Amitabh Bachchan© GettyImages

HELLO! 100 Most Influential: Amitabh Bachchan

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Shobhaa De

Why he matters: Is there anything Amitabh Bachchan cannot do, or hasn’t done, as a larger than life, 80-year-old thespian, who’s been a seminal force in popular culture for more than half a century? Shobhaa De scrutinises this epochal titan through a different lens, where the more we see, the less we really know the real Big B!

Let’s see... He can act, he can sing, he can dance, he can write, recite, host... We aren’t sure he can cook, but he could well be a closet masterchef. Voted ‘Star of the Millennium’ in an online poll (1999) conducted by the BBC, beating the likes of Marlon Brando, Sir Laurence Olivier and Charlie Chaplin, Amitabh Bachchan, self-effacing as always, declared, “I’m just an ordinary artiste... It must have been a computer error...” Umm... sure! But here he is, dominating every conceivable space, going strong, staying relevant and on the ball, adored and worshipped by zillions.

Amitabh Bachchan©GettyImages

I am calling this man a Sphinx? Amitabh Bachchan, a Sphinx? The ubiquitous Mr. B? The one who’s such an indivisible part of our lives, he’s almost a family member? Is he for real? Or is that a mirage? You see him here, you see him there, you see him everywhere... Even when he’s not there! Billboards, television commercials, Sunday darshans, appearances at important events, daily blogs (over 5,000 and counting), tweets (48.5 million!)... It’s no exaggeration to say Amitabh Bachchan is the most recognised Indian in history after Mahatma Gandhi.

And yet, can anyone claim to have engaged in an extended, deep conversation with the country’s most famous baritone? Does anyone really know Amitabh Bachchan — the man who chooses to remain expressionless and remote in public, saving his formidable emoting strength for the cameras? Know. As in, “Know means know!’’ — to paraphrase his famous dialogue from Pink.

My husband has “known” Amitabh since their bachelor days in Kolkata, when both were debonair men about town, dashing young executives making their way up in life. They are still in touch, and their friendship has endured, despite their respective lives having taken such dramatically different turns along the way. A bond like this one takes work, emotional investment and mutual respect.

Amitabh Bachchan

Let me explain: around three years ago, Amitabh was gracious enough to show up for Dilip’s significant birthday, even though he was shooting at the other end of the city. It says a lot about the man, and even more about their shared sentiments. The fact that he turned up at fairly short notice and went the extra mile... Chapeau! We were celebrating Mr. De’s birthday at his favourite watering hole, the iconic Harbour Bar at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. A good two-and-a- half drive from the studio where Amitabh was shooting. Frankly, I didn’t expect him to make it. But Amitabh had requested his director for some time out and came all the way just to hug and wish an old buddy. He arrived armed with a handsome and very thoughtful gift. He was charming and correct with all the strangers present.

Though here’s the best part: he was hungry. He had told me this but left without eating a thing. He even forgot to take the fresh baklavas I had packed for him. That’s Mr. B... Ever the lone wolf.

So here was India’s highly revered, seniormost actor, who had hurtled through Mumbai’s insane traffic to reach the venue, only to turn right around after the cake cutting and drive straight back to his interrupted shoot. We were, of course, deeply touched by the gesture and marvelled at the man’s generosity of spirit. More than that, I was gobsmacked by his time management skills.

Later the same night, when I asked my husband if he really, really ‘knew’ Amitabh, he was stumped for an honest response. I don’t think anyone knows the man with the melancholic eyes. And I think he prefers it this way. Just as the majestic Sphinx stands like a timeless sentinel, dominating the desert sand in Egypt — silent, imposing and mysterious — there’s Amitabh Bachchan, towering over the vast expanse of the public’s imagination. Nobody has deciphered the mystique of the Sphinx. I doubt anybody can decipher or decode the magic of the taciturn Bachchan either. Here, I boldly include his closest family members and intimate friends.

After ‘knowing’ Amitabh for over 45 years, do I really know anything about the man that’s not in the public domain? Nah. Like everyone else, I’m aware of the superficial — that he doesn’t smoke or drink (gave up both years ago), or that he’s vegetarian and very particular about his diet, or that he loves his shawls, or that he’s a bit of an obsessive-compulsive personality type, fastidious and fussy about his personal space and belongings. That’s about it. I have no clue what excites him, what angers him, what bugs him, what thrills him.

The man whose voice is his biggest asset is a man of few words and barely speaks unless spoken to. Even then, his measured responses emerge almost reluctantly, as though he can’t wait for the other person to vanish. Some would describe him as a recluse, but a true recluse would avoid people as far as possible. Amitabh, however, thrives on fan adulation, and his Sunday darshans (started in 1982) are a testimony to his love for the adoring fans, as is evident when he walks barefoot to the gates of Jalsa, his Juhu home, where a sea of admirers wait for a glimpse of their idol.

That’s just the thing. Amitabh, the consummate performer, is comfortable in crowds and before the camera. His multiple media incarnations over decades have created a mythology around the superstar — from Babumoshai, Lambuji, Big B and the Angry Young Man, to Mr. Bachchan, Amitji and Senior Bachchan. But will the real Amitabh Bachchan please stand up? Tell us who you really are!

Amitabh Bachchan©Getty Images

For a man as well read and fluent in so many languages, Amitabh hardly speaks! Shy? Self-conscious? Conceited? All three? Is this the same person who, for 23 long years, has played an attentive, caring host on Kaun Banega Crorepati, with so much evident empathy, sensitivity and compassion? It’s this complexity, these contradictions that define his off-screen, on-screen dichotomies. An almost schizophrenic divide that separates the performer-actor from the reticent family man who spends his free time with books and music for company in his palatial home.

I’ve accumulated several amusing Bachchan stories over the decades, but perhaps the most embarrassing one revolves around offering the great Amitabh Bachchan defrosted leftovers when he turned up for an impromptu visit. This was 35 years ago, when the family was all packed and ready to leave for an extended vacation after shutting down the residence and sealing the kitchen. Amitabh chose that very evening to come a-calling. The meeting was overdue. Let’s just say there were a few issues to sort out (long story). When his secretary informed me that he was en route, I managed to scrape together an improvised tea tray, stupidly assuming he’d leave after an hour or so. Three hours later, we were still chatting in the living room, and he wasn’t in any hurry to make tracks.

By then, it was dinner time, and our nervous cook was desperately signalling to me that we had no khaana–peena organised (pre-Swiggy zamana). I excused myself briefly, leaving Amitabh to chat with Mr. De and hang with our daughter, Arundhati, who was two at the time. The panic-stricken cook asked whether she should make something quickly. But with what? There was nothing in stock — no fresh sabzi, no eggs. We finally located a packet of frozen samosas in the fridge and decided on the spot to thaw it. Disgraceful! But the meeting was more important than soggy samosas. Amitabh was polished enough to not make me feel shabby when I sheepishly confessed we were out of food. We had a good laugh, clicked a few photos and he left. Truce had been declared. Goodwill triumphed!

That’s class.

So, if you ask me for that one word that describes Mr. B, that’s what I’ll say. Inborn sophistication. I’ve never seen him lose his cool, unlike so many of his contemporaries. If that makes him a control freak of sorts, I’m okay with that. “Amitabh, The Aloof” is an apt descriptor. Punctual and polite, well-mannered and courteous, he really should conduct a masterclass in professionalism.

Amitabh Bachchan is in a league of his own. He has gone well beyond the numbers game. Possibly no other living actor in the world commands audience attention and respect the way he does. But for God’s sake, will the Sphinx ever speak? We’re all ears...

To see who else is on the list, grab the copy of HELLO! India’s August 2023 issue right here!