Actor Amitabh Bachchan (Center) at his bungalow ‘Pratiksha’ in Bombay in 1982 recuperating from what was believed to be a near fatal injury during a movie shooting. The boyish person to Bachchan’s right, holding a pad and smiling is Mayank Chhaya (Pic: Gopal Shetty)
Over the past three and half decades as a journalist, ten of which in Mumbai where I began my career, I have had my interactions with Amitabh Bachchan. Two interviews to be precise and both in the 1990s. I have never sought an interview after my last. There is no presumption here that he would grant me one if I did. I just see no point in interviewing him any more. I have written a piece about that as well.
As Bachchan turns 75 today, I can republish any number of pieces from my collection but it feels appropriate to re-run the one about my very first encounter with him. That was in 1982. Here it is:
A lot of what a journalist writes as anecdotes from one’s professional life is mostly taken on faith by the reader. I have had my fair share of those over the past three decades.
If celebrities figure in the telling of many of these little nuggets, it is because that way the reader finds it easier to identify with the anecdotes. In my personal interactions I often tell people about an event from 1982 when Amitabh Bachchan suffered a near fatal injury during the shooting of the movie ‘Coolie’ by Manmohan Desai.
My story is peripheral to the main story about how millions of Indians rallied around Bachchan during his time of crisis and, equally, revealed how some people’s lives and well-being seem to matter much more than most. It was not as if that year millions of others did not suffer from serious health problems or many of them did not succumb to them, but Bachchan’s struggle for survival resonated across the country simply because of who he is – an icon in whose fortunes people have invested their own hopes.
There were prayers offered in shrines across the country for his speedy recovery and people followed the progress of his surgery at the Breach Candy Hospital and subsequent convalescence at his home with unflagging interest. In those pre-Internet, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, mobile telephone days newspapers were the only source of information. That I worked for one in Bombay, the Free Press Journal, and lived not too far from him put me in the middle of the story.
Among the millions who found their own ways to join in the sort of a national get-well Amitabh Bachchan movement was a resident of the city of Vadodara in Gujarat. His name escapes me but he is the one to the actor’s immediate left in the photo above with a garland around his neck. He ran close to 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) backwards in the hope that it would turn the clock back to a time before the accident when the actor was in perfect health. The core idea of the Vadodara runner was not that different from Christopher ‘Superman’ Reeve orbiting around the earth in the opposite direction to slow the planet down. Or to put it in a techie’s jargon, think of it as your PC’s restore point, a point just before it crashed.
When the runner reached Bachchan’s bungalow in Juhu one morning I happen to be the only journalist at the venue to report along with friend and excellent news photographer Gopal Shetty. Getting inside the bungalow on the basis of one’s press credentials was rather easy in those days. As I waited for the runner to reach, out came Dr. Harivanshrai Bachchan, the actor’s highly distinguished poet-litterateur father. I introduced myself to him and started chatting with him.
I remember the conversation was mostly about his son’s health and the nation’s response to it. He seemed overwhelmed by what was unfolding. Soon after that the runner reached the bungalow and was ushered in. He was introduced to Dr. Bachchan as we all waited for the actor, in frail health, to come out and meet the the runner. That’s when Dr. Bachchan turned to me and said something to the effect that it was acts of faith such as the one displayed by the runner that had saved his son’s life. I could see tears welling up in the poet’s eyes.
The actor came out shortly thereafter and greeted the runner and took a few pictures with him. It was not until earlier this week that Gopal told me that while going through his old stock of pictures he had found the picture above. It was not so much Bachchan’s presence that came as a pleasant surprise to Gopal as my own in that frame. What you can’t see in the frame to my right is Dr. Bachchan who seemed to warm up to my questions. I remember that even after the actor returned inside the bungalow his father continued to describe how grateful he was for people’s love for his son.
Whenever I have narrated this little incident people take my presence on the scene entirely on faith. No one has ever explicitly or implicitly expressed doubt if I was indeed there or I am merely injecting myself as an afterthought to make the story more compelling. When Gopal was generous enough to email me the photo it struck me that it might be a good idea to illustrate my story with something more tangible than just my memory and integrity. So here it is.
It is a pure coincidence that the picture has become available barely a week before the Bachchan family and friends prepare to celebrate his 70th birthday on October 11. The celebration, I am told, will be held on October 10. Bachchan was 40 when Gopal took the picture. I was 21.