recently refurbished heritage site, the Royal Opera House, and Amitabh’s first nostalgic memory dates back to somewhere in the 1960s.

On Royal Opera House

Opera House is the only Mumbai cinema hall I visited in this city when I first came as a tourist. The family we were staying with brought us here to show a movie. When I came down to Mumbai later, I realised that this venue was a landmark, as Prithviraj Kapoor would stage his plays here, and the Kapoors would be a part of them. Later, many of my films ran here for long periods, among them, Roti Kapada Aur Makaan (1974) for over a year, and Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) also for that long.

On the audition for ‘Saat Hindustani’

A special memory associated with my first film as an actor, K A Abbas-saab’s Saat Hindustani, was a day when Abbas-saab was actually making me learn the dialogues, especially the difficult ones. That was the day I first heard the Urdu word zaayka, or taste. I was actually sitting on the floor, writing down such words on a sheet of paper!

On his first brush with fame

I had borrowed my friend’s car to travel for a shoot to the distant suburbs. His only precondition was that I fill the tank with my money. In those days, we would go around with a couple of hundred rupees in our pockets, and petrol wasn’t so expensive, so I filled up in the morning for Rs 50. By the time I returned in the evening, the tank was empty and I went to fill it again. This time, four or five people came up to me and asked for my autograph. Anand had released that very day...

On peeking into Raj Kapoor’s make-up room!

Raj Kapoor had the last room in the corridor at RK Studios as his personal make-up chamber. I would try and peep into it sometimes, and one day, I saw acting coach Asha Chandra teaching two new artistes, Raj-saab’s son Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia. I was told the film was Bobby.

On his busy phase in the 1970s

We would shoot for many films at a time, allotting a few hours for each shift. Things went overboard and there was a decision to bring in a ‘ceiling’ on star assignments, because some of us had more than 10 films on hand, like Jeetendra, and others had even more, like Shashi Kapoor. According to the ceiling, we could not shoot for more than six films at a time! Today, of course, no one can even think of that.

On the perfect take

The raw film on which we shot movies was the most expensive part of the production cost. If a retake was needed, it cost big money. So, all of us then would rehearse to perfection, so that the first ‘take’ was approved. There was even a chance for a newcomer to be thrown out of a film if he needed multiple retakes. So, we had to be thoroughly prepared when facing the camera. And some directors like Hrishikesh Mukherjee were masters in economising costs.

On Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cost-cutting measures

Hrishi-da would tell us that we could do any number of retakes — provided we bore the cost. I would go on sets and ask for the costumes I had to wear, and he would look at me and say, ‘Whatever you are wearing is fine.’ Most of what you see me wearing in Hrishi-da’s movies are my own clothes! And I would always wear nice clothes as I knew we would probably shoot in them and I had to look nice on screen.

On film and no film!

We call this industry a film industry worldwide, but today, no film runs in the projectors, as everything is digital. So, we are a ‘film’ industry without any film. There are some Hollywood directors who are trying to bring the film in the projector back, but that’s not going to be easy. And calling our industry a digital industry instead of a film industry sounds very odd.

On retakes from young directors

Thanks to there being no film and no extra costs, today’s directors take any number of retakes. If we make a slip, we are told to just start again and go on. Actors of my generation have this habit of saying ‘Cut! Cut! Cut!’ when we feel we have gone wrong, but now it does not matter. One young director took me aside respectfully and told me, ‘Sir, you will not say ‘Cut’. I will say ‘Cut!’’ But the big problem is that we begin to lose spontaneity with continuous retakes for technical perfection, or as a precaution. Sometimes, I feel that they are doing this to us only to show how old we have become!

On ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’

Manmohan Desai scoffed at logic and told us to shut up when we objected to three men donating blood at the same time to an old lady. But the applause the scene got showed how right he was when he had declared that everyone would love the scene. Another scene he carried off was the climax song, in which Rishi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna and I announce who we are in the lyrics — and still, the villain does not recognise us. In the scene when Vinod Khanna throws me into jail, I have two wounds on my face. Man-ji never believed in things like continuity and in four different shots, my wounds travelled all over my face.

On the climax song in ‘Naseeb’

Those were good times, indeed! As Rishi, the three heroines Hema Malini, Reena Roy and Kim and I slogged under dance director Kamal for the song ‘Rang Jamake Jayenge’, Shatrughan Sinha would be unworried and so we had to give many retakes. Man-ji then asked for a tall dancer to be his double. Shatru just sat behind the camera, appreciating us loudly. When the film released, everyone said that he had danced so well!

On a fun sidelight to his near-fatal accident on the sets of ‘Coolie’

Not realising how serious it would be, after the blow on my abdomen, I just went and laid down in the garden, telling Man-ji and others that there was just a bit of pain. We were shooting non-stop for days, 14 hours or more, and, some days earlier, the crew wanted me to request Man-ji for a break. When I was lying down, a few unit members came and complimented me for pretending I was in pain, stating that now Man-ji would definitely give them a day off!