Over the course of a twenty-year career, Abhishek Bachchan has been asked the same questions so many times, he could sleepwalk through an interview and still ace it. He is hard-pressed to recall more than a single exchange that didn’t probe into his life as the son of Amitabh Bachchan and the husband of Aishwarya Rai. Career graphs, character arcs and role prep just don’t seem to interest people as much.
Always composed, Abhishek has the statesman-like ability to choose exactly the right words when responding to any query. And not just for himself, as I soon discover. I call him ‘politically correct,’ to which his immediate response is that he’d rather be called ‘proper’.
How disparate is his personal and professional life? “What you see is what you get,” Abhishek insists, though I’d hazard a guess these waters run deep. Glad, however, to take the glimpse we’re offered, we venture down a tried and tested road. What can he tell us about why he chose his latest Netflix film, Ludo? What was it like working with his Ludo co-stars? Buried under praise and a handful of predictable responses, we are elated to discover some absolute gems: from starting his day with his father’s voice, to being mistaken for Bhangra singer Sukhbir. The clarity of thought and eloquence with which Abhishek holds forth on subjects like gender-related pay parity and nepotism deserve verbatim reproduction — and so that is where we begin.
“When I talk about a subject like nepotism, people are already viewing it from a coloured lens. The sad thing is, no matter what I say, people are not going to understand my point of view. It’s not a point of view they even want to look at right now,” says Abhishek. When pushed to take a stand, he continues: “I think the whole discourse has become very skewed, so I don’t know if it’s prudent to try and present another side. I think anybody who has ever been part of a film realises the hardships, the effort, the blood, sweat and tears it takes. When you are in front of the camera, it really doesn’t matter whose kid you are. Is it easier for a kid from the industry? So much debate has already gone into this. As a person who has been acting for twenty years, I would tell you that this is the backyard that you grow up in — from my birth till today, my life is the film industry. Everything that I know has happened in this place. This is home turf and, yes, it is an immense privilege to have been privy to that kind of a life — to be surrounded by some of the greatest creative talents around. It is something you have to respect and be grateful for. Is it easier to get a break in films? Absolutely! I think anybody who tells you otherwise doesn’t really know what they’re talking about. But getting your foot in the door isn’t going to give you a lasting career. I still remember the great Yash Chopra at the premiere of my first film, Refugee. He was standing by the entrance as I walked in and when I took his blessings, he said, “Beta, your father has brought you this far. From tomorrow morning, if you aren’t good, no one is going to see your evening show.” That’s the truth, regardless of what people want to say. If, in front of the camera, you do not live up to your performance, and if you cannot perform to the desire of your audience, they’re not going to give you another chance. Nobody calling anybody is going to make a difference. I can’t speak for other people — it wouldn’t be appropriate — but I can speak for myself. And I have to say that my father has never produced a film for me. He has never picked up the phone and asked any producer or director to cast me in their films. You can choose to believe it or not, but forget the variables for a moment and just analyse the logic behind this. If I am not doing well commercially at the box office, would a producer invest huge sums of his own money on making a film with me because my father requested him to do so? If it were that easy, why do we have so many kids from within the industry who haven’t made it? Forget the optics of it. Just focus on the numbers, because the numbers don’t lie. This is a business. People aren’t dictated by whims. They’ll ask: Is this viable? Am I going to lose money? Nobody does charity here — it’s a very cutthroat place when it needs to be. If you are worth it, you’re going to get the job. At the end of the day, it’s an erroneous debate because it isn’t really about an insider and an outsider. This is a very inclusive industry. It’s an industry which does not bow down to caste, creed or religion. Or to gender. Take pay parity for instance. If you can guarantee the numbers at the box office, you are going to get paid the money that you deserve. There’s no two ways about that. The minute any actor can open a film at `50 crore on opening day, you’re going to get paid the big bucks. I’ve done several films where I haven’t had top billing and I’m okay with that. Those films had bigger stars, who were bigger box office draws; be that an actor or an actress. I have done several films with my wife — at that point we were just co-stars — and in a majority of the films that we have done together, Aishwarya got paid more than I did and she’s had a higher billing than me. And that’s absolutely fine. Like I said, it’s a business. You guarantee the box office, you’re going to get what’s deserved.”
As the younger Mr. Bachchan himself suggests, there are too many variables to have a conclusive conversation about subjects like these, but he believes no producer or director should be vilified for picking a certain star cast — they must have the liberty to exercise their choice.
Clearly, the freedom to choose is a recurring theme. Some years ago, Abhishek decided to take a sabbatical from the movie business because he wanted to escape the rut. He chose to focus on his sports businesses instead, as the owner of the Indian Super League’s Chennaiyin FC and Pro Kabbadi’s Jaipur Pink Panthers team. “You definitely don’t want to be unhappy doing what you are doing,” says Abhishek, explaining his decision to press pause as an actor. “You don’t want to come home and start feeling bitter or bad about the way you are working, or the kind of work you are doing. And you don’t want to be doing work for the wrong reasons. It is very important to earn money, but when you are working in a creative medium, if that is your sole driving force, then that’s very counterproductive to creativity.”
Looking to be challenged, Abhishek returned after a two-year hiatus with Anurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyaan in 2018. Work on Anurag Basu’s Ludo began on Dusshera day the same year. “Dada (Basu) and I have been trying to do something together for several years, so when this opportunity came up, I accepted without hesitation. There’s a childlike quality with which Dada views the world and that beautifully translates into this quirky film that he’s made.” Not long after filming wrapped up, with post-production still in the works, the Covid-19 pandemic brought on an enforced sabbatical. “I was in the middle of filming for Bob Biswas in Kolkata when the lockdown was announced. We had to stop the shoot and come home,” says Abhishek, confessing that this has been “possibly the longest time” that he has been at home at a stretch in the last 15 years. “It’s literally been at least seven to ten flights a month, for years on end,” says the actor, who has also had an up close and personal encounter with the coronavirus in recent months. It is an experience he appears to have a rather pragmatic outlook about. “This is a serious virus — do not take it lightly — but I think you have to be optimistic… if you confront it in the right spirit, you should be okay. I was lucky to have excellent care and the doctors were able to control my symptoms. I have to admit, having been through this, I feel a bit more confident about getting out to work now. Of course because someone has had Covid-19 it doesn’t mean you can’t get it again — there have been cases of relapses — but, at the end of the day, you have to be responsible and you have to be careful. I would recommend awareness rather than nervousness as a response to this situation. If this is the new normal, then it is something we have to get used to and we have to learn to work through it.”
Armed with optimism, and with Ludo looking promising, one thing is obvious. In a year that’s been forgettable for so many others, Abhishek isn’t just geared up for the new normal — he is bringing his A-game!
The perfect team player
From his football buddies to diwali traditions, Abhishek offers a peek into his personal life, while heaping high praise on his co-stars
Given that Ludo is an anthology with four stories that intersect, did you have the opportunity to work with most of the film’s extensive cast?
Sadly, I didn’t. My track is with Inayat (Verma) and Asha (Negi), both of whom were a pleasure to work with. There are many scenes where we are all present simultaneously, but we shot on separate days and didn’t really get to interact.
Was there a co-star in particular you would have liked to work with?
I have known Adi (Aditya Roy Kapur) since his first film — in fact, his first two films were with my wife (Action Replayy and Guzaarish). He would come home on occasions and I used to meet him on the set, plus I play football with him, so he’s a dear friend. I would love to work with him and I have to say he’s absolutely brilliant in Ludo. Then there’s Rajkummar Rao, who is an actor I’ve admired since I saw Kai Po Che — I have followed his work closely and I really think he is one of the most gifted actors of the generation. I would love to work with him on an entire film. This is technically my third film with Pankaj Tripathi. The first time I worked with him, we didn’t have screen time together. It was in a film called Run. He had a very small part and was just about starting off as an actor in those days. Then we had extensive work together in a movie I did with Mani Ratnam called Raavan, where Pankaj was a part of my ‘gang.’ It is wonderful to see the way he has blossomed and grown, and the presence he is commanding today. Honestly, it is well due. That said, I’d love to work with Fatima (Sana Shaikh), Sanya (Malhotra)… all of them really. Working with an ensemble cast is something I enjoy. The whole collaborative process and the energy — it’s incredible.
Ludo is a game of chance. You seem to prefer games of skill — where what you do has a direct result on the outcome. Is this true?
Yes. I like situations where I can contribute to the eventuality of the outcome. The only game of chance I play is probably teen patti and that’s a Diwali tradition.
Also read: Vikrant Massey: The man on the move
A new dawn
Life lessons learnt during the lockdown
The last time we spoke, you mentioned being a fan of sunrises. Did the lockdown change that for you?
It’s wonderful when you pack up early in the morning after a night shift and you’re driving back while the sun is rising. It’s a beautiful time to see the world come alive. That said, I only wake up early when I have to. If there’s one thing the lockdown has taught me, it is to be thankful for everything that we have; starting with your family and their health. With that in mind, I’d say any moment in the day is precious.
Your mornings start with music. Do you and Aishwarya have aligned tastes in this regard?
We do. I start my morning with the Hanuman Chalisa that my father sang actually, followed by a Ganesh aarti also sung by my father. (Smiles) I like to start my day with his voice.
Styling: Nikita Jaisinghani; Make-up: Vinod Upadhyay
Produced by: Netflix