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A Towering Tome

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May 2003
A Towering Tome

Reviewed by ASEEM CHHABRA

To Be or Not to Be : Amitabh Bachchan

By Khalid Mohamed.

(Saraswathi Creations, Mumbai, 401 p.)

Jaya (Bhaduri) Bachchan wanted to commemorate her husband Amitabh?s 60th birthday in a special way. But the star-wife and sometimes actress was at a loss. She spent a long time talking to her children and the couple?s friends trying to figure out a unique gift for a man who ? at least according to some ? already has everything. Then Jaya saw her husband as a ?confirmed nostalgiaphile? ? a man who often spends hours, lost in his thoughts or leafing through old pictures and memories.

And so Jaya conceived of an idea ? to put together things that Amitabh would look through and read. But by the time the project was over Jaya had a book in her hand.

To Be or Not to Be, Jaya?s 400 page gift to Amitabh was released last fall in Mumbai at a public event marking the superstar?s birthday. The glossy, coffee table book, written by India?s leading film critic and now director, Khalid Mohamed, and measuring 14.5? in length and nearly 11? in width, is now available in the US. And despite its steep price ? the book costs approximately $90 on several Indian websites ? it is a must have, not only for Amitabh?s fans but also for lovers of Bollywood cinema.

?I am married to Amitabh Bachchan who is not only my husband but a man of the people,? Jaya says in the foreword, explaining her reasons for making Amitabh?s birthday gift into a public document. ?The audience has loved and supported him right to this date, all through his ups and downs. Whether I like it or not, he has to be shared without an iota of possessiveness. It would be selfish to hold the book on him from those who have loved him unconditionally.?

How does one mark the life of an actor whose persona on the screen and his off-screen private life has been so public that it seems we all know him extremely well? Shashi Tharoor wrote a novel ? Show Business inspired by Amitabh?s life and there have been a few other biographies of the actor, including Bhawana Somaaya? Amitabh Bachchan: The Legend. And someday historians and sociologists will truly analyze what made Amitabh such a huge phenomenon in India, and why the nation (or at least the city of Mumbai) came to standstill, when the actor met with a life threatening accident during the shoot of his 1983 film Coolie.

But until then we have Khalid Mohamed?s book ? an amazing collection, full of fabulous pictures, details and analysis about the star?s life.

The book contains pages and pages of clever trivia. Did you know that Amitabh?s father ? the late Harivansh Rai Bachchan had almost named him Inquilab? That Sarojini Naidu first introduced Harivansh Rai to Jawahar Lal Nehru ? a meeting that would solidify the family?s friendship for generations.

That Amitabh's first screen credit was for Mrinal Sen?s Bhuvan Shome. For his voice over for the 1969 film, Amitabh?s name was shortened to Amit. His first two films -- K.A. Abbas?s Saat Hindustani and Hrishikesh Mukherjee?s Anand were released in 1970.

That Mukherjee originally cast Amitabh to play the lead role opposite a young actress Jaya Bhaduri in Guddi. But the director believed that Amitabh was already a known face and replaced him with an unknown actor Samit Bhanja.

And another piece of detail ? Amitabh?s first close associate in Bollywood was the comedian Mehmood. In the book Amitabh refers to him as Mehmoodbhai. In his early days in Mumbai, Amitabh stayed as a guest at Mehmood?s place and the comedian/director introduced the young actor to some of the top filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s ? Shakti Samanta, J. Om Prakash and Pramod Chakravarty. Amitabh received Rs. 5,000 as a signing amount (a princely sum in those days) from Chakravarty for a film that was never made.

Recently at the launch of the book in New York, Amitabh said that he often looks through the book in his moment of solitude, still amazed at how it was put together. But that is exactly the kind of experience any fan of Amitabh will have leafing through the book. There are countless pictures of young Amitabh, including a priceless one in which he is standing tall along with his two childhood friends Sanjay (in shorts) and Rajiv Gandhi. Also in the picture are Indira Gandhi (with her head covered) and two of India?s best known wrestlers of that era ? Randhawa and Dara Singh.

Along the way, the reader will discover some tender Bachchan family pictures ? Amitabh with his parents in various poses and then the star with his family ? wife Jaya, and children Shweta and Abhishek.

Bollywood cinema has been such a vital part of our lives and Amitabh has ruled the industry as the ultimate superstar for nearly three decades. For the reviewer in me, in some ways this book ? the journey of Amitabh?s life as reflected by Khalid Mohamed ? is also the history of my own life. Every picture in the book ? especially those from Amitabh?s movies takes me back to that moment in my life ? whether I was in school or college, where I saw the movies, who accompanied me and in what circumstances I saw the movies.

To Be or Not to Be opened the floodgate of memories ? the time I skipped school with some friends to see Anand; the time I nearly fell to a pickpocket while buying black market tickets for Sholay outside Plaza theater in Connaught Place, New Delhi; and the subway ride with a group of desi friends to see Coolie at the now defunct Bombay Cinema in Manhattan.

At the New York book launching party Jaya Bachchan said: ?If you read the book, everything I want to say is there. It is very difficult to speak about your husband after so many years. There have been tough times, good times, bad times, but it has all been worth it and wonderful. It was a pleasure doing the book. I wish I could write a little more, but maybe we should leave it for the next 20 years. When he is 80 then we should come back here with another book.?

That will be a long wait, but until then we should relish Jaya?s gift to her husband and to us.


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