AT EASE: Bachchan on a Sandeep Khosla-Abu Jani bed at the Bollywoodat- Selfridges festival in LondonLet’s hit it.” As he steps out of his $5,000-a-day suite at the discreetly expensive Prince Maurice Hotel in Mauritius, Amitabh Bachchan is ready for his close-up. “Chup (be quiet),” he says to a frog,AT EASE: Bachchan on a Sandeep Khosla-Abu Jani bed at the Bollywoodat- Selfridges festival in LondonLet’s hit it.” As he steps out of his $5,000-a-day suite at the discreetly expensive Prince Maurice Hotel in Mauritius, Amitabh Bachchan is ready for his close-up. “Chup (be quiet),” he says to a frog croaking in the pool nearby as he primes himself for the camera.He pats his coloured hair, examines himself in the mirror and puts drops in his tired eyes. “Make me look 22 again,” he says as he offers to change into a violently coloured Versace shirt. Offer not taken, he sulks, rejecting one photograph in a red shirt with pockets big enough to fit in Africa. “I look like a Mumbai taxi driver,” he says scornfully to the photographer. That’s until she shows him a black and white polaroid. “Mind-blowing,” he exclaims.At 60, that pretty much describes the phenomenon that’s Amitabh Bachchan. Like the boy in the bubble, he has built a force field around him. Even if he’s changing his shirt for a shoot in the middle of a hotel lobby or eating a quiet dinner by himself in a noisy restaurant at Port Louis’ Domaine Les Pailles, no one dares to cross the invisible barrier.Not even metaphorically. Ask friend of 29 years Ramesh Sippy, who directed him so memorably in Sholay and Shakti. “Getting too close to him was not possible. He would laugh, joke and party sometimes, but he never gave too much of himself. He has a very sparing nature,” says Sippy.Yet, when imperative, Bachchan can switch on the charm, waving the fly from your face, posing with your child or even discussing the finer points of his favourite sport, table tennis.A Grand Old Brand, he’s in complete control of an image that cuts across several media: films, television, advertising. He’s the face of ICICI, Pepsi and Versa at about Rs 2.5 crore a year each; the essence of Amitabh B, a perfume by Lomani; the actor who’s priced at Rs 2.5 crore in each of the 10 films under production (in his heyday, he didn’t charge more than Rs 30 lakh); and the chatty host who makes Rs 30 lakh with each episode of Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC).advertisementPRIVATE PERSON: Abhishek, Amitabh, Shweta and Jaya at Prateeksha, their Mumbai home since 1976The programme that changed the face of Indian TV, KBC reinvented Bachchan, allowing an adoring audience to forgive him the ghastly Mrityudaata clones. As Star CEO Peter Mukerjea puts it, “After a lean phase, he again represented stature, solidity, flair and style.” At four nights a week over a year, he did the equivalent of 50 movies. The suitable boy who went slumming had become the sophisticate in a suit again.In his 33-year career, Bachchan has traversed emotions and generations. Even when he was supposedly weighed under his angry young man albatross, he played intense lovers and loveable madcaps. Now as he ages, Generation Next is ready to write roles for him.Whether it’s Aditya Chopra, whom he remembers as a two-year-old in a Superman costume at his son’s birthday party, or Farhan Akhtar, whose father Javed co-wrote his iconic roles, he’s responded in the fashion he knows best. Read the script, learn your lines, report to the sets on time. Work if needed from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. Contribute to the script whenever possible. Just don’t mess with his shoes, even if they are white – he brings his own to the party.So how does he keep up with himself ? “Most humans use only 30 per cent of their potential intelligence. I’d like to try to use at least 35-40 per cent,” he says.That’s also about the extent of physical ability he was left with after his accident on the sets of Manmohan Desai’s Coolie. “I’d forgotten how to walk,” he recalls after his three-month stay at the ICU. It took him three months of intensive therapy at the Tania farm in Mehrauli, Delhi, to get back on his feet.A year later, when he was going up the stairs of his hotel room in Mysore, his legs refused to carry him. “I could not swallow liquid. I would comb my hair and my hand would fall off,” he says, a faraway look in the eyes whose irises are now rimmed with grey. “It happens with age.”Later, at Diwali, a firecracker exploded in his left hand, which had to be restructured from the wrist up. “It took a month of exercises before my fingers could touch each other. The blood you see in Sharaabi when the glass breaks in my hand is mine.”advertisementAs if that were not enough, he occasionally sees a bright flash in his right eye. Doctors have diagnosed it as a gap between the retina and the cornea – it can’t be treated.Baby AbyHis battles with ill-health have added to his iconic status, as a man with his back constantly up against a wall. His “younger brother”, Amar Singh, the Samajwadi Party leader, calls it his tremendous capacity to bear pain.”He’s emotional and sensitive. The best thing about him is that he doesn’t disparage his critics,” says the man who first met him 20 years ago with journalist K. Srinivasan (he later became his secretary) at his Gulmohar Park office in Delhi. Bachchan returns the compliment. “People call Amar Singh a power broker. It’s rubbish.”Bachchan’s recent choice of friends has been controversial but he defends it stoutly. Sahara Shree, he says of Sahara Group Managing Worker Subrata Roy, is an exceptional man. “He’s younger to me but I consider him to be my elder brother.” Indicating the stones he wears on his fingers – an opal, two sapphires and an emerald – he says they were suggested to him by Roy’s astrologer.It’s a lifetime away from the preppy days at Nainital’s Sherwood College (his house was called Robin Hood) and Kirori Mal College in Delhi. His group would hang out at Volga, at Cellar, at Tabela and at La Boheme, which was “very dark and very cosy”.They’d bunk and watch movies at Regal and Shiela theatres. That’s where he continued to indulge his passion for theatre under the celebrated teacher Frank Thakurdas. It was a love he inherited from his mother, Tej Kaur Suri. She was very active on stage, even having played Anarkali in Allahabad.But one experience didn’t bode well for his future choice of career: he muffed up a line when playing Zeus in Benn W. Levy’s The Rape of the Belt at Miranda House. His mother was watching. “It was hell,” he groans.His Kolkata days were more of the same. “It’s a very indecisive period in any man’s life. You are not qualified for anything in particular and you are getting to the age where it is expected of you to provide for your parents,” he says.After All India Radio rejected him as an announcer, he joined Bird and Co, a managing agency, at Rs 500 a month, and later moved to Blacker and Co, a freight brokerage firm. He loved it even though he shifted 25 times in five-and-a-half years.STAR ON SCREEN: The ascent of AmitabhClick here to EnlargeHe would act on stage at the Amateurs Club and Dramatic Club. He would sneak into concerts by greats like Bismillah Khan which would go on till six in the morning, go pandal-hopping during Durga Puja, take the tram. He and his friends would eat out at Skyroom, Firpo’s, Blue Fox, Prince’s at Grand. Any girlfriends? “Oh, eight or nine of them. Remember, we were all in a big group.”Younger brother Ajitabh, who worked at Shaw Wallace, took his pictures outside the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata and sent them to the Filmfare Madhuri Talent Contest. He was rejected. Disheartened, he quit and went back to Delhi. Nargis, his mother’s friend (they volunteered together at the United Military Camp), arranged his screen test with actor Mohan Saigal. He never got the result, but his brother’s friend Nina Singh told him about how K.A. Abbas was looking for a new face for Saat Hindustani. That was 1969. Bachchan was past the first hurdle.In Anand, he cleared the second. He left his Andheri home one Friday morning, just another struggling nobody in Mumbai. By evening, on his way back, he was a somebody. Yet he still wasn’t a star. Producer-actor Romesh Sharma remembers playing cricket in the compound of his apartment block.advertisementKabir and Protima Bedi would drop by, so would Tiger and Sharmila Pataudi. Says Sharma: “Every Sunday, we’d play cricket with the drinks trolley at square leg. We’d have potluck, drive to the beach, go water-skiing, see a film. All of us had lots of time.”Real stardom came with Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer. Bachchan had become a minor constellation. Marriage to co-star Jaya Bachchan followed. Deewar, Sholay and Amar Akbar Anthony established his talent.The busy period took a toll on his family life. He would leave at 6 a.m. and return at 2 in the morning again. Rumours blazed about relationships as he did three shifts a day. Something had to give. It did. In 1982, Puneet Issar knocked him down on the sets of Coolie and Bachchan was out for six months.On August 2, he was declared technically dead. Going against doctor’s orders, he went back to work in January 1983. Despite being afflicted with myasthenia gravis (muscular dystrophy) a year later, he continued working until a phone call from childhood chum Rajiv Gandhi changed his destiny.STAGE PLIGHT: Bachchan (extreme right), playing Zeus in The Rape of the Belt, forgot his lines as his mother watchedHe and Ajitabh hired key Rajiv aide Arun Singh’s farm in Mehrauli, while he worked from 2 Motilal Nehru Marg (Rajiv’s office previously). He denies it, but Bachchan wielded enormous power at the time. The savvy star had become a naive politician-on-the-make.Arun Nehru, who was responsible for the Draft Amitabh strategy – he wanted to tie down Hemvati Nandan Bahugana in Allahabad – says he overstayed his welcome. “We used Bachchan to defeat Bahugana, but expected him to go back to Bollywood. Mrs Gandhi had warned Rajiv when he wanted Nargis’ Rajya Sabha seat to be given to Amitabh: ‘Don’t mix your friendship with politics. Let him stick to acting’.”Power brought enormous complications. He had to send his children, then studying at Modern School, Delhi, to a boarding school. “Each time I went to their school there would be immense security. My children would be embarrassed. I would be embarrassed. My brother was moving to Switzerland. His four girls and my two children had never been apart. They too went to study at Aiglon,” he says.That was the least of his problems. The accusations about the Hindujas stuck and put him squarely in the public eye. Arun Nehru blames the easy access Bachchan had to Rajiv and Sonia: “Anyone with a problem, howsoever small and irrelevant, would go to Bachchan. He would go to Rajiv.”But Bachchan was determined to fight the Bofors allegations by Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter and India Abroad. He won both the cases giving his cinematic streetfighter a kernel of truth. “When I had the accident, I had this stupid notion that though I had come in a stretcher I would walk out on my feet. So every night, while everyone slept, I would walk the 4-5 ft to the door. It would take a lifetime. But I’d do it,” he says.He returned to the movies briefly but not for long. In 1992, he moved from tapori to tycoon, starting TV Asia in the UK with Pakistani film producer Faisal Shajan and family lawyer Sarosh Zaiwala.Ask him how much he invested in the company that was meant to cater to the entertainment needs of the Indian diaspora and he turns evasive. “It was my brother’s. I ran TV Asia in the US,” he says, before adding hastily that he has sold his shares there too. He hasn’t given up his NRI status though.His experiment with Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited (ABCL, later renamed AB Corp) didn’t work either. When he returned to the movies, his cinematic judgement seemed to have been permanently impaired. “I was in dire straits after that. Then one day I woke up and asked myself, ‘what am I doing?’ So I went to Yash Chopra and told him I needed a job.”PERSONAL POLITICS: Bachchan addressing a rally in Allahabad in 1984Aditya Chopra’s Mohabbatein happened and Bachchan was back as a patriarch. While he was shooting for it, Star Plus convinced him to do KBC. For the children, he was Crorepati Uncle, not the man with the funny hairdo and knotted shirt they saw in TV movies. For their parents, he was still Vijay.But if he were master of reinvention alone, we’d call him the desi Madonna. Bachchan wields such a powerful influence because he is essentially a middle-class hero. Despite the stratospheric success, the Mont Blancs he collects, the Longines watches, super-rich friends like Vice-Chairman and MD of Reliance Industries Anil Ambani (“I can talk finance with him for hours”), he remains a thrifty householder.It’s clear in the way he’s taken charge of his personal finances. It’s also obvious in the loyalty of his domestic staff. His first driver, Nagesh, who was employed by him in 1970 still works for him, as does his make-up man of 25 years, Deepak Sawant, and his Man Friday and travelling companion of 20 years, Praveen Jain.It’s obvious in his selection of toys too – his Nikon is a trusty old companion, even if it hasn’t accompanied him for some time. His music system which he maintains himself (“I like it tuned just right”) is a Sony. So is his laptop, on which he communicates with friends and family: “These are destructive habits. There’s a new model every year. You can’t keep pace.”The wilder days are behind him, though he can surprise people with his quirky sense of humour. As on the sets of Honey Irani’s Armaan in Mauritius. Whether it’s virtually stripping its unfortunate assistant director Anshul Pandey who’s got a tattoo of his Kaalia character on his back or flinging down a file and declaring pack-up in mock anger, Bachchan’s temperament often dances ahead of more even natures.Ask London-based film critic Jessica Hines, who has been working on his biography for seven years: “What he has to saysurvives on medication and diet control. Life for him is tenuous. He works out in the gym for an hour every day. “I don’t want to be Mr Samson,” he says, “but I have to keep my body flexible. Otherwise, it won’t bend.” depends entirely on his mood, the other people in the room, what role he is about to play,” she says. Not everyone feels that way, of course. Ambani has known him since 1980. “I grew up watching and enjoying his films,” he says. “And now we share a close bond of respect, love -and affection.”Amitabh Bachchan with Samajwadi Party’s Amar SinghThe object of his affection shows no signs of retiring. Part of it may be insecurity. After the AB Corp debacle, neither BPL nor Mirinda came back to renew their contracts with him. His myasthenia gravis is in remission, and heHe works his mind too. He participates in every script, points out Yash Chopra, who says the history of Indian cinema cannot be written without him. So is he going to be another Dev Anand, cravat, hat and crazy grin? “Well, I’ll work as long as I’m given work,” he replies. If he doesn’t get it, he’s not above hustling for it. That’s Bachchan for you. Professional down to his white pants.