ECONOMY

Abhishek Bachchan: ‘When a fan asks for an autograph, give it to them’

“It was like living in a dream,” says Abhishek Bachchan about his youth, “to get up and go see my father beat up 50 people, romance and sing songs. To be playing with the props and equipment, literally growing up on the movie sets of the great [directors] Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra, Yash Chopra, Ramesh Sippy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee . . . What a wonderful childhood to have. It was just brilliant.”

His father is Amitabh Bachchan, the 79-year-old icon of Hindi film and television, a presence in the national culture for the past 50 years.

“I thought everyone’s dad was like that,” Bachchan says over Zoom from Mumbai, “that there were scores of people waiting outside everybody’s house to wave to their father and take their autograph. It wasn’t until a certain age that I started understanding the enormity of what he meant . . . But today, as an actor, I understand the extent of his talent, and what it takes to achieve what he did.”

The 45-year-old is now a star in his own right. Featuring in more than 70 movies, he also played the lead last year in Amazon Prime’s crime series Breathe: Into the Shadows, and has a profile to match any Bollywood actor of his generation.

He talks enthusiastically about his latest movie, Bob Biswas, which is released worldwide on ZEE5 Global on December 3. An atmospheric, darkly comic thriller, it reboots the figure of Bob Biswas, an ostensibly unremarkable, churchgoing insurance salesman who moonlights as a hitman. The character first appeared in the 2012 indie hit Kahaani (“Story”), then played by Saswata Chatterjee, becoming a cult hero and the face of advertising campaigns.

In ‘Bob Biswas’, Bachchan plays both a family man and a hitman

Stylishly deadpan and reminiscent of the Coen brothers, the spin-off, shot last year, is the directorial debut of Diya Annapurna Ghosh, daughter of Kahaani director Sujoy Ghosh. (The influence of family dynasties in Bollywood seems unabated.)

The movie opens with Bob enjoying a happy domestic life, having started anew after a long coma and the loss of all memories about his murderous night-job. “He’s a bundle of contradictions,” says Bachchan about what attracted him to the role. “He’s a very sweet and loving family man who has a beautiful wife and two kids, and is very content in his middle-class existence when his past catches up with him. And then he has the moral dilemma. He doesn’t want to go back to being that cold-blooded killer, but circumstances are such that he has to . . . That kind of combination makes it so interesting.”

The actor gained a substantial amount of weight to achieve the doughy appeal of Chatterjee’s original, earning a similarly genial menace. “This is what today’s generation demands of actors, complete authenticity . . . Thirty years ago, I could have gotten away with some very shoddy make-up.” The debate may yet soon change and challenge Bollywood: thin American actors are being criticised for playing fatter characters, whether with prosthetics or weight gain.

Bob is far removed from the action heroes and romantic leads that comprise much of Bachchan’s career. “I’ve been around for 21 years and won’t be able to play the same roles that I did,” he says. “Roger Moore, when asked why he stopped playing Bond, said it got a bit creepy that he was romancing girls who were sometimes half, if not a quarter his age . . . In India, the largest audience group is between the ages of 15 and 35. Their tastes have changed. There’s been so much more exposure to the western world, to Asia and other cultures.”

This has led to a shift away from Bollywood’s usual exaggerated fight scenes, romantic melodramas and fantastical music sequences towards more straightforward storytelling.

“I say this with a very heavy heart,” laments Bachchan, “the whole song and dance is not being consumed as much. People don’t have time for that . . . That is pretty much the DNA of Indian films and I hope we never lose that . . . But now people are getting back to watching movies in theatres, I believe that is going to come back, it’s the calling card of Indian cinema.”

Even amid India’s tradition of elite clans, the Bachchans stand out. Bachchan’s father transformed from the angry young man of 1970s cinema into Bollywood’s grandest doyen and a television fixture as the presenter of Kaun Banega Crorepati, India’s adaptation of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?.

Bachchan’s parents, Jaya (left) and Amitabh (centre), are successful actors in their own right © AFP via Getty Images

His mother, the Bengali actress Jaya Bachchan, began her career in the films of Satyajit Rai before becoming a mainstream star, most notably opposite her husband in Sholay (“Embers”), the dusty 1975 western that is the most beloved Hindi movie of all time. Since 2004, she has been an MP for the socialist Samajwadi party. Abhishek’s older sister, Shweta, is a columnist and author who is married to Nikhil Nanda, the scion of an industrial dynasty.

Bachchan’s wife, however, is at least as successful as him. A Vogue model, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan was 21 when she won the Miss World pageant in 1994. That victory launched her into a Bollywood career filled with box-office hits, many also starring her husband and, sometimes, her father-in-law too.

“We’re public property,” Bachchan says about the national obsession with his family. “That’s part and parcel of being an actor in India. We Indians are very passionate about our cinema and our heroes and heroines, and there is an ownership over them.”

I ask how he copes with this attention. “My father told me that no matter the situation or frame of mind I’m in, whenever a fan asks for an autograph or a photograph, give it to them. We are what we are because of them . . . He has the utmost love and respect for his fans and he’s taught me that.”

Bollywood stars, I remark, are much more available to the public than Hollywood’s, who are largely walled behind security. “In the west, they’re very guarded about their privacy,” he says. “Indians are more about community and their society. It’s all inclusive.”

A spirit of public service pervades both sides of his family. His paternal grandfather was the nationalist poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan, whose wife, Teji, was a social activist. His maternal grandfather was the campaigning journalist, Taroon Kumar Bhaduri. This sense of duty is probably why the Bachchans have, despite the pressures of stellar fame, stayed united as a dominant force in India.

“We all had dinner together at the dinner table,” says Bachchan of his upbringing. “There was no talking shop at the table, and we still can’t. The emphasis is on being as normal a family as possible.”

Bob Biswas is available on ZEE5 Global from December 3

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