Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan wasn’t surprised. Over the past four decades, every time he looked out of his palatial mansion in Juhu, Mumbai, he would see hundreds of fans gathered outside. India’s star phenomenon, known to the Western world for his cameo in 2013’s The Great Gatsby, would step out on to his balcony, smile and wave to his ecstatic fans who would be shouting out his name. But now the fans looked younger – and there were more women.
Every day for the past month the numbers had grown until now there were a few hundred more. And Amitabh knew the reason for the sudden increase in numbers – they were here not to see just him but to also catch a glimpse of his son and Happy New Year star, Abhishek.
While stars usually try hard not be overshadowed, Amitabh feels happy losing out to his son, who’s been struggling with stardom ever since his debut in Refugee in 2000. His first few films bit the dust, and most of his hits have been in conjunction with his illustrious father or other bigger stars.
He’s been overshadowed even in marriage; his wife Aishwarya Rai is considered one of the most beautiful women in the world (she was crowned Miss World in 1994). Despite having taken a sabbatical for the past three years since the birth of their first child, Aaradhya, Aishwarya still headlines events such as the Cannes Film Festival and is the face of many brands. Happy New Year (HNY), then, could be the triumph Abhishek and his doting father have been waiting for all these years.
India’s youngest movie mogul Karan Johar tweeted, “Junior Bachchan AB you were absolutely amazing in the film! Nandu [his character in the movie] is on a roll.” High praise indeed from a normally acerbic critic. The Times of India’s film critic headlined a review of the film as ‘Abhishek Bachchan steals the show as Nandu’. No mean feat in a film starring and produced by Bollywood’s king, Shah Rukh Khan.
Amitabh, too, was all praise for him, blogging: “The well-wishers surge in numbers [and] are excited and loud in their love. The gates are unable to contain their enthusiasm. There is a special attraction – Abhishek aka Nandu Bhide from HNY.”
The hit heist movie starring Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone has been breaking box office records in India since being released on Diwali (October 23). All this is sweet music for Abhishek. “The movie is the greatest gift that the director Farah Khan could have given all of us [actors],” he gushes. “Fifty years down the line, when we sit with our grandchildren and see this film, we’ll look back and remember it as one of the best times of our lives!”
Abhishek, it is clear, is happy to be basking in the success of the movie. Having had to struggle to be noticed in such a successful Bollywood family, he now knows he is more than just a superstar’s son or megastar’s husband.
A question he has often had to answer is what it is like to be living in the shadow of his father. “At the premiere of my first film, Refugee, director Yash [Chopra] told me, “Son, your father’s name will bring people to your first show. They’ll think, ‘He’s Amitabh Bachchan’s son, let’s check him out’. But after that they’ll come to see you only if you’re good’,” Abhishek says.
“People allege that I’ve survived in this industry because I am my father’s son. I have a question to ask them – ‘If producers want to sign my father then they should cast him. Why would they want to cast me?’ No one is doing charity here. How can I expect people to spend a few hundred rupees to watch my film because I am someone’s son? Such allegations make for good copy. When my films were not working, no one was interested in interviewing me. I was even thrown out of a film overnight. I have experienced that.”
Happy New Year may be the turning point for the actor. In an interview with Friday, he said that even making the movie, which was extensively shot in Dubai, was one of the happiest moments in his life. But even if he might end up being a bigger star than his wife, he is not reluctant to let her have the spotlight.
“If a man tries to restrain his wife, then there must be two reasons for it,” he has said, explaining why he’s happy to walk behind Aishwarya at red carpet events such as the Cannes Film Festival. “Firstly, he’s insecure. Secondly, he doesn’t trust her. I am a secure person and have complete faith in my wife. Then why should I have any problem?
“And why just a wife, if a man tries to restrain his girlfriend, mother or any girl, then either he’s insecure or he doesn’t trust them. And that’s not how I was brought up. My mother [yesteryear superstar Jaya Bhaduri] has been an actress and she has always been working.
“I am often asked how it feels to walk the red carpet with your wife at Cannes. I find this attitude chauvinistic. It means that you are the husband so how can you walk with her? Nobody asks Aishwarya why she walks the red carpet with me at the premieres of my films. When she attends all my events, why can’t I accompany her? If my wife supports me, then it’s my duty to support her.”
Now, with his new-found success, Aishwarya may have to allow her husband to lead her down the red carpets. “We are there for each other, so it’s never a problem who’s in the limelight,” says Abhishek.
The actor says he’s learnt the art of being lighthearted, the key to playing the lighter-than-soufflé roles that populate Hindi films. Part of his education was on the sets of HNY. The sometimes reserved and moody Abhishek learnt to shake off his blues and move with the rest of the crew – director Farah Khan and actors Shah Rukh, Deepika, Boman Irani and Sonu Sood. “It is predominantly a comic film. In a comedy you have to create an atmosphere that is conducive to the required creativity,” he says. “If you’re not going to be willing to jump into the mix and be one of the boys it’s not going to happen. And I really think that’s genuinely what we did. Everybody was in the same boat and everybody said, ‘OK we’re going to have fun’.”
In a sense Abhishek learnt to throw away the artistic shackles and turn into a mass entertainer like his father Amitabh, and it’s clear that’s what has connected him with the audience.
“None of this camaraderie visible in the film is actually rehearsed or made up,” says Abhishek. “We genuinely liked hanging around with each other. Once we were on a flight from Chennai and the minute the flight took off everybody gathered together and began having fun. And that’s just the way it’s been throughout the filming and promotion of the film.
“[Our chemistry] translated well into the film. That’s the reason it came through.” HNY has not only given him a much-needed hit, but has earned him the reputation of being a prankster. “I’m not a prankster,” he declares mock seriously. “It’s the truth and I’ve really always wanted to clarify this because down the years people have labelled me a prankster and very honestly, and I don’t mean this offensively, but I take great offence to it. I’m not a prankster!
“A prankster plays pranks. I just have a lot of fun. Happy New Year is a fun film, and if I was going to be a very serious actor and not join in the fun, [I’d] become a rotten apple – because you’re not on the same plane as everyone else.” And then he turns around and gives it a serious spin. “This film requires a certain pitch, a certain tone,” he argues. “And you need a certain camaraderie among the actors to make that happen.”
Though some people have perceived him as a very reserved, intensely private person, his co-stars and directors vouch that Abhishek is a fun-loving person – at least on the sets.
“My friends and family know that I am just a normal person,” is his explanation. “It all depends on the situation and how I react to it. I am a bit of everything that you said – fun-loving, serious, prankster, and can be very reserved when I need to be.”
For a person who’s admittedly reserved at least some of the time, Abhishek is an electrifying stage performer. There’s nothing he likes better than to perform on stage before 30,000 people.
“It’s indescribable!” he exults. “The team of Happy New Year – who perform on Slam! The Tour [a stage show with the stars and crew of the film as well as a few other Bollywood stars such as Madhuri Dixit] – were recently discussing the phenomenon of film stars performing effortlessly on stage, and I think it goes back to our origins as actors. We all started on stage when we went to drama school and then amateur theatre. Bomsy [Boman Irani] has done professional theatre as well. We’re used to a live audience. As film actors the one thing that you’re denied is a live reaction that can influence your work. That’s what happens when you are performing in a show in front of people.”
He compares performing on stage to walking a tightrope. “It has its pros and cons – if the audience is a bit ‘thanda’ [cold, in Hindi] it can be scary and it’s going to ruin your performance. If the crowd’s really revved up, it’s going to take your performance to another level. That’s something we really feed off.”
But in the midst of it all, the one thing Abhishek takes very seriously is his role as an ambassador for India and Indian cinema. There is a strong patriotic streak in him, and coincidentally there was a strong patriotic theme running through HNY – with the crooks pulling off the heist also staying on to win an international dance competition for India.
“Film actors, especially from our industry, are the greatest ambassadors of our country and our culture and we take that role very seriously,” says Abhishek. “It’s a matter of great pride. Is there an undertone of patriotism in Happy New Year? Most definitely.
“There’s a scene in the film that is my favourite. We were all shooting our first schedule in Dubai and there’s this huge dancing fountain [near Burj Khalifa] that dances to music and they were actually playing a song from one of Farah’s earlier films. While we were shooting the scene, the shades of the Tricolour [the Indian national flag] were laser-projected on to the fountain. It was such a powerful and moving moment and at that point I don’t think there was one dry eye amongst us.
“So, Indian culture and heritage is something that means a lot to us and we take it very seriously. We take huge pride in representing our country, in representing our film industry.”
Now even though HNY is likely to keep him very busy with new films, Abhishek is not worried about losing precious family time.
“Whenever Aishwarya and I are busy on projects, we try to make time to meet up as often as we can,” he says. For instance when she was shooting for Hollywood movie The Pink Panther with Steve Martin, Abhishek used to make frequent trips to Europe to be with her during breaks.
“And when I was in Dubai shooting for HNY, she used to visit me here with Aaradhya,” he says.
So how does he feel to be the husband of the woman cited as one of the most beautiful women in the world?
“She’s very down-to-earth, rooted, simple and real,” says Abhishek. “She’s very beautiful, which everyone knows. But as a person, she is far more beautiful. She’s not what you’d expect her to be. You may think she’s an internationally known star and so beautiful, so she must have an attitude. But Aishwarya connects with you easily.”
The talk goes back to the new queues forming outside the Bachchan family bungalow. “When your films work, there’s a queue outside your office,” he has said.
All eyes will now be on the two films he is said to be working on. One of them is the very aptly titled All is Well.
There’s a smile in his eyes, faintly ironic, when he repeats the title of his next release – “All is Well”.
For Amitabh Bachchan’s son knows that you are only as successful as your last film.