In an interview with MiD DAY editor Abhijit Majumder, Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan solidly defended his role in promoting Gujarat, and went to the extent of saying that the chief minister Narendra Modi was secular.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: Are you still close to Amar Singh?
A: Oh ya ya, he is family.
Q: Have you moved away from Mulayam Singh?
A: We are friends. I'm friends with Advani, Bal Thackeray, everybody.
Q: You didn't try to bring Amar Singh and Mulayam together?
A: No, I don't interfere in their politics, they don't interfere in my films.
Q: What surprised everybody was your friendship with Narendra Modi. People thought you were earlier almost obsessively anti-communal. But Modi has a communal image.
A: Is there some kind of a constitutional law that says that somebody has some political belief and therefore you can't be friends with him? Everybody has the freedom to be friends with anyone. You are talking about my role in promoting Gujarat, which is part of my country. Modi is a constitutionally elected chief minister of a state. Deny him that, and then talk to me.
Q: Do you believe Narendra Modi is a secular man?
A: I would like to believe so. Why not? He just won an election, and the largest number of votes came from an area where he had a Muslim candidate. Once the country is constitutionally secular, why should you think otherwise? Even the BJP has Muslim leaders. We are one country. I'm promoting Gujarat. I'm not promoting Narendra Modi. If there were another CM, I'd still promote Gujarat. And I don't charge for promoting my country. There were accusations made that I am doing it to win a BJP ticket for my wife, and build a film city there. Doh mahine tak aap logo ne gaali diya humko. Hua kya usme?
The programme has done extremely well in Gujarat. Gir forest has got full bookings this year. Some other state governments had said negative, rude things about my involvement in Gujarat. After they saw the results, they said, "Hey."
Q: So you are not wrong?
A: You tell me what am I doing wrong? If I want to promote a particular part of my country, is that wrong? Where are those who were accusing me of taking money, that I've taken Rs 150 crore? I have documents to prove I have done it for free. I've done this for years. For Gwalior fort, Golconda fort, a fort in Tirupati, for Jallianwalla Bagh, for a Sikh museum. I am doing it for Akshardham. Just because I don't talk about these things, people say whatever they like. Do you know Gujarat has the largest number of heritage sites in the country? Every time a celebrity gets involved in something, people always find a way to criticise. Never a good word.
Q: You didn't worry that your Muslim fan following would get upset?
A: Where are they upset? I'm not doing this to increase my fan base. My fans will go and see my films, and if they like it, they'll watch again. I don't think my fans are interested in who I'm associating with, or what I am politically. I am not communal. And I believe in the secular tenets of this country.
Q: You'll come back to politics at some point?
A: Never. I don't know politics.
Q: Being called one of India's finest actors or one of its biggest stars: what makes you happier?
A: [Laughs] Neither, I don't believe in either. All these accolades and epithets are generosity of the media. I am just happy to be doing work, and that there are a few people ready to take me in their movies. Because of these 41 years in the industry, I could work with different generations... from Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra, Salim-Javed, Ramesh Sippy, Yash Chopra to Tinu Anand and Mukul Anand to Adi Chopra and Karan Johar to Sujit Sarkar, Balki.
Q: Would you get a high when people call you a fine actor?
A: It's always interesting to see a critic's point of view, acknowledge it, accept it, and try to improve in the next venture. But also, if one is a competent enough actor, one knows what he is doing is right or not. But then there are times when we cringe to do certain scenes as an actor. Coming out of an egg or riding a horse, for instance. We used to joke about it with Man [Manmohan Desai] and he used to scold us: "You have no idea what you are talking. Just do it."
My co-stars -- Shatru, Chintu, Shammiji, Vinod Khanna, Kader Khan -- and I used to say among ourselves, "Yaar, ye kya karwata hain yaar!" Then we'd watch the movie in a theatre, see the overwhelming appreciation, and kick ourselves.
Q: How challenging was Paa?
A: I don't know if I would be ready to do a Black or a Paa in the '70s and the '80s. The concept of Indian cinema is of the young man falling in love, having some problems, eventually winning her. Sometimes you are hesitant to take on something different.
When Balki came to me with the idea, I was surprised. I wondered how he'd transform me into a 13-year-old kid. Later, the film was going on a... I wouldn't say frivolous... a different tangent. Then I gave him a few ideas. I later learnt he discarded the first script. I didn't give him a script, just an aspect of it. Complete credit goes to him. Once you accept a film, you go along with the director.
Q: Which films are you doing now?
A: Started Rajkumar Santoshi's Power, Prakash Jha's Arakshan, Buddha.
Q: Are you enjoying KBC?
A: Ya. With KBC, the family has come together. Earlier men used to watch sports, wives soaps and kids' cartoons. KBC previously was looked upon as more sophisticated... perhaps too intelligent a game. Participants were more metro-centric, educated. That had its own charm. Now you have people from B, C, D centres making it. Huge demographic change has taken place in small-town India, whether it is because of the government's efforts in education or of other agencies. There are very interesting contestants. Some of them say they haven't seen so many zeroes after a figure. Others want the village to be named after them some day. For them, even Rs 10,000 is a big amount. Farmers commit suicide for want of less money than that. I help about 40 such families through an NGO. I know.
Q: Who's best on small-screen: Salman, Hrithik, Akshay, Priyanka?
A: All of them are good. I'm glad they are on small screen now.
Q: Last question, one that I asked you when we had first met: Are you going to recite your father's poems and release it on a CD?
A: Earlier I was hesitant. I thought perhaps interest towards poetry and literature has diminished or died.
But for my father's 100th anniversary, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in New York invited me to recite his poems. I was shocked that the 4,000-capacity theatre was full. In Pune, one lakh attended. Now, I've decided to do something bigger, tour and recite in 8 or 9 Indian cities. Two months ago, I recited it at the Theatre des Champs Elysees, Paris. A French person teaching Sanskrit in Paris translated the lines into subtitles.
So yes, I'll do it. I thought people were becoming more commercial, materialistic. But there is a certain hunger. I'll call some people over, like Piyush Pandey. I was talking to Aamir, he was very keen.
Q: Your father's work still inspires you?
A: I have grown up in a literary environment. My father used to go for kavi sammelans. The family income was meagre: Rs 1,200 or so a month. He would get Rs 300-400 to attend a poetry event at night. He used to drive to nearby small towns... Ghaziabad, Meerut. And these events would go on through the night. He would come back at 5 or 6 in the morning, and I would open the door and ask him why do you do all this. He used to tell me: "Beta, paise badi mushkil se milte hain."
Then I joined the film industry. We all used to do two or three shifts. Work through the day and night, sleep in the car while travelling from one shoot to another. One day I got home at 6 am, and my father opened the door, and said: "Kya karte ho itna..."
I said: "Bapuji, paise badi mushkil se milte hain."
I was very surprised when I asked a KBC contestant the other day: "Kya kariengay itne paiso se?"
He said: "Saab, paise badi mushkil se milte hain," referring to the story I had once said.