The West cannot compete with our emotions, says Amitabh Bachchan

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AMITABH Bachchan was telling me how long it took for the hair and makeup experts to prepare him for the camera every day on the sets of his latest release, Umesh Shukla’s rollicking family comedy 102 Not Out. He plays a lively and unrestrained centenarian of 102 and the father of Rishi Kapoor who’s a dyspeptic and grouchy old man of 75. They are a treat. Even coming together 27 years after their last film, Shashi Kapoor’s disastrous Arabian fantasy Ajooba that had flying carpets, enchanted swords, fire-spitting demons, magical donkeys and dolphins, a Shaitan of a villain and Zorro-like hero. No wonder it flopped.
I have admired Mr. Bachchan in all his uncommon avatars recently. From Shamitabh, Piku and Wazir to Te3N, Pink and Sarkar 3. They have been bizarre, colourful, dark, mysterious, cracked and sinful. In 102 Not Out, his raffish look, unbottled energy and enthusiasm for life at that galloping old age reminded me of M. F. Husain who unceremoniously passed away after leading a fulfilled life of non-stop activity and excitement till 96. The film is doing well. It’s strong at the box office and till Wednesday had collected Rs. 25.15 crore. Shows are going house full and plans are opening for the second week. In fact, a success party was held at the JW Marriott this morning.

“When it’s inevitable, and you have a group of youngsters egging you on with expressions like ‘You’re Cool’ and ‘Rocking’... you actually start believing them and just go for it.”

Now Mr. Bachchan was telling me all his bones were broken! But not because of 102 Not Out. “What to do?” he was saying wryly, “these are old action injuries that have been aggravated by the fight scenes I am doing for Thugs of Hindostan.” This is Vijay Krishna Acharya’s British Raj action-adventure for YRF Studios that Mr. Bachchan is making with Aamir Khan and Katrina Kaif. He shot for 15 days in the rain in Malta wearing leather armour and carrying a sword. That almost did him in. “The water soaks in the leather and makes it heavier. I was carrying 30-40 kilos extra,” he said shaking his head.

After a long time, like in the 1970s, he shot for two films simultaneously. Both, 102 Not Out and Thugs of Hindostan, required his character to be heavily made up. “The prosthetics take a long time,” Mr. Bachchan was saying. “But I am happy to see that all our makeup artistes go outside, learn the craft, and come back. When I did Paa in 2009, somebody came from LA and designed my look. Ever since then, we have been working with these people. But for 102 Not Out we used Preetisheel Singh who trained in LA and has her own company. It’s wonderful to see Indian makeup artists doing the same kind of job any foreign artist would do.”

It took two hours every day to prepare him for his character in 102 Not Out. “And one hour to take the makeup off,” Mr. Bachchan added. There are strict rules about prosthetic makeup. It cannot be used for more than five days at a stretch because the chemicals tend to damage the skin and scalp. Here we use it 15 days nonstop! That Mr. Bachchan was used to. In Paa, his character was a 12-year-old progeria boy, and the prosthetics were all separate pieces. They had to be applied one at a time. The scalp first, then the eyes, nose, eyebrows, and lips. The chin and neck separately. “It took four hours. I could not move, eat, drink or talk,” Mr. Bachchan recalled, “and if it was a sunrise shot, I had to sit on the makeup from the previous night.” He had told me during Paa, “When it’s inevitable, and you have a group of youngsters egging you on with expressions like ‘You’re Cool’ and ‘Rocking’... you actually start believing them and just go for it.”

The weekend before 102 Not Out released, the American superhero film Avengers: Infinity War set new milestones for box office successes everywhere in the world. Mr. Bachchan was surprised. “Hollywood is going everywhere and destroying all the local film industries,” he complained. “It has destroyed the Italian, German, Spanish, Russian, Japanese industries because technically it is so powerful. I can understand it having an effect on Europe. The communities are white Caucasian, they have similar thinking, rules, religion, emotions, language. We are fortunate. They don’t have our traditional thinking and emotional story values. I was talking to Ali Abbas Zafar, and he said if we have to compete with them, we have to think big. I now find that most of our producers want to make huge spectacles. Like Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat. Even Thugs of Hindostan and Brahmastra are designed on a massive scale. It will be impossible for Hollywood to recreate something like this.”

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He was happy to be part of such big films at his age. But Mr. Bachchan accepted that if these projects with huge budgets were to be sustainable, then the producers needed to get the A-listed big stars on board to make them work. I know who all he meant. “Even Ranveer Singh, Varun Dhawan and Ranbir Kapoor are able to bring in the money. Designing something big with them is feasible,” he said. “But for the others (again, I know who all he meant), the thing is to keep the budget small. We are not able to pull in that kind of money. Our films don’t do that kind of business. But we are fortunate there are producers who make films like 102 Not Out, Piku and Pink with a small cast as far as value is concerned and with a limited budget. If they can make a film within Rs. 15 or 20 crore and it does business of Rs. 40 crore, they are sorted. 102 Not Out falls in that category.”

"Our Indian emotions are unbeatable. The West lack them. They will never be able to compete with or comprehend our emotions."

The math behind the film’s business apart, Mr. Bachchan is pleased with the response 102 Not Out is getting. “I think it’s a complete film,” he said, “the right emotions designed for the film came out. I’m not saying this because I am part of the film, but I got responses from people, from audiences who saw it. We did a live chat with PVR audiences in Mumbai and Delhi. They liked what they saw. They understood the message. A young woman who lived by herself said she was going to call her ageing father who also lived alone. A boy of 10 was crying because he liked the film so much. Our Indian emotions are unbeatable. The West lack them. They will never be able to compete with or comprehend our emotions. The film is about family bonding despite it showing an NRI son who’s run away from home and stays away. It happens in the West. A boy turns 18, he says, ‘See you, Dad!’ and he’s gone. For young people, it’s a huge event to return home and spend a day with the family. They are so happy, they talk about it, look forward to it. They aren’t able to do this the whole year. So one weekend, say during Christmas, they return home. Indians find this odd. I could not wait to grow up and stand on my own feet if only to look after my parents and have them come and live with me. That temperament is not understood in the West. A son there does not understand what an honour it is to look after his father. He’d rather send him to an old age home. That’s convenient. That’s why they have Father’s Day and Mother’s Day. It comes once a year. For us, this is every day. Why have a special day to honour your father or mother?”

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