It is a challenge to keep commanding the attention, interest and veneration of an audience that worships youth and newness. Yet, one of Indian cinema’s tallest icons has managed to reinvent himself over and over again, adapting to new trends, tastes, technology and experiences with remarkable alacrity.
Amitabh Bachchan’s latest movie, Pink, appears to be another step in the direction he set off with in Wazir earlier in 2016 – an elderly citizen with a mysterious and perhaps tragic past who seeks and sometimes hunts down justice. Directed by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, the September 16 release stars Bachchan as a lawyer who defends a sexual abuse victim, played by Taapsee Pannu. With Pink, Wazir, and Piku in 2015, the 74-year-old thespian has come to occupy a singular spot in the popular imagination – a superstar actor, an endearing grandfather and an occasionally reluctant vigilante in homespun narratives that are credible and relevant.
Although Bachchan seems to be cast in a Clint Eastwood mould, he says does not like to speak of Indian artistic achievements in a Western lexicon. There’s so much else Bachchan would prefer to discuss – internet trolls, being one of Bengal’s favourite sons, and everything else in between. Excerpts from an email interview.
Your screen persona has evolved from the anti-establishment icon to an embodiment of the establishment. You are now back to taking on the establishment in your latest avatar as a reluctant, elderly vigilante. How would you assess these turns in your professional graph?
The "reluctant, elderly vigilante" that you notice in my recent portrayals is an Indian construct, played by an Indian, in circumstances that are Indian, in a ‘world’ that is Indian.... When one has had the good fortune to be associated with our film industry for 47 years, and had the blessings of the audience and the masses and the makers till date, one takes what one gets.
What one gets now, is what is commensurate with my age. At 74, these are the kind of roles that shall come my way. At a younger age and the transition that you talk of, the projects that came to me were also in keeping with my age. Characters that came to me were the thought processes of the writers and the makers of the time. They wrote and felt that certain roles would suit me and I accepted their faith and trust. I did not deliberately go out seeking or wanting to suggest what I should be playing. That is how it has been and that is how it shall remain – if at all there is time and intent for "remain"!!
You seem to have been cast in the Clint Eastwood mould of an aging vigilante.
…This nature of ours, to equate or compare our products, our contents, our cultures habits personalities, our festivals and traditions, our "sanskriti", our creatives, our vocabulary, with that of the West. The West has its importance and we admire and acknowledge that, but every time we wish to describe our own, we give comparative examples of a Western description or entity. Why? Mr Clint Eastwood is an admired artiste and we acknowledge his contribution to the film world, but every time we project a creative, I do not feel the need for it to be given a Western equivalent.
Filmmakers have imagined you in different ways over the years. What excites you any more in a script?
I would like to believe that every actor seeks a credible script and story, a character that gives opportunity to perform, and a maker that is passionate about the product he or she produces!
What was it about Pink that drew you to the film?
Pink is a comment on women's empowerment, which is why the title, because pink is the colour that justifies that phrase. My character is that of a reluctant lawyer, retired perhaps, or living in circumstances that have led him to be so. But, on noticing and made aware of happenings across the street where he lives, he enters the courts. Why he does that, for whom and with what intent and result, is what the story and film shall unfold.
Pink deals with the sensitive issues of double standards and dubious moral codes in our society. As the patriarch of a family full of charismatic women, what is your take on the trend? Do you make a significant statement in this matter through your character, or should he be seen in isolation?
Standards, morals and codes are, were and shall be, made by humans. Why they were made and under what circumstances is age old. But they have been seen and known to change with time. I feel that as society changes, many of the double standards, and dubious codes that you mention, shall be undergoing review and repair. Pink most definitely, is a statement in that direction, and my belief as the character I play in the film or whatever I express in it, is no different from what I personally believe!
You were one of the earliest stars of your generation to engage with social networking sites. The fans who have grown to respect you and your privacy are not as generous or forgiving towards even your family members. Women, in particular, bear the brunt of online abuse. How would you describe the nature of this beast?
Social media platforms give liberty to all for their views and expressions. In our constitutional democracy, that is a common right, within the given and prescribed laws of the land. If you are a part of it, you must be prepared to take the good with the bad. If not, leave it!
Women, since you bring up their issue, have rights of their own both legally and socially. Certain humane attributes are expected from all, towards our attitude and concerns for the female gender. That is something that needs to be inculcated in our upbringing, in our education, in our morals. Rights for women must be respected and should be given the strengths as 50% of a nation’s polity; a civil constitutional organised society.
Abuse and trolling of celebrities are to be expected. Celebrities attract attention. They are celebrities because of them that also abuse them. That is a stride that all celebrities shall have to take. Personally I do not block or report or retaliate to abuse – it is good to know another opinion. It’s also, to me, that "nazar ka kala tika" that mothers put on their little ones, as a protection from evil, or the beauty of the taste of that one khatta badaam in a bunch of many normal tasting ones!
You have a deep bond with Bengali directors and Kolkata. Was your bond with Kolkata reinforced with Piku? Any plans to relocating to the city?
The association with Bengali filmmakers is not a recent phenomenon. Mrinal da, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shakti Samant, Pramod Chakravorty, Basu Chatterji, Sudhendu Roy, Dulal Guha have worked with me from my very first endeavours starting from 1970, not to forget of course the more recent luminaries like, Shoojit, Aniruddha, Ribhu, Sujoy and from Bengal the very talented Ritu.
I have great respect and regard for the people of Kolkata, for they have always given me much, much more than I deserve. Their passion and their warmth are incomparable, and I am and shall be ever indebted for that. Living in Kolkata would be wonderful too, for the love of the city, but I have already done eight years of that before I joined the film Industry. I live with those memories each day, for, the entire city and its environs haunt me!
There has been a lot of debate over who is truly an icon and whether there is a disconnect between older and younger generations over what is sacred and what isn’t.
In a free society, to each his/her own. I have the utmost admiration, respect and praise for the younger generation. They are all truly magnificent. I have been fortunate to have worked with them and find their association, invigorating and a learning for me. Our younger generation is the largest numbered population in the entire world. Don’t worry, we are in good hands!