A Man and a Star


A salesman in a garments shop in a shopping mall in Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia asked me, “You are from India. Do you know Mr. Amitabh Bachchan?” “How do you know Mr. Bachchan,” I queried back. “Oh! We see all his pictures. He is a great actor.” Another time, at Lagos airport in Nigeria, after seeing my Indian passport, the Immigration officer announced to me, “You are from the land of Amitabh Bachchan!”

Later, I was working the grocery retail outlets in Dakar in Senegal. I noticed an African shopkeeper watching the movie “Deewar” with French subtitles. I could not help asking him how and why he was watching an Indian movie made thousands of miles away. “I love Amitabh Bachchan, I watch all his movies,” he told me.

I was amazed at the fan following of Amitabh Bachchan beyond the boundaries of India. Now, the Government of India has bestowed the prestigious “Dada Saheb Phalke Award” on Amitabh Bachchan, the renowned Indian actor. A man, who has learnt to defy defeat and shows grace under stress. Even though Amitabh Bachchan is a big star, he is a fine human being too.

The Actor and Star

Decades ago, he surfaced from the unknown, as the anguished Dr. Bhaskar, in “Anand”, pitted against the reigning superhero. He was thin, bony and could barely walk straight. Yet, he stirred the chords of our hearts with his anguished eyes, his deep, resonant voice and his portrayal of a sensitive young man, imprisoned by his conscience.

Over the years he made us laugh, cry, rejoice, dance and sing with him. He impressed us with his versatility. His fiery anger and patriotism in “Saat Hindustani” made us proud to be Indians. When he walked the last stretch on his torn and tortured feet, we waited with taut breath for him to reach the Indian border. Our hearts swelled with a mysterious pride, that there could be Indians like the one he portrayed.

We understood his smouldering bitterness in “Deewar”. His anguish when his mother and brother desert him. Then he tore to smithereens the deed of the building that he had bought as a gift for his mother. We adored him when he worshiped his mother in “Trishul”. We wept at his unshed tears throughout the film. No one could move us, the way he did.

He was among the talented few who spoke volumes through his eyes, without using words. We remember his silent, suffering love for Jaya Bhaduri in “Sholay”. We silently admired him, even when he cheated on his wife in “Silsila”. We understood him. How can one ignore the smouldering embers of love in the human breast, said we, and rationalized his unfaithfulness.

We understood his suppressed anger when his ego was mauled in “Abhiman”, when a look of his, spoke more about his wounds, than a spate of dialogue would have. We were in splits of laughter over his accent and pranks as Anthony Gonsalves.

Then, he had that horrendous accident in Bangalore. He fought a battle in real life, moment to moment. We held our breath, waiting for him to open his eyes and speak. We said that fate could not be so unkind or unfair. They cannot hurt a man who made us laugh and forget our sorrows with his smiles and songs.

We followed every nimble step he took in the hospital corridors to test the strength of his limbs. When he left the hospital on his own feet, with a defiant fist waving in the air, we heaved a sigh of relief.

The burning sincerity of his eyes and the voice resonant with conviction made him a star for everyone. He could speak volumes with the twitch of a facial muscle or the flicker of his eyes.

Not everyone is gifted with the ability to make others laugh, enjoy or even weep. Amitabh Bachchan clearly is.

The Man

29 December 1984. The Howrah Mail clattered into the cold Allahabad station. It was 5:30 a.m. In the streets, darkness shrouded the silhouettes of giant cut‑outs of his face, but the town was quivering with life.

Loudspeakers at various junctions were playing songs from his films. For, at midnight, he had been declared elected. Late afternoon, the hotel manager requested me not to leave the premises. “There is a press conference. The gates will be closed. If you go now, you could return only after the press meeting, around 8 p.m.,” he said.

I had always admired his histrionics. So, I stayed on to catch a glimpse of him in real life.

Three hours before the conference, the hotel was encircled by two rounds of policemen, buffered by a third round of mounted policemen. Behind them, the crowd swarmed in hordes. Since I did not belong to the press, I was not permitted in the meeting hall. After the press conference, the proprietor’s family was having tea with him. About 20 policemen guarded the entrance to the lawns.

My colleague told me, “Sir, I will take you in. However, ask no questions, talk to no one and look straight ahead, authoritatively.” I acquiesced. In a few seconds, I had glided through the policemen, onto the lawns. Years later, the colleague told me how he had “rustled” me through – he had just whispered to the policemen, “DIG saheb aayen hain!” (The Deputy Inspector General of Police has come!)

On the lawn, admirers besieged him. “In the film industry, nobody’s “sifarish” (recommendation) can help you,” he was counseling some youngsters. When I finally met him, I asked, “Can I have a photograph with you?” He sensed that I did not hail from Allahabad, and smiled. “You see no one will believe that I ever met you!” I added.

He was being inundated for recommendations to film directors and was amused that someone merely wanted a picture with him. He smiled again, and said in his sonorous voice, “Come with me.” He led me by the arm to a corner of the lawn and summoned the photographers. When two of them started photographing us, he stopped them. He insisted that all five photographers be present and take our pictures. A wee gesture. However, I was touched by the concern he showed to ensure that all the photographers took pictures of us.

Suddenly, in the middle of the photographs, he started waving. There was no one in sight that I could see. Then, I noticed that two girls in the balcony of a second floor house, quite some distance away were waving to him. Once again, I was impressed that he had observed the girls waving to him from afar, and had responded to them. It took me three months and Rs. 1,500 (about USD 23) to finally get the photographs! Finally, I did!

Later, he went through various political and professional tumults. I was sorry when he resigned his seat. Perhaps, because I had seen how joyous he was on the day he had won it.

Later in 1992, I found myself sitting at a table next to his, at an “Awards Night”. The company I worked for was sponsoring the function. The theme was “Brave New Faces”. However, the entire gathering had eyes only for him. His very presence was electrifying. Wherever he walked, people stood up in waves to catch a glimpse of him. He was a star, even for the stars!

Dimple Kapadia, opened the envelope and almost screamed the name Amitabh Bachchan with excitement, as the “Best Actor’”

When the function concluded, we happened to depart together. After congratulating him, I mentioned to him that the sister of a colleague desired to meet him, but could not penetrate his circle of admirers. “Where is she?” he inquired. “Somewhere behind you,” I replied. He turned around, cut through the crowd circumventing him and went to the girl to shake hands with her. She was thrilled that he had walked all the way to receive her greetings. I was utterly surprised that he had sheared through the crowd swarming him, just to go and accept the compliments of an admirer who was unable to reach him.

I salute a man, who has made so many of us laugh with his films and has received the highest award in Indian cinema. A man, who has learned to defy defeat, who continues to show grace under stress. Even though Mr. Amitabh Bachchan is a big star, he has not forgotten to be a fine human being too.

The author was Managing Director of Unilever Tanzania and has authored a Book “Rural Marketing Across Countries”.