There are very few complimentary epithets that have not been showered on him—Big B, Superstar of the Millennium—and yet, even at 76, Amitabh Bachchan, who made his debut with Khwaja Ahmed Abbas’ Saat Hindustani way back in 1969, continues to carry on working with the hunger and enthusiasm of a newcomer.
There is hardly any award he hasn’t been conferred, and even now, decades after the practice first started, following his near-fatal injury on the sets of the movie Coolie, hundreds gather every Sunday at 5.30 p.m. for a “darshan” of the megastar.
Bachchan—sometimes in trendy tracksuits, sometimes in a kurta pyjama and shawl—stands on top of a makeshift platform as the large wooden gates to his upscale Juhu bungalow Jalsa open up, and waves to the crowd which roars in joy with a hundred hands with mobile phones raised to capture the moment.
To many, Amitabh Bachchan is a phenomenon that has defied description. And yet, he has come to be the very definition of megastardom. Today, years after he fired the
imagination of Indians with his angry young man image, Bachchan is still a hugely sought-after star, a massively popular brand ambassador, anchor of successful game show Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), and a familiar face for social causes. Despite his age, he is also a social media sensation, something he is clearly thrilled about, pointing out that his collective following on social media stands at over 60 million.
No surprise then that the latest Duff & Phelps report on India’s most powerful celebrity brands places Bachchan at No. 7, ahead of much younger stars like Hrithik Roshan and Aamir Khan, with a brand value of $41.2 million, up from No. 8 in the previous year. There’s no sign of any let-up in his punishing schedule. Bachchan endorses products for 22 companies, urging people to buy everything from jewellery and two wheelers to search engine apps and incense sticks. Alongside, he has as many as eight movies in the pipeline and yet another edition of KBC lined up. In short, Bachchan is unstoppable even at his age. And by the look of things, no one—not his audiences, nor his producers and directors—wants him to stop.
Before jetting off for yet another outdoor schedule, Bachchan answered Fortune India’s questions on a range of issues—from his work to the changing entertainment landscape. Edited excerpts from an email interview:
Connecting with fans, followers and their comments has been a most revealing,educative and a personal experience–abuse included!
You have been a part of the Hindi film industry for half a century. How has the industry evolved creatively and commercially? What are the biggest changes you see in the industry?
With the advent of rapid, immediate and exhaustive communication facilities, there is greater awareness of what the world is thinking and doing, instantly. Television, mobiles, and the Internet now give us access to the latest in the entertainment industry, and the variety is immense; most of the time [it is] impossible to digest all that is put out. It is quite obvious then, that there will be an immediate reflection of that in our films as well; indeed in almost all walks of our present existence. This has given rise to great competition. Bringing the individual away from the home to theatres has become even more challenging than before.
And this has reflected in the kind of creatives the film industry, or any entertainment industry, pursues.
There is access now, with the economic liberalisation policies of the government, to modern technology and technicians and equipment. The results are there to see—today’s films are technically better presented than the earlier years, where constraints on various commodities kept us away from the finesse that we are able to exhibit today.
With time and the passing of years, society changes. Generations change as do their likes, dislikes, and attitudes. In order to keep up with the change, and the instant world - wide competition easily accessible to all, our creatives too have had to undergo changes. This can be seen in all or most of our releases during the last decade or more
[An] attitudinal change and comparative monetary changes have given rise to greater wealth creation and this has given the film industry greater footfall and the economic rise. The increase in the number of theatres and the luxurious multiplexes have provided a sophisticated modern viewing pleasure to most metros. The middle class of the country is richer today. Its indulgence too has been enhanced. This reflects in our commercials.
Creatively, there is richer story content— debatable perhaps—but certainly with a comparative difference. With the largest youth population of the world in one country, it prompted the makers to cater to their tastes in larger doses.
There are more women working on the set now than ever before. In the years when I started, there were just two ladies on set— the leading lady and her mother as chapeone. Now almost half the population on set comprises young women, eager and most diligent in the varied assignments that they
take care of. And the worker on the set, those who never ever get any mention, the light men, the set workers, spot boys all now wear jeans and sneakers! They never did have that ‘equipment’ before!
You are perhaps the only actor whose popularity has continued for such a long span of time. To what would you attribute this longevity?
This is a fallacy and one that I do not contribute to. There are several that decorate this large film world of the country and continue to give their contribution in its glory. Longevity? How does one measure longevity in this regard? I am aged 76 and I work when a job comes my way. Jobs for me are rare, but so is the air of the atmosphere!
How important is it for an actor to keep reinventing himself/herself from time to time to stay relevant to changing audience tastes?
The actor does no such thing. The environs change, and if you are still alive and given the opportunity to work and are willing, you accept and do your job. It’s just another day at office. Platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime are not only showing existing films but also generating original content. Do you see theatrical releases getting impacted as audiences move to digital? With each passing decade, the film industry is questioned about this aspect. It was the video cassette first, then the television, then digital streaming as of today, mobiles, the lot; tomorrow there will be even greater technological inventions—alternate reality and so on. But remember one thing: The base has never changed. The base is film. You shall not be able to change the making and production of content. Content is king, and shall ever remain so—to repeat this done-to-death expression. You have been very successful in straddling both the big screen and television. Are you looking at options on digital platforms as well? If age, time, and the intent of makers shall wish it, I shall be more than happy to accept such offers. I did venture into it some years ago, but the project and my effort failed! A number of new talented directors and actors have become popular today with new, edgy scripts becoming hits. Examples are movies such as Stree, and Badhaai Ho. Do you think the basic paradigm of Indian cinema has changed, with scripts becoming the real heroes? The script and the written word was always the real hero. Was then, is now, and shall be in the years to come as well.
Return on investment is a basic need in any commercial business or enterprise. Films are no different.
In a scenario where bigger producers are also looking at smaller films and focussing on the return on their investments, do you think big-budget potboilers will be few and far between, or is there space for both genres?
There will always be space for both to coexist. And with due respect, there is nothing called “small films” in our firmament. All films are made with the same passion and resolve, as any other.
In this context, do you think high returns on investment are important regardless of how big or small the movie is, or is it important to be a member of the ₹100 crore-plus club of mega hits?
Return on investment is a basic need in any commercial business or enterprise. Films are no different. The vocabulary for the yardstick of success may have changed. They were addressed by the number of weeks a film ran earlier—25 weeks, silver jubilee, golden jubilee, diamond jubilee—now this mode has been made more specific. The return in money terms or cash is specified and so is its success factor through it. It’s a measure. In France, they evaluate through the footfall a film garners.
You have been a huge hit on social media. Tell us your experience in reaching fans directly through social media. Does this trend make film stars even more popular with fans, or does it demystify the stardom associated with them?
It started as a joke, and as soon as I was introduced and educated towards this medium I began contributing to it. I write a blog each day—have been doing so non-stop each day for 3,903 days as of today, November 22, 2018. My Twitter [handle] is 3,003 days [old] and Facebook 2,203 days. I have recently started Instagram, but have not numbered them. My collective following, therefore, is close to 60+ million. Connecting with fans, followers and their comments has been a most revealing, educative and a personal experience—abuse included! Work and the quality of your work, if appreciated, will be the popularity indicator on any medium. With all the modern communication gadgetry that abounds, it would not be prudent to imagine that a mystery shall exist about any celebrity. With a billion cameras following you as you step out these days, it can safely be said that this era shall have the benefit of extensive documentation ever witnessed.
You have been a big hit in on the advertising circuit and endorse several leading brands. What are the key things you keep in mind when agreeing to endorse a product?
I am not aware whether I have been a big success on the advertising circuit. But if you say so, I shall happily accept it. Perhaps you could direct a few brands my way, it would be helpful! Factors that bring agreement on a particular brand endorsement have many aspects. I do not do [endorse] alcohol and cigarettes because I do not consume them, but some of the products that I do consume are given due diligence.
You have recently paid off the dues of a number of farmers. What is the kind of socially relevant work you like to do?
Charitable work is supposed to be done, not talked about, but in today’s world, it does become necessary to do so, much to my dislike. Along with some of the charities that the family has been associated with—cancer, differently-abled children, education of girls, school and hospital needs, I noticed many years ago on a trip to Vizag, that farmers were committing suicide for the non-payment of amounts that alarmed me: ₹10,000, ₹15,000 and ₹20,000 were the monies they were unable to pay back to banks. I came back, contacted agencies that work on charities and was able to save around 50 farmers from Andhra by paying off their dues. I did [something] similar for farmers in Vidarbha some years ago and recently took care of about 350 farmers from Maharashtra.
I have just yesterday paid off the dues, with the cooperation of the bank, of 1,390-plus farmers from Uttar Pradesh [U.P.]. I did not want to show my face with the first two events, but for the ones after, in Maharashtra and U.P., I have decided to give them OTS [one-time settlement] certificates personally, so no inappropriate practices occur. For U.P., calling 1,400 farmers would not have been possible, so I identified 70 of them symbolically, booked an entire railway bogie for them to travel to Mumbai to call them to my place and handed over their OTS papers. Also, looking at the sacrifice that our brave jawans make at our borders, I paid a symbolic amount to the families of the shaheed. Forty four families were given substantial amounts by calling them over to my place and handing them the cheques.
Working on the Swachch Bharat campaign on a Cleanathon that NDTV conducted for 15 hours, I came across manual scavengers and their plight. I will be distributing 50 mechanical equipment to each worker, so they do not have to go down these dangerous manholes doing this dehumanising job, and to save them the indignity they suffer socially [He handed over the equipment in November 2018].
During this year’s  KBC we have been devoting every Friday of the season towards the KBC Karmveer, where we honour people devoting their time and effort on social causes they work tirelessly and selflessly for. There have been such moving examples of these brave Karmveers that have devoted their entire life towards the betterment of tribals, of hungry citizens on the street, of those uncared for humans mentally ill and left to fend for themselves on the pavements of the city, of elders abandoned by their children and left to perish, of dynamic individuals that are working in the preservation of water and the environment and so on. To each of them, I have in my own small manner contributed to their causes.
A lot more needs to be done. And I give a description of all this here not for any personal aggrandisement or praise. I wish and hope that many others would take [this as an] example, an incentive and follow suit, so several more could benefit. I worked on polio for almost eight years through the UN and we were finally able to make India polio-free. I work now for TB [tuberculosis] and Hepatitis B ailments urging to go for its detection and cure. I am a TB survivor and have been inflicted with Hepatitis B virus also, due to a wrong blood transfusion during my 1982 accident on Coolie. I am a survivor there too. The Hep B went unnoticed, undetected from 1982 till 2015, when during a general investigation it was discovered that 75% of my liver has been eaten away.
I survive on 25%… but I am surviving… I use that as an example to urge others to go in for detection and get the required cure. I took a cure for my TB as well, and if I can be a living example, then I wish to let those who are infected know that timely detection and medication can cure the disease.
The stories are many. But this interview shall be of little biographical interest, so I shall stop. Good night. I need to get back to my blog for Day 3,904!
The story was originally published in Fortune India’s special collector’s edition - Business of Entertainment.