‘I don’t pay attention to the film genre’
With his lastest and recently released thriller, TE3N, Amitabh Bachchan speaks about what excites him after being an actor for 47 years, the changing dynamics of filmmaking and his journey from being the ‘angry young man’ of Indian cinema to playing unparallel roles today.
Box Office India (BOI): After such an illustrious journey in films, what was it about TE3N that made you sign the film?
Amitabh Bachchan (AB): First, I was getting another job; second, I liked the story. I liked the way the story unfolded. Sujoy (Ghosh) actually wanted to make another film and we sat on that and discussed it. It was called Kerala. We were about to go ahead with it when he suddenly said he had another idea. He said it was a Korean film that he liked and he wanted to buy the rights and remake it. So he did that. Within a minute of his narration, I said, this is the film we should be doing. That’s how it happened.
BOI: You said you were discussing another film before TE3N emerged. How closely involved are you when a film is being developed? Do you also take part in the scripting process and keep an eye on the script when it is under development?
AB: I think we all go through the process of having discussions on the film and the story, on the scenes. Many different drafts are put out in front of us and scenes are discussed before going to the sets. We have several discussions, and when we reach a kind of finale, we step onto the set and then the director takes over, then there are no more discussions.
BOI: TE3N is a thriller. Do you find that genre exciting?
AB: If a character or a film you are about to do does not excite you, then you should not be working in that film. So I do not pay attention to whether it is a particular genre or something else. I simply look at the film as a whole, my character, the people I am working with, directors, makers, co-stars… that’s the way to satisfaction.
BOI: Can you tell us a little about your character in the film?
AB: He is an Anglo-Bengali, named John Biswas, a lower middle-class person, who is old and weak. He lives with his wife, his son is married and is somewhere else. He has a granddaughter, who had a tragedy and obviously it is very painful for him. He is disturbed by the fact that this has happened to his granddaughter and he wants to find out why it happened, how it happened, who did it? Despite several attempts and representations to the authorities, he is unable to get an answer but he persists. Whether or not he finds out is what the film is about.
I don’t think he is physically capable of being a vigilante or wanted to take revenge; that’s not the idea. I think it is more about getting a confession from the person, knowing what happened, just to know the truth, that’s all. But it takes time. The way the film has been made is quite interesting because you are looking at the film in a very linear manner and later realise that it spanned eight years. It is an editor’s delight, and a director’s delight. I just hope people like it.
BOI: The film was to be based in Goa but things didn’t work out and you suggested shifting it to Kolkata. Does the script have a connection with Bengal, which made you suggest another city to resemble the backdrop?
AB: There were some issues with permission, which is why we couldn’t shoot in Goa. When it was meant to be shot there, it was still a Christian character, an Anglo-Goan character, and they wanted to maintain that. There is a very large Anglo-Indian community that lives in Bengal and in Kolkata. Therefore, I felt that it could be shot in Kolkata. Since I worked there for eight to nine years, I knew about the community. And since Ribhu and Sujoy are Bengalis, they developed the plot and we started shooting in Bengal.
BOI: Do you have any special memories of Kolkata since you have had such a long association with the city?
AB: Yes, every minute is filled with so many memories, whether my first job, first days of independence, being on your own, running on your own. It’s a huge responsibility, you change and then the time you spent with your friends, the friends you make, the places you visited and worked in… it’s an incredible amount of nostalgia.
Then, when you are in that same vicinity, same region but your circumstances have changed, that is amazing. I don’t feel any difference, I feel I can still get out and walk the streets and relive those days. A city may go through structural changes but what is remarkable about Kolkata is that people don’t change. They are still passionate, warm, very affectionate, culturally very active, very alive, very knowledgeable, very intelligent. It’s wonderful to be there.
BOI: You have sung in several of your films, including TE3N. Please tell us about that.
AB: I am not a singer. We did it because the situation demanded that it should have been done in my voice, or else I would have someone else singing it. I sang Kyun re in the film, which is like an introspection of this grandfather, what are his feelings? It’s more introspective, it’s not really a song.
BOI: Being an actor, one has to get their emotions correct. Do you sometimes connect it with personal emotions or even a personal crisis while portraying an emotional scene?
AB: In the early part of my career, when you wanted to emote, you started thinking of the weirdest things to get the emotions right. So you started imagining someone dear and near suffering and what you would do. Sometimes, those feelings do come in and you think about someone who is very close to you, or someone who passed away. So yes, those thoughts sometimes do come in.
But I don’t know how others do it, that’s the only way I guess… I have said this earlier too, that after a point, it becomes kind of peculiar. If there is a death scene in a film, where my mother has died, what do you do? You imagine something like this, God forbid, happening to your own mother and you pour out everything. But that’s not the only death scene you have to do, there are five more death scenes. And you wonder how many times you have to think about this.
On the other hand, what you are thinking happens just once in real life. Your mother, your father is going to pass away just once. But, here, every second or third day… my mother has died at least five times in my career. You know that when it actually happens, when your loved ones pass away and you have to… you wonder whether the natural emotion hasn’t already been spent in an act that you did in a film. So those are some of the questions that come to you.
BOI: You have worked in this industry for so many years. How do you bring freshness to every performance, even though you are bound to have done some of those scenes before?
AB: Credit goes to the director because he is the one who guides us. But, sure, sometimes, you think, ‘Hey, I did this in that film, so I must do something else, something different.’ With the kind of cinema we make and the kind of numbers we churn out, it’s quite obvious that there will be repeat scenes and I guess that’s a challenge. I hope we can bring about a small difference but, yeah, I guess that’s one of the challenges that we face.
I think this is something all actors face… and it takes place in any profession. You may have been assigned a job, as you have today, to do an interview with me, and you set out from home and, let’s say, you are driving your car. All of a sudden, somebody hits your car and you are disturbed…would you carry that disturbed element when you are doing the interview with me? Would you ask me some really nasty questions? No, I am just saying temperament-wise, that’s something that could happen.Does it become difficult for you to switch a character on and off? Are there times when you are emotionally drained and you have got into the character…
You are disturbed because something has happened domestically, something happened to your car or the auto that you are travelling in (the driver) misbehaves with you and you are already fed up, and now you have to suddenly start smiling and be all polite… How do you do that? These are some of the dilemmas that I guess all of us face, not just me as an actor but anybody in any profession. Does it play on your mind? Yeah it does. Umm, how do you cover it? That depends on you, individually.
BOI: What was it like working with Nawazuddin Siddiqui?
AB: Nawaz! Unbelievable artiste, extremely talented, both Vidya and Nawaz. You get to learn so much from them. He did a small walk-on part in a film of mine, Shoebite. It hasn’t released and I was absolutely amazed by his performance and to now be working with him… you get to learn so much, it’s wonderful.
BOI: You once played the ‘angry young man’ and, over the years, roles have changed, characters have changed and filmmaking has changed. Now you are playing the common man. Can you tell us about that journey?
AB: Those were roles written by people… the writers need to be complimented, they designed them. Writers are the most important people in any film. Their job is very difficult, they have to write a story, they have to design a character, they have to design how he is going to speak, what he is going to wear, how he is going to present himself… That’s really tough. He has to be an actor, he has to be a writer, he has to be a location designer, everything. It’s a very tough job and they need to be given most credit.
BOI: How different is filmmaking now via-a-vis when you started your career?
AB: To start with, there is no film now, it’s a digital chip. Film was the most…celluloid was the most expensive commodity and so we had to conserve it. You couldn’t do too many takes. And you had to cut the shot as soon as you finished. I have just done a film, Pink, with six cameras, a digital shoot, and we have done 15-20 minute shots, non-stop, nobody bothers about cutting or anything.. haan chalne do, chalne do… retake kar lo, we couldn’t do that earlier.
I think with corporatisation, a lot more management has come in, accountability has come in although that is still a grey area. I guess we are getting there and soon details will be coming out in a more professional manner. There is a lot of departmentalisation… a lot of people who have… you think of an idea and you give it to different departments and say, ‘I want this… I want this,’ and there are different sections and departments that work for you. Earlier, directors or producers themselves had to make their own decisions, and get to the point themselves.
There are so many facilities available now, and when you have a problem, all you need to do is log on to the Internet and say, ‘I have this problem,’ and you will find 10 companies who do this for you, whether it is to clean your house or get you a driver or get you a maid… you can order your food, you can know where the nearest doctor is merely via an app. I mean, these are all fantastic facilities.
Filmmaking has become like that, you have so many people working. I was just saying in a previous interview that we had to remember our own continuity in my time. Now you have 10 wonderful ladies who keep note of everything, whether your kurta was like this or like that in the previous shot. And they watch you, they tabulate everything, they record everything and it’s wonderful.
So, division of labour and division of work, a lot more organised, timetables set, ready, bound script with you, your scenes in front of you for the next few days and months so you are prepared. Other than Salim-Javed, I don’t think there was ever a time when I worked with anybody where I had a regular, bound script. These are some of the things that have changed.
BOI: What still excites you as an actor?
AB: Another job, another role that challenges me or tests me or keeps me awake at night, wondering what is going to happen tomorrow morning. This happens regularly with me because we are always anxious about what is going to happen tomorrow. Whether or not will we be able to deliver, whether the right mood, lines, everything… so all these things that are very normal.
BOI: You said the scriptwriter is the most important element in the filmmaking process. With wonderful stories being written nowadays, what do you have to say about the new wave of scriptwriters today?
AB: I don’t think there is a new wave. Stories are written, films are made, when they don’t run, you sit back and introspect, wonder what went wrong and you spend more time on it, I think it’s a very normal thing.
BOI: So what has changed?
AB: I think the audience has changed. They desire better films, they want to see something unique, and that is a challenge for writers and filmmakers.