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Interview/Amitabh Bachchan

'I don't need lessons in Indian culture'

The superstar defends his decision to hold the Miss World contest, in an interview with Sunday editor Vir Sanghvi

Amitabh Bachchan In 1987, Amitabh Bachchan told Sunday: "I sometimes feel that I have been born to attract controversy. Whatever I do becomes controversial."

Nearly ten years later that sentiment remains as valid. This should be a good time for Bachchan. His album, Aby Baby, has been a runaway success, attracting a new generation of fans. Two concerts last month -- in Bangkok and Singapore -- were hysteria-inducing sell-outs. The Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited is doing well. Mrityudata, one of his three or four comeback movies, is nearing completion and heading for a February-March release.

And even the two television ads he has filmed for BPL are drawing delighted chuckles on the tube.

But, as always, the controversies continue.

The latest uproar is different in that it doesn't centre so much on Bachchan personally as on an ABCL activity. The corporation's decision to host the Miss World competition in Bangalore has evoked two kinds of protests.

At one level, objections have been raised by feminists on the familiar grounds that beauty contests degrade women. But at another level, there are also allegations that a contest of this nature goes against the traditions of Indian culture. Some of the protestors have argued that the decision to hold Miss World in India is part of larger sell-out to multinationals and foreign influences.

Bachchan could have lived with the criticisms -- both of which he hotly disputes -- on the grounds that this is a free country and that everybody has a right to his or her opinion.

But he has been distressed both by the vehemence of the protests and by the constant threat of violence. A Godrej showroom has been ransacked (Godrej are Miss World's sponsors), so has what protestors believed was the ABCL office and a bomb is reported to have been thrown at the stadium where the show will be held.

More violence is expected. Assorted protestors -- including a section of the BJP -- have threatened to disrupt the contest, to blow up the stadium and to prevent the show from taking place.

So far, at least, the criticism has been largely directed at ABCL and not at Bachchan personally. But as this interview, conducted at Mansa, Amitabh's sprawling Bombay bungalow, shows, the star is now willing to come upfront and take the heat on ABCL's behalf.

How did Miss World come to India?

We were made an offer by Miss World, which is a British company. After four years of Sun City, they wanted to move out. They were considering Norway when somebody suggested India and ABCL.

Who suggested ABCL? Did it have anything to do with the contacts you made when you judged last year's Miss World?

I don't know who suggested ABCL. I gather it was somebody in the media business abroad.

But it has nothing to do with the pageant that I judged. I knew Eric Morley because of my trip to Sun City. But we had never discussed shifting Miss World to India.

Then, in August, almost out of the blue we got this offer. And we were nervous about saying yes because we had only four months to organise the pageant.

Why did you say yes?

I'll be honest. My first instinct was one of great caution. I asked the team at ABCL if, first of all, they could manage in such a short time. And when they said yes, I asked them to consider what the reaction to such a contest would be in India.

It was only when I was satisfied on both counts that we said yes.

Clearly you didn't expect this response.

Miss World '96 No. Did anybody? Miss India has been organised by The Times of India group for what, 30 or 40 years? Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai were glorified when they came back. And there's a new beauty contest every month.

How could anyone have predicted that we would be singled out?

But I want to make just one more point. When you talk about response, you are referring to a small but vocal group that is opposed to the contest. We ran a survey before we said yes to consider the reaction from the public at large. That survey said that people approved of the pageant.

I still believe that by and large, there is widespread public support for Miss World. Or at the very least, the public is not opposed to the pageant. So in that sense, the survey was right.

What we didn't consider was that there would be a very vocal minority that would oppose Miss World at all costs.


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