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Art is not a luxury, but a necessity.

The man of the masses, the star of the millennium

28

Ali Peter John

That day when Amitabh Bachchan stood up to accept his Padmavibhushan from President Pranab Mukherjee somewhere after the morning he reminded me of the day when I was an ordinary assistant of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. A tall young man with long hair and another young man had climbed up five floors to meet Abbas Sahab. They had come all the way from Calcutta. They were called to Bombay to meet Abbas Sahab by the actor Tinu Anand who was also an assistant of Abbas Sahab.

Tinu was supposed to play the “seventh Indian” in Abbas Sahab’s film “Saat Hindustani”. Tinu was finalized with six other actors from different states among who were Utpal Dutt from West Bengal and Madhu from Kerala. But Tinu was also very interested and in a hurry to make it as a director. It was Abbas Sahab himself and Tinu’s father, the renowned writer of Hindi films and also the highest paid, Inder Raj Anand who had written letters to their illustrious filmmaker- friends like Michaelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini and Satyajit Ray to take on Tinu as one of their assistants.

All their friends wrote back at the same time saying that they were willing to accept Tinu as their assistant. Tinu opted to be the twelfth assistant of Ray and was getting ready to go to Calcutta. Tinu however was very scared of telling Abbas Sahab who he called “Mamujaan” (maternal uncle) about his decision to join Ray because there were just four days left for the shooting of “Saat Hindustani” to start in Goa. Tinu who grew up like a son of Abbas Sahab also knew all about his temper. And as he expected, Abbas Sahab flew into a fury when Tinu told him about going away to Calcutta. He told Tinu that he could not let him down at the last minute and he would certainly not let him join Ray unless he found an instant replacement for himself…

Tinu was at a loss for a few minutes but an idea struck him at the last minute. He took out his purse and found a photograph of a young man which was given to him by a friend whose name if I remember right was Sheela and she was from Delhi. She had told Tinu that the young man was a friend and belonged to a very influential family and had a junior executive’s job in an established firm in Calcutta but was interested in acting in Hindi films and asked Tinu to recommend him to some filmmakers from Bombay.

Tinu showed the photograph of the young man to Abbas Sahab and without giving a second look at it, Abbas Sahab said, “acting aati hai kya isko? Ha jo bhi hai bulaa lo usko aur bolna ki hum third class ka one way ticket denge”. Tinu who was desperate about himself immediately got in touch with the young man and he together with his elder brother was in Abbas Sahab’s office in North Bombay Housing Society in Juhu…

Abbas Sahab had no time to ask the young man many questions and was satisfied with his unusual height, looks and his voice. The young man told him that he was drawing a monthly salary of Rupees three and a half thousand and Abbas Sahab told him that he would be paid Rupees five thousand for doing the entire film and that he would have to live in a dormitory where he, all the artists and technicians would also be living and sharing the same meals.

The younger brother looked at his elder brother and the two agreed. Abbas Sahab’s ever so efficient secretary, Abdul Rehman was typing out the agreement, when Abbas Sahab who now knew that the young man’s name was Amitabh Bachchan and his brother’s name was Ajitabh Bachchan got curious and asked them if they were by any chance related to the poet Harivanshrai Bachchan and they instantly nodded. Abbas Sahab asked his secretary to stop typing the agreement and said he would have to ask his friend, the poet Harivanshrai Bachchan if he had given his permission for his son to try in films.

He dialled his number in Delhi and screamed (that is how he normally spoke when he was under pressure), “Arre suno, Bachchan, yahaan mere paas do ladke khade hai, ek jo lambaa hai usse actor banna hai, kya tumne usko permission di hai?” The voice of Bachchan on the other side said, “Abbas Sahab, agar aap usko apni film mein le rahe ho toh mujhe isse badi khushi nahi hogi”. Their conversation ended and Amitabh signed his first ever film, “Saat Hindustani”. The film was made and like all of Abbas Sahab’s films did fairly well, but the new actor, Amitabh Bachchan was recognised and he even went on to win his first National Award for the best supporting actor…

Amitabh Bachchan signed his second film, “Anand” after director Hrishikesh Mukherjee, a close friend of Abbas Sahab saw him in “Saat Hindustani”. Rajesh Khanna, the ruling superstar was playing the title role and Amitabh was signed to play his friend, Dr. Bhaskar and the amount that was fixed as his fee was Rupees seven thousand. The film turned out to be a cult film which was an all- Rajesh Khanna film, but Amitabh could make a very distinct mark.

The next film he signed was “Bombay To Goa” which was jointly produced by the well-known comedian Mehmood and N.C Sippy who was known as the saviour of good and meaningful cinema and was to be directed by S. Raamnathan. It was his fight sequence with Shatrughan Sinha who was the villain that caught the attention of writers Salim-Javed who had heard about him and his acting skills from the veteran actors Om Prakash and Pran.

They recommended him to director Prakash Mehra whose offer to play the hero in a song-less film called “Zanjeer” was turned down by Dev Anand, Raaj Kumar and Dharmendra. According to the unforgettable words of Prakash Mehra, “I was under the greatest kind of tension on the day the film was released and I was in Delhi. Amitabh Bachchan was a no body when the first show started at twelve noon and at three pm he was the next superstar and was also known as the angry young man”…

Amitabh had finally tasted big success after facing one big disaster at the box-office after another till a time when he packed up his bags and told his best friend, Anwar Ali, younger brother of Mehmood who was a big support during his grim struggle that he was leaving, and it was Anwar who asked him to stay back because he saw signs of his turning into a star of another kind. Amitabh listened to his advice and he is always grateful to Anwar for whom he did a major film like “Khuddar” when he was a superstar…

What happened after “Zanjeer” is now a part of modern day history, a story which anyone who knows anything about Hindi cinema knows all about. The kind of success he has seen sometimes even baffles him. He has won almost all the awards in the country and even in countries all over the world. The highest Indian awards he has won have been first the Padmashri, then the Padmabhushan and now the Padmavibhushan. The Nightingale of India, Bharat Ratna Lata Mangeshkar who is eighty-four now and who has all the admiration for Amitabh who says she is an unabashed fan of says that she would love to see Amitabh being honoured with the Bharat Ratna…

When I congratulated him on his being conferred the Padmavibhushan and told him that I joined the Nightingale in wishing that he would win the Bharat Ratna, he answered saying, “thank you. You are being presumptuous. I will never get it!!” I said, “I would like to live long enough to see that you win it”. It was typical of the grateful, humble but great man to answer me with dignified silence…

Reacting to the honour of being the Padmavibhushan of Bharat, he said, “I am extremely overwhelmed. All I am today and will always be is all because of the love of the people who I will never be able to pay back for the love they have showered on me for years”. On this occasion, I remember what he had said many years ago. When asked how long he would continue acting, he had said, “as long as the people want me to. I will play any kind of role according to my age and I am willing to stand in a crowd as a part of a scene in a film”…

An amazing man who has defied all odds, faced all kinds of trials and tribulations and even battled death can go to any extents to keep trying and the way and the passion with which he tries has to lead him to the kind of peaks that no actor or star in India or even anywhere else has faced. This is no exaggeration, I swear, but the truth as I know it and anyone who has known all about his journey till now and how he has travelled so far will agree with me…