PORTRAIT: Earl Wan
A SIGNIFICANT PORTION of Bollywood’s charm breezed through Hong Kong this past winter, in the guise of actor and scion Abhishek Bachchan, 37. He comes with very little of the neurosis expected of someone born to the magnitude of his family’s fame and fortune; his mother is Jaya Bachchan, a Member of Parliament and an erstwhile actress of merit; his wife Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan’s name precedes the hyperbolic tag “the most beautiful woman in the world”; and his father, legendary actor Amitabh Bachchan, is, indubitably, the most famous Indian alive. There’s a disproportionate amount of celebrity that perpetually engulfs the young man’s life, his own included, as film actor and producer.
“You know, I’ve tried to explain this before. Unfortunately, people interpret it for arrogance, but I’ve never known any other life,” he says, as tries to shed light on life under the spotlight. “As a child growing up, this was normal. Part of our daily routine was, when I was kid…I thought everyone’s father beat up 50 guys, 2,000 people waited to see their father outside the gates of the house, just to see him wave. All my friends’ parents were famous film stars. It was a very privileged upbringing and a blessing…and I don’t know any different life.”
With round-the-clock scrutiny just outside the palatial Bachchan residence in Mumbai, what is it like to live such a fishbowl existence? “We actually live in a nice house, not a fishbowl,” says Bachchan with a laugh, his toothy grin all too recognisable to those who’ve seen any of his 50-plus Hindi films. “You know, the tabloids bribed our neighbours and got on to the roof opposite our house to get a snap of Aishwarya the year we got married. For others it might be a bit much, but we’re used to it. My father explained this to me years ago, if you’re going to be an actor, then this is part of the game: the camera will always be on you, you’re going to be scrutinised, you will be photographed – if you’re not ready for it, then the profession is not for you.”
But the profession was for him. Fresh from the success of his last film’s release, Bachchan landed in Hong Kong without the missus and their one-year-old daughter Aradhya, yet another photogenic addition to the thespian dynasty. In town for The Young Executives Group’s Grand Ball at the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong, which raised money for the City of Joy Aid organisation, he’s no stranger to the city, having performed here and in Macau before.
After a long flight from his film location to Central, he doesn’t take his shades off as we strike up conversation and the photographer sets up. Not an affectation of his celebrity, but a guilty confession. “Have really dark circles and puffy eyes, a long shoot and long flight – I look like a Panda dude!” he says with his infectious (and loud) laugh.
Ever the performer, later that same evening he’s got his tux and professionalism on as he caters to the besotted-by-Bollywood brigade at the charity gala, and as the shimmering sari-clad ladies ooh-and-aah over him the actor is in fine form, ready to pose for many an i-cam without a complaint.
Once voted the most eligible bachelor in India (a step ahead of Rahul Gandhi no less) before he married Miss World, Bachchan had many an Indian aunty thrust their eldest born bachelorettes into his vision line when he made his appearance in town. “The tags that the media sticks to you, you’ve got to take it with a pinch of salt,” is all he’ll say. “I am grateful to the well-wishers. If it wasn’t for them, would any actor have a career? “You need the audience on your side,” he explains, as the citizens of his fandom engulf him on a daily basis. “I think I’d start worrying the day it all stops – when they don’t want you any more. Then it’s a slip-and-slide spiral. I’d seriously worry then!”
When it comes to catering to the audience, Bachchan has it down to a science. Having studied in the US, the actor honed his craft under a Western ideology and translated it to Hindi cinema. He’s thought it through on how the audience of 1.2 billion (and counting) would like to see their hero on screen.
“In cinema, in the movies, the audience has got to get behind the protagonist and they’ll give you 15 minutes to do it. That’s all you have. Within those first few frames, they have got to root for this guy…and if you haven’t achieved that, you won’t achieve it in 20 minutes, and definitely not in two hours. Our audience wants a hero, it needs a hero to look up to. Think about a cinema auditorium – you’re always seated below, looking up at a giant screen, and they want to like the guy from the get-go.”
That working philosophy fits into the jigsaw puzzle of his decade-long career, a cinematic CV that’s spotted with sparkling hits and abysmal flops. As a fan of films – all films, not just the ones churned out of Bollywood, the largest film-making factory in the world that releases 400 movies per annum – Bachchan is as much part of the industry as he is a ticket-buying consumer. “For me, the audience is always right – they’re spending their hard-earned money, and if they don’t like it, no amount of publicity or prayer can make a film a hit. “Look at a film like the James Bond series. With a ready-made fan base, they kick-start every film with a bang, letting the viewers know Bond is back. Kick-ass action, the hot girls and gadgets, the title sequence. You’re already rooting for the guy by the time the titles roll. The same track can run through a Mumbai musical.”
He notably flinches at the expression, “Bollywood” and refrains from using it in his lexicon. “Well, I, like other actors from India, have an issue with that word – the implication is we’re secondary to Hollywood, an imitation of American movies – which clearly it’s not. Our storytelling history is musical, be it the Ramayana or the Mahabharat; our Hindu philosophies are sung; there’s a metre and rhyme to it, with a lot of emotion and melodrama. We may not display our emotion as subtly as a British film perhaps, but it’s our way of telling a story. And at the end of the day, movie making is a narrative unfolding – how we do it, versus how ‘they’ do it. The presumption that Indian cinema has been copying Western since they made musicals in the 1950s and ’60s is inaccurate. Being part of the film fraternity, I’m just not comfortable with the phrase ‘Bollywood’ – even though it’s in the dictionary!”
As fans of Indian cinema encroach across European borders, the Bachchans are a known commodity, be it Berlin, Budapest, Brazil or the Bronx; all locations they’ve filmed in over the years. “Indian cinema isn’t moulding its form to cater to other audiences – it’s exactly the opposite, others are viewing Indian cinema with fascination and with awe. We don’t have overt sexuality; our musical numbers are perfectly polished; be it an eight or 80-yearold, you can watch a movie as a family.”
For an actor who’s watched De Niro and Pacino as much as Kumar and Khanna, the oeuvres of the American and the Indian actors are vastly different. “I’ve never had to conform my acting or tone it down to fit into Indian films. I studied in the US, but what I learned most was, I need to connect to the audience. It’s got nothing to do with the pitch or changing my style or making it louder to cater to the Indian cine-goer. It all depends on character. I’ve essayed a vagrant bum from Calcutta where I was louder than the industrialist I played in another film. They were different people, one from the street, the other a rich man. They would physically and vocally be different. You don’t have to spoon-feed the audience, they get it.”
Read full feature at Prestige magazine's official site here: Born Identity.
Out now in Prestige magazine across Asia; i.e. in Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia.
Thrilled that the feature's gone regional as it reflects the mass appeal of Indian cinema and its denizens.
Pics by ol' Hong Kong/UK buddy, Earl Wan.
Shot at Four Seasons, Hong Kong.
Exactly 10 years ago - I spoke to Abhishek Bachchan here.