It is the morning before Amitabh Bachchan leaves for the International Indian Film Academy awards in Johannesburg, South Africa. He has just landed in Mumbai and is on his way to the sets of the B R Chopra production, Baghbaan, where the final scenes are being canned. Just two days earlier, he had delivered a rousing speech that formed the climax of the film.
"I'm sorry I couldn't spend more time with you that afternoon. I had to focus on preparing for the scene. That was tough," he smiles.
"It was 12 pages long. As a habit, I don't change a word of what the writer pens, though I do make suggestions beforehand. So I had to memorise it all. At 60, my memory is getting weaker. But I'm managing," he says, with a twinkle in his eyes.
Honey Irani's Armaan (Amitabh, Anil Kapoor, Preity Zinta, Gracy Singh), which opens tomorrow, has Bachchan smiling in satisfaction. "It's a very gracious film," he says. "There are no exorbitant histrionics and other loud ingredients that are generally seen in commercial cinema. Even though Armaan is a complete entertainer, it has been made in a dignified manner. The situations aren't exaggerated. The characters are quite real. We were all given the opportunity to work in the realm of reality.
"That, and the fact that a lady, Honey Irani, directed the project, made it so exciting. There were so many young ladies working on the sets. Just watching them work in such a professional atmosphere was a wonderful experience. Honey's production unit is exemplary. This is the way to make a film."
Everyone is talking about the star's new, silver-haired look in the film. Bachchan treats it as part of a day's work. "The director wanted it. I do what I'm told. I am pretty comfortable with any look. For Raj [Kumar] Santoshi's Khakee, I shaved off my beard. It's okay. Not a big deal," he says.
Ask about his screen son Anil, and Bachchan smiles again. "Anil and I worked together for the first time in Armaan. We have some wonderful scenes together. Very soft and endearing moments... All of us -- Anil [Armaan], Hemaji, Divya Dutta, Suman Ranganathan, Samir Soni, Saahil, Aman Verma and, of course, Salman Khan [Baghbaan] -- had a great time bonding on the sets."
He is all praise for Irani, who is the first woman director in his career. "Honey came so well prepared. Everything was well worked out in advance.
"Being a woman director does make a difference. You won't find a bloodcurdling action scene in Armaan. Obviously, the temperament of the film is commensurate with the feminine gaze.
"That apart, the whole working atmosphere -- the sync sound, a hardbound script, dates, even shot divisions worked out well in advance -- was outstanding. The actor didn't have to worry about ringing mobiles and other distractions on the sets. He just had to act. Everything from rehearsal to continuity was taken care of.
"I just had to come on the sets and deliver the dialogues. I can't tell you how gratifying this experience was. If there's any reason to work in an international film, it's to experience the professionalism I did during the making of Armaan.
"Do you know every schedule of mine finished ahead of time? The producer saved so much time energy and money. We finished Armaan in four months. That's how movies must be made."
Though Irani insists there's enough of Bachchan in Armaan to keep his fans happy, Bachchan admits it isn't his film. "There isn't too much of me," he says. "It's basically the story of Anil's struggle to fulfil my dream. I haven't seen the finished product. But I'll see it in Johannesburg at the IIFA awards."
A plan to premiere son Abhishek's Mumbai Se Aaya Mera Dost (co-star: Lara Dutta, director: Apoorva Lakhia) at the IIFA awards has suddenly been dropped. But Bachchan hides his disappointment well.
"Abhishek's film isn't being shown at IIFA because of the film producers' strike," he explains. "Because of the deadlock, there is a huge queue of films waiting to be released. Producers and distributors will decide the priority of each film's release.
"Mumbai...'s producer Vicky Nihalani's father [filmmaker Pahlaj Nihalani] is a member of the film association, so Vicky probably doesn't want to go against the decision of the associations. If Mumbai... were to be shown in Johannesburg and not released in India, its business might get affected locally if negative reports filter back home.
"Yes, it's a bit of a disappointment. But that's okay. Dinesh Gandhi [producer: Armaan] doesn't have any reservations. He's going ahead. Mumbai Se Aaya Mera Dost is staying back. It happens. It's okay."