Madhureeta Mukherjee (BOMBAY TIMES; May 11, 2017)

His deep baritone spills on to our pages, flowing into reams of stories and anecdotes, that often go on to become 'quotables' for ever. Such is the power of his impeccable voice and his unfettered memory. He has that supreme quality of keeping you riveted in the movies, and stirring up a conversation on the couch with as much passion. At 74, AB is cooler than the millenials of the day. He's a champ on social media - taking the good, the bad and the trollers in his stride. Yes, he plays it safe with words, but his words are seemingly unstoppable. At the same time, he's never lost the emotional connect with the people or the 'golden' phase of cinema that roots him to his beginnings. Long before he turned into a megastar. As the third instalment of Sarkar, directed by Ram Gopal Varma (RGV), awaits release, in a long-winding chat, he talks about trolls, timeless classics of Bollywood, legends of yore and the superstars of the future. Read on...

Ram Gopal Varma says that if you hadn't agreed to play Sarkar on screen, he wouldn't have made the film. He has also said, 'The Godfather can be made without Marlon Brando, but Sarkar cannot be made without Amitabh Bachchan.' Your reaction?
He is being too generous. Sarkar (2005) was my first film with Ramu, but even before it was made, I was always appreciative of his work. It was Abhishek who initiated the idea for Sarkar 3. Ramu and I kept meeting over the years and talking about it. We would discuss various aspects of life and movies and I would chat with him about palace politics. For instance, even in a king's home, there must be disturbances and domestic problems. We always wondered that if the king was emotionally upset about his personal issues and he had to make a decision that would impact the lives of others, would his choices be ridden by his emotional conflict. Would he carry the same vein of disappointment when he had to make a statement that would probably change the lives of millions?

That was one aspect. The other interesting aspect we explored was the several rings of power points around every powerful individual, be it a king, president, prime minister or any celebrity. Isn't it possible that each ring inadvertently becomes a power centre and has its individual influence? We thought of building a story which incorporates all of this. From Sarkar to Sarkar Raj (2008) and now Sarkar 3, the story has progressed. The main protagonist is being played by the same actor, unlike in The Godfather (1974). Marlon Brando finishes in one, and then Al Pacino takes over for the remaining two.

Talking about The Godfather, what impression did it leave on you when you first watched the film?
Who wasn't impacted by The Godfather? The whole world of mafia has been very intriguing, exciting and interesting... just to understand how it works, who are these people, what are their lives are and what is their thought process.

As part of Sarkar 3 promotions, you were interviewed for the first time ever by your director and that too, by someone like RGV who doesn't mince words...
I talk to all my directors about my movies and other films, which often leads to a healthy debate. For the first time, I was interviewed by my director (RGV) and it was filmed. I think a general interview makes for good reading, but there isn't any kind of documentation of facts and stories that go beyond the actor. I lament that and I feel that we are not leaving anything for posterity. I would love to know what went through Dilip (Kumar) saab's mind when he was doing Devdas (1955), how he prepared himself to say those lines in the way he did. What was Guru Dutt thinking when he was making Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), which, according to me, is his most brilliant work... I would love to know why he used a certain kind of lighting or why he used a crane for a certain scene. Why did Raj Kapoor think of making Awaara (1951), and how did Mehboob saab conceive the idea of Mother India (1957)? It is sad that nobody talks about all this. So many greats have gone by and we have no documentation of these facts. After understanding those scenes, maybe you would want to go and watch the film again; it makes it so much more interesting. Somebody has to provoke actors to be able to do that. They do it in the West all the time, and not just with their own films. A friend of mine who was studying in a college in London, told me that she admired my films and wanted to meet me. When I was visiting London, she took me to SOAS (School of Asian Studies), and I went to a class where British students were watching one of my films, and the teacher (also a Brit), was decimating frame to frame. That is how they were being initiated to Hindi cinema. I am sure Indian institutes that have courses in film studies do that too, but it would be wonderful if such material reached more people. Our audiences are intelligent; it would only make them more aware if we have an archive or library where they can go and see and read all this.

In an interview, Ramu had said that while filming Sarkar, there was a scene that you wanted to shoot differently. You called him up at night and discussed it and there was a creative difference. The scene was reshot, but eventually, you retained the first cut. Do you often find it tough to detach from the character you are playing after you are done shooting for it?
Sometimes, after you finish your day's work, you go home and think about a particular scene or shot. Yes, there have been many times when I have called up directors in the middle of the night and asked them whether we should change a scene or do it better. Hrishida (Hrishikesh Mukherjee) would almost slap you and say, 'Rubbish! If you want a retake, you better pay for it'. As an actor, this is my personal attitude and I am fortunate that my directors often gave me the chance to reshoot a scene and improvise. Well, there were also times when I suggested something and it completely failed. It would happen with Manmohan Desai. I would tell him, 'Man...isko ek baar aur kar dete hai'. He would say, 'Ja, ja...sab theek hai'. I would request again and he would let us reshoot the scene. And once the shot was done, he would say, 'Pehle wala take rakhna, yeh bakwaas kiya hai isne' (laughs!). So, these are special moments we actors share with our directors.

Ramu is the kind of person who says what he feels. He is expressive, sometimes even politically incorrect, but he stands by what he says. How do you react to the flattering comments he makes about you on social media - in his own style (at times abusive, too)?
I think Ramu has the quality of an honest man, and nobody wants to appreciate that. He says what he feels, and there are very few who can express themselves. He is open-minded and he can tell you on your face that 'This is rubbish, I don't like what you are saying. I don't like what you are doing. How can you be working on this film? You have praised this film, but I think it is rubbish.' How wonderful it is to have someone who can be upfront and tell you what he is really thinking. That's his temperament and attitude and I don't think that there is anything wrong with it.

In an interview, Yami Gautam (your co-star in Sarkar 3) said that the name Amitabh Bachchan in itself is intimidating. Every time you work with actors from the younger generation, there is a process where they have to first get over their 'awe moment' and then move on to give the shot...
These are aspects in the mind of the media. We are all artistes and professionals who come on the set and act. Why should someone be intimidated by me?

Well, they would be nervous and conscious, at least?
No. In fact, I feel nervous around younger actors, because they are so well developed in their craft that I have great admiration for them. I see the ease with which the younger generation of actors work, that's the kind of ease that I never had in all these 48 years. I ask them how they are so comfortable doing what they are doing. It is quite amazing, really. I always tell Ranbir Kapoor that his face is God-gifted. He doesn't have to move his face or change his expressions much, he can just stand there and whatever he has to say is conveyed. For an actor, it is the most difficult thing to do. In Bajirao Mastani, Ranveer Singh was incredibly perfect. For someone who is not a Maharashtrian, the way he pulled off the role was impeccable. In Highway, there is a scene where Randeep Hooda is depressed and Alia Bhatt holds him close and consoles him. I cannot forget her expression in that scene. And then you see her in Dear Zindagi where she is unbelievably different. I see films of these actors and I learn a lot from them.

Lately, trolling has become a huge point of discussion and a growing concern, too. You have a massive following on social media and you are a prolific user of that platform. What are your views on it? Have you also become overcautious about what you write, tweet and blog, fearing how it will be interpreted?
I think initially, it was great fun to be able to express yourself, and more enjoyable when someone reacted to it. Then gradually, as I wrote certain things, I could see that there were people who were reading between the lines and making their own interpretations, and it appeared as though I was offending someone. I didn't want to do that. At the same time, I don't want to stop tweeting and I am not going to stop anyone from abusing me, but yes, I think I need to be a little cautious about what I say on social media and how I say it, because there could be people who could misinterpret it and perhaps, in a peculiar way, I could be responsible for either intimidating or insulting them. Sometimes, you have to be cautious about what you write. In the world that we live in today, where everything is open, known, spoken, heard and read, this has become an obvious issue. There are some who don't care about it and I admire them as they have the guts and the strength to express themselves and eventually face whatever happens. I feel that I don't want to insult anyone; therefore, I make an effort to check what I am saying and analyse it so that it doesn't offend someone.

Recently, the Harvard University Press came up with a book on your film Amar Akbar Anthony. Your thoughts?
Even around the time that it was being made (1977), there was an American author who had come down to Mumbai where I was shooting for Suhaag, and she had expressed her keenness in writing a book on Amar Akbar Anthony. There was an interest particularly in that film and many other films made by Manmohan Desai around that time. In this book, they have analysed the entire film and put it in the context of what India is today and what it means.

Do you think their perspective of the movie is very different from ours?
I don't know, I guess they would be able to say that better. I think that we make some very good cinema and when some people ask me, 'When are we going to make films like Hollywood?' I turn around and ask them, 'When is Hollywood going to make films like us?' Hai ki nahi, aisa films banake dikhao...