Kitthey baithey ho tussi?

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Amitabh Bachchan

There is something cringe-worthy about the starstruckness* that movie stars routinely cause among the multitudes. Otherwise mature people become ridiculous groupies in the presence of movie stars. Fame of the movie star kind has a way magnifying utterly banal stuff into something iconic.

While watching an interview of Amitabh Bachchan by Tehelka magazine fonder-editor Tarun Tejpal as part of the latter’s annual “Think” festival, one came across moments that were embarrassing even in the seclusion of my basement. Let me mention just one. In his somewhat futile efforts to present Bachchan like he has never been before Tejpal asked questions about his early life. One of them was which languages were spoken at home when he was growing up. To which Bachchan said all three, meaning Hindi, English and Punjabi.

At that point there was a hubbub among the audience. Some of them wanted Bachchan to say something in Punjabi. Why? Well, starstruckness precludes why. The only explanation I could think of was because he is Amitabh Bachchan and it is his solemn public obligation to entertain the public at any and all times. The public always wants a trick or two from performers of any kind. Why Punjabi coming out of Bachchan’s mouth would sound any different is beyond me. Bachchan, now long used to such silly requests, was somewhat amused but obliged nevertheless by asking “Kitthey baithey ho tussi?” (Where are you sitting) in Punjabi. The audience, including Tejpal, were thoroughly entertained. As they say in Hindi, “Log lotpot ho gaye.”

I have long been intrigued by how fame, particularly of the crazy kind that Bachchan has enjoyed for decades, so severely warps human behavior around it. Short of praising how wonderfully he breathes, he has been praised on just about every aspect of his life. In the same interview Tejpal mentions how “sexy” he looks when he runs on screen.

I remember what a master at the fine art of flattery once told me about the late superstar Rajesh Khanna in his presence. His flattery was always detailed and well constructed. He once said of Khanna in these exact words, “Mercedes ki peechewali seat mein do ungliyon ke beech aise glass pakad ke Black Label peene ka jo style hai na aap ka woh aur kahan?” (The way you sit in the rear seat of your Mercedes and stylishly hold a glass of Black Label (whiskey) between your two fingers is to be found nowhere).” When he said “aise” or the way, he actually acted it out for me in the precise manner of holding the glass between his index finger and the finger (the up yours one). As if this was not specific enough, he added, “Aur hamesha glass mein chaar ice cubes hona chahiye) (There should always be four ice cubes in the glass).

Exercised at the redundancy of interviewing Amitabh Bachchan any more, I wrote a piece in May, 2008 for the IANS wire. It was widely carried and commented upon, including by the great man himself on his blog. I think it bears repeating here simply because five years down the line my view has merely been reaffirmed.

By Mayank Chhaya

The media in India ought to impose a pretty long moratorium on Amitabh Bachchan interviews.

The media bakes the same old banalities and garnishes them as profound questions. And Bachchan, with no other option left, responds in a mockingly serious tone. Like a jaded couple trapped in a dull matrimony both the media and Bachchan have run out of things to say. Can you blame either? They have been tangoing for the past 30 years. There are no new moves left. They can only grunt at each other.

One recurring question that I have heard the media ask in the past 25 years concerns Bachchan’s status as the ultimate Indian cinema icon. The media asserts with unbridled enthusiasm that he is one. He, on the other hand feeling awkward about the relentlessness of the compliment, begs to differ and says he is just an "ordinary, mediocre actor". It would not hurt the media to tone down its praise just as it would not harm Bachchan if for once he were to accept some of the compliments for what they are.

In the great Indian tradition of fawning before an icon, his fans become delirious while showering praises on him. Bachchan, on the other hand, perhaps genuinely befuddled by all the attention, responds with self-effacement, which, even if real, comes across as contrived. He knows he possesses unquestionably great artistry and should acknowledge it without much fanfare. If after over three decades of astonishing critical and box-office success, he still regards himself as an "ordinary, mediocre actor", then it can only mean that the world around him has been fundamentally flawed in its judgment about him and his craft. This seeming reluctance to accept praise is a patently Indian trait born out of a carefully choreographed dance of humility.

It is entirely plausible that Bachchan’s self-effacement and humility stem from the core of who he really is. It is equally plausible that he genuinely does not know how to handle the encomiums, which are poured on him so routinely. I am willing to grant that he sincerely rates himself rather low on the acting caliber scale. If that be the case then he must wonder in his private moments with amusement how he has managed to enthrall millions for decades with his "ordinary and mediocre" talent. I am sure that is not his intention at all but when Bachchan insists about the limited nature of his abilities he seems to tell the world, "Listen you impressionable fools, get a life."

The media is much more to be blamed than the man. What do you expect the practitioner of a highly self-absorbed profession to do when he is badgered with gushing compliments every single time? He tries, even at the risk of sounding insincere, to play down his own standing so as not to come across as someone who is full of himself. He tries, even at the risk of sounding trite, to tell the world how normal a person he is with all the frailties and weaknesses like the rest of us. He bends over backwards to make others not feel small and inadequate in comparison. Give the man a break. It has been a well-known fact that Bachchan is arguably among the world’s great actors. Just leave it that. There is no need to compel him to respond to or to celebrate his own talent every day of his life.

Another frequently asked question is who the real Amitabh Bachchan is. In his latest interview with CNN-IBN, Bachchan quite effectively demolished the notion that the world needs to know the real him. He was right in implying that the world connects to him through his celluloid image and should be content doing so. If he were not the superstar he is, who would have bothered to find out about what he is really all about? That is a valid question.

If Bachchan has been aggressive with the media for the better part of his career, and more particularly in recent weeks in his blogs, it is primarily because he seems to feel that while it is necessary, the media cannot become the arbiter of his destiny. It is fair game for him to turn the tables on the media through his blogs and subject it to the same treatment of judging and castigating. He has understood the power of blogging, especially the fact that it allows him to eliminate intermediaries from the media who spin what he has to say for their own utilitarian reasons. To that extent blogging has liberated Bachchan from the shackles of media judgment and spin.

Once the newspaper platform was much coveted and had to be earned with a great deal of work and commitment. The crass democratization of the print and broadcast media in the past five years or so has meant perceptibly declining standards in the quality of the written and broadcast material. Any urbane nitwit with a microphone has the gumption to grab the media pulpit. It is just as well that in this climate of declining professional media standards, Bachchan has begun taking pot shots at us using the net. It would be worthwhile for him to completely stop random interviews and say whatever he has to say via his blog. I am afraid both the world and Bachchan have had quite enough of each other for the foreseeable future.

* Starstruckness is not a word but coined here for purpose.

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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