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The family guy
The Bachchan household is a talkative one - everything is discussed threadbare at the dining table, nothing brushed under the carpet. In the midst of all this, AB presides over the clan from his towering height. Funnily enough, no one else quite sees him as the lord of the house.
In the 1980's, working on the sociology of cinema was unthinkable and yet I chose to work on the Sociology of Amitabh Bachchan for my MPhil-PhD programme in JNU. When my MPhil degree was awarded to me, I sent a copy of my dissertation to Amitabh.
It seems that one Guru Dutt had come looking for me in the one-room apartment I rented saying that Amitabh on receiving my dissertation has desired to immediately talk to me. Amitabh called me up that evening and said that he was overwhelmed with my work because I seemed to write the very words that he often thinks of. He insisted that I visit him as soon as possible and that he would send me the air tickets and while I stayed with him he would take care of me so I did not need to worry. I was worried;I prefer hotels to homes and feel uncomfortable at being a house guest, Amitabh Bachchan notwithstanding. He must have read my mind and his secretary called me up to say that I could retire to the Centaur Hotel for my bed and bath while all meals and all waking hours will be spent at Prateeksha.
When I finally landed in Prateeksha, I realised that I had internalised Amitabh so deeply that nothing I encountered there was a surprise for me. I had anticipated every detail of his daily life. What I missed was how much his family seemed to look upon me as the star. When an elderly relative visited them, I overheard Teji say to him in a hushed tone that she was overwhelmed by how unassuming I was!
The family at Prateeksha was more eager to lay bare before me their failings and weaknesses. Low scores in maths and social sciences, fear of injections, allergies to food, incapability in business, failures in examinations, and denial of appointments were discussed openly. Children and the elderly participated equally in all conversations;nothing was held back. It was a talkative house, an open house, where light and breeze flowed in as freely as discussions.
Amitabh was in command even in his private space. He commented on every course, where the okra needed to be fried more, where salads had to be cut finer and where the curtain had to be placed so that the slanting rays of the winter sun did not hit the eye. Food was an important affair in Prateeksha;the diet intake of everyone at the table was taken note of and the nutrition followed carefully. One had to have the share of greens, of fibres, food had to be plentiful and eaten with respect and care. Amitabh's family records of the past seven generations showed the family to have suffered hunger and deaths due to malnourishment.
Amitabh made a few rounds of appointments for me. I met Javed Akhtar and Subhash Ghai. I accompanied him to the sets of Akayla. I was introduced to Salim Khan and Ramesh Sippy as a genius. On the sets, Amitabh laid open my dissertation. He had marked certain portions of my work and asked me what I meant by justified anger, what was the final destination of a rebel, does the ego always invoke an alter ego, when is existence threatened, what is violence, when is violence creative, what is death, what is the Heideggerian Being, is aesthetics only specific to art, what is poetry, what is epic, how is the cinematic experience different from watching a football match, what is a cinema, what is a star, what kinds of cinema succeeds and why and so on.
In my inner eye, I knew Amitabh very well and it mattered little whether I met him or not. But it was Jaya who I really looked forward to seeing. I had been a fan of hers since I watched her Bengali film Dhanni Meye. We spoke about Amitabh, in which Jaya expressed her displeasure with her husband's choice of cinema, his performance and acting skills.
Jaya had emerged from a brand of cinema we know as art cinema, having worked with masters like Ray and middle-of-theroad director Hrishikesh Mukherjee. She felt betrayed that Amitabh, her friend and husband, had changed to emerge as a superhero in films that require him to dress like a eunuch and sometimes to drop his lungi, that too under the full gaze of Hema Malini! "I am curious about one thing in Amitabh, " Jaya asked me, "what about his relations with women?" She added hurriedly, that she did not think that it was possible for Amitabh to have any lasting relationships with any woman. I felt a sense of insecurity lurking in her.
After a while of conversing with her, I felt that Amitabh and she may have started off together but their paths had grown increasingly apart. Yet she was very much in love with him and in her vocal critique of him there was a desire to draw closer to him, possess him ever more. She felt that Amitabh had done quite the wrong thing by quitting politics. She read the step as being selfish and not willing to walk that extra mile for the people who loved him. Sometimes I feel Jaya's coming to politics and remaining there despite pressures to quit is an attempt to continue, on behalf of her husband, the journey which he abandoned.
Amitabh was his star self in his home, surveying it from a towering height with an overpowering gaze;unfortunately no one quite thought of him in this way. His employees were clearly alert about not missing out something like doors left open at twilight when mosquitoes found their way into the house; but his wife thought that he did not keep good company;his children felt he teased too much, and his brother felt that he needed to be managed. Teji regretted the fact that Amitabh never studied English literature. For then, she said, he would surely have been a professor by now!
(The author has written a book on Amitabh Bachchan, 'The Making of a Superstar' )
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