|Glorified groupie or starstruck |
scholar? In a racy, pacy account of her days in Bollywood,
Jessica Hines manages to be both as she tracks the object of her adoration, Amitabh Bachchan.
How many people can write that they've watched Amitabh Bachchan sleep (mouth slightly open, jaw relaxed), even if it's only from the aeroplane seat next to him? Or that they've cooked dinner for him and then watched Lost in Translation? Or even that they've borrowed his cashmere sweater? Well, in Looking For The Big B: Bollywood, Bachchan & Me (Bloomsbury/Penguin, 286pp, Rs 395), Jessica Hines has. And though what we really want to know from her what it was to watch Aamir Khan sleep-and not just in the first class of a flight winging its way to Kuala Lumpur-we will pull our forelocks (for we are eternally grateful to the goras and goris who share our fascination for Bollywood) and sit back, in one of the plastic chairs our heroine suffered while waiting for her hero on sets across the country, and enjoy. For there is much to revel in Hines' account of a decade of chasing Bachchan, from Hyderabad to Bangkok, despite it having been watered down after his threats of suing her. Hines, Aamir Khan's unacknowledged former girlfriend, could so easily have been a Bollywood groupie overcome by the flash dash of sleek cars, swish homes and spectacular parties that Bollywood at its bloated best can put together. That she managed to survive it, with her good humour intact, is a tribute to a Cornish upbringing quite unimaginably distant from Mumbai's addictive madness. Her love for all things Bollywood is so contagious that even when she is making outrageous statements-did you know Indira Gandhi put India under "martial" rule during the Emergency or that Yash Chopra is India's Richard Curtis-you just scrape your jaw off the floor and get on with it. There's Bachchan watching The Mexican with Hines in London's Leicester Square. Here's Bachchan making yet another 4 a.m. phone call to Hines, telling her to meet him at the Burj al Arab in Dubai where he's shooting Boom. There's Bachchan cooking her an omelette-or trying to. And here he is with her again, lungi-clad legs stretched out in front of him, surfing channels in his hotel room. She's clearly sympathetic to her subject, who during the course of her study goes from being an actor on a sabbatical to a downhill star to Bollywood's Great Patriarch. The others around him either fade into oblivion-Jaya Bachchan is a hazy presence while Abhishek makes fleeting appearances-or are just skewered into teensy-weensy pieces. Shobhaa De tries to confuse her about Bachchan and Rekha? Bif bam. Take that. Khalid Mohammed and Bhawana Somaaya gave her tea but no empathy. Dishum dishum. Take that again. Yet miraculously Hines says more about Bachchan than most biographers have managed. Much of the Bachchan legend has become idealised fact and Hines chronicles how all anti-versions seem to have faded from individual memory as his clout returned. So what myth will Hines target next? Of a certain Actor with a Conscience? And what could the book title be? Bollywood, Khan, his son Jaan & Me?
'NO!' HE SMILED, 'I AM THE PHALLUS!'
After I wrote the first dissertation on Amitabh, he happened to be in London again and I contrived a meeting where I could give it to him to read. To my horror he proceeded to read it right there and then, out loud. I sat and squirmed under the uniquely exquisite torture of having my clunky unedited prose read to me by my subject.... When he had finished he pronounced that my basic thesis was totally wrong. I writhed in my little Petri dish of embarrassment.
'So you are not the personification of the promise of the phallus to India's disenfranchised young urban males?' I squeaked.
'No!' he smiled, 'I am the phallus!' and he burst into sudden big booming laughter. I sat exhausted by my ordeal, laughter seeping out of me, like tissue fluid from a wound.
From that moment a strange friendship developed between the two of us. Every now and then, when Amitabh came to London, he would call me up and we would go out with some of my friends for dinner or a film. I managed to devise countless situations to justify going out to Mumbai to meet him. My friends couldn't understand it. 'Why would he want to be friends with you?' they asked.... I was as much at a loss to explain it as they were....
I even had the dubious honour of appearing in the Indian gossip columns, once as 'Icy Spicy', and another time as an 'English Rose', both of whom were apparently leading Amitabh astray whilst he was in London. I was a bit thrown by this but Amitabh sagely pointed out that he was news and if he had so much as coffee with someone it could get written about.
A huge desk and an arch-villain-sized chair dominate his room. On the desk is a bang up-to-date i-Mac. The walls are covered with Indian modern art, and on occasional tables placed at tasteful intervals around the room are books about him or the films that he has made. The most arresting objects are the fifty-plus fountain pens that sprout like sea anemones from silver tankards on his desk, many of them Mont Blancs, their white snowflake splotches shimmering in the air conditioning-and the pistol on the wall....
Just being in his cool, fragrant, bejewelled presence was enough to make me feel like nothing need ever be chaotic again. One of my friends recently asked Amitabh what made him smell so goddamn good. He told us that he mixes his perfumes, having a different one for different parts of his body and a special one for his hands. This sounds foul but it works, in an Eastern Potentate kind of way. And being the most fragrant man on the planet goes with the whole Ming-the-Merciless-bling-is-my-thing look he has going on with gems the size of ice cubes all over his long, soft-looking fingers. He started wearing them when his business was going bankrupt and all hope was lost. When I asked about them once he said that an astrologer had told him what to wear, and on which finger. I was skeptical, but must confess that since then his fortunes have turned about once more.
'The President of Afghanistan gave the pistol to me when we went there to film for Khuda Gawah. A couple of months later he was shot.' He looked at it grimly and then started to fiddle with the silver paper cutter in front of him.
'Wow. Cool. Gosh,' I say, intelligently, 'I loved that film. You look like you are having fun in it for the first time in years.'
'It was an amazing experience.'
'And the chemistry between you and Sridevi is electric. It's so sexy.'
'It was a very sexy time.'
I look at him. What does he mean by that? He and Sridevi finding a way to beat the cold?
'In Deewaar there were lots of sequences with Parveen Babi at the Oberoi. Amitabh would shoot all night and then go to Bangalore and shoot for Sholay. He stayed at a party of Javed and Honey's until 4 a.m. so that he could catch the morning flight and be at the shoot on time. He did this for a week,' says Yash Chopra.
'Really? He must have been exhausted.'
'Yes, but with Amitabh you can be sure that he will come on time. Amitabh is never late for professional work and he won't change the dialogue-usually when actors become stars they won't say certain lines. He would never do that, he is very disciplined. I remember when we were shooting for Kabhi Kabhie, I met Amitabh and Shashi coming into the hotel one morning in their suits. They pretended that they were ready for the day's shoot, that they weren't coming in after a night on the razzle. I told them they were needed in an hour. They weren't late-they had no choice but to go straight to the film, snoozing in the breaks.' He chuckles.... 'During the shoot in Goa, Amitabh and Shashi disappeared one day. Shashi would never shoot on Sundays and one Sunday he said, "OK, you shoot with the others, we're both taking a holiday." They didn't show up that night, we were all really worried, we didn't know which beach they had gone to. Finally they came home very late and drunk. They had got drunk and fallen asleep on lilos and only woken up when they heard the noise of the rescue helicopter!'
Amitabh once told me about his time in New York during a sabbatical at the start of the 1990s. He was happy and just mooched about a lot. He learned how to cook for himself (you buy the box, pierce the lid and put it in the microwave). But, he said, he hadn't liked the fact that he had been mugged a couple of times. I confess when he told me this I just started laughing, which upset him a bit. I quickly stopped and said that I found it hard to see him, Amitabh Bachchan, the guy who can take on several people in a fight and win, getting mugged.
He frowned and tisked at me. I immediately felt stupid; I had made the unacceptable mistake of equating him with his screen personas.... 'How did you deal with it?' I asked chastised. 'I recited speeches from my films as I walked along at night. People just thought I was insane so they stayed away!' he laughed.
I looked at him in awe. Can you imagine coming across Harrison Ford in, say, Shanghai, walking along and reciting his lines from The Fugitive or Witness. What a trip that would be!
When I sent Amitabh a copy of the first draft of the book, he didn't like it... Threatened to sue me and anyone else it might be useful to sue. He would, I was informed in an email, fight me to the last drop of blood in his veins. A threat which, even at my most upset, struck me as a little filmi.....
To say that I was devastated would also be a bit of an understatement. It was like being suckerpunched by your dad. It had never occurred to me that he might not like the book. But maybe I had been looking so hard at the past I had failed to recognise that he had changed again. Who he is in the minds of the public these days-man of the Millennium, the good man of India, a living demi-God, a goddamn gen-u-ine hero-has so little bearing on the man he was in the seventies and eighties. Was it that he didn't want people reminded of it? It was his idea that I write his biography-was I supposed to help perpetuate the myth he himself had created? I had been a fool to think I could help him get behind his image, dig up hidden memories and present the whole story....
Then in September 2004, Amitabh and I managed to reach a kind of an uneasy truce. I had finished the second draft and sent it to him, asking if he was going to help me with the book. When he replied to my email in a reasonable manner I felt shockingly alive. Amitabh is a hard habit to kick-especially for an intensity junkie like myself....
In March this year, Amitabh apologised. Stunned? I was. He said he was sorry for having been unnecessarily rude and for encouraging me with the book and then being only critical rather than helpful.... I told him I wanted to do something different; that I would write a book from my point of view and try to get across the man I knew.... 'It will be about me and my time in the Indian film industry.'
'You can write what you want... He picked up the remote control, and then added, 'This is good. I have decided that the only person who is qualified to write my biography is -'
'Jaya,' I finished his sentence for him. 'No.' He looked over at me surprised. 'My mother.'
(c) 2007 Jessica Hines
| PICTURE SPEAK |
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|THE FAN: Hines |
Every now and then, when Amitabh came to London, he would call me up and we would go out with some of my friends for dinner or a film.
|THE ETERNAL RUMOUR:Bachchan with Rekha |
Rekha suddenly transformed herself from the kaali aur moti loudmouth southie slapper into the most glamorous and sexy star of the age.
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|ACTION MAN: Bachchan in Coolie, |
where he had a near-fatal accident
The key to understanding Amitabh lies in the 1982 accident. He had changed and you can see it when you watch his movement in later films.
| His father's death in 2003 morphed him into a new persona, of the last gentleman standing. |