Amitabh Bachchan in Cairo (Photo: Jay Mandal/On Assignment)
Fans mob Bachchan’s car (Photo: Jay Mandal/On Assignment)
Bachchan, left, with India’s Ambassador to Egypt Navdeep Suri (Photo: Jay Mandal/On Assignment)
At the height of the revolutionary ferment in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February, 2011 I had written this:
“If there is one outsider who can appeal for calm and clarity in Egypt and hope to be paid any attention at all, it is Amitabh Bachchan. The Indian cinema icon has long enjoyed a pharaoh-like respect in Egypt.
Of all places, I once bumped into an Egyptian businessman in Las Vegas some ten years ago. Or more accurately, he bumped into me on the casino floor of MGM Grand. While apologizing he asked me, “Are you from India?” As I answered yes, he jumped to the next question, “Do you know Amitabh Bachchan?”
I told him I could not claim to know the actor but yes, I had met the man a couple of times. The Egyptian man shook my hand and said, “You are lucky. In ancient Egypt he would have been like a pharaoh with his own pyramid.”
I am not suggesting for a moment that Bachchan’s appeal can lead to any genuine resolution but it would likely find more attentive ears than President Barack Obama would as an individual.”
That was over four years ago. The 72-year-old Hindi cinema superstar is in Cairo these days as part of the three-week long ‘India by the Nile’ festival. Also back in Cairo is my friend and itinerant photojournalist Jay Mandal. In fact, he is back after 35 years when he was passing through the country on his bicycle as part of his world cycle tour. Jay is currently photographing the festival.
The ‘India by the Nile’ festival is as much cultural as it is diplomatic. As Egypt struggles with violent extremism and tourists shun it as a destination, this is New Delhi’s way of telling the world that things are not as bad as they seem. The festival that runs through April 17 is taking place in Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said and Ismailia, or in short all the sorts of places where you hope to run into Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif.
Ambassador Suri has been quoted as saying, "The proposition we gave last year was Egypt is going through a rough patch (and) tourism is badly hurt. Many countries have issued advisories against visiting the country.”
"We said we are committed to do the festival and we won't go back even if you have the occasional bomb blasts or elections," he said.
I am not sure about the eventual impact of the festival on stabilizing Egypt’s tourism industry or, on a larger scale, its reputation worldwide. What it might do is draw Indians to the country which is a good thing. I think.
Another friend who also happens to be in Cairo is fellow journalist and writer Sidharth Bhatia who, I am told, will do an onstage conversation with Bachchan about his iconic film ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’ later today. It is a measure of Bachchan’s standing that three out of the 11 engagements which constitute the festival feature him or his films.