This is the full version of my published piece in Crest, TOI on the 6th of October 2012.
I was being a Great Gambler when I cast all prospects of my academic career into the winds and decided that for my doctoral programme I would work on Amitabh Bachchan who I in my student days often thought of as the usherer of my life. This was in the 1980’s when perhaps working on the sociology of cinema was unthinkeable. But to me cinema was a social phenomenon; it addressed people universally beyond class, caste, gender and age. I suspected that every human being had a conception of herself and in that mental image of hers, she ceased to be trapped in her socio-economic boundaries and transcend into a being. Of many lives I had seen, I realized that people latch on to film stars for an inner life and this inner life of humans, to my mind, was sociologically very important for shapes that societies take, for the kinds of histories they have, for the levels of cultures they acquire and so on. I was a student of JNU’s MPhil-PhD programme and because of my formidable performance in class; the academic panel did not know how to deny my research proposal in which I decided to create a space for a film star in the academic curricula. When my proposal was cleared I immediately contacted Soumya Bandopadhyay to introduce me in person to Amitabh Bachchan. Soumyada was Amitabh’s biographer and in the year 1989 very close to him. So on a bright autumn day of September in 1989 I went to meet Amitabh in his rented bunglow in Delhi’s Vasant Vihar.
Amitabh Bachchan’s style in those days was moist back brushed hair and spotless white khaddar with Kohlapuri sandals. He doused himself liberally with some expensive perfume, served us excellent Darjeeling tea and at once started speaking about how he felt that his being in Hindi film brought a new kind of energy in the people precisely because the characters he played always delivered solutions. Amitabh had just resigned from the Parliament and was shooting for Agneepath. I sensed that Amitabh developed some kind of a nervous discomfort at being studied and observed. But after a while he felt less threatened and turned to face me directly. “You are a good student”, he said, “a great career in the Universities and academic research I foresee. Why are you working on Amitabh Bachchan? Do you realize that you will be ruined?” I laughed condescendingly. ‘I don’t care”, I said, “ Copernicus was put to death for introducing new theories, so was Socrates. Main kaun hoon, kya naam hain mera, Socrates ko jab hemlock peena padha?” Amitabh showed adequate knowledge how the academic circle worked, what kinds of projects they valued, what kind of candidates they chose; he seems to have been very close to his father’s life as a an academic.
Though Amitabh had promised me help with my work, he did not keep his words. My questionnaires were never filled up, my queries sent to him by post never answered. I had to work around my project in a way in which interviews with the star had to be eliminated. I wrote my MPhil dissertation as a treatise in Idealism, using theories from the Germans from Fichte, Schelling, Kant, Hegel and down to Adorno. I wrote like them, using categories of aesthetics in my analysis where Amitabh turned into a Super consciousness, an ideal universal which was a process of continuous becoming. These were very tough issues to wade around and if one was not familiar with such expressions such as art being the moment where the world worlds, it was likely that one could get badly thrashed by the intellectual shrapnel of this school of philosophers. I sent a copy to Amitabh after I cleared my viva with flying colours. By this time, winter had set in with its salubrious days and cold nights.
One such afternoon as I sat working over an evaluation project of Tata Steel, my landlady called me up frantically in the office and insisted that I return home at once. I lived in a one room in a bungalow across my office with a Shrivastav couple. It seems that one Mr Gurudutt had come looking for me at home saying that Amitabh on receiving my dissertation has desired to immediately talk to me. I had no telephone at home and it seems that Amitabh had called up the Shrivastavs and they already had some exchange over both being of the same surname. 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. I assured him that I was no mind reader but I merely translated his films into a language with which he was also familiar because of his general access to literature and philosophy. 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 realized that I had internalized Amitabh Bachchan so deeply that nothing I encountered there was a surprise for me. I had anticipated every detail of Amitabh’s daily life. What I missed was how much Amitabh’s family seemed to look upon me as if I was the star and that they were hosting some celebrity. When an elderly relative visited them I overheard Teji say to the gentleman in a hushed tone that she was overwhelmed by me because I was so unassuming !!. Her reasons for being in awe of me was because Harivansh read through my work and then looked at my bibliography and had said to her that so many books even he had not read. Amitabh was certain that I be projected as some kind of a celebrity and this stance of his cowered Abhishek and Shweta down so much that when Shweta had to recite Harivanshrai’s poetry to me she shuffled and fidgeted nervously. His staff stood around me looking on eagerly whose preparation I relished most at lunch.
The family at Prateeksha was more eager to lay bare before me their failings and weaknesses rather than prove that they were better than the best. Weaknesses in maths, low scores in social sciences, fear of injections, allergies to food, incapability in business, failures in examinations, and denial of appointments were discussed openly and frankly. Children and the elderly participated equally in all conversations; nothing was held back, nothing was pushed under the carpets. 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 okhra 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 generation 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. I wished that the earth would open up and swallow me in because here right in front of me were seated the makers of Sholay, the very film that had opened up my consciousness to the world of cinema and to Amitabh Bachchan. 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. I felt as if Amitabh was the proverbial crane and I was Yudhisthir as we sat by the breeze of a lake stretched out in a large swathe in the premises of Chandivili studio.
Amitabh’s home was grand, grand because of its simplicity. There was no sign of ostentation, whites dominated; floors were of grey kota, furniture sprawling but neat. Care was taken so that at no point of time wealth got shown off. There was austerity, discipline, organization and tidiness. What also delighted me was that writing stationery was kept at every nook and corner. Amitabh wrote down everything and insisted that at every conversation one needed to have writing things. This was a habit I valued very much and could easily see that such habits came from homes of academicians, also my family occupation.
In my inner eye I knew Amitabh very well and it really mattered very little whether I met him in mortal body or not. But it was Jaya who I really looked forward to see. I had been a fan of hers since I watched her Bengali film Dhanni Meye and never lost an opportunity to watch her films. As much as I took Amitabh normally, I actually gushed when I met Jaya. We had conversations around Amitabh in which Jaya expressed her displeasures with her husband’s choice of cinema, his performance and acting skills; Amitabh would try to defend himself often citing my dissertation in which all his absurd films were interpreted as specialized spiritual quests of mankind. Jaya, much exasperated sought my support in claiming that the Bengali culture was on the whole much superior to the UP tastes. Jaya had emerged from a brand of cinema we know as art cinema having worked with masters like Ray and middle of the road director, Hrishikesh Mukherjee. She regarded the commercial cinema more as plan B to fill in the blanks of idle time in the life of an artist. She felt betrayed that Amitabh, her thick friend and husband had changed over to emerge as a superhero in films that require him to dress like a eunuch and sometimes to drop off 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?” Then 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 that I conversed with her I felt like many of Jaya’s fans that she married the wrong man. They 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 so dear. 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. She continues the pilgrimage on behalf of her husband. More than self-fulfilment, this is her way of serving her husband.
Amitabh was his star self in his home looking over neatness and order from his towering height and overpowering gaze; unfortunately no one quite thought of him in this way. His employees were clearly ever alert at being pointed out for having missed out something like leaving doors open in the twilight hours when mosquitoes found their way into the house; his wife thought that he was waylaid and in bad company of men; his children felt he poked and teased too much, and his brother felt that he needed to be managed. But there was no one who regretted as much as Teji that Amitabh never studied English literature for then he would surely have been a professor by now. The more she heard about our faculty in JNU the more she felt that Amitabh had indeed lost a chance of a lifetime when he came to films and not the University!