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Abhishek Bachchan: work in progress, forever

Neither as celebrated as Hrithik Roshan or Ranbir Kapoor nor as spectacular a letdown as Fardeen Khan or Tusshar Kapoor, Bachchan is a star son stuck somewhere in the middle of the popularity race

Ranjita Ganesan  |  Mumbai 

It is hot, isn’t it?” asks the man, whose ability to turn on the cool in any room is common Bollywood trivia. He switches on the air-conditioner as if compensating for the fact that he is not in the uniform that gave him that epithet. The evening stubble is missing. So is his blazer and the Aviator glasses. In an airy, dark tracksuit and white trainers, Abhishek Bachchan looks as though he is back from a jog, though he has just finished a long meeting with a producer.

Recently, the actor, whose 13-year career has seesawed between lows and highs, has been having a successful run. Bol Bachchan directed by Rohit Shetty, known for low-brow films that become guaranteed hits, garnered Rs 100 crore and the latest installment of the Dhoom franchise, in which he plays cop Jai Dixit, broke records to earn about Rs 280 crore in three weeks.

  • Dhoom series (2004, 2006 and 2013)
  • Dus (2005)
  • Bunty aur Babli (2005)
  • Sarkar and Sarkar Raj (2005, 2008)
  • Guru (2007)
  • Dostana (2008)
  • Bol Bachchan (2012)
  • Tera Jadoo Chal Gaya (2000)
  • Mumbai Se AayaMera Dost (2003)
  • Naach (2004)
  • Umrao Jaan (2006)
  • Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se (2010)
  • Raavan (2010)
  • Players (2012)

Though the actor seemed largely sidelined in its promotion (Dhoom celebrates the anti-hero more than the good guy), the film’s box-office success is also believed to have encouraged telecom operator Idea Cellular to revive the ‘Sirji’ ad campaign featuring him. As his father triumphantly tweeted a photo of a younger Abhishek while saying, “Abhishek on rare Sunday at Prateeksha, never imagined he would become what he is today #Dhoom 3.”

The younger Bachchan has also learnt to accept the harsh glare of show business. When he entered Hindi cinema as a lanky 20-something, Bachchan was a tinge overconfident. A lot was expected of the son of Hindi cinema’s biggest superstar Amitabh Bachchan and seasoned actress Jaya Bhaduri, but as Refugee and a string of releases after it failed to make an impact, most bouquets turned into brickbats. “It was happening rapidly, and after a while I became numb. I began watching the whole process from a distance like an outsider,” he said in an interview with film critic Bhawana Somaaya. Maturity has come with age and experience, observes the actor who is now 37.

* * *

The word “shadow” has been used in conjunction with his name more than any other celebrity’s. The Bachchans’ Juhu office Janak —watched over by a troop of distrustful guards and attendants, who bustle about offering guests coffee or tea — is splashed with portraits and photographs, mostly of the Big B, in whose shadow he has lived. The surname allowed the younger Bachchan to get a foothold in the industry but his story is not devoid of struggle. He brings to our notice that he is one of the few star kids whose father did not make a film for him, “In fact, I made Paa for him.” Producers and directors were initially reluctant to take on the heavy responsibility of launching him. Early on, he was dropped from a film two days before shoot was to begin and in another project, went from being flown business class to economy.

Bachchan, who was dyslexic as a child, was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland at the age of nine. He had to quit studying at Boston University as his father’s production company, ABCL, ran up massive losses. Acting, as an ambition, developed organically as he was surrounded by films growing up. The beginning of his undulating career was marked by failure. A period of success sparked by releases like Yuva, Sarkar, Dus and Guru was quickly followed by duds including Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, Drona and Game. Even his unconventional outings with directors like Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra in Delhi 6 and Ashutosh Gowariker in Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se did not impress the audience.

The abundant wit and jokes his friends warn about are at bay. To strangers, he speaks with flair and sometimes quotes Rudyard Kipling. “Meet triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same,” he says, between bites of Bourbon biscuits. He is a keen observer too, “Every now and then you pull up your sleeves and adjust your hair. I might use that in a film some day.” His responses seem calm and almost rehearsed, likely because he has been introspecting. Bachchan embraces criticism, of which there has been plenty, saying “The day I become accepting of it is the day I start growing.”

One Facebook page wants him to “please retire.” His detractors in Bollywood have included Anurag Kashyap, who noted that Bachchan had not understood half the lines he wrote for him in Yuva, and Prahlad Kakkar, who once quipped about the actor’s copious flops. Adman and filmmaker R Balki reportedly pointed out in an interview that Bachchan is not always careful in his choice of roles. The actor disagrees, noting that he picks films that appeal to him emotionally and will continue to do so. “I am proud of my films and they have all taught me either from a performance perspective or a business perspective.”

While some feel he is an average performer who is given opportunities owing to his lineage, others say he a good actor who is judged too harshly because of his background. Film maker and friend Rohan Sippy, who directed Bachchan in films including Bluffmaster, says the actor is unselfish. “He looks at the film as a whole rather than the length of his own dialogues or screen time. That’s rare.” Dhoom 3 director Vijay Krishna Acharya, who worked with Bachchan in Guru and Raavan, vouches for his talent and says he should take on more unusual roles. Sanjay Gadhvi, who made the first two parts of Dhoom, agrees, “I would like to see him in a deeply emotional role. There is so much bottled up, and that is one aspect of him that has not been explored enough.”

Neither as celebrated as Hrithik Roshan or Ranbir Kapoor nor as spectacular a letdown as Fardeen Khan or Tusshar Kapoor, Bachchan is a star son stuck somewhere in the middle of the popularity race. “There are star kids out there who don’t have a job anymore and are indifferent to them. The fact that have expectations from me means they see potential,” he says. Sometimes, a defensive side shows up, “Show me one actor who has made all successful films. No actor is perfect.”

* * *

Commercial success scores over critical acclaim, he says without batting an eyelid, because show business demands box-office results. It helps explain why Bachchan, known for his subtle sensibility, is also warming up to boisterous comedy with films like Bol Bachchan, and his next Happy New Year, a musical heist directed by Farah Khan and starring Shah Rukh Khan. A more promising upcoming project is All is Well, helmed by Umesh Shukla who made Oh My God.

An interest in business is revealed when he explains even a fitness routine in somewhat economic terms. “If you want to lose weight, your output has to be more than your input. Your supply has to be less than demand.” Bachchan, who studied economics in his A-levels, feels financial acumen is essential today as most actors run side ventures. His is the production house AB Corp. He will produce two films this year, one of which is directed by R Balki, starring his father and Dhanush.

On a list of top stars researched by Ormax Media, Bachchan is ranked 18 with a popularity share of 1 per cent. It would take 2-3 consistent successes in leading roles to see a jump, says Gautam Jain, the company’s insights head for films. On the endorsement front, the actor lends his face to four brands. While he is no longer a frontrunner in the game, the combo effect of Abhishek and Aishwarya still works the magic for brands, notes industry expert Harish Bijoor.

Forty minutes into the interview, the office help brings a note that leads Bachchan to glance meaningfully at his Omega watch, a product he endorses, and his words begin to gather pace. There is another meeting to attend. After more than a decade in the business and with some 50 films (including cameos) under his belt, he still considers himself “work in progress.” Bachchan admits that to many in the audience, his best may not be good enough and is willing to spend sleepless nights to change that view.

Any debate about unfair privilege is rendered futile with responses such as “I am lucky and proud to carry the Bachchan surname. I feel I am over-appreciated. There are a lot of actors who are more talented than me.” So far, have been supportive, he says. For that, he thanks his stars, both the ones in the sky and the ones at home.

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First Published: Fri, January 17 2014. 21:49 IST