Why does the greatest superstar in Indian cinema history hanker so much for political patronage?
When a man has earned his fame through consistently and successfully being someone else, it may seem unfair to judge him for being the man he is. But what is to be done when such distinctions are erased by the man in question? When Amitabh Bachchan advertises cement or any other commodity, we are expected to buy it because he has endorsed it; yet, when he shakes hands with Narendra Modi, he expects us to read nothing into it.
Who, after all, was the Amitabh Bachchan who shook hands with Narendra Modi? Was it the actor in Govind Nihalani’s film Dev, who played a cop who stands up to a chief minister who has instigated riots? According to one review, ‘The Big B has turned in a sterling performance in the title role of Dev Pratap Singh… an officer of impeccable integrity and one who swears by the rule-book. …Amrish Puri plays the role of the Chief Minister, and his likeness to Narendra Modi… is near total.’ Or was it the man who stood for election on a Congress ticket in 1984?
The question is not whether Modi is better or worse than Rajiv, but whether there are convictions the man or the actor is willing to stand by. Surely, it is only fair to conclude that in cozying up to Modi, Amitabh Bachchan, who once ranked among the closest friends of the Nehru-Gandhis, who is a close friend of Amar Singh and whose wife Jaya is a Rajya Sabha MP of the avowedly secular Samajwadi Party (SP), has managed an about-face that is rare even among party-hopping politicians.
There has been no shortage of filmstars who have dabbled in politics, but in Bollywood, Bachchan stands out for his political links in much the same way he stands out as an actor. These links have run parallel to his career, even pre-dating them, and they have brought benefits along the way. It is only the costs that come with them that Amitabh has been unwilling to bear.
The Nehru-Gandhis were family friends before Amitabh was an actor. The relationship soured, but not before he was put on the road to stardom. Amar Singh of the SP was a friend in need when financial troubles were mounting, and at the very least the relationship gave the Bachchans a seat in Parliament. As Amitabh’s friendship with Modi blossoms, the filmstar’s past suggests it is reasonable to look for what he now stands to gain.
THE FAMILY INHERITANCE
In his autobiography, Amitabh’s father, the poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan writes that an invitation by Sarojini Naidu to Anand Bhawan in Allahabad ‘was the beginning of a close and lifelong friendship between Teji and Indira, who was still unmarried. Mrs Naidu introduced the pair of us dramatically as ‘the poet and the poem’, a phrase which Indira was to remember for long, alluding to it frequently when introducing Teji to foreign visitors.’
Nehru brought Harivansh to Delhi and posted him as an Officer on Special Duty in the Ministry of External Affairs in 1955. Even Amitabh’s entry into cinema apparently owed something to the Nehru-Gandhis. Veteran journalist Pankaj Vohra, whose closeness to the Congress is no secret, has written, ‘Bachchan has come a long way since he carried two letters written by Indira Gandhi, on persistent requests from family friend Teji Bachchan, to Nargis Dutt and Khawaja Ahmed Abbas urging them to give him a break in films. Abbas cast him in Saat Hindustani and Nargis asked her husband Sunil Dutt to help him out.’
The Bachchans reciprocated such support. Harivansh was among the few intellectuals who supported the Emergency. His Padma Bhushan followed in 1976. In the election that followed the Emergency, Amitabh campaigned for Sanjay Gandhi. Susmita Dasgupta, author of Amitabh: The Making of a Superstar, points out that the superstar had failed to sense the public mood vis-à-vis the Emergency and ‘received brickbats for that’, as she notes. He soon stopped, and more than Sanjay, it was his friendship with Rajiv Gandhi that was to shape his future.
THE ENTRY INTO POLITICS
In his biography of Sonia Gandhi, journalist Rashid Kidwai writes of a winter day on 13 January 1968, when Sonia Maino landed in Delhi to marry Rajiv Gandhi. It was Amitabh who received her at the airport. In a 1985 interview, Sonia said, “Mummy (Indira) had asked me to stay with the Bachchans so that I could learn Indian customs and culture from close up. Slowly I came to learn a lot from that family. Teji Aunty is my second… no, my third mother. My first is my mother in Italy, the other was my mother-in-law Mrs Indira Gandhi, the third is Teji Aunty. Amit and Bunty (Amitabh’s brother Ajitabh) are my brothers.”
In 1984, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, Amitabh was one of the men drafted by Rajiv into politics. The two men had known each other since childhood—Amitabh was four and Rajiv two when they met at a fancy dress party at the Bachchan home in Allahabad. “Ma says he messed up his pants,” Amitabh was to recall.
But the mess that was to follow their entry to politics was more than Bachchan could stand. It took no more than a few years for controversies such as Bofors to surface, where Amitabh’s name figured along with Rajiv’s. It was only then that this son of a Sikh mother, who had given little thought to fighting the 1984 election for the Congress in the wake of the massacres of Sikhs, chose to quit.
THE BUSINESS OF POLITICS
I have remained apolitical ever since I resigned from politics. I do not wish to go back there again. This I have confirmed year after year, interview after interview. I think it completely futile to even attempt to bring such ill-conceived notions up for questioning—Amitabh Bachchan’s blog, 19 January 2010.
This claim is a mockery of the facts. When he first quit politics, the closeness with the Gandhis may have been somewhat diminished, but there remained his friendship with Bal Thackeray. In 1996, he hosted a meeting at his house between then Prime Minister Deve Gowda and Thackeray, a meeting that shocked other constituents of the ruling coalition.
He has since found much to admire in Balasaheb, recently blogging: Minutes later Bala Saheb calls. ‘I want to see this film. Come and show it to me !’ ‘You have not been to see me for a long time!’
I assure him I shall arrange a projection in his house. I ask after his health. He is fine he says.
He cannot travel out due to his frail condition, but the fire in him still burns. He is resolute and firm as ever and in that resoluteness you discover an endearing, that sudden soft moment, which has always made his presence so strong and affectionate. His sense of humour is intact as he punches in some wise ones!!
But back in 1996, only a week separated the dinner with Deve Gowda and the announcement in Bangalore in the presence of the Karnataka Chief Minister that his new company Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd (ABCL) would host the Miss World pageant. The pageant was the beginning of the company’s long road to financial ruin that led Amitabh to Amar Singh and the SP, led by Mulayam Singh Yadav.
When ABCL was established by Amitabh and his wife Jaya, it was India’s first entertainment company. The Bachchans had planned to notch up Rs 1,000 crore in turnover by the year 2000. Instead, by 1999, thanks to events such as the aforementioned Miss World pageant, a spate of movies produced such as Mrityudaata, Saat Rang ke Sapne, Major Saab, and the music albums Aby Baby and Naam Kya Hai, ABCL’s net worth was wiped out and the company applied to the Board of Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR) for sickness relief.
Decisions such as the sale of Saraswati Audio Visuals, a company fully owned by Jaya Bachchan, to ABCL for Rs 7 crore in 1995 did not help the firm’s claim to professionalism. It was alleged that ABCL had overpaid, given that Saraswati Audio Visuals could not be assessed at any more than Rs 1 crore. ABCL also entered into a contract to pay its prime ‘assets’, Amitabh and Jaya, an annual fee of Rs 10 crore and Rs 3 crore, respectively, for 10 years. The company soon accumulated losses of over Rs 70.8 crore against a net worth of just over Rs 60.5 crore. Hounded by creditors, appealing to BIFR seemed a smart move to insulate the company from their demands.
FROM THE CONGRESS TO THE SAMAJWADIS
It was in the wake of the ABCL financial crisis that Amitabh Bachchan drew close to Amar Singh. For Dasgupta, something seems to have changed from the days when Amitabh first ventured into politics, ‘In spite of the violence that took place (in 1984), he was then a man who stood by the party he believed in. But, his friendship with Amar Singh is purely opportunistic, for personal gain.’
It seems to have been a mutually beneficial relationship. Amar Singh’s penchant for the company of celebrities seems to have culminated in the biggest of them all. In turn, rumours that Amar Singh helped bail him out have long done the rounds. Whatever the truth, it is certainly true that the closeness resulted in a Rajya Sabha seat for Jaya Bachchan.
It was reward for her campaign for the party in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election of 2004. In Barabanki, she had told an assembled crowd, “Jin logon ne humko rajniti mein aage badhaya, unhone beech mein hi hamara saath chhod diya (Those who brought us into politics, they abandoned us midway).” Rahul Gandhi retaliated, “The Bachchans are lying… People know better about who betrayed whom.” Amitabh, once while expressing regret at the rift between the families, struck a blow of his own: “Woh raja hain, ham rank hain (They are kings, we are commoners). If the king does not want to have a relationship, what can the poor do? The poor cannot afford to say that we want to have relations with the king.” And this non-political ‘commoner’ would soon go on to star in SP campaign advertisements.
An emotion of gratitude and consent by a dignitary that holds office, can become overwhelming. I find myself in such state. Mr Narendra Modi… in his hospitality and generous demeanour, has… registered that our film Paa shall be granted tax exemption, the paperwork provided falling into place. He lives simply and with mere basic needs and most unlike the head of a state. He speaks with affection on development and progress. He is welcoming of fresh ideas and ideals. His oft-repeated phrase of him being a CM, a common man, is not misunderstood. He does and acts as he speaks—His blog, 6/7 January 2010.
On the very day Amitabh was courting Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amar Singh resigned as general secretary of the Samajwadi Party. The coincidence could not be more striking. As Amitabh was losing political patronage from one source, he was actively seeking it from another.
Congressman Rajeev Shukla says Bachchan’s decision to be the brand ambassador for Gujarat is part of the larger “nexus of convenience” that Bachchan has mastered. “First it was in Uttar Pradesh when he was Mulayam Singh Yadav’s friend, when he did those ads for the SP’s election campaign and now it is Narendra Modi and Gujarat. It is a complete U turn, an ideological somersault,” says Shukla.
But more stinging was Mallika Sarabhai’s statement, “I was told by a Gujarat government official that Mr Bachchan wanted tax exemption in Gujarat, free land for his film city and a Rajya Sabha seat for his wife Jaya Bachchan, who may not be able to represent Uttar Pradesh with the change in political equations there.”
Jaya’s term ends in three months and the parliamentary platform is important for the family. She has used it to defend the Bachchans whenever they’ve come under attack, even alleging harassment by Income Tax officials for daring to question a Rs 2 crore expense on the Aishwarya-Abhishek marriage extravaganza of 2007. Whatever the truth, what’s striking is that there is no shortage of people willing to believe these claims about Bachchan. Increasingly, the term ‘nexus of convenience’ strikes a chord.
Perhaps, as a recent blog entry of his seems to suggest, convenience is all that is left when no convictions remain: Many a times we are asked in the course of a conversation with the media, who we really are. But do we have an honest answer for that? Never! Not because we want to be dishonest, rather we have never had a moment to sit and think about it.
But I shall agree with those that asked me that question, that playing a different person almost every day, shall eventually result in us being devoid of any personal traits that we may possess. Or when we do address ourselves in a personal capacity, there is very little left within us to address.
Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject.