Amitabh: Still a Lion
by TIME ASIA (interview with Alex Perry)

Amitabh "The Big B" Bachchan is the undisputed godfather of Bollywood. He has been the face of Indian show business for two decades and is omnipresent on the subcontinent, his black-haired, white-bearded face staring out from billboards, television advertisements and the cinema screen in several films a year. In a BBC poll on the eve of this century, viewers across the world voted him the "star of the millennium." He spoke to TIME's Alex Perry on the set of Lakshya (Target), directed by Farhan Akhtar, co-starring Hritik Roshan and Preity Zinta and due for release next year.

TIME: Tell me about Boom.

Bachchan: [Director] Kaizad Gustad is quite crazy and he has weird ideas and Boom is one such idea. It's a crazy film by a crazy guy. It's almost a satire, a black comedy. I just had the desire to do something different, and with people who were making different kinds of films.
TIME: Why is Bollywood getting so much attention outside India now?

Bachchan: I've always believed in our content and our talent. I feel that particularly because of language, we are handicapped in getting a
The Big B on a movie set...

large world audience. But Hindi cinema has the same ingredients that appeal to the whole world. And now that is happening, the West is becoming aware of what is happening here. There's a lot of interest and that's good for India. But it's odd because I've always believed that, believed in that ability for cinema to communicate across the globe.

At the moment our films have a novelty value for the outside world. And the song and dance and fantasy or escapist element in them, which has been criticized before, is now becoming quite attractive. There have been suggestions that we should minimize the song and dance. But I feel that it's our raison d'être and we're not going to change that. Besides, no matter how escapist we have been, we've never digressed from the basic ethos of the country, which is the relations between and within families, festivals and the triumph of good over evil. These themes come directly from our mythology and are so ingrained in all Indians that we expect to see some sort of visual representation of the fundamentals of those stories on the screen. Our films embody a lot of tradition, a lot of culture, the great visuals of color, the exuberance of it and of the music, which is integral to our existence. Indian films are like our food or our sense of dress or our languages: there's a great variety and it changes every 100 miles, but there is something in common, a national Indian essence, that binds them all together.


TIME: But Bollywood is changing, isn't it?

Bachchan: A lot of the changes are maybe down to the advent of television. Five or six years ago, we had one channel, now there's 90. And TV has eased the viewer into seeing better quality stuff. There's a lot of movie channels showing better stuff out of Hollywood. People are fed up with seeing the same thing over and over. They want a qualitative change.

Also, in the past, we always underplayed, undersold ourselves. We told ourselves, 'Don't step out of India or you'll get hit in the head.' And that's all changing now because of this sudden interest in India. And we're changing the way we work. We're following the principles of synchronized sound, the production qualities of artists. The amount of detail in this film, and the effort being taken in getting the detail right, is quite remarkable. In funding, and money, generally this side of the business is so disorganized and vague. You never know where your film is running, you never know what the returns are, there's rampant piracy, almost on the same day of the release, and it's so frustrating after all your blood, sweat and tears. So I tell you, on this film, it's a joy to be working like this; to finish a project in a set number of days and have everything on schedule and truly professional, to end the disorganization that has ruled for so long, it's an absolute delight.

TIME: What about your own career? Are you taking on new roles?

Bachchan: I used to play leading roles. But I'm 61 now, and losing that identity and I really do not have to bother now whether I'm going to be playing a negative role or a positive role. And a lot of actors are doing the same now, doing braver and more adventurous parts and not confining themselves to a particular image.

TIME: What do you make of the accusations of plagiarism. Particularly of Hollywood hits, often leveled against Bollywood?

Left, early Bachchan; who would have guessed?

Bachchan: Hollywood itself takes from British and Japanese cinema. I've even done a film where the story was transferred back to Hollywood. The truth is that it's very difficult to escape accusations of plagiarism when we're all naturally influenced by what goes on elsewhere. And look at it this way—our government comes from the West, as does cricket. How do we cut off this influence in film?

TIME: What about the influence of gangsters?

Bachchan: This phenomenon is there even in Hollywood, but it's very rare. We check where the money is coming from. In fact, my Amitabh Bachchan Corp. [ABC] was the first attempt to corporatize and organize the industry. We were ahead of our time and tried to do too much too young and had a huge vision, and I had creditors on my back. But now there's 15 companies doing the same thing, following our vision to have everything down under one umbrella, and big financial institutions are getting involved. You have to remember that 50 years ago in India, children from good homes were not allowed to go and see movies. It was looked down upon. So it's quite a journey to have the industry becoming respectable financially and for the world to be taking an interest.

TIME: Your decision not to let ABC go bankrupt—that sent a pretty powerful signal to the industry, no? That there was financial respectability in Bollywood.

Bachchan: I chose to pay everyone back and I worked personally to do so, to make sure we paid back that amount, some $1.5 million. My conscience wouldn't have allowed me to do anything else and that's where a lot of my desire to keep working, and doing so much work, came from. I wasn't trying to set an example to the industry, it was purely a very personal thing, but if it did send some sort of message about responsibility, then that's a good thing.
TIME: Getting back to Lakshya, what excites you about this film?

Bachchan: Our films have invariably shown Indian soldiers fighting Pakistan and but they have not allowed us to see the enemy or even be specific about who they were fighting. With this, all that's changing and we've been given permission to call a spade a spade. It's based on real-life events in Kargil in 1999 and we've been on location in Ladakh to actually recreate on sites moments that actually happened in real life. I guess it's patriotic—in the end India won—but it has a humane side to it.

TIME: What's the future for Indian film?

Bachchan: I see a lot of optimism and I see that we're going through one of our most exciting phases. And what so wonderful is that the world, and particularly the English, are becoming so receptive to India. It's really incredible. And as a result there's a new level of maturity and confidence in Indian cinema. And that's wonderful to see too.

[Editor's Note: All credits to TIME ASIA except title herein and old photos and caption. Mr. Bachchan has been voted in a BBC survey to be the greatest actor of all time, ahead of actors such as Charlie Chaplin and Laurence Olivier.]

November 28, 2003
© 2001