A Sense Of Complacency Had Crept Into My Work Ethic: Abhishek Bachchan

The Manmarziyaan actor talks about his big comeback, working with Anurag Kashyap and his star family
A Sense Of Complacency Had Crept Into My Work Ethic: Abhishek Bachchan

Anupama Chopra (AC): So on the first day of the Manmarziyaan shoot, you posted on Instagram this lovely picture of your makeup chair. And you said, 'possibly the scariest chair to be in'. Was it really scary?

Abhishek Bachchan (AB): Yes. It was. It's a bit of a long story. I didn't do any work for about two years, in terms of acting. I just felt I needed to reboot somewhere, I wasn't happy with the kind of work I was doing. Not the kind of work I was being offered, but the kind of work I was doing. I felt there was a sense of complacency that had crept into my work ethic. And that's something I've actually always said, the minute an actor becomes complacent, that's when the decay starts. I think I became very comfortable in the work that I was doing. I'm not going to lie, I had a blast, I really enjoyed the films I was doing, I was working with people I really care for and really love and really enjoyed collaborating with. And I was making more money than I'd made in my entire career put together. But there comes a point of time when I think as an actor and as a creative person, you need to question yourself and ask, 'Is this what you really came here to do? And is this what you want to be remembered by?' I think that's very important. It was a very difficult decision for me to take.

AC: But it was like you sat down and said, 'You know what, I'm not going to work anymore'?

AB: No, I didn't say I'm not going to work anymore. I'm an actor, I'm from a film family, dare I say it's in my blood. At the end of the day, it's what I love doing. It's all I know how to do. And you come from a film family now, that's the environment around the house, that's what wakes you up every morning. I never said no, I'm going to stop acting. I said I need to reboot, I need to re-evaluate, I need to get back to doing work that scares me. I need to get back to doing work that doesn't allow me to sleep at night. It's very convenient to do a film, which you know when you sign it is going to be a Rs 100- 200-300-crore film. You know the onus is not on you, somebody else is shouldering the burden. You know that it's going to work wonders and that literally you can sleepwalk through the film and it's gonna work. And that's a good space to be in, I'm not gonna complain. I did quite a few of those. And I'm thankful for them, because they were the most successful films I've ever made and I'm immensely proud of them. I worked very hard on them. But I know somewhere that I was beginning to get complacent when I was getting offered more and more such films.

AC: It was too easy.

AB: To give you an example, I did a movie with two people that I love immensely, Farah (Khan) and Shah Rukh called Happy New Year. And it's been one of the biggest hits I've ever made or been a part of. It's a film which till date kids come up to me and say 'Nandu Bhide' and I'm remembered for and I loved making every minute of it. Nandu Bhide was an immensely tough character for me to do and I worked very hard with Farah to get it done. After that, it's like – somewhere as an actor, you feel like, 'OK, I've managed to pull it off'. Previously you were a bit reticent, you weren't sure, 'am I going to be able to do it?' You know, I don't know a guy like Nandu Bhide, I've never done a role like this. Am I going to have the kind of abandon that Nandu Bhide had? And once it's done and you get a bit of appreciation from the audiences, you get that confidence. But then you get another character like that, I'm like, 'OK, I can do this, no problem'. That was the problem. I want to be scared, like I was scared when I was doing Happy New Year.

It's the kind of duality of an actor, you know, you work hard; when you first come into films, you struggle, you try and get a job; you get a job, then you struggle with success or failure; and your entire efforts are towards achieving the best that you can achieve so that there is a level of comfort. And then you reach that level and you're like, 'No, no, wait, I don't want to be comfortable, I want to be uncomfortable.'

I never said no, I'm going to stop acting. I said I need to reboot, I need to re-evaluate, I need to get back to doing work that scares me.

AC: But what about Manmarziyan said that this is the one to come back with?

AB: It's a great story. Aanand L Rai sent me a message and said, 'I'd like to meet you for a film that I'm producing.' We set up the meeting, he came and met me; and I've known him for very many years. He's a very loving, gregarious kind. You just feel like hugging him all the time. He said, 'There's this film, we're really excited about it. Don't ask me anything else, just hear it.' We set up the meeting and the director couldn't make it. They said, 'Is it OK if just the writer comes?' And in walked Kanika Dhillon, who's this young, vivacious, full of life, immensely talented, and opinionated (as I make fun of her), young lady. Something about it appealed to me. I had a few notes, which I shared with her, which she very reluctantly agreed to go and review.

They came back to me after that meeting, and I said, 'OK, this is nice, this is working, but I still have one or two apprehensions.' At which point, I said, 'Look, who's directing this film? Are you directing it, is Kanika directing? Because I've not met the director.' So he said, 'No, I want Anurag (Kashyap) to direct this film.' I've never worked with Anurag, and we've had a bit of a patchy past, which thankfully is behind us now. We've all grown up and matured since. I think that's when I realised that I was ready to get back in front of the camera. Because I had no baggage. I was like, 'OK, he's a voice, he's an interesting voice, I'm ready to hear this.' It also ticked off another box: 'OK, he's going to make me really uncomfortable', and I really wanted to be in that space.

AB: Anurag just blew me away. The perspective that he brought on the script just jumped up to me. I said, 'This is it. I have to do this.' Because I just loved his vision for the story! Dare I say it was possibly the first time I saw a pure director's contribution to a script, where Kanika's written this beautiful script, and Anurag's just taken it to a different level. I just loved the way he saw my character, and what he wanted to do with it. And that was it, I just knew this had to be it. And then the process started and then the time came upon us when I had to move to Amritsar to shoot the film. The first two-three days, he just narrated the script to me, because he doesn't like to do readings. He said, 'No, no, don't rehearse, because I'll keep changing everything on set.' The new me was like, 'Okay, this is it. He's going to throw you a curveball and you have to try and hit it out of the park!' And that was exciting me. It was petrifying as well. And I knew this was exciting, because I wasn't sleeping at night again!

AC: You got what you wanted!

AB: I got what I wanted! I was speaking to my wife, and she was like, 'Why are you still awake?' I'm like, 'I don't know what he's going to do tomorrow, I'm really scared.' And in typical fashion, the first day of shoot we didn't end up shooting. So, you know, the nerves become even worse! It's the guillotine just waiting to come down. And the day came upon me, and we were shooting in a hotel. So they gave me a hotel room to get ready. So this photograph, actually (make-up chair), this was the hotel room I was in. And I was sitting at the window, just about to get ready,  listening to my music. I was looking at this chair, and I just said, 'Oh my god, I haven't sat in one of those in over two years!' And suddenly it just brought back the last two years – the preparation, and the journey and the ups and the downs.

AC: You know what I find intriguing, Abhishek, actresses take breaks usually for practical reasons: they're gonna have kids, they get married. With actors, it's a sort of deeper, existential crisis. Like you talked about feeling emotionally bankrupt. Or your dad took a five-year break. Or Mahesh Babu in Hyderabad – the Telugu superstar took a three-year break, just at the peak of his career, said, 'No, I need to stop'. Why is that? Why does it burden men more?

People at the top of the mountain didn't land there, you know. They have to walk their way up! And sometimes you slip or sometimes you just decide to jump off

AB: I don't think it does. I think, as human beings, be it an actor or an actress, you go through the same emotion, the same fear, lack of confidence. But sometimes it's just a decision you need to take. I think those that do it at the peak of their powers are immensely brave. On some level, maybe it was an easier decision for me, or the decision which I just needed to take. I think it's the same for the women as well. You go through the same insecurity, you know. Be it a year, be it two years, be it five years. But it's just an attitude. I mean, if you look at the way an actor that we have that is just fantastic and is at the top of his game is Aamir (Khan). And Aamir gets a film once every two years. I look at that and say, 'Yeah, but he's working through those two years and he's got that. And I took those two years off and I said, 'OK, so what's the difference?'

Aishwarya, after Aaradhya was born, took a few years off because she wanted to concentrate on her daughter. And when she came back, she went through the same insecurities of 'Am I going to be able to do it? Am I going to pick up where I left off? Do I have to climb that mountain again?' One thing is for certain, Anu, people at the top of the mountain didn't land there, you know. They have to walk their way up! And sometimes you slip or sometimes you just decide to jump off and say, 'I'm going to go down and come back up 'cause I enjoyed the ride.' So I think all of them have to go through the same emotion.

AC: Was it hard for the family? Did they wonder, what are you doing? Especially since Amitji has done the break thing himself and decided it wasn't good?

AB: I feel in dad's time, it was different. He took the break in 1992. I think the main reason he felt it is because he felt he lost touch with what the audiences wanted. When he came back, he said, 'I worked with the same people that were making successful films before I left, but it was a different industry, they wanted something else.' I think today, you're so well plugged in, information is so much more readily available, you pretty much know what's going on. Like I said, I didn't stop, or say, 'I don't want to be an actor anymore.' I just said, 'I need to change the kinds of films I'm doing.' So it wasn't like I was on a sabbatical. I was working everyday.

AB: How was it on the family? They were very supportive. They also knew I had my sports enterprises, which was going to keep me busy round the clock as well. So it's not like I wasn't working; I was actually working very hard, a lot harder than I've worked when I was just acting. Because now I had to try and get a film on the floor and sort out my sports enterprises, so it was a lot of work! So they were okay with it. My wife was fine. I walk my family through everything that I do.

AC: So I was doing this interview with Aishwarya, I think four or five years ago. One of the themes she goes back to often is the 'middle path', this idea of not being swayed by success or bogged down by failure. So I said to her, 'Do you ever talk to Abhishek about this "middle path"?' And this is what she said – 'The thing about Abhishek is, there is this fun-loving guy the world gets to see and I got to see as well. He is spirited, the prankster…but he is also a very deep guy. Look at what he is born into, look at what he has lived with, what he has seen throughout his life and look at what he has quietly stood by and stood tall…and incredibly self-contained in that, and that in itself speaks volumes for what he is within and how much mettle and strength there is. He might not project it, he might not share it; and I don't think, in fact, he even gives a glimpse into that intensity. I think some roles allow people to get a sneak peek into that and that's where it simmers, but it is there. I don't need to talk to him about a middle path, I think he has known it all his life.' Is that true?

AB: Wow, that's terribly sweet of her! You know, I never really thought about it. Life was what it was and is what it is. There are two ways to look at it. And I say this and I fear I'll be misjudged. But please, I don't mean this in any arrogance, please try and see it from my point of view. I grew up in a household with two immensely talented and famous artists, and all their friends were their colleagues. So that is the environment I grew up in, that is my normal. When I was a kid, I thought everybody had people standing outside their house waiting for a glimpse of their father, I didn't know any better. I think when I was sent to boarding school, I got a taste of the normal life, or as normal as it could be. That's when I started realising that OK, you know. But that was my world! In those days, we didn't have social media, we weren't allowed to watch television beyond watching the news. And there was only Doordarshan in those days. We were allowed to watch a movie only once a week, and that was on Sundays. It was either the Sunday movie on television, or once the VHS came out, we watched one of dad's films. We were pretty cocooned that way; that was out world. So there's no question of a left or a right, or a 'middle path'. That's the only world you know. When you grow up, when you have a bit more exposure, when you become a professional yourself, is when you start realising that OK, there's all of this. And then you start having even more respect for your parents for having found that balance, and not allowing that to affect you.

AB: The first time I think it kind of got to me – I think it was the 5th of September in 2004. Dhoom had come out a week before and was declared this big hit. It was my first out-and-out success. We had this huge party and when I walked through the lobby for the first time, people were actually running towards me. I wasn't used to that. I think that was my first brush with stardom. And I went nuts that night. I remember very early in the morning when the party got over, we didn't have a car or anything, and from the Marriott to my house is a five-minute walk, so we decided to walk. A very young Arjun Kapoor was with me, who was still an assistant and a dear friend of mine, and Esha Deol was one of my colleagues in the film. During that walk, Mumbai was waking up and I was this rockstar – I've given my hit and I've arrived! I had the swag, chest was out, people were stopping their cars, coming out, asking for autographs. Those days, camera phones were just coming in. I just felt like 'Dude! 'Move aside, you know, I am here!'

I ring the doorbell and my dad opened the door. And he said, 'Ah, beta, aa gaya?' And I said, 'Amitabh Bachchan!' Deflated right there! 'That's god. You're nothing, man!' So I came home to that! I come home to these guys. And they're completely normal. He came out in his nightgown, with his glasses, he was reading the papers. I was like, 'Okay! That's greatness, you're nothing.'

AC: In the eighteen years that you've been making movies, is there one character or film or scene where you felt like you really nailed it? Where you felt like you got closest to the emotion you were trying for?

AB: Several. Sadly, that lasted till the end of the trial, when I first saw the film.

AC: And then?

AB: The next day, I'm like, 'Ugh, I could've done better here, I could've done better there.'

AC: Are you very critical of yourself?

AB: Very critical, yeah. I have notebooks, where I make notes.

AC: About what? On your own performance?

AB: I tried to copy you. I remember we were at the premiere of Avatar together, and your husband and I were sharing popcorn. And it first bothered me because after every three minutes — we were all wearing 3D glasses — and this one flash of light would come on and I'd look, and you were there with a pad with this one extended light, making notes.

I'm like, what is she doing? And by the end of it, I'm like, 'Wow, that's a really good idea', because you can't assimilate your thoughts as precisely afterwards, because afterwards, you're just immersed in the experience. So I tried that, I couldn't do it, like keep notes during the movie. But I review my films very often, and I make notes. So even a film that I felt at that point of time that I did a good job in — a couple of weeks, a couple of months later, you feel that you've fallen short and you could've done much better. You keep finding mistakes. I think that's good, you should find mistakes, it helps you grow.

A huge regret for me, which I've always been very vociferous about is I wish I was more prepared when I started. I wish I was a more accomplished, a more aware, a more prepared actor when J.P. sa'ab signed me for Refugee

AC: Through these eighteen years, are there any regrets? Are there any decisions you wish you hadn't taken, or roads left untravelled?

AB: The sad part about retrospect is everything seems terrible. Because you just find a better way of doing everything. So yeah, I do think that I could've done things in a different way. Do I regret making the movies that I made? No. Because each and every one was a huge learning experience, the ones that did well, the ones that didn't do well either. So I'm happy I did that, because it's made me the actor that I am today, and I stand — or sit — before you today as a result of those films. A huge regret for me, which I've always been very vociferous about is I wish I was more prepared when I started. I wish I was a more accomplished, a more aware, a more prepared actor when J.P. sa'ab signed me for Refugee. I feel somewhere I could not live up to the expectations that he had for me. And he means a lot to me. You know, J.P. sa'ab introduced me to this world. He's held my hand through it all. Even when we've not been working together. He's been a mentor to me and I just feel that he became my schooling for cinema, when I should have already been schooled before I came to him. He's never mentioned it. And I don't think he thinks that way about me; his love for me is beyond that. As his actor, as his boy, I feel that I wish before my first film… And I don't know if that feeling would have been the same with another film that I was going to start off with, I hope so; but I just wish I was more prepared when I came into the industry. Like I said, I was just a kid in a candy shop. I was just so happy that finally somebody signed me, you know. It took me two years, nobody was signing me. And people don't believe this, but it's a fact. I was just so excited that 'oh my god, I've got a job'! I mean, I remember coming to your house to screen-test for Mission Kashmir also. And Vidhu took me to the room and made me pose with the rose, I still remember. I'm like, 'What am I doing?' I didn't get the part, which was fine; I think he's just such a lovable guy.

AC: I remember reading about Samjhauta Express, that you were going to do with Rakeysh Mehra.

AB: So Samjhauta Express was a result because I wasn't getting a job. And nobody wanted to work with me. And I'd been to almost every director and producer in the industry that I knew and even ones that I didn't know! It came out of frustration. Rakeysh I got to know because he had done my father's first advertising campaign for BPL. And they were very popular, but there was this huge uproar about 'Oh, should Mr Bachchan be on television?' And I was sitting with Rakeysh and I'd become friends with him then. And I said, 'You know, it's taken me two years, nobody wants to make a film with me.' And he said, 'Yaar, even I want to direct and nobody's funding my film!' I said, 'Let's work together.' So we started developing a script. And we wrote a script called Samjhauta Express, which then obviously we gave to Kamlesh Pandey-ji to make even better and a host of other people. And then we took it finally to my dad, saying, 'We've written this, and will you produce it in ABCL?' Which was still making films in those days. And he was like, 'This is rubbish.' And I had grown my hair and my beard.

I remember, it was a couple of days after that, it was the Filmfare Awards. As any aspiring actor, if you get to accompany anybody, you find a way to get there. And I remember Kirron Aunty and Anupam Uncle were going and they took Sikander and me, and we were kids, like 'Wow, Filmfare!' You know, whatever sherwaani I'd got stitched for my sister's wedding, I wore that.

Then my parents were coming later, so I went and sat next to them. It was the year Border was nominated, it won all these wonderful awards. It was a great film. And J.P. sa'ab saw me there. And I had this long hair, because I'd grown my hair for Samjhauta Express, and my beard. And he saw this and at that point he was thinking of making a movie called Aakhri Mughal.

I've traditionally been very scared of making announcements; there's a bit of superstition that whenever I do, those films never get made

AC: Right.

AB: And a couple of days later, he came home and spoke to my dad. So J.P. saab saw me at the award function, in a sherwaani, because I didn't have anything else to wear. And that's how I got my first job.

AC: What's next? Have you signed anything else or is there going to be a long gap again?

AB: No, there won't be a long gap. You know, you've tasted blood again. You remember that feeling, like I said, of how much you enjoy it. So there are several projects which are up for discussion right now. They're all diverse and exciting. To be absolutely honest with you, I haven't put pen to paper on any of them. They're all films that I want to do. But I think, as any actor would tell you, there's a long journey between 'OK, I'm saying yes to this film' and that film actually getting made. That's a huge struggle. So we're currently struggling with that. But I do hope that the producers will manage to make their announcements. I've traditionally been very scared of making announcements; there's a bit of superstition that whenever I do, those films never get made. So let the producers announce them. But yes, there are a good four-five projects which I really really wanna be a part of, and I really wanna do. And I just hope that everything can fall into place: the financing, the casting and everything, which is a huge uphill task but that's also part of the journey.

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