My grandfather was a mild-mannered mathematician. He would ensconce himself in blankets on a winter afternoon and find the Goldilocks spot of the lawn where the sun and the shade cavorted in a way that he could sit there throughout the morning. Most of what I remember of Dadaji is books and mumbles, calculations without a calculator and the faint smell of freshly ground sandalwood that lingered on him when he was alive, and in our rooms for a while after he passed. The only stark aberration was an evening in 2000. My grandfather dragged his tattered lawn chair into the living room, sat facing away from all of us and pointedly in the direction of the television. Averse to all forms of entertainment that did not edify the audience, my grandfather’s ragged breaths lay in his chest, bated. Then rang the loud war cry that we associate with the second coming of Allahabad’s favourite man, and KBC was on! My siblings and I, oblivious to this chapter of history, were busy creating a racket in the background when our grandfather, whom we’d only seen napping in the sun like a benign house cat, turned around and hissed at us to shut our mouths with all the vehemence of the same cat in the middle of a rabid street fight. That’s when we realised that Amitabh Bachchan was serious business.
And if you’re in Allahabad, Amitabh Bachchan is your serious business. His face would look down upon you benignly from the boards of barbershops, the backs of hand-drawn rickshaws, the board of R.P. Gupta’s shop in Keeth-Gunj where those of us who were afraid of the MRPs of Civil Lines boutiques would buy our clothes from. Amitabh Bachchan’s name would lace all conversations you heard, as a stand in for a varied range of adjectives. To a friend with a case of the braggadocio, it was perfectly acceptable to say “Bade Amitabh Bachchan ho gaye ho,” (“Yes, you’re a proper Amitabh Bachchan now!”), to solicit some validation for a foolhardy endeavour, one would say, “So I walked in like Amitabh Bachchan,”; even the nuns at the convent school that I went to, one he attended too, would flick a stick on our open palms, open their mouths wide till you could see their uvula vibrating like a pendulum and say e-n-u-n-c-i-a-t-e like Ami-tabh. The ‘h’ of his name always fell on your ears with a gravity of its own, a weight and reminder of the history and legacy that we were a part of because of him.
When he appeared on KBC, we all called in during the breaks to answer the questions for the viewers– as if he’d addressed us by name and requested that we call
There is no paucity of material for historical significance that Allahabad can claim without Mr. Bachchan. It is a city that also housed Motilal Nehru and his scions, a family we now know as the Gandhis, a place that raised Indira Gandhi, Madan Mohan Malviya, Sarojini Naidu, Rudyard Kipling, Dhyan Chand and V.P. Singh. Allahabad University was the erstwhile Oxford of the East and the town where Chadrashekhar Azad shot himself in the head in the middle of the Company Baugh to evade capture by the Raj. Perhaps, in hindsight, this is why my grandfather mumbled about the other figures of Allahabadi History. Their stories were fraught with violence and facets enough to potentially create conflict in the languid living rooms that still remembered them.
But not Amitabh Bachchan. His is a narrative that everybody likes. His stories were told and retold over tea after a game of badminton, sweetened by tea-cakes made in an oven older than you. The only time I have ever seen my father (with Bachchan in photograph) giggling is when he speaks of Amitabh Bachchan’s electioneering years, and how he visited the Junior Doctors Association in the M.L.N Medical College, and how, our very own father (cue gasp) even spoke to him! Personally! Using full sentences and everything!
The anecdotes are as ageless as their protagonist, because TVF’s breakout star Nidhi Singh, who is Nidhi di to me, given that she was my senior in school (you can take two girls out of Allahabad, but not Allahabad out of either of them) tells me about that one time when Amitabh Bachchan came for a shoot to the AG Office in Allahabad, and how her family, cousins and uncles in tow, reached the spot to see him. Even though they only came back having glimpsed his strong eyebrows, it became a story for posterity. And such is our collective inebriation with Mr. Bachchan’s star power. He realised a politician’s true dream of ascending the class and caste of the commonwealth, into a state of unsullied adulation.
Surely, the epiphany was not lost on him either, because in 1984, he contested the M.P. elections from Allahabad, against veteran political heavyweight H.N. Bahuguna, whom he trounced with 68.2 percent of the votes. For three years, Allahabad was aglow with hope, the prodigal son was in the parliament, he would rebuild this town of fading relevance. However like all politicians, our son had moved from the spotlight and under scrutiny, where a whiff of kickbacks in the Bofors scandal cut his career short and kicked our expectations of him to the curb. Granted, my father still speaks highly of the mobile ambulance service he started in Allahabad when he was in office, or how he paid for certain infrastructure projects out of his own pocket.
But the Bofors scandal ran too deep into public memory, and erased the small acts of kindness that preceded it. Such a human error from such a godlike man was not forgiven and even now, has not been forgotten. Home for Holi this year, I overheard, emanating from a drunken conversation over a plate of cold-kebabs, the word Amitabh Bachchan lacing the saddest statement I have heard about him yet. “Amitabh did nothing for us, nothing.” A rational person would say that Amitabh does not owe us anything, we did not make his celebrity, we should not expect miracles of it. Yet feelings for Amitabh Bachchan have never even presumed to border on rationality, especially in Allahabad. So when we hear that Mr. Bachchan used his Clive Road makaan to pose as a farmer to buy land in Uttar Pradesh, or we see the sports complex we made in his name growing decrepit, when his name appears in the Panama papers while the number of our people that live under the poverty line grows; it becomes increasingly difficult to not resent his indifference, especially as he frequently reminisces about us and his home on social media.
In school, we thought of him as the epitome of the cool grandfather, making all of our grandparents look withered and lifeless by comparison
And yet, Amitabh Bachchan is like a lover who disappears on you without incident or explanation, gone in the middle of the night while you contend with his memories. And us, the lovelorn ones, nurse the unrequited affection close to our chests, focusing on the good parts of our time together. In his angry young man years, when Allahabad was politically active, student body leaders and protesters would grow out their sideburns Zanjeer-style and head out to protest against reservation, ready to immolate themselves for their causes. When he appeared on KBC, we all called in during the breaks to answer the questions for the viewers– as if he’d addressed us by name and requested that we call. We liked Shah Rukh Khan better for being such a good on-screen son to him in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, and then a foster version of the same in Mohabbatein. We were also secretly smug about the longevity of Sr. Bachchan’s stardom, that even the King of Hindi Cinema split screen-time with him in half.
He managed to ingratiate himself to my generation, as he had to my parents and their parents. His ardent cinephilia, his constant re-invention of himself and his humble, placid demeanour through it all kept us attached to him. In school, we thought of him as the epitome of the cool grandfather, making all of our grandparents look withered and lifeless by comparison. Our parents were worried about his health, my doctor father would blanch whenever he saw Mr. Bachchan dancing, as he would tell us about his myasthenia gravis and other health issues. And our grandparents were worried about their retirement after Baghban made them suspicious of their ingrate children. More than the man himself, his persona is a living-breathing entity, residing in Allahabad long after he’s left us.
Those of us who ended up working in the Hindi film industry have a complicated relationship with him. For instance when he says something tone-deaf about the Kathua rape, we are appalled, reminding him of Pink and of his association with the Beti Bachao Andolan. Yet, the begrudging is gentle, a product of over-familiarity. Most of us now worry about his age. So when he takes ill on the sets of Thugs of Hidostan, we come together and pray for him to recover, as he always has, as he always does. Some of us now rally behind Tigmanshu Dhulia , who portrays Uttar Pradesh as we know it, with characters who speak how we do and talk about the things that interest us. The others carry around a feeling of loss. A producer for motion pictures whom I’ve known since we were 11, says he cannot relate to Mr. Bachchan anymore. Every time he passes by the Juhu bungalow, he knows he must feel the reverence and love that we have been raised to feel and yet, it is conspicuously absent. In the new conversations rising in the boxed apartments of Andheri, far away from home, resting on a bitter last drag of a cigarette, his name comes up in a grimace.
In tones reserved for acknowledging the mortality of our parents out loud, someone says, either he will stop the day he dies, or the day he dies everything stops. For Allahabad, both outcomes apply. There is a realisation that while he outgrew us, most of us back home never outgrew him. In fact, no other actor, no other public figure, no other brand outgrew him. And that is what Amitabh Bachchan actually means to a person from Allahabad, he is the light that never goes out.