“Don’t be late. This is Amitabh Bachchan. He is always on time. Please be assured that he won’t keep you waiting like others.” The person on the other end of the phone was Mr Parag Desai, a well-known Bollywood publicist and at that time, he was the PR-in-charge of a film starring Mr Bachchan.
This conversation happened more than 12 years ago but the trepidation in his voice is still fresh in my memory. Mr Desai was too polite to admit it but he admitted (later on) that he was a little uncomfortable about the fact that the entertainment editor (who usually interviewed Mr Bachchan from the paper) was indisposed for the interview as she was out of town. Parag is definitely the most polite of all the Bollywood PRs I have interacted with and this is no sarcasm. Every Mumbai journalist knows this. Okay, coming back to the topic.
On other days, perhaps I would never get a chance to interview Mr Bachchan but it was one of those lucky days when the newsroom was short of staff. So, the responsibility of doing the ‘big interview’ came to me. Hence, Parag was told to call me to coordinate for the interview. Parag’s team would later send me three reminder SMS and two calls to drive home the point that I was supposed to show up at least half an hour early at the Sun and Sand Hotel in Juhu where the interview was scheduled.
That was the first time I was meeting Mr Bachchan and it would be first of numerous times that I would meet him over the next 10 years. But as they say, it was the first impression that mattered the most.
To my surprise, Mr Bachchan was half an hour early at the venue and the PR team took 15 more minutes to start the interviews. I was second in line and my interview began five minutes late as Parag was waiting for another reporter to arrive.
I was taken into the hotel suite where Mr Bachchan was waiting for me, wearing a white kurta pyjama, a Gandhi suit and carrying a brown shawl on his shoulders. Our photographer followed us into the suite. “I am sorry the interview began late. I wanted to inform you that I was on time. Hello. I am Amitabh Bachchan. Please have a seat.”
I also introduced myself and then looked around. There were two more people in the room, one was holding a video camera and the other, a still camera. Both the cameras pointed at me. Mr Bachchan was recording and video-graphing the interview simultaneously. This means, he will have an exact copy of his own answers which technically rules out all exit points to escape if I ever misquote him or try to create a controversy out of nowhere.
As a newspaper journalist, I was not used to Bollywood actors recording their own interviews, I was suitably intimidated. Also, I thought he was upset as the interview started late. Usually, when stars are upset, there is a direct effect on the quality of answers you get from them.
Going by the heavy air in the room, I told myself that this ‘opportunity’ that the editor had gracefully passed onto me, would be wasted and I won’t get a chance to interview the Bollywood megastar again.
I began my questions about the film he was promoting. They were very mundane and routine questions. I was carrying a list of questions with me and I kept that A4 size paper beside me, not bothering to glance at it even once.
After five questions and 15 minutes later, I was done. There was an awkward silence from me for 30 seconds.
“Are you done?” Mr Bachchan asked.
“Then why did you stop the interview?”
“Sir I am interviewing you for the first time.”
“I know that. You usually don’t take interviews of Bollywood actors.”
“….Err…The other questions I have don’t pertain to the film. The questions are rather controversial….”
“Would you mind if I asked you those questions?”
“Please go ahead and ask me. I will answer them if I know the answer.”
I asked 12 more questions that day. He answered each one of them till my time was up. I asked every question that I wanted to. Never once did he say, “No comments”.
As I stood up, he stood up too. Took two steps towards me and extended his hand.
I shook his palm. The skin on his palm was tough. His grip… tougher.
“Looking forward to reading the interview,” was Mr Bachchan’s parting note to me.
Ever since that day, I discovered a man who is unlike any other Bollywood actor. I met many actors, Bollywood and Hollywood, spoke to several others over the phone. But I discovered what sets Mr Bachchan aside. What makes him the legend that he is and why he is the longest surviving superstar in the world.
Two days later, the heavily edited interview was published (there was no space to publish the entire interview). The film found only a mention as the reason why the interview was held. The content of the interview was such that it was carried on page one of the newspaper.
I sent him a text message that it has been published. He replied within 15 minutes. He said that he had read it and ended with a thanks. It was not a PR who was answering on his behalf but the superstar himself.
That day I learnt that Mr Bachchan answers all his text messages, himself. Ever since, Mr Bachchan has acknowledged and answered every message, mail and letter that I had sent him. He has always been polite even when he could not accept my invitation or proposal. He has recognised me even in a crowd of faces. I have met him everywhere — his KBC set, at Jalsa, at Prateeksha, at JW Marriott…. wherever he is usually available for interviews. He has always recognised me, addressed me by my name and has always referred to my last interview with him.
Mr Bachchan had also given me a few interviews without his videographer being there, which is a sign of his trust in me. My interactions with him has not always been smooth. There were some articles that I never mustered the courage to inform him about.
The working relationship hit a low when another reporter did a few gossip stories about Aishwarya’s marriage to Abhishek. At that time, Mr Bachchan made his displeasure very clear to us.
He even sent our paper a notice when yet another reporter did a story about Aishwarya and Abhishek moving out of Prateeksha to their own bungalow in Bandra (the report was found to false later).
He reprimanded me when he thought I had shrewdly brought him into the picture (of a news story) when he had no role to play in the developments. One day, as I stopped reporting, the interactions stopped too. But he has always been polite to me. Not once did he refuse to interact with me based on what my paper has reported (or aberrations on my part).
He has still answered all my text messages. He is the only Bollywood star who I asked for a personal favour. I asked him for a foreword to a book that my boss had authored. He sent a handwritten foreword on his letterhead without me having to remind him for a second time. Whatever messages I have left with Rosy Singh (his secretary) has always reached him and I have got a call back whenever the message has been delivered to him. I mean to say that even my oral messages have been acknowledged.
Now, to the most important point of the day…
Even after I left journalism (reporting) for good, he has continued to acknowledge me and my communication with him. Here is the last letter that I received from him when I invited him to the Orientation Day of my college which I head. As usual, my letter had mistakes. Take a look how politely he has corrected me.
There is a reason why Mr Bachchan is Mr Bachchan.
The reason is very simple: All the decisions and communications from Mr Amitabh Bachchan come from none other than… Mr Amitabh Bachchan.
PS. He receives thousands of messages of on his birthday. I had sent him a birthday wish a couple of years back. He didn’t reply within 15 minutes. He replied after a few days or so. Do you know why?
He replied with a brief “Thanks” to each message because all my journalist colleagues who wished him, got an acknowledgement. Yes, to my calculation, he was sending out thousands of acknowledgement to people who wished him on his birthday. Just for the record, the word acknowledgement is an alien concept for today’s Bollywood crop. And this is just one of the many reasons what sets Mr Bachchan apart.