Ramesh Sippy with Bachchan and Dharmendra on the sets of Sholay
‘He Will Do All It Takes To Get It Perfect,’ says Ramesh Sippy, Director
When Amitabh Bachchan was declared “Superstar of the Millennium” in a BBC online poll in 1999, Sholay was declared “Film of the Millennium”. Together, we, and a lot of others, have contributed a great deal to making that happen. Sholay (1975) was released when he was a rising star, after a turnaround effect by Zanjeer (1973). After Deewaar (1975), there was no looking back for him even when he switched to more mature roles. My personal equation with him has always been uncanny. I remember during Sholay, when I was taking a shot, I suddenly felt if he could just give me a slight movement of his body, it would act as a cue for the cinematographer [Dwarka Divecha]. I started moving towards him, but even before I reached him he already knew what I wanted. He knew me, knew how I worked. Similarly in the train sequence in the beginning of the film when he and Dharmendra flip a coin to see whether they will help Sanjeev Kumar’s Thakur, we were not getting the focus right when he removes his hand to reveal the coin. Ultimately, he told me let me to look through the lens and he would be able to do it. Sure enough, he did. He brought so much ease and comfort to the set. In another shot, when the sidecar is separated from the bike during the ‘Yeh Dosti’ song, we were nervous about the rejoining of the two. Amitji had to come around the camera with side trolley, sure enough he did it in the first take and we all heard the click. He wanted to do another take to make sure because those days we didn’t have video monitors or VFX. I was on the camera trolley; I knew it was perfect. Another time during Shaan (1980), there is a scene where he and Shashi Kapoor go looking for Bindiya Goswami and her scamster uncle played by Johnny Walker. She had to blow bubble gum and then make it burst. It took us 90 takes to get the bubble gum to burst, but both he and Shashi were so patient. Similarly we spent so many days and nights getting the perfect time just after sunset for the lamps to be lit and his mouth organ to waft over Thakur’s haveli in Sholay. The shoot went on and on but whether it is one shot or 90 takes, he would do all it takes to get it perfect.
‘I Learnt To Do the Most Absurd Things Convincingly,’ says Anupam Kher, actor
The first time I worked with him was on Aakhree Raasta in 1986. It was in Chennai and it was June. It was very hot. I had just come off the success of Saaransh (1984) and had done 40-50 movies. I was flying high. I remember telling the producer that there was no air-conditioning in my make-up room and he better do something about it. And then I went on to the set. There was Amitabh Bachchan, sitting in a corner, in full costume, with a jacket, trousers, beard, moustache, and a blanket wrapped around him. I remember telling him how hot it was. And I will always remember his answer: “If I think about how hot it is, I feel hot. If I don’t think about it, I don’t feel it.” As a professional, I learnt you cannot allow external things to affect you. From then to now, where we worked together in the yet to be released Uunchai, he is still the same person, with the same energy and professionalism. The second thing I learnt was to be able to do the most absurd things convincingly onscreen if you want to be an actor. It is why he has given so much joy to so many people. It was from this scene in Coolie (1983), where he is listening to the radio and making an omelette while doing yoga as the channels flip. That saved me from doing only one kind of arthouse cinema. It was a note to myself to not intellectualise the job and helped me to do roles such as that of a miser in Dil (1990), which would have seemed ridiculous otherwise.
‘He Defined Acting So Simply,’ says Sameer Nair, former producer, Kaun Banega Crorepati
I remember asking him what acting is and he defined it so simply. The idea is narrated, it becomes a story, two or three drafts of which are written. Then the screenwriter adapts it into a screenplay. The film is then cast, there are rehearsals, then the shoot starts. Some scenes require retakes, some don’t. The film is finally wrapped up with a final take. This entire process takes six to nine months. The actors are completely aware of their lines. Say there is a line like “Vijay, tumhari ma ki tabiyat bahut kharab hai”. Every actor involved in the scene knows it will happen, yet every actor has to behave as if it is the first time he has heard those lines. The difference between an average actor, a good actor and a great actor is how far he is able to make the audience believe it is reality. It’s so simple really and yet so profound.
‘Working with Him Was the Ultimate Fan Fantasy Coming True,’ says Reema Kagti, director
A s a child growing up in the small town of Digboi, Assam, Amitabh Bachchan’s films defined my childhood. Mr. Natwarlal (1979) was my favourite film. I saw it at one of the two single-screen cinema halls in the town, Janta and Jasoda—I forget which. The song ‘Mere paas aao mere doston’, which Mr Bachchan sang himself, was banned by my father in our home because I would play it over and over again. Mr Bachchan has been an inspiration to me all my life. Working with him on Armaan (2003) and Lakshya (2004) was the ultimate fan fantasy coming true. I remember I was always on my walkie-talkie during the filming and he would call me “Bodo militant” for my so-called intimidating ways. He does so even now whenever I meet him.
‘Everyone Wanted a Brother or a Friend Like Him,’ says Ram Gopal Varma, director
The first time I consciously took notice of Amitabh Bachchan was in a very bad and not totally darkened theatre (because of the light leaking through some vents and gaps in the closed doors) called Ramapriya in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh. The film that was playing was Khud-Daar (1982) and the scene which was going on at that precise moment was Amitji learning the lie his own brother has told him, then barging into the discotheque where his brother is grooving away with a girl. As he shouts at the DJ to stop the music and looks at his brother in the far corner with hurt-filled eyes, a gang of vicious-looking bouncers moves towards him. He looks at them and in an emotion-choked voice says that he will break their legs if they try to stop him from beating up his brother. There was an audible gasp in the theatre from the viewers as he said this. The interesting point is that none of the guys in the theatre could speak Hindi as Vijayawada is a Telugu-speaking town. So what did they connect to? It is just the raw emotions of anger, betrayal, helplessness and above all the hurt he managed to communicate through his body language, his voice and his eyes. As I looked at the faces of the people sitting in the theatre, I could see a tremendous sense of awe, admiration, respect and, above all, a connect in their faces. Each of his viewers connected to him deeply through the characters he portrayed in his various films. Each and everyone wanted a brother or a friend or a leader like him. In those days, I saw sisters who wanted a brother like him and girls who want a boyfriend like him. I even saw street goondas emulating him.
‘He Has an Aura Far beyond His Work,’ says Vidya Balan, actor
There is a scene in Paa (2009) where I play his mother. He is Auro, suffering from a rare disease that is causing him to age unnaturally fast. He is all dressed up, waiting for his father to take him to Rashtrapati Bhavan. And his father doesn’t arrive. It reminded me of my childhood. I was a diehard fan, like most Indians, and apparently would not eat until they showed his ‘Saara zamana’ song in Yaarana (1981) on Chhaya Geet, the weekly song show on Doordarshan. So when Amitabh Bachchan had the near fatal accident on the sets of Coolie, I was adamant on visiting him in hospital. I was all of three years old and would wait every day after school, all dressed up, to visit him. My mother, of course, would make excuses every day. That scene reminded me of the little girl I was. It was surreal. There was another moment on the sets of a film we did together, Eklavya (2007). I was standing on one of the chhatris in the palace where we were shooting and he strode on to the set and came up to me to praise my work in Parineeta (2005), my debut film, saying he could not imagine anyone else in the role. He was so charming and generous. I remember standing there, looking down on him, dumbstruck, until the cinematographer, Natty (Natarajan Subramanian) tugged at my arm and asked me to come down. I believe “Amitabh” means immortal glow and indeed there is a grace that he emanates with the way he conducts himself off screen which ensures he has an aura far beyond his work.
‘On Sets He Is Like an Eight-Year-Old,’ says Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, director
For me, there are two ways of looking at Amitabh Bachchan, through my own experience and what I’ve seen of his work. I saw Reshma Aur Shera (1971) after I saw Zanjeer, Sholay and Deewaar. Here was this thin, scrawny guy, he didn’t have words in the film so we didn’t hear the famous voice. But wow, you could sense the storm was coming. My first experience of working with him was when we did the first of five BPL ads together—we did 20 ads after that. It was the first time any Bollywood celebrity was doing such an ad and I remember telling him not to do it. I said we’ve always seen you 60 feet tall on the silver screen and you’ve controlled us. Now you’ll be six inches tall and we will be able to control you with our remotes. Let’s not do this, I remember telling him. And he laughed and told me, this is the future, this is what will happen in times to come. That was 1996. It was the same with the music videos we made for the ‘Aby Baby’ album with Kabhi Kabhie oration and the rap song ‘Eer Bir Phatte’ with Bally Sagoo that led to my directorial debut Aks in 2001. He is the thread that runs through the cultural fabric of the subcontinent. I have yet to come across anyone who doesn’t like him. In such polarising times, he unifies. As for working with him, it’s like marijuana. You get addicted to him. He may be 80 but on sets he behaves like the mirror image, as if he is eight, he is so full of energy and enthusiasm. He is the change. He never wants to remain in his comfort zone and always wants to experiment.
‘I Was Speaking Hindi in a Bachchan Way,’ says R Balki, director
I ’d spent most of my growing up years in Bangalore watching Amitabh Bachchan movies. His movies used to run for 25 weeks at a time. Bachchan, Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth, these were our heroes. The first time I met him was in Mumbai to shoot an advertisement for Parker pens, one of his first ads after his comeback on Kaun Banega Crorepati (2000). I couldn’t believe my luck. I remember I narrated the script to him, speaking Hindi in a Bachchan way, because that is how I had learnt the language. I realised, of course, that I was doing it to Bachchan, who was watching me with a deadpan expression. I felt like ducking under the table. We have a pact now. Every time I write something in a space that has not been explored before, I go to him, whether it is a film or a new scene.
‘He is the most childlike person I know,’ says Tabu, actor
The first time I connected with Amitabh Bachchan was when we went on a world tour in 1999. He went wherever we would go—restaurants or nightclubs. I remember he would count how much shopping I would do. At one point, he said there were 46 bags. He was very keen to see the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and I remember one night after the concert, he drove us there at midnight. We became “email friends” after that. Once we were travelling to the Toronto Film Festival in 2006—his film, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, was showing, and I was going for The Namesake. We were on the same flight, and when we landed at the airport, he wanted to try the buggy. So there was he and I on the buggy together. He is the most childlike person I know —effervescent, full of energy, so connected to the outside world and to his family. It is so inspiring to see him with people of all ages. And yet when it comes to work, he is so disciplined. We worked together in Cheeni Kum, which R Balki wrote for both of us. He would always say let’s rehearse the dialogues together. Cheeni Kum is one of the most romantic films I’ve done. Both of us made an organic and believable couple. I never saw it as a romance between a woman and a much older man. Work wise it is not my place to assess his acting, but he is the most personal, favourite friend I have and I treasure. I love him so dearly and I feel he gives the best hugs I know, the most satisfying. You can feel the love emanating from him. I would totally fall in love with someone like him who is so charismatic, handsome, humourous, charming, especially in the way he looks at you.