Ankur Pathak. Inputs: Patcy N in Mumbai
With director Ashutosh Gowariker's latest film Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, Abhishek Bachchan resurfaces as the heroic insurgent Surjya Sen from the dusty yet rousing town of Chittagong.
After the turkey called Raavan, the year didn't kick-off exactly the way Bachchan Jr would have hoped for. So he's hoping that KHJJS proves to be a triumph, compensating for the year's greatest disappointment.
The actor tries to give an impression of unperturbed calm in a restrained white kurta-pyjama as he recounts his expedition back in history and more. Excerpts:
How exciting it is to play a powerful historical character like Surjya Sen?
It is fun and interesting when you get to play a character from a different time period. At the same time, it also makes you feel more responsible because you are portraying the role of a true life character and that too who was a great personality.
Surjya Sen was not only a freedom fighter, but also a hero to many people. So you don't want to disrespect that. You want to adorn it with all the respect and love that he deserves. Thus, overall, playing this role, I felt largely responsible. And that is always the case, when you are enacting a real life personality.
So what was the most difficult part?
Actually, while playing a historical character, I don't find it much difficult. I feel really comfortable. I think that is because when you start shooting, right from the sets to the costumes, there are so many things that aid you in getting inside the character.
The film was shot in Saawantwadi (in Goa) and the entire set was recreated to resemble Chittagong in the 1930's. The cars from that period and people dressed up in those peculiar outfits all made it easier to get the authentic feel of that era and eventually the character.
How did you train yourself to become Surjya?
Since there was no actual video footage of him, we had to create the body language and mannerisms. Ashu told us that we are not making a biopic. The film is about the Chittagong uprising and not just one character. So he was okay if we took a little creative liberty when it came to the characters.
Ashu is very well prepared and confident which makes your job that much easier. He has done extensive research and has fleshed out the characters accordingly.
'I am very comfortable in a dhoti'
How did you work on your look?
I made a very big sacrifice -- I shaved off my stuble. I feel very naked without it. I pictured my character as scrawny, but Ashu wasn't so sure as we did not have adequate evidence of his body language.
You are seen wearing a dhoti. Are you comfortable wearing it?
I am very comfortable in a dhoti. I have worn it many times even in real life. I think it is very sad that we have to ask people today whether they are comfortable wearing a dhoti when it is an Indian outfit. Have we become so westernised that we don't know how to wear Indian clothes anymore?
How comfortable are you speaking in Bengali?
I am very comfortable though I don't speak it at home.
How did you evolve as an actor while working with Gowariker?
Tremendously. Ashu is simply great. I've known him for a really long time, even before he became a director. I learnt to be patient from him. Also, he has this amazing ability to consider everybody's opinion. It isn't easy to manage a film like KHJJS, which has a very huge cast and crew. But even if a suggestion came from a junior artiste, and if Ashu was convinced, he would implement it. Such is his style of working. You'll never find him out of control. Moreover, we are both Aquarians, so we clicked really well.
Did you like history as a subject in school?
Oh yes, I always loved history. But at the age of eight or nine, I was sent to a boarding school abroad, so I never got to read much about Indian history. Instead, I learnt about European history.
Do you enjoy watching period films?
I enjoy watching all kinds of films. For me the genre is not really important and it doesn't matter in which time zone the film is set as long as it is engaging. See, entertainment can be in any form, it is not just slapstick comedy with item numbers that qualifies as entertainment. Even serious drama can be entertaining.
'I would undoubtedly be a part of the freedom struggle'
Why wasn't the film shot in Chittagong?
We wanted to shoot the film there but when Ashu went there for a recce (scouting for locations), he realised that the British cantonment where the film was to be shot was totally modernised. So architecturally, it wasn't suitable for us to film it in its exact location. Thus, the 30's Chittagong was re-created in Saawantwadi.
Did the film affect you in real life?
[Thinks] Yes, it made me respect all that we have. After experiencing what our freedom fighters might have gone through, I have immense pride in them. It makes me value freedom very much.
Given a chance, would you like to be re-born in the pre-independent era?
Yes, very much. I would undoubtedly be a part of the freedom struggle.
'I'm not qualified to mentor anyone'
How do you constantly improvise yourself as an actor?
Acting is very tough. I find all my films difficult. I think you should challenge yourself with every film. If you stop doing that, you start stagnating creatively. I want to do films that push me to work harder every day.
How significant is the title of the film?
The title Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey is derived from the fact that when Surjita led the Chittagong uprising, along with him he had 58 teenagers, who were willing to lay down their lives. It is symbolic of their passion and unmatched dedication for the independence of the nation given that they were just in their teens.
Was there one particular thing that instantly make you want to be a part of the film?
Actually yes, there was. When Ashu pitched the film to me, he asked me one question, "What were you doing when you were 13?" I replied, "Whatever, going to school, having fun, playing football." He replied, "These teenagers were fighting for your independence and ready to give up their lives".
It was a fantastic hook and I immediately agreed. Think about it, what were you doing when you were 13?
How was Deepika Padukone as a co-star?
The entire cast was brilliant and very dedicated. Deepika was very sweet, focussed and professional and I enjoyed working with her. There was a lot of young talent and I enjoyed working with fresh people because they are uninhibited. I learnt a lot from each and every one of them.
We will get to see your buddy Sikander Kher as one of the characters. Are you mentoring him?
Me? No, I'm not qualified to mentor anyone. In fact, all the young actors in the film were mentoring me [smiles].
'Raavan was the most difficult film I had ever done'
How does it feel when your films tank at the box office?
It's part of life. You are an actor, and you cannot expect people to like every film you do. As long as they give you a chance, you should be thankful and hope to win them over in your next film.
How did the failure of Raavan affect you?
It was the most difficult film I had ever done. The entire cast worked tremendously for it. I was very hurt when the film didn't do well. Any flop ruins the confidence of an actor; it does take a huge toll. And then to come up again and face the camera also requires a great amount of courage and effort. Moreover, to know, that eight months later the media is going to interrogate how I felt when this film didn't do wonders, it reminds one of it all over again.
Then how do you manage?
You have to be willing to deal with failure. It's a part of the game.
How important is success for you?
I'm always desperate for success. And it is something you need to be desperate about. It is mandatory to be desperate about each and every film of you do. That is an actor's investment in the film. Why should any actor have a very unconcerned attitude? Something like, "Dude, I've made this film, if you are bothered please come and see." They are going to spend their hard-earned money to come and watch your film; you better take it very seriously and give your best shot. Dedication and seriousness is crucial for any actor.
How is the scenario back at home when you are awaiting your films' release?
Since my family has been in the industry for almost 40 years, they understand very well. My family has always been supportive. They are my source of strength.
'I cringe when I see myself in all my films'
What is it about your father, Amitabh Bachchan, that you like the most?
There isn't one. He is simply the best we have. When I look at his body of work, I feel like doing all the roles that he has ever played. I think all us actors have the same feeling. But somewhere, within themselves they know, that it is near impossible to match his level. I simply love to go on the sets and observe him. There is so much to learn. He's too iconic to be reproduced.
Hrithik is playing your father's role in the Agneepath remake. What would be your advice to him?
Good luck. I think it is a very brave thing to do, because the character Vijay Deenanath Chauhan is undoubtedly one of the greatest characters we've had in Bollywood history. Duggu is a great friend and I've immense respect for him as an actor. He knows his job very well. I'm sure the makers have a completely different interpretation of the original story altogether.
You are close to completing a decade in Bollywood. How has the ride been so far?
Honestly, I never thought I'd survive for this long. Today, I can say I've learnt so many things and that I'm a better actor than I was in Refugee. But then again, if you are not improving with every film, there is something seriously wrong with you. I see my father who is completed 40 years in the industry and he still gets better with every performance.
Why did you think you wouldn't have survived for so long?
I thought they wouldn't give me another chance. I genuinely believed I wouldn't get to work in films post Refugee. I hadn't given them any great reasons to like me or my work, so why would they spend resources on me?
Do you cringe when you see yourself on the screen?
I cringe when I see myself in all my films.
Sonam Kapoor, your co-star in the upcoming film Players, said you two will create magic like Kajol-Shah Rukh Khan. Your comments?
(Laughs) Did she say that? I'd rather not be called the same as someone else. Sonam has tremendous potential and she did a fantastic job in Delhi 6. She is a nice, young and talented actress. She is Anil's (Kapoor) daughter whom I've got a huge amount of respect for.
If you have to pick between a laidback urban comedy like Dostana or a hard-hitting period drama like KHJJS, which one would you choose?
I'll pick the one which is more appealing script-wise. I'm not partial to a particular genre; I pick only those films which I feel creatively inspired from at that point of time. So whether it is a Dostana or a KHJJS, the script has to move me.