Abhishek Bachchan On ‘Bob Biswas’, And 21 Years Of Being ‘Employed’ And ‘Unemployed’
‘It’s not been easy. It’s taken a lot of effort, a lot of heartache and heartbreak to make it through these 21 years.’
Abhishek Bachchan is at least 60-films-old in Bollywood. Many of his movies, since his debut 21 years ago, have been fun, and his characters memorable. He has proven his acting skills time and again, and yet the Bollywood chatter and public memory are dominated by his flops and duds. No matter what his achievements, his father’s imposing shadow engulfs them.
And yet Abhishek Bachchan is always polite to trolls on Twitter and to journalists. He responds to barbs and slights on social media with humor, charm, and wit, and signs off interviews with a graceful namaste and “My regards to your family”.
But he doesn’t pander, and he’s not out to please.
Self-aware and a straight shooter, Bachchan employs different speaking speeds to tackle different issues.
Talking with Rolling Stone India during his lunch-break on the set of his web series, Breathe: Into The Shadows — the second season of which will soon be out on Amazon Prime — his words picked up pace when he recalled some scenes from his most recent film, Bob Biswas, and spoke of how he tried to own and make sense of a character that belonged to another actor from another film (the 2012 release, Kahaani).
Wearing aviator glasses and a dark blue shirt that contrasted with the few white strands in his neat, black beard, there was relaxed warmth in his voice as he spoke of the two films he is looking forward to — Dasvi, in which he plays an SSC-fail chief minister, and Triple-S 7 (Single Slipper Size 7), a Hindi remake of the Tamil thriller, Oththa Seruppu Size 7. It’s a solo act that he has produced.
But when he has to say something that he feels may not be very congenial, his pace is measured, and words are generously spaced out.
Often, during our 40-minute conversation in which he recalled turning up on sets to find another actor saying the lines he had been rehearsing, Bachchan’s words maintained a six-feet-ki-doori with each other. This was most evident when talking about why after spending 21 years in the film industry, he still gets asked the same questions about his father, nepotism and privilege.
When he is saying his piece, each word is clearly articulated and lands gently but sharply, serving a specific purpose. They convey Abhishek Bachchan’s worldview — that showbiz is just that, a business. And to survive it, actors have to learn to do two things simultaneously: laugh at themselves and believe in themselves.
Edited excerpts from the interview
Rolling Stone India: Hi. How are you?
Abhishek Bachchan: Am good.
RS: How has the response been to Bob Biswas?
AB: It’s been very overwhelming… (I’m) very, very happy for the team, very happy for Diya Annapurna Ghosh (the director), you know, for such a young girl to make a film that is receiving this kind of… for your first film, it’s very exciting.
Like I said, it’s very overwhelming. And I think that’s a good thing because you’d rather be overwhelmed than be underwhelmed.
RS: You’ve mentioned you’re happy for the team, you’re happy for everybody else. Are you happy for yourself?
AB: Yes and no.
AB: I think that’d be a bit of false modesty, if I said, ‘No, I’m not happy with myself’. There is a certain degree of satisfaction… I think it’s safe to say that we, I, achieved the goals that I set out to achieve with this. So, I’m happy with that.
In retrospect, because the film took almost a year… So, keeping that in mind, in that one year, you think there are so many things that you could have done differently and done better. And I found some of those mistakes when I watched the film recently… I can see one or two things that I could have done far better.
RS: Like what?
AB: So, the first time you see Bob kill — when he shoots the annoying singer — just before that, there’s a scene where he assembles his gun that he’s got from Kalida.
The brief given to me was, (that) it’s like a fish to water. When you have a gun in your hand, you just know how to assemble it. It comes naturally, it’s like an instinct. That’s what I was going for. I don’t think I conveyed that correctly.
I feel my expression was still a bit lost, where it should have been… ‘Okay, I’ve got this in my hand. What is it? Okay… I know how to do it.’ (Looks down at his hands that are moving frantically to assemble an invisible gun)
I just thought I could have done that a lot better.
And in the climax, there’s a shot when Bob discovers that Benny (Bob’s son in the film) has been shot… He cradles Benny and Mary (Bob’s wife) in his arms… The camera moves in slowly and throughout the night he’s just sat there… And the sun comes up.
RS: Yeah, it’s a long shot…
AB: I remember, at that point of time, Sujoy (producer Sujoy Ghosh) and Diya wanted a very dramatic shot, because they felt it was a very dramatic moment… And I debated with them… The challenge for me with Bob was, he is not an expressive person, partially because he doesn’t remember anything. So, he has to maintain the slightly bewildered look throughout the film. But how do you maintain a bewildered look during an emotional scene? Because an emotion is very raw, it comes out.
What I was clear about was, we wanted to show how Bob becomes Bob Biswas, a cold-hearted murderer.
AB: Sujoy Ghosh in his writing and Diya, when she made the film, have purposely stayed ambiguous about (whether) this is a prequel or a sequel to Kahaani. I was okay with that, (but) I felt that we need to create purpose, (explain how) he ends up being a very emotionless, matter of fact, cold, dry, border-level creepy, straight-faced assassin, who happens to be slightly polite.
AB: I wanted to achieve that. Now, in the climax, you’re confronted with a situation where the love of your life, your wife, and your son have been murdered in front of you.
The natural reaction is to allow the emotion to overtake the situation… I wanted to be a bit different and say, let’s use this as a catalyst to make him devoid of any emotion. Sometimes, in a moment of extreme trauma, a lot of people don’t react. You just withdraw into a shell, and after that you become very, almost aloof, and unemotional.
That’s the switch that flips in Bob’s head… I wanted a very stoic, cold reaction to this death. In retrospect, I feel I could have maybe dialed up the drama in that.
See, we were also trying to create Bob… One of the first killings which, thankfully, people have enjoyed is when he’s made to run up the lift.
Sujoy had said, Bob has this takiya kalam, which is ‘Nomoskar, aek minute’. We had decided during the writing stages that we didn’t want to make Bob “Bengali Bengali”, (so) instead of ‘Aek minute’, which is what a Bengali would say, we say, ‘Nomoshkar, ek minute’…
I was like, okay, but why does he says “Ek minute”? I need to find a reason… I wanted to look for a very cool way to introduce that, and it kind of came up on set. I said, ‘Hey, what if he runs up the stairs?’
Now Bob is this portly man; he’s not fit. He’s got this huge stomach… So first is his disgust, ‘Oh, God, I’ve missed the lift, and I have to now run up. Oh, heavens!’ (Abhishek gestures, as if running upstairs) He runs up, reaches the first floor, but they’ve gone above. ‘Oh, no, I have to carry on.’
And then he’s really swinging his arms, gets to the top and he can’t breathe. Now to stop these people he’s like… (puts his hand on his chest, and says, while huffing and puffing heavily) ‘Nomoshkar’
RS: Hahahah (thoroughly enjoying this private performance)
AB: That’s the normal thing you’d say to somebody, right, if you don’t get their attention, ‘Hello! nomoshkar’. But I can’t breathe (continues panting, holding his chest and gesturing), ‘Ek minute’. So that’s how I thought of… He’s saying ‘Ek minute‘ because he’s trying to catch his breath. Then that just catches on. That was, I mean, in my head…
RS: To make sense of the bits and baubles that make the character…
AB: Ya. Just try and get some ownership over them, give them some justification.
RS: Talking of ownership, this character was kept alive by the memory of the role in Kahaani, played by a Bengali actor. So how do you decide… what to keep from the original, and also make it your own…
AB: Well, I was one of the few who had not seen Kahaani. So, when Sujoy offered me the film… Aaa (pauses, breaks into a smile) to my shock, and I think more so to Sujoy’s shock, I didn’t know who Bob Biswas was.
After we announced the film is when I realized, with the kind of excitement I saw on the internet, that “Oh, wait a second, this guy is really popular”.
So, we started shooting the film, and I didn’t want to see the film then because I didn’t want to be influenced by Saswataji’s (Saswata Chatterjee) performance. But as fate would have it, about 80 percent through the film, is when the first lockdown happened. And when I was in hospital last year with Covid for almost a month and had nothing to do, that’s when I watched Kahaani.
I was relieved because I felt my interpretation was slightly different, but it was adequately similar to what Saswataji had done.
His was, I mean, brilliant… The fact that 10 years after the film, for just an eight-minute part, people still remember it. Goes to show how brilliant his interpretation of Bob Biswas was… He was all things wonderful. And I’d like to believe that I brought my energy to the film.
But I’m very amused, I have to admit, that in almost every interview I’ve given, Saswataji is always referred to as… ‘Saswata played the role of the original Bob Biswas, and he’s a Bengali’.
I don’t understand why he’s being called a Bengali actor. All of us actors are actors. And just a small trivia people don’t know, I’m half Bengali as well.
RS: Ya, we know…
AB: I’ve never been able to grasp why people keep saying, ‘He’s Bengali’. Ya, buddy, so am I. And actors are actors. It’s as simple as that.
RS: You get trolled a lot. For nepotism, for all sorts of things… And with your privilege comes a burden, expectations… So, when you take on a role like this, because you sound as someone who’s very…
RS: Were you conscious that this will feed into the fact that, as you’re saying, it was a Bengali actor who…
AB: Let me, let me, if I may…
AB: If you were in my shoes, would you be conscious of it?
AB: Would that stop you from doing the film?
AB: It doesn’t stop me because I’m not conscious of it.
I think as an actor who’s been around now for 21 years, it’s about recognizing the fact that in this industry you get one chance… And that has nothing to do with your lineage, with your parentage, with what your surname is. It’s purely your talent. But even more than that, it’s does the audience want to see you.
The privilege, the immense privilege comes from (the fact that) you get your foot in the door. And I think anybody who disagrees with that is being naive.
I’m born and brought up in the film industry. I’ve grown up on film sets, predominantly my father’s… His friends were all from the film industry. That’s the world that I knew growing up.
It can come across as a bit pompous, but I don’t mean it like that. You have to understand that all these wonderful actors and directors and producers who are my parents’ friends, that was the social circle I knew.
As a child you don’t realize that this is a place of privilege… When you grow up, you start understanding that wow, people that you took as normal friends, are people that most of the world aspires to just see once…
…I don’t like the word burden; it’s the responsibility of this privilege. That just means you have to work hard, because people in your first film already want to love you because of whose child you are.
You have to earn that love and that respect thereon.
AB: I’ve seen the good side of being an employed actor, I’ve seen the other side of being an unemployed actor.
The point is, you can’t take things personally… At the end of the day, it’s just business. If your films are not doing well, nobody’s going to put money on you to make another film.
So, I do believe that the conversation around this whole nepotism has become a bit convenient. And we’re forgetting certain details.
AB: I’ve… It’s taken a lot of effort, a lot of heartache and heartbreak to make it through these 21 years. It’s not been easy.
My father has not made a film for me. My father has, till date, never picked up the phone and asked somebody to make a film with me… But yes, absolutely… You have access. You do get your first film because there’s a certain curiosity value about you.
AB: You have to respect that. It is an honor. And you have to wake up every day to win that respect again, because the audience very rarely decides to love somebody unconditionally.
You can’t sit back on your laurels and say, ‘Oh, the audience loves me. I can do anything, and they are gonna want me’. No, they are not. To get somebody to spend their hard-earned money on you takes a lot of effort. I value each day that I have on set because I’ve been in that situation where I haven’t had work and I’m dying to go do some work and nobody’s giving me that chance. I know what that feels like.
RS: Is that true?
AB: Pardon me?
RS: I mean, it’s difficult to, you know… Even (to) trolls you often respond saying, ‘I have been there in that space, where I have not had work.’ Is that true?
AB: Why would I say it otherwise? It took me over two years to get my first film. A lot of people would think that being Mr. Bachchan’s son, people are going to be lined up around the block. No, they weren’t. I spoke to almost each and every director before starting, and they did not decide to work with me, and that’s fine.
RS: You are talking about Refugee, right?
AB: Yes, before Refugee, yes.
RS: And since then, have you had…
AB: Yes, of course! Of course! And you understand it, (that) you’re just not good enough. So, become better.
But then the question is, how do I become better and prove to them I’m better if I don’t have a job? So, whatever you get, you try and do it, and then try and shine in that.
AB: So, yes, I’ve been replaced in films. I’ve been replaced in films and not been told. And I’ve literally shown up at the shooting and somebody else is shooting there. And you had to just quietly turn around and walk away.
I’ve been told I’ve been replaced in films. People don’t take your call. And that’s, that’s normal.
Every actor has gone through it. I’ve seen my father go through it…
I’ve been in a situation where I’ve gone to a public function and you’re made to sit in the front row and you feel, ‘Wow! I didn’t think they’d put me in the front row. Okay, great!’ But then a bigger star shows up and they are like, ‘Okay, get up, move to the back’, and you go to the back. It’s all part of showbiz. You can’t take it personally.
What you have to do is come back home, and, before going to bed, promise yourself that I’m going to work so hard. I’m going to become so good that they cannot, and they will not move me from that front row into the back…
RS: After a day like that, where you’ve maybe gone to a set where somebody else is doing your role which you may have been prepping for, where do you draw that… will, that energy, that grit…
AB: See, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t tough. It’s heartbreaking. And that night, you probably cry yourself to sleep, looking at how sad and desperate and bad the situation is. And you wake up the next morning and you say this to yourself in the mirror, ‘That I’m going to become so good that they won’t replace me. I’ll be irreplaceable.’
You’ve got to convince yourself. It’s got to do with belief… I think anything in life, be it a journalist or be it a director, somewhere deep down you have to have that foundation of belief that, ‘Yes, I belong here. I should be doing this. This is what I know how to do and I’m good at it.’
Also, there has to be a huge dollop of practicality, which I’ve been telling you about for the last 10 minutes. At the end of the day, it’s not personal, it’s business. You’ve been replaced by an actor and a star who is better than you and who’s more saleable than you, okay!
There’s no greater reality check than that. So become that person, where they don’t need to look for an option.
RS: In your career, you’ve done a lot of superb roles, fabulous films, from Bunty Aur Babli, Guru, Yuva… And yet there have been these beech-beech mein films which didn’t work, and people didn’t…
AB: Sure, sure.
RS: But they seem to have stuck more with you rather than the hits… You sound like a person who reflects a lot. Have you thought about that? …I can’t fathom…
AB: Oh, I can fathom it.
AB: You’re not gonna like my answer.
RS: Please, go for it.
AB: If I may summarise: You’ve asked, why is it that you’ve been part of X amount of certain successful films, but why is it that you are remembered more for your flops than for your hits?
AB: Who documents that?
AB: (Flashes that ‘awww, incorrect answer’ smile) The media.
I’m 45 today. Who, after 21 years, still gets asked the same question about my family and my father in every interview? Who’s doing the questioning?
Look, I have nothing but love, respect and admiration for my father. I’ve always said I’m his biggest fan. If you’re taking my name in the same breath that you’re taking his when it comes to acting, if you’re comparing me to him, I’m doing something right.
But we’re all human. At times, it gets to you. I feel like saying, ‘Guys, I’ve been around for 21 years, I’ve done 60-odd films, some of them have been very successful. Some of them, people still remember 15-20 years down the line.’ How many actors are that lucky? Not many. Give me a break. Sometimes you do go into that zone. Then I snap out of it saying, ‘Hey, you know what? Become so successful, do such iconic work that you drown out the negative noise.’ You know what I’m saying?
AB: That’s the only positive way to look at it. Otherwise, it’s very easy to become bitter, and once you become bitter, you’re finished.
Suparna Sharma is Rolling Stone India’s film critic.