indian cinema heritage foundation

A Man: The Man And The Myth

30 Jan, 2021 | Archival Reproductions by Jaya Bachchan
A family photograph of Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan, Abhishek Bachchan and Shweta Bachchan. Image Courtesy: Pinterest

If either of his parents fall ill, he hovers around them so much that his sheer presence makes them nervous. Something as simple as my father-in-law choking over his food, is enough to make him want to call a throat specialist at home.  As a rule, if any of us in the family is unwell, we make sure not to mention it until he goes off to work. We have a predictable atmosphere during meal times at home. Everyone has a specific place. Amit sits at the head of the table. Not because he is the head of the family. My father-in-law is. But because he needs wider space for his long legs. I sit on his right, my father-in-law on his left, and my mother-in-law sits opposite him. My father-in-law believes in facing the south-east direction. Very often the father and son have some conversation about changing seats. "Dad, you should be sitting here in my chair," Amit tells him, but he shakes his head. Mentally resigned to worldly conflicts, father-in-law lives a quiet life. He doesn't meet outsiders, doesn't talk to strangers. He spends his day following a chalked out time-table, which includes watching an Amitabh starrer everyday. He was always a man of few words, but over the years, he has become more so. In his silence, however, he exudes a strength, a discipline that the two sons have taken after. I am told he was like this from the very beginning. From the very beginning, he was merciless when it came to indiscipline. No wonder then that both Amit and Bunty were such extraordinary duty-bound kids.

My mother-in-law, has told me of an incident when they were shifting residence from Allahabad to Delhi. On reaching the new house, they realised that the truck carrying the luggage hadn't reached the destination.  Naturally, my mother-in-law was worried. So next day, she got up early morning to drive to the check-posts. Nobody had asked him to, but Amit was dressed and ready too. Being the elder one, he felt it was his duty to escort his mom. Not only that, en route, he stopped at a tea-stall nearby and got one kullad chai, saying, "Mom you are used to bed tea. Until you have your tea, nothing will go right."

A Bachchan family photograph. Image Courtesy:

Amit's early sense of responsibility has a lot to do with his father going away to England for two years. Working on his doctorate, he was trying to complete his research of three years within two years, for which he had to work doubly hard. In fact almost all the time. It wasn't easy. One, the strain of his work, and two, the strain of being away from his family. The former, he copped with discipline. It is said he wrote almost 12 to 14 hours a day. When his right hand ached, he wrote with his left... His palm swelled up, and his back ached due to sitting in the same position. But he didn't give up...He got a tall wooden stand made for himself so that he could write on it while standing. Sitting in one position after a while became strenuous. At the end of the year, when his research was complete, he returned home with reams and reams of papers only, so that when his family asked him, what he did during those two years, he could show it to them.

Not very communicative, he mostly kept to himself. He never sermonised to the kids, unless necessary. Amit is like that too. In his interaction with the kids, he observes a lot, but says things to them, only when absolutely essential. After so many years of marriage I have yet to recall an incident when he has taken his parents for granted. In whatever the two brothers do, their first consideration is always the parents. They would never hurt or upset either of them, well at least not consciously. Unconsciously, we all hurt people we love. And the less expressive one is, the more magnified the hurt. Even as a kid, Amit never had a very talkative relationship with his father. The same goes for now. They might be in the same room for hours but seldom exchange few words. Yet there are certain things, he would never overlook. For instance, he'd never leave the house without meeting, or without touching his parents' feet.

No matter how friendly the brothers are, the decorum of older, younger is always maintained. Even now when they meet, Bunty always touches Amit's feet. It is a different thing that Amit stops him helf-way, but the tradition is followed. One his side, he was always, and is still very protective about Bunty. My mother-in-law says that in childhood whenever Bunty was fired by either of the parents, Amit was forever ready to shoulder the blame! She once told me of an incident, when they had newly shifted residence, and all the trunks hadn't yet arrived. It was a very cold night and there weren't sufficient blankets. In the middle of the night, Amit suddenly realized that Bunty was shivering in his sleep. He got up and put his blanket over his younger brother.... After all these years, Amit still treats Bunty as the kid brother. And yet strangely over the years, the age difference between the two has decreased. Today, they are each other's best friends. It isn't as if they don't have differences, or that they don't disagree. They do, but ultimately Amit and Bunty are very similar, and yet very different. While Bunty is more of an extrovert, Amit is more an introvert, more reserved. He needs his family around him to know that he is fit. Bunty, at least visibly does not get distressed when away from his family. All said and done they are two of a kind. They can sit up all night, chatting. They don't need a particular reason for staying up late. The recent political victimisation has brought them even closer.
Amitabh and Ajitabh Bachchan. Image Courtesy: Indian express

They are a good influence on each other. Of course, the strongest influence on him has been his father's. In so many ways, he is exactly like his father. In the vibes he gives to people around. He may, for instance, not have a best friend but there are people who feel very genuinely for him, who have seen him through his ups and downs, his various moods and have accepted him for what he is. If I was not his wife, I would have been his best friend. I know he has said somewhere that friends are not very important to him. But I don't agree with him. That he is self-sufficient and that he is by temperament a loner, helps him, but eventually human beings need human beings. So why should he be an exception? I'd say he is alright without friends for a major portion of his time, but when there are friends around, he definitely enjoys himself, feels happy. He likes to let his hair down and relax. So many times, he comes home and says, "Jaya kisi ko bulao." When he says friends don't matter to him, he is probably being plain cautious. In the position he is, it is very easy for people even seen with him, to be taken as his friends. But long associations do not necessarily spell loyalty. Loyalty, is a lot more. In the wake of his victimisation, Ramesh Behl, once told me, "Ye Bofors hai kay? Kya tamasha hai ye? I wish I can go and tell the government that leave this man. Catch me, I have done all that you accuse of. He said it so naturally, that it is something I have never forgotten. Even now I feel emotional about it.

Amit is not aware of this but he has a great capacity for friendship... for sustaining relationships. Everyone around him, I feel, is more than willing to please him. And yet it is something he has never exploited... That's not his nature. No wonder then that he gets so worked up when people around him try to exploit him. He is forthright and frank. Even when employing his personal staff, he lays down the ground rules very firmly. He wants to be a fussy employer, but he can't. Firstly, because he doesn't have the time. Secondly, because, nobody can give him anything exactly the way he wants it. It is not possible. He expects perfection in everything. These days, he is learning to mellow down. And it's a good sign. You cannot, all the time, work with your antennae perked up. You have to relax, slow down.

His present staff, (except some new additions), have been with him for over a decade. That's a long time and it speaks highly of him as an employer and yet his is a very formal relationship with them. They fear him. Amit is a hard taskmaster. He gives a long rope in the relationship, gives ample opportunities for improvement, but once he decides to cut you out, nothing can make him change his mind. He is a perfectionist and expects the same in return. Except for his children, nobody can take liberties with his moods. He is by temperament, studious. Give him a job, and he will not rest, until the task is complete. Amit is not very comfortable with new people. He says he is too old to adjust. That is why, I was surprised, when he finally lifted his ban on the press. I don't think Amit has ever wooed anyone as passionately a she has done the press. And it is better late, than never. It's a good change that he is talking, interacting, for at least now he is getting firsthand reactions from people. When you build walls around, you are not approachable, you only meet those five people around you and it is through them that you get the pulse of those fifty people outside... And it's not the same thing.

The best way to describe him is 'unpredictable.' He is capable of coming to your house and saying. "I am very hungry, I want food in five minutes." He is also capable of calling you to hi house, sitting opposite you and not instigating any conversation. His functioning depends entirely on his moods. He will fuss over you, look after you until you run away from him and he can, very shamelessly open his tiffin and start eating, without even so much as offering you. He can interact with people for years, without ever getting personal, and he can,if e chooses to, take great liberties and make personal comments. If I caution him not to, he does not listen. "Jaisi lagti hai, waise bol raha hoon." For himself, of course, he will not allow any personal criticism. I hate those short kurtas he wears and I can die telling him not to wear them, but he will not pay me any attention. He genuinely thinks he looks very good in them. There was a time I personally handled his cupboard sorting, but now that Pravin, his man-Friday is well trained, he takes care of everything. Pravin, knows what he likes, what he dislikes, who he would like to meet, who he wouldn't. Of course Amit is very self-sufficient and perfectly capable of taking care of himself, but he likes it, if there is someone to look after him.
A still of Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bachchan from Abhimaan

If there is a party at home, he takes personal interest in the organizing of it. Beginning with the menu and the guest list, he wants to personally supervise everything. If the colour of all the dishes served looks similar, he'll insist that the dishes be changed. His eye for detail will not miss stuff like table-mats, table-cloths or cutlery. Once I had put white mats on the table, when guests with children were coming home. He said, "When you know there are going to be kids, shouldn't you have put a more cheerful colour?" On another occasion, I had only recently got all the silver polished and had laid it out. He was so angry. "Whom are you impressing?" he said. As a rule Amit never oversteps, h flashyIt requires a log of courage to always hold back. He has that strength.

Disorderliness bothers him. When we were shifting to Delhi, and the furniture was getting moved, he felt very uprooted. Sometimes when I am not in town and the servant puts the wrong cushions with the wrong carpet, or the wrong flowers in the wrong vase, he gets irritated. Normally these things don't happen since the servants are well trained. But when it does, he gets worked up. At heart, he is a home-maker. He is more comfortable when people come over to his house rather than the other way round. When I am not around specially, it is very difficult to get him out of the house, unless and until it is a house he has frequented often. And this includes my own parents. He shares a warm but a distant relationship with them. He is not terribly communicative. He is a private person. There are people who'd be bored of being alone but he enjoys being hy himself. Just the way his father enjoys himself. I think both the brothers behave the way they have watched their father behave. So often he is locked in his room, alone, reading, writing, thinking. If he could help it, he'd like to give his parents more time. There are days when he is not shooting, and it seems like he is just idling in his room, but it isn't so. His mind is tickling. He is an early riser, but slow to settle down. If he is not shooting, he likes to linger over his bath, his morning chores.

In the olden days, when I first met him, he read a lot. Over the years, due to work load, his reading decreased. Now once again, he is reading a lot. And like always, he reads four books at a time. He scribbles a lot at his desk too. I wonder what he writes. His legal problems and investigations keep him tied up. His dedication is something else. For someone as busy as him, his thoughtfulness keeps surprising me.
Jaya Bachchan-author of the article.

He is very considerate. Specially on matters of health, not for himself, but for those around him. Probably since he has sailed through rough waters himself. His illness has had strange effects on him. While in the beginning, he was vry vulneable, over the years, he has hardened. He has done so consciously, and it has more to do with his political victimisation. His capacity to cope with stress, without losing his cool, is amazing. Both physically and emotionally his threshold of bearing pain is very high! It's when his family is involved, that he gets weak. His family is both his strength as well as his weakness. His patience is remarkable. Anyone else in his place, would have gone bonkers, but he bore it all! And courageously, that too!

If it wasn't a part of his job, I don't think he would travel as much as he does. Packing, unpacking irritates him, even though he does not have to do so himself. It involves decision making.

And the wider the choice, the more difficult the decision. He is not a demanding person. It is in simple things, that he tends to become difficult. Like he will tell you that he is hungry and wants to eat something interesting, but he will not specify what. But if you give him aloo puri, burji-parathas, spaghetti, or Pasta, you cannot go wrong, for these are things he likes. He likes noodles, bread and also chinese food. He prefers vegetarian to non-vegetarian.

His strongest point is his charisma. If he decides to, he can, in five minutes, change the course of relationship. I don't think, he is fully aware of the kind of effect he has on people. Everytime I've pointed this out to him, he has been surprised. "But I thought he hated me!" He is by nature very suspicious. He does not take compliments at face value. No wonder then that people react to him the way they do. Whenever he compliments someone, they invariably feel he is pulling their leg. And his poker-face expression is largely responsible for this.

He dislikes confrontations, unpleasantness, and will avoid them till he can. But no matter how upset or irritated he feels, he will never be rude. He does not have to. For without saying a word, he will cut you to size. There's something about his presence that makes people around him uncomfortable. Unless they are people he enjoys being with. If that is so, he will go out of his way to be charming. He likes to believe that he is a bad judge of people. But this isn't true. I don't think any actor or actress can be a bad judge of people. The truth is, Amit's expectations of people are so few that if the person he meets, turns out to be even fairly okay, he has no complaints. "He seems like a nice man," he says, "Wonder why people say all those things?" I have never heard Amit use words like "He isn't a good man." So when he does, it means it is something serious. It's his nature to look at the positive side of people. He is his worst critic. From others too, he can take a lot of criticism. What he hates are verdicts! When you discuss his work, he likes to project that he is not listening, but he is taking in every word...every remark.

People have called our home a factory that churns out superstars but the truth is that he is not treated like a star at home, for the simple reason that everyone is a personality in this family. His father, his mother, his brother and even I am not unknown. All of us, at home, my sister-in-law, Ramola included, are very strong individuals and it's probably because of this that he gets a kick to come across as strongly as he does. The family, on the contrary, I feel, makes a conscious effort not to create a special atmosphere for him. Neither my kids, nor my in-laws have ever created an ambience that would pamper my husband's stardom. In fact, he often jokes about it, says, "I am feeling thoroughly neglected." It's his way of seeking attention from the kids. Very often when he returns from work and the kids are out, he feels upset. "I haven't met them all day," he says. But that's about all. Deep down, he understand that they cannot go on waiting endlessly for him. The quality of time he gives to his kids, his parents, compensates for his busy schedule.

Too much is made about the man, by people who meet him. His personality is such that he evokes a lot of curiosity, a lot of jealousy. I have often felt that people who say nice things about him, do so only because they are forced to. Because they are frightened of displeasing him... Because they cannot ignore him as an actor. As a wife, I am very proud of my husband's success, I am proud that he is doing so well. But I don't think, I would have been as proud of him, were he not such a superb actor. That he is a superstar as well, is his good luck. The more successful he became, the more disciplined, he continued to be. He did not manipulate, did not create situations. No wonder he was the guy everyone hated to love! People have often called him manipulative. He isn't. If he was, he would not have quit politics, not made the kind of films he does. He would have worked out his career far more cleverly than he has. His commitments are more emotional than professional. He is very sensitive to people's reactions to him. He can take the severest criticism, provided it is given directly, honestly.
A song booklet cover of Abhimaan from Cinemaazi archive

The actor in him prepares unconsciously. He would not be the kind of actor he is, if he didn't. It can begin with something as simple as somebody bringing him a cassette of the song they are to shoot. The mind starts ticking as soon as he puts on the music... It is the manner in which he listens to the tune... He would prefer it, if he got his scenes beforehand. But that is not how it happens in our films. He is not at all an extroverted actor. He does not discuss his roles, his scenes. It is all within him. How he works them out, is his own method. My favourite films of his, are Parvana (1971), Saudagar (1973), Milii (1975). I always preferred him when he played complex, introverted roles. Of his lighter roles, I liked Amar Akbar Anthony (1977). He was good in certain scenes in Naseeb (1981) too and of course Aakhri Raasta's (1986) double role was very interesting. His best, I feel, is yet to come. His potential, after 20 years remains untapped... His best will come only when he works with a director who thinks exactly like him. An impossible dream, perhaps... but true. 1991 should be the year to watch out him. For this is the year he plans to take serious career decisions. Not that it matters to him, for he has had his innings, and he isn't the kind to expect too much from the future.

This article was originally published in Junior G's supplementary issue called A Man: Amitabh Bachchan. The images used in the feature are taken from the original article and the internet.

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