Filmmaker Nagraj Manjule On Growing Up With Bachchan And Being His ‘Khatarnaak’ Fan

The filmmaker speaks about his childhood fascination with Bachchan and directing him in his next release Jhund
Filmmaker Nagraj Manjule On Growing Up With Bachchan And Being His ‘Khatarnaak’ Fan

As a young boy I believed that Amitabh Bachchan was my best friend. I would imagine situations where I got in trouble and he would come to rescue me. Sort of like a genie. I can't remember when my infatuation with him began. I was perhaps 8 or 10 years old. I also can't recall what started this infatuation. My earliest memory is playing 'Sholay-Sholay' with my friends in the village. Whoever owned donkeys would sneak them out of their homes and take them to an open space to re-enact scenes from the film. The kids who owned donkeys got to play Bachchan or Dharmendra and the rest of us settled for Kaalia, Sambha and other characters. We'd ride these donkeys and fight with each other. I may not have owned a donkey, but in my head I was always Bachchan. 

I also dressed like him. My school uniform was a khaki shirt with matching shorts. I'd unbutton my shirt and knot it from the  bottom like Bachchan in Deewar. I've been hit by my teachers for turning up like this. They'd force me to untie my shirt. The moment they'd turn away I was back to being Bachchan. I soon started dressing like him all the time. Every shirt I wore had to be knotted at the bottom. That's the kind of 'khatarnaak fan' I was.

I was an ordinary looking, dark-skinned kid and obviously I didn't really look anything like Bachchan. But I never examined myself in the mirror. Instead I'd stand outside in the shade and look the silhouette of my shadow to see if it was like his. The moment I'd move away,  I realised I looked nothing like him! 

The village I grew up in had only two theatres which showed movies when they were rather old, way after they were released elsewhere. At the time video parlours were more popular where you could watch movies for Rs 1. I've spent days watching his movies. The other access I had to him was through Mayapuri magazine which was sold at my bus stop. I was quite poor in academics but I'd religiously read Mayapuri to see Bachchan's photos and interviews. I remember there was a time when a compass with Bachchan's photo from the film Nastik had become very popular. He was holding a gun and had a big tilak on his forehead. They were all sold out and I couldn't get one so I cried my eyes out. My father first slapped me for my silly behaviour but when he saw how upset I was, he got me one.

To say I've always dreamt of directing Bachchan would be a lie. I didn't dare to dream that big. In fact, I didn't think I'd ever be a filmmaker too. In 2016, when the producers of Jhund asked me to make a film on a football coach that would star Bachchan I didn't believe it. I told them I wanted to write the film myself and then take it to him because I wasn't sure he'd like the kind of movies I make. Over the next 2-3 months I wrote the draft of Jhund, but somewhere deep down I thought this can't be real. Could they be lying to me?

It all started getting real when his manager Ramesh ji called me to his office for a meeting. I was nervous as hell. This was the first time I was going to see him in the flesh. I had only admired him on screen. I became extremely conscious of everything I said. I was hoping I don't say something silly. So I just stuck to narrating the script and kept the interaction brief. He seemed to like what he heard. I came out of the office and messaged my wife Gargi. I said, 'I think I just met Mr Bachchan. Did that really happen?'

Before filming began, I told him that I had no experience in working with seasoned actors. Up until then I had only worked with untrained non-actors, so I was nervous about giving him direction. In his trademark style he said, 'Imagine I'm a first-time actor too. I'll come on set and you tell me what to do. It's simple.' I laughed at the time. I thought it was sweet of him to pull my leg to make me comfortable. But he wasn't joking. It really was that simple for him. 

Stories of Bachchan's professionalism are legendary. And I have a reputation of working in chaos. That's just my style. And my crew aren't the usual industry professionals. These are mainly my friends who have worked with me right from Pistulya, Fandry and Sairat. For us, working with Bachchan is a massive deal. I remember we over prepared and psyched ourselves out before the shoot. We wanted to be organised and to make sure we didn't disturb him. But he kind of made all that preparation go to waste, and I mean that as a compliment. He was so simple and fuss-free that we realised we had been unnecessarily stressing around him. So many of us throw attitude after making just two films and here was this man whose career is even older than I am. I'm now a bigger fan of his, if that's even possible. I wish him a very happy birthday. 

(As told to Anupama Chopra. Text translated from Hindi)

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