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TalkAsia Interview: Amitabh Bachchan

TalkAsia Interview with Amitabh Bachchan

Dalton: Hi, I am Dalton Tanonaka. He was the king of Indian cinema in the 70s and 80s for films such as Sanjear and Dewa. And now Amitabh Bachchan is the host of Indian huge hit TV show Kaun Benega Croreopati, while still making movies. And he's now joining us from Mumbai. Sir, welcome to TalkAsia.

CNN: Now how did you get involved in the Millionaire project, how did it get its roots in India particularly sir?

AB: This was introduced by Star TV. I've been doing films here in India for almost 30 years. The Star TV came with the proposal, it was a first off for me-I was a little apprehensive . They showed me some tapes of the Millionaire show from London. I went down to England and also saw some of the recordings with Chris Tarrant, their host, and subsequently decided to do Kaun Banega Crorepati, which is the equivalent.

CNN: Sure-because you've never done a game show so you were kinda dubious about doing something like this. What convinced you?

AB: I liked the format of the show, I thought there was a lot of interesting value in the show itself. It was very interesting, very viewer-friendly, and I just decided to go ahead and do it.

CNN: How would you describe its success in India-how big is it?

AB: I'm actually the wrong person to be asking this kind of question, but I think as far as game shows go-and as far as any TV show goes-it was huge when it started. I happened to be touring out of Bombay within two or three days of its broadcast and I was surprised to see how swiftly it had moved to various parts of the country. I was up in the Himalayas up in a mountain cave on a pilgrimage and I was surprised and shocked to see people talking about it even in that remote area-so really, it's moved pretty fast and it's been a very successful phenomenon.

CNN: They're talking about it in mountain caves, that's great sir. I want to talk to you more about the program later-in fact we're also going to have the Hong Kong host of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Ken Chan-but I want to focus on you first. Sir where is your focus these days? I know you're doing this program but you're doing a lot of other things.

AB: I'm a movie actor, I work in films and I've been working in Indian films for the last 30 years. I started in 1969. Television has been a mere extension of the same activity in a way, so I've been doing television and film simultaneously. I also run an entertainment company, we corporatized Indian entertainment under the name ABCL and started in 1995. That's what I'm doing these days.

CNN: Sir I'm well aware of your movie start status, I guess I was asking I know you do a lot of business as well-would you consider yourself at this point in your career sir more of a businessman, producer, behind the scenes or are you still an upfront performer?

AB: I like to rate myself as a performer upfront, both in films as well as in television.

CNN: Now your last movie, Mohabbatein broke new ground in Bollywood, I guess I'm because I'm told it was actually written for a man of your age and of your stature and perhaps your character as opposed to other ones where you're an older man playing a love interest to a younger woman. Is this true? Describe this new path that Bollywood is taking

AB: I think to aptly describe this is really to follow the career of an actor, somebody like me who started in 1969. In '69 you're 30 years younger and you obviously get the lead roles to play, and almost worldwide the young leading man and the young leading lady are ones that are most attractive for film as well as for the viewer. So having done that there is a fear that when you actually age and you can't be looking like a college-going student anymore so you opt for senior roles. I guess the transition period takes a bit of time, first on the part of the viewers, then on the part of the actors, and on the part of people who are actually making these movies, and as soon as that is digested you get on to doing senior roles. So Mohabbatein is yes one of the first of its kind, a clear departure from the kind of young romantic leading roles I had been playing.

CNN: I see, they're no longer giving you the young romantic lead. So overall, is India's cinema coming of age? Is it at an international quality level yet?

AB: Well I'd like to believe we've had international quality ever since inception. It's just perhaps that because of communication procedures, modern scientific development that a lot many more people are getting to see our cinema. We've not been able to market our product beyond Indian shores, and it has remained in India, or wherever there is an Asian community settled outside India-whether it's the US, UK, Far East… but I guess that now there is a renewed interest from viewers in other parts of the world, who are beginning to see something which is likeable in our films.

CNN: Well I guess in our past couple of programs we've been talking about the breakthroughs in various parts of Asia and I referred specifically a couple of weeks ago to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon being the breakout movie for Greater China market. Is there a movie, has there a movie been made or will there be a movie made along those lines?

AB: I think Crouching Tiger is a genre of its own and it's extremely well done and god bless them for it. I guess Indian cinema has its own genre and it's own style, and not to take anything away from Crouching Tiger but I think people will have to get used to our kinds of movies and our kinds of stories and our kind of presentation before they reach worldwide recognition.

CNN: Are you looking for roles in international movies, English language ones, crossover films…?

AB: Obviously it's a dream come true for any actor to be exposed as much as possible not just within his own country but outside as well, but nothing has come so far and we're not actually deliberately going out looking for movies but if there is a project I'd be happy to look at it.

CNN: Who is your idol?

14:18:09:20 AB: Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino…

CNN: So you watch American-made movies and you like these guys?

AB: Yes I did. I also like several from my own film industry, like Dilip Kumar and Vaheeda Rehman.

CNN: So you have a cross-section of role models and idols. You know, we want to get more of the personal side of Amitabh Bachchan when TalkAsia continues.

CNN: We are back on TalkAsia with Indian movie icon Amitabh Bachchan. Sir I understand you were shy as a child-almost painfully shy-does that explain your career choice, as a lot of people who are shy when they're young become extroverts in their chosen profession.

AB: I would like to believe that I still am a shy person, I am very introverted, I have a problem communicating…

CNN: I find that hard to believe sir! [laughs]

AB: But I think that I cannot really analyze the psychological aspect of this. I guess I've been extremely keen on theatre, on getting on to the stage, taking on different roles, enacting vocations, personalities, people, situations, and I guess that's the interest that has driven me to work in movies

CNN: Now you were born in Allahabad, and you grew up with parents of somewhat different backgrounds. How did that influence you?

AB: My father is a poet, he's a literary giant of this country, writes in Hindi and also quite unique because he has a PhD in English Literature, he taught at Harvard University which is one of the most prominent universities in the country. My mother is from erstwhile Pakistan, now of course Pakistan but erstwhile Punjab, she's a Sikh married into a UP Hindu, so I'm a mixture of a little bit of both. My mother came from a very affluent background, very Westernized, while my father was more Eastern. So I've had a very good blend of the East and the West. I guess this has been extremely helpful in making my career and the way I function.

CNN: What was your big break? Everyone has a turning point perhaps; did you have one of those?

AB: I started in 1969 and I guess my first film that really became universally successful was a film called Zanjeer in 1973.

CNN: And how did you get that big break? Did you have a mentor, did somebody like you, did you pound on the door…?

AB: It came about through two people: A couple of writers called Salim and Javed, who are by far the one of the most prominent writers in the Indian film system, they had a script which they narrated to me and brought forward a director called Mr. Prakash Mehra, he was producing his first film for the first time, Salim and Javed were recognized writers and Mehra was a recognized director but as a producer this was his first product. They narrated the subject to me, they felt that I would do justice to it, they had seen some of my earlier films, not so successful but they felt that they found some material which I would be able to justify in their story and that's how it happened.

CNN: And that was your big hit. But I heard a story sir about one of your early ventures or early in your career where you were so nervous or scared that you couldn't bring yourself to walking to the gates or either the studio or the director. Do you remember that story?

AB: I do.

CNN: Can you relate that briefly?

AB: I was actually working as an executive in a business firm in Calcutta, and I decided to come to Bombay to join the movies. I didn't know how to get about this business of getting into movies, I read that there was a film contest taken out by a prominent newspaper-I applied for it, was rejected-and decided to come to Bombay. When I was in Bombay one does the usual thing, take one's photograph and tries to sell oneself by going from door to door. One situation was of course a particular producer-director who was shooting a film at a particular studio, the studio was about 100-200 yards away from the local train station, I used to catch a train and visit the studio but was never having enough courage to enter the gates. So this happened for about a week, I used to walk up to the gates but not have enough courage to get inside there. Eventually I thought maybe if I came in a cab the studio doors would perhaps have a little more respect for the cab and open the gates and allow me to get in.

CNN: So you should have caught a cab.

AB: And I took a cab, the gates opened, but by then the producer had left.

CNN: Sir, let's get into the middle of your career. You entered politics, you left the film business, why did you get into it and why did you get out?

AB: The Nehru and the Gandhi families had been close family friends of ours right from the days of Allahabad. As you know Allahabad has also been the hometown of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, his daughter, Indira Gandhi, in fact Gandhi Mahatma Gandhi was very well known to my father. Sarojini Naidu, one of our great revolutionary leaders was the one who admired my father's poetry and introduced him to the Gandhi family, and we've been friends since then. Rajiv Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi, the sons of Indira Gandhi were very close to us-we grew up as kids-and when Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister after the assassination it was a moment that I felt very emotionally and felt that my friend needed the support of every Indian in the country. The country was in a state of trauma, after the assassination I just offered my services, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi asked me to fight an election from Allahabad. I had never done politics before, I went into it on an emotional note, I was put up against a very strong in fact, one of the strongest adversaries the Bahujan from Allahabad and thankfully I won and I came into politics. But obviously having reached parliament I discovered much to my dismay that politics wasn't about emotion, it was a much bigger game and I possibly couldn't handle it. I did not KNOW politics and I was a failure as far as politics were concerned and rather than impose my inadequacies on the constituents I decided to withdraw, and that's why.

CNN: So I gather you don't want to get back into that. We're going to have more conversation with Amitabh Bachchan shortly, and we want to get into the phenomenal success of Kaun Banega Crorepati.

CNN: That was a scene from Kaun Banega Crorepati, the Indian version of the global TV hit Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, and the host is with us, Amitabh Bachchan. Sir would this show you think have been such a hit if not for the economic problems that India is having and the world is having?

AB: I don't think economics has got anything to do with the show. I think it's intrinsically very strong in its construction. The way it's been patterned I guess speaks volumes-that's one of the reasons why it's successful in almost 80 countries today… running in 80 countries and successfully. So I don't think the economic situation of any particular country is reflected in the game show.

CNN: OK, good point. I was going to mention spin-offs-it started in London, big in the US… have you talked with other hosts from other countries like Regis Philbin or the Hong Kong host Ken Chan who we're going to have on shortly

AB: I've spoken to Chris Tarrant while I was there in the L Street Studios where they were shooting it. Regis Philbin came on to Millionaire much later, but when I was in the United States on a separate issue I was once a guest on his show…

CNN: Oh really?

AB: …Morning with Regis Philbin in New York. I was actually involved in a concert that I was doing, an Indian concert in America, and I was invited as a guest on his show…

CNN: How long do you think the show can last in your country?

AB: Well we're through with one year, four days a week, which is huge. It's an hour-long show, unlike some of the other countries, which are on for only half an hour. So if you're looking at it we've done 200 episodes so far, so we're looking really at 400 episodes of non-stop Kaun Banega Crorepati, which Is quite phenomenal. It's still going on, we've started a Junior KBC as we call it, Kaun Banega Crorepati Junior, which is with kids below 18 years. We've done couples, we've done family couples, we've done a huge amount of celebrity shows. It looks like we're on at least until the end of the year. I am contracted though to go on for another 200, so that's where the situation is right now.

CNN: So you sound like a busy man sir. Does at all leave time for family life? I know you have two children and you have an actress wife, Jaya.

AB: Yes my daughter is married, my son is in the same business as I am, and now my wife too-who as you know was an actress before she got married-has returned to films. In fact as soon as I get off this interview I'm going to join her in the studio.

CNN: Are you the love interest of course?

AB: I'm playing her husband in this one but in some of the earlier ones I was.

CNN: [laughs] Now you said your son is following you into the movie business. Like what kind of role-same type of role?

AB: Yeah, same type of leading roles, he's a leading man, he's had four releases so far and he has another four or five that he's working on at this point in time.

CNN: Is he as good as you?

AB: Ah, um, I don't know. He was nice but one hopes that he does well and perhaps even go beyond where I have gone.

CNN: Did you encourage him or did he just watch you growing up and say "I'm gonna do that Dad"

AB: We've never put any barriers in his way, let's put it that way. We left him to choose his own future. I would have been happy if he had done or decided to do anything. All we wanted, my wife and me, was for him to be a good human being. He has chosen to join this profession and he will get our support.

CNN: Sir as you know this is an interactive show we have here on TalkAsia, we get emails and phone calls from our viewers, and we have one email in already from Ramesh in Hyderabad and I want to put this to you if you can answer briefly. Ramesh asks, "With the Bombay underworld gaining more and more control, what do you foresee about the future of Bollywood if that's still a factor?".

AB: What I want to tell Ramesh is that I think the whole issue of the underworld, even though it is present, has been slightly exaggerated. We are in no way pressurized, obviously it is a terrible thing to be happening, but we as artists can never make out who or what is the underworld and who are they are involved with. When you have a prospective producer in front of you he doesn't have the word underworld written on his forehead. But I think that the state as well of the people are aware of this problem and I'm sure that whenever it's avoidable they're getting away from it. I think the future is bright, I think we'll continue to function and continue to make movies without this pressure on top of us.

CNN: OK so last couple of questions as we wrap up here-oh, do you have any big regrets in life?

AB: Nothing so far.

CNN: You're luckier than most. How about goals left in life? What's left for you? You're still a young man in your late 50s, what things that you haven't done do you want to do?

AB: I like to believe that life is challenging every day, every day is a new challenge, a new problem, a new situation to be sorted out, so I would like to just let it roll, day by day. I don't have anything in particular to achieve, I don't want to go any particular direction, I just want to take up the challenges of life as we go along.

CNN: Well it sounds like you're enjoying life sir, and as we leave you can you tell us a bit about your new movie? I understand it's just out.

AB: My new movie is called Aks, which means the Reflection. It's a psychological thriller. It's really the story of good versus evil. There's a good cop who's after a serial killer, who's the bad guy. When he actually catches him there is an encounter where the serial killer actually dies, but his soul transfers itself into the good man, so it's how the good man then deals with an evil soul inside his system. That's what the story's all about.

CNN: Wow, sounds interesting. Hope it, does it every play abroad, I hope so. Anyway sir, best wishes to you, very nice talking to you, Amitabh Bachchan, thank you very much for your time from Mumbai.

AB: Thank you for having me on the show.

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