Doc Bollywood

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 May, 2009, 12:00am

Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan knew the questions were coming. They have been yapping at his heels ever since Slumdog Millionaire swept this year's Oscars.

Although that film was made by British director Danny Boyle and financed by Hollywood, the fact it was set in Mumbai focused the world's attention not only on the city and its many pros and cons but on the Indian film industry as a whole.

Everyone wants to know what Bachchan thinks. He's the Big B, after all, the star of about 160 feature films himself and the man the spin doctors would have us believe has more fans than anyone else on the planet. And so those Slumdog questions have chased him all the way to Macau.

He's here today - a dapper 66-year-old in smart, purple-hued velvet jacket and striped tailored shirt - primarily to promote the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) weekend, which will be held at the Venetian Macao-Resort-Hotel from June 11 to June 13.

There's a press conference, first, and then Bachchan chats with media from around the region about the IIFA. But Slumdog keeps, well, raising its head.

'I saw the movie and I liked it,' says Bachchan. 'The Indian version didn't do well in India but Slumdog has done well overseas. So there are many Hollywood producers wanting to work with Indian producers.

'If you are looking at the opportunities that Indian actors will get to work overseas then yes, it does open up many windows.'

But while Bachchan welcomes the potential influx of Hollywood cash into his homeland, he is quick to stress that the differences between the world's two largest filmmaking regions should remain exactly that.

'The difference really is about culture,' he says. 'Western culture and Indian culture are different. So if you are going to make a film that captures Indian culture, then fine. But if you are going to bring a foreign culture into India then maybe that would be a problem.'

The irony is not lost on Bachchan that it has taken an essentially overseas production to focus mass-market, 'international' attention on the Indian film world. And, even then, there are only brief moments in Slumdog that could even come close to being called 'Bollywood'.

For years, he says, he has been listening to people tell him what is wrong with Indian cinema. Now they are telling him those very same things are what's right with it.

'I think we have never changed despite the fact that the west has been pretty cynical and critical about the kind of films we make,' says Bachchan.

'We make films that are escapist. We've always gone in that direction and the west has been quite critical of our use of music and song and dance, which all our films have. But the very factor that was looked upon cynically or critically is now the very factor that is getting attractive to Hollywood. 'You find that even in a film like Slumdog Millionaire there is song and dance and music. And how wonderful to see that one of our most prominent music directors A.R. Rahman won an Oscar for that.'

Bachchan believes it was only ever a matter of time before the international film world started to change its tune. 'I think that scenario [of scepticism] is fast changing and I think that is also due to the fact that we never changed our style of making films or our content. That's what made us what we are.'

Bachchan has seen at first-hand the rise of the Indian filmmaking community into the world's most productive, in terms of numbers of films per year, and most successful, in terms of audience numbers. Bollywood now produces about 1,000 films every year, and caters to an audience of more than three billion people.

But this was not always the case. 'Indian cinema about 40 years ago was an entity that was somewhat looked down upon by children from good homes or by people from the more elite families,' Bachchan says.

'We were kind of kept away from it because it was looked down upon. But over the years Indian cinema has grown to an extent that today it has become almost a parallel culture. We have a 5,000-year legacy of culture, and cinema in the last 100 years has become a very integral part of our culture as well.'

The Uttar Pradesh state-born son of a poet, Bachchan was drawn to the film world in the late 1960s after getting his grounding in theatre at high school and then university.

He completed a science degree before finding employment in Calcutta as a freight broker. But Bachchan says he always had a deep-rooted desire to act. 'I was always interested in theatre albeit on a very amateur level in college and university and even after,' he says. 'And cinema seemed to me like a very natural progression from what I was doing on stage.

'One day I came across an advertisement asking youngsters to join the film industry. I applied for it, I was rejected but I was not inclined to take that rejection. So I left my job and went across to Mumbai and went from door to door and started looking for a job [in the industry] that way.'

Bachchan's timing was perfect. It was 1969 and the Mumbai-based Hindu film industry was entering a golden age. There was something about Bachchan's brooding looks and deep baritone voice that audiences loved. Immediately.

Over the next four decades, Bachchan set all kinds of standards, for awards (he is the most nominated actor in Bollywood history), and hit movies (he boasts nine of the top 13 biggest Indian box office hits). In 2000, when the BBC held a poll to gauge film history's greatest ever star, Bachchan won in a landslide. He also found time along the way to serve in the Indian parliament from 1984 until 1987. But Bachchan remains amusingly frank when it comes to explaining what all the fuss has been about.

'I haven't the foggiest clue,' he says. 'I've been in this line for 40 years and there are still a couple of films that I am doing but I really don't know why they would want to come and watch my films.'

In his role as ambassador for the IIFA, Bachchan has for the past decade been helping to promote the Indian film industry internationally. The event is held in a different country each year and in addition to the IIFA awards ceremony, the weekend includes a business seminar that aims to promote economic ties between India and the host nation.

Bachchan says he did not hesitate to sign on. 'They came to me and said they wanted to take Indian cinema beyond Indian shores,' he says. 'It was immediately important to me and I can now see the fantastic journey we have been on year after year.'

One of his duties in Macau next month will be to meet with members of the Chinese film industry and explore the possibility of co-productions. Jackie Chan (with The Myth) and Peter Chan Ho-sun (with Perhaps Love) have already tested these waters and Bachchan says he has been surprised by just how much Chinese film fans know about Indian cinema.

He recounts being recognised by a group of Chinese tourists while on a film set in Jaipur.

'I was very surprised to see them so knowledgeable about Indian cinema,' says Bachchan. 'They recognised me. They came up for autographs. And indeed, some of the ladies were wearing Indian costumes. I would like to believe they were inspired by Indian film.'

After his four decades in film, Bachchan says he has taken time to reflect on the role it plays in his homeland and how much it has changed. 'To find myself here today though, in Macau, speaks volumes about the enormous progress that Indian cinema has made over the years,' he says. 'I have always believed that our cinema has been one of great integration.

'When an Indian goes out and buys a ticket to see a movie he never questions who he is sitting next to. They might be a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian or a Sikh. What colour he is, what caste he is or what creed his is doesn't matter.

'We laugh at the same jokes, we sing the same songs, we cry with the same emotion. Cinema brings people together.'

Throughout the afternoon Bachchan has tried to constantly refer to the 'Indian' film industry, rather than simply 'Bollywood' - which refers to the Hindi-language film industry. And he feels the need to stress the difference.

'We have many regions and many languages,' he says. 'And we have many film industries that serve these different places and people. Bollywood is just a part of the Indian film industry.'

And he believes this is one area that might have held Indian cinema back from truly going global. But the times might be changing. Quickly.

'How do you explain a store like Selfridges on Oxford Street [London] celebrating Indian cinema by having an entire month dedicated to Indian cinema, decorating their store,' he says. 'For one month everything was designed to promote Indian cinema. These are the sorts of things that are happening.

'Hollywood is more expensive and it makes more money but more people watch Indian films. Hollywood has greater marketing skills and we don't know how to market ourselves. But we are trying.'