New Delhi , Nov 30 Superstar Amitabh Bachchan has a dream character — one that he has yet to enact on the screen. It is that of his father, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, the famous Hindi poet, who wrote about 20th century India and its social realities in his poetry.
The star, who stands the tallest on the Indian screen as the “Big B” with more than 180 hit movies in his 40-year-old stellar career as a hero in the multi-billion dollar Hindi cinema industry said he grew up under the shadow of literature and his father — who baptised him into the art of poetics almost at birth. But he loved reading Billy Bunter, (the fictional school boy hero) by Charles Hamilton during his days at the boarding school.
Bachchan, who held an audience of more nearly 500 people under his spell at the Penguin Annual lecture on December 29, 2013 in New Delhi (hosted by publishing giant Penguin Books India), dwelt for nearly 90 minutes on politics, cinema and development — pitching strongly for support to the girl child and gender empowerment in a country where he claimed “nearly 245 million women could not read”. He peppered his monologue with poetry and a refrain – Whose blood it is — in context of the genocide of girls and unequal opportunities for women. He interspersed his exposition with quotes by eminent men of letters and anecdotes from his childhood at Sherwood School in Nainital where he won he Kendall Cup for best actor in annual school dramatics and — his father’s poetry of affection. “I was my father’s greatest poetry,” the superstar said, dapper as ever at 71 in an impeccably tailored suit and a silver goatee.
Born in Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh and raised in Nainital and New Delhi- the actor combines the refinement of an elite Hindi speaking intellectual from heartland India, the panache of a versatile actor and a suave English-speaking colonial boys’ school charisma. India in all its shades runs in Bachchan’s multi-cultural blood- of a Kayasth (caste Hindu) father and a Sikh mother.He is married to a Bengali actress of yesteryears, Jaya Bhaduri. “I am an entertainer. I need to enter the mind because what we hold in ourselves are the best of stories. True entertainers are not didactic story-tellers,” he said.
The actor said his manifesto is to serve humanity – especially women. “I want to build a school for girls,” the actor, who had once been a politician in his native state, Uttar Pradesh, said.
Cinema mirrors the life of the spectators —- not the actors, Bachchan proclaimed early in his address. “Our post-Independence cinema played centrestage by showcasing Nehru’s vision of India,” Bachchan said. “Our cinema respects spirit of a united India”. The superstar, who has steered the country’s popular cultural course in the last three decades by offering his viewers role models with the characters that he played on screen — of the upright young crusader, police officer the social monsters, the avenger, romantic hero and the comedian with a message — said cinema has had the power to make a “masala” that even the politicians have not achieved or dreamt of. “Even our sages knew that this profane world was not the source of truth”.
Cinema was an art without borders where there was no Pakistan or Bangladesh or Lord Curzon. It was in constant search for the truth and reality even “when it was called escapist”. “It is syncretic, trivial, flashing, layered and trashy,” Bachchan said. Cinema absorbed all that was culturally diverse — like the Jews, Parsi, Tamil, Bengali, Malayali, Assamese, blues, jazz and every possible cultural manifestations. .
In a country like India, where literacy was the foundation of social growth, cinema allows the millions, who are unlettered, a window into the pluralities of the nation, Bachchan explained. “I think our cinema (like literature) prefers the truth. There should always be an inherent tension between eliticism and populism (as cinema is often branded as a populist medium). Everybody can watch a film, but not everyone can read,” the actor said.The thespian (of moviedom) referred to the Veda— the sacred scriptures of the Hindu — to bring out the essence of cinema. “Sometime, I feel the absurdity of the seemingly dislocated elements of cinema (when he watches one). I reconsider what my father (poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan) saw- (perhaps that will determine how Indian cinema should be seen),” he said. Perhaps, the fact that the Indian cinematic narrative is interrupted by the non-narrative which symbolised the elements of Shruti and Smriti — the two foundations of Vedic literature and knowledge.
While the epic narrative tradition was “smriti” – memory of the sacred texts and mythology handed down the generations by through lores, tales, fables and philosophies as recognisable voices in film plots —- the non-narrative traditions of songs and dance were pure “shruti” -words and sounds that were heard or seen without historical contexts or continuity at times, Bachchan said, exploring the traditional links of mainstream Indian cinema. “My father Harivansh Rai, the literary giant in his last days, would asked to be shown a Hindi film everyday – preferably one with me in it. As the darkness closed in his life, why he did not turn to literature,” Bachchan mused. The poet (the actor’s father) perhaps wanted to see the flickering of the flame burning inside cinema — another face of creativity that allowed one to see a new reality. “That is what my father saw. He no longer needed light to read – only in darkness, one sees the everlasting truth,” the actor said.
Bachchan ended his address reciting from his father’s poem, “Imprints of Blood” about the holocaust.
— Staff Writer
(The Penguin Lecture is an annual lecture that builds on the publishing house’s commitment to bring the finest of minds and personalities from around the world to Indian audiences)