When I told my friend Abdul from Afghanistan, that I was going to cover Big B, i.e. Amitabh Bachchan’s visit to Brisbane, his first response was, “Could you please smuggle me in?”
It wasn’t an unexpected request. The Hindi film superstar who turned 70 this year, is known in parts of the globe where one would least expect him to be popular. Bollywood (a term he hates) going global is a recent phenomenon, but Mr. Bachchan achieved international fame at a time when people didn’t even realise such a thing existed.
The formal trapping of the event was the conferral of an honorary doctorate on Mr Bachchan by the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). It was to be his fourth, after De Montfort University in Leicester, UK, Jhansi University, and Delhi University in India.
The real thing, of course, was the chance of a lifetime for Indians living in Brisbane, to witness the Big B legend up close and personal. Generations of Indians in Brisbane have grown up around his movies, with dialogues from his films forming a part of their parents’ Indian identity. Sure enough, on arriving at the restored and refurbished Old Government House heritage building at QUT, it was hard to miss the air of anticipation. Crowds were already forming on the lawn outside the historical venue, now back to its former glory. After the requisite security check and media access, I was given the formal tour of how the ceremony was going to proceed, where the best photo opportunities were going to be, and where the media spots were. Hobnobbing with other media representatives, I noted a clear delineation among those who had come there to mainly cover the academic occasion and those who were there because they wanted to glimpse the megastar and reassure themselves that their hero was actually here in Australia.
Comfortable with the cameras
Ten minutes past the appointed time, the convoy arrived. Nobody counted the number of cars, for all eyes were locked in on the black Mercedes. An opened door, a shout, some cries, and the next thing you know it was Amitabh Bachchan himself, standing by the main stair of the Old Government House, shaking hands with the Chancellor, Major General Peter Arnison and Vice Chancellor, Professor Peter Coaldrake.
We went berserk, trying to capture the moment, to get as close to him as possible. The conversation went on, in muted volumes. I could catch some of it, which was merely small talk. Mr Bachchan stood where he was for slightly longer than seemed necessary – dare I wonder, that it was for our benefit? He turned this way a little, then that way a little. A consummate professional, lending us his best profiles. We understood, and went just that much more berserk! The Chancellor must have mentioned the heritage value of the Old Government House, for then the Indian thespian looked up at the building, letting the light catch attractively on his visage. More opportunities!
Ceremonial welcomes in Brisbane
The crowd obviously could not stand it anymore, and began chanting “Mere angne main tumhara kya kaam hai”. Highly catchy, but perhaps slightly inappropriate, given the gravity of the occasion. Mr Bachchan turned to them, waved, then requested, gesturing with his hands, that they keep it down. It was then time for him to enter the change rooms to get into his academic robes, leaving behind a slew of media reporters, including yours truly, sighing in disbelief. My hands had been shaking, and I had nearly forgotten how to operate my camera!
The hall where the ceremony was to be held was an intimate setting, with subdued programs laid on the guests’ chairs, and a cozy dais with a podium for the participants. Mr Bachchan, befitting a PhD conferee, was escorted into the hall in an academic procession, led by the Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Professor Arun Sharma, and other academic dignitaries. The Ceremony Chairperson, Dr Carol Dickenson, welcomed the guests, and invited Aunty Valda Coolwell to deliver the Indigenous welcome. The dignified lady uttered her welcome in the indigenous language of that land, which must have been slightly startling to Mr Bachchan, and also addressed him directly, offering him her respects, at which he smiled graciously.
More accolades for Big B
Chancellor Arnison introduced Mr Bachchan to the mixed audience of Indians and Australians, evoking his illustrious career as evidence of his worthiness of the honorary degree. “Mr Bachchan has made an outstanding contribution to the global community through his achievements in the creative industries field,” he said, “and is among the most prominent figures in the history of Indian cinema. He has remained at the pinnacle of his profession for some forty years, during which his roles have evolved as India has evolved. Through his portrayal of characters, one can catch a glimpse of the evolution of India over those four decades.” The Chancellor then went on to list the number of awards and achievements Mr Bachchan has collected over the years, both within India and on the international stage. They included France’s highest civilian honour, Knight of the Legion of Honour, conferred by the French government in 2007 for his “exceptional career in the world of cinema and beyond”.
It was then time for the actual ceremony, which comprised the Vice Chancellor Peter Coaldrake presenting Mr Bachchan as a candidate for the honorary degree, to Chancellor Arniston, upon which the candidate was accepted. As serious as such an occasion was, I couldn’t help but steal a glance at the audience, and was struck at the dichotomy of reactions. The Australians applauded with courtesy and with polite smiles. The Indians either had massive grins plastered on their visages, or literally had dropping jaws, still incredulous at the fact that the Big B was in their midst.
Amitabh Bachchan became the second Indian, after IT pioneer NR Narayana Murthy, to be honoured by QUT.
A fitting response
It was finally time for Mr Bachchan to make his formal speech. Radio announcers next to me jostled to tape the man’s own words, delivered in his famous baritone. He began with a generic greeting – I honestly do not remember his first words, since at hearing the Voice of God my knees actually buckled and I involuntarily said, “Oh my God”, something I’m sure every Indian in the room could sympathise with.
“When I was informed that I was going to be awarded an honorary doctorate by the Queensland University of Technology,” he said, “the instinctive response was, ‘do I deserve it’? Do I deserve an honour of such magnitude? Perhaps not.”
Mr Bachchan continued, saying, “Education is the amalgamation of diverse disciplines that informs every form of creative activity.” He attributed the conferral of the doctorate to the great strides made in Indian cinema in general, during his own lifetime. He pointed out how Indian film was very particular in being convincing of the Indian ethos, and saw himself as only a part of how Indian film represents its people and the dynamics of its culture. Mr Bachchan drew attention to how not very long ago, the same kind of films and culture were “the butt of ridicule and cynicism” but that today, the same culture was the subject of serious academic analysis. “My moment here today on this podium is a proud moment not only for me, but for the Indian film fraternity. The doctorate signifies that our cinema, artists, as well as technicians, matter.” These were definitely pre-thought, pre-planned words, heavy with historical context.
A musical interlude
After Mr Bachchan finished his speech, the Ceremony Chairperson introduced Mr Darshil Shah, a flautist, requesting he perform on the flute for the invited guests. Mr Shah had studied under Dr. Hariprasad Chaurasia, and explained to the audience that he would play the Hamsadhwani raga, common in both south Indian carnatic and north Indian Hindustani classical music schools. He also mentioned being nervous at having to perform in front of Mr Bachchan (he was, after all, about five feet away from the man) and also joked that when he was born, his father had said he wanted him to be “as tall as Amitabh Bachchan”. Mr Shah offered his playing of the flute that day as a humble submission to Mr Bachchan. Although not everyone in the audience could appreciate Mr Shah’s classical rendering of the raga, Mr Bachchan was visibly moved, tapping his feet to the beat of the tabla and moving his head in appreciation with the music.
A warm commendation
A surprise for the audience came in the form of Baz Luhrmann’s videotaped message, played for the guests on a screen. Shot on the sets of his current film The Great Gatsby in which Mr Bachchan plays a role, Mr Luhrmann praised Mr Bachchan as not only a great actor but after having gotten to know him, as a great human being.
“It is a great sadness of mine that I can’t be there,” said Mr Luhrmann, “I just want to add my voice to the many that herald and celebrate his extraordinary career, of this great, great actor, and more importantly, this great and wonderful man. My experience of Amitabh of course as an artist is second to none, but as a person, in terms of his warmth, his spirit, his inner poetry, and his care for other people, particularly in the way he’s reached out between our two countries, this is something rare in a person, and Amitabh Bachchan is indeed, a rare human being, and a great performer. Best wishes, Amitabh, see you back on the sets as quickly as possible.”
Candid Q&A with Big B in Brisbane
Once the academic procession had made its way back from the ceremony hall, it was time for the media press conference. The dichotomy in media personnel was apparent once again, especially in the nature of the questions being asked. Although there were the requisite tabloid questions relating to Mr Bachchan’s daughter-in-law Aishwarya’s pregnancy, the main thrust of the conference centred around the honorary doctorate, and its importance in bringing India and Australia together creatively.
“I carry back great memories,” he said, “not just of this occasion, but the entire country. I have been here shooting for a film and have had the most glorious experience, not just in terms of the craft and creativity of the film, but indeed the hospitality and the warmth that I have received from the people of Australia. I am truly grateful.”
Work is pleasure with Baz
When asked to elaborate on his filming experience with Baz Luhrmann in Sydney, Mr Bachchan said, “I’ve been an admirer of Baz Luhrmann and his films Moulin Rouge and Romeo and Juliet. I think he’s magnificent, in his own interpretation, he has a very unique style in presentation, which is really a work of great art.”
Mr Bachchan recounted that a year and a half ago, Luhrmann was on a personal visit to India, being fond of the country, and he was touring on a motorcycle. He was with a very eminent painter friend, and he dropped by Mr Bachchan’s office, presented him with a painting by his friend and they just sat and talked of irrelevant things.
“And then a couple of months ago, Baz sent a message that he wished to talk to me, and he offered me this role in the film. I’m truly honoured that he did. He did say, ‘I know it’s very small, but there’s just one scene which I’d like you to do’, and I readily agreed,” recounted Mr Bachchan.
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In praise of technology
Another aspect that impressed the Indian megastar was his experience with the cast and crew of The Great Gatsby. “The experience has been extraordinary. The kind of technology that I was exposed to (as this is the first dramatic Hollywood film to be made in 3D) and just to see the level of efficiency, the management, and the kind of control, the atmosphere, and this very complex filming, it was all just amazing,” said Mr Bachchan.
“I play a 1920s American Jewish character called Wolfsheim in the film, opposite Gatsby and Nick Carroway, who actually narrates the whole story. It’s been a great experience working with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire. I hope I can come back and work with Baz again,” added Mr Bachchan.
In response to the impact of Indian cinema on the global stage, Mr Bachchan quoted his own experience in the 1980s, when he went to Russia, and was greeted in the airport by Russian girls dressed in sarees and bindis and singing Hindi film songs, and who had actually attended Hindi classes in order to understand the films better. He also spoke of a Russian admirer who would say that when he came out of watching an Indian film, he “had a smile on his face, and a dry tear down his cheek. I think that says it all!” said the veteran superstar.
Gracious and poised
Mr Bachchan posed patiently for photographs by the press, and was gracious when some of the fans outside broke in to be photographed with him. It became difficult for the man to move due to the crush of the crowds, but once outside, surrounded by fans, his demeanour relaxed, and he obliged with autographs and pictures.
It was then that the enormity of this occasion actually hit me. For Mr Bachchan, globe-trotting superstar, this is probably all in a day’s work. Fourth doctorate, four millionth press conference, fifteen millionth autograph to an anonymous NRI fan. If this were the daily grind that supplements your work, it is possible to get ridiculously bored of it very quickly. It’s not easy to survive when the entire world constantly wants a piece of you. But Amitabh Bachchan’s patience and forbearance spoke of his understanding at how momentous this occasion was, not just for him, but for us. As I told him during the photo opportunity, we will remember this event, this witnessing of a faraway celebrity we consider our own, for generations to come. He had simply nodded and said thank you, very softly.
The man, at 70, still connects with people, perhaps even despite himself. Earlier I had been idling inside the building looking for him, peering through the building’s archway. Mr Bachchan passed by, framed by the dark arch. He had turned too, quite inadvertently, and for a brief second, our eyes had met. Without thinking, I employed the human response. I smiled, even before I registered who it was I was smiling at. He smiled back and I’m positive it was due to that similar human reaction – smiles are infectious. In that nanosecond, when he wasn’t the superstar and I wasn’t the reporter, we were just two people making eye contact over a distance, and we still connected. It was visceral. No wonder my friend wanted me to smuggle him in. This is what I can now tell the next generation – I saw that human spark in Amitabh Bachchan.