Sonia is family, said Amitabh

I was working for a wire service when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. A few months later, I received a call from my editors in New Delhi: the Amethi seat was up for a by-election and Sonia Gandhi had decided she wanted to give it to Amitabh Bachchan. Her children were too young, she was not into politics (then) and she would rather it stayed with “family”.

They wanted me to talk to Bachchan and confirm if he had been spoken to by Sonia Gandhi and/or if he had consented.

I was not a film correspondent. Moreover, it was the era before mobile telephony. So I dialed ‘197′ and looked up the book for Bachchan’s number. A minion picked up the phone and said Bachchan was out shooting.

“Out of Bombay or just out of the house?”

“He is in Bombay. But he is on a triple shift. We don’t know if he will be home for lunch. Think its unlikely. Mostly, he’ll be back only at 10 pm after the last shift.”

No amount of pleading for a number where I cold reach him at a studio had any effect. “You leave your number with us and I will see if he wants to call you back,” said the secretary.

I called my Delhi office and told them they would either have to hold their story for a day or go with it without Bachchan’s comments. They were frantic. “Can’t you keep trying? If we hold, the newspapers might have it by tomorrow. We want to be the first to break it nationwide.”

I called Bachchan’s house again. Same man, same pleas, same replies. I gave up.

Then as I was snacking at tea time, a peon walked across to the ringing phone, listened with a bewitched expression on his face for a minute, broke into a beatific smile and then yelled excitedly across the room, “Madam, Amitabh Bachchan! For you!”

I choked on my samosa. I was not sure if I was being had because the whole office had been in on my conversation with Bachchan’s secretary earlier in the day. Even as I headed for the phone rather tentatively, I scolded my peon, “I will boil you in coconut oil if I find you are lying or pulling my leg. As though Amitabh Bachchan would be calling me ever! Dimaag kharab ho gaya hai tumhara!”

I took the phone from him and said a rather cautious, “Hello?”

“Sujata, this is (he put a stress on the ‘is’) Amitabh Bachchan.” There was no mistaking the deep baritone and I almost dropped the phone in shock. Quickly, I launched into a stumbling apology for my lack of faith in both my peon and in Amitabh Bachchan. “I’m sorry, Mr Bachchan,” I said. “I was not expecting you to call me yourself. I thought your secretary would put me through to you, whenever. And I did not think he would pass the message on to you so quickly. He told me you would be home only at dinner time.”

“Well, I am home now. So ask me whatever you wanted to ask.”

I did. And Bachchan was clear. “No. Sonia Gandhi has not spoken to me about contesting at all. She knows my views very well. She knows I am out of politics and wish to stay out of it forever. But she and her children are family. I will always be there for them every other way. But I will never contest another election again. Not even from Amethi.”

I was too much of a rookie at the time to exchange more than a few awe-stricken pleasantries with him. But I let out a whoop of delight as I put down the phone and filed the inputs back for my Delhi office.

My next encounter with Bachchan was face-to-face. He was launching a French perfume named after him the year he turned 60 and by then I was less awe-stricken. So I asked, “How are you sure that this perfume, too, will not bomb as those named after Zeenat Aman and Lata Mangeshkar did?”

“Well, I would certainly hope this is more successful. But who can say?”

He was polite. I apologised for being rude. “No, don’t,” he said, ever the polite gentleman. “As a reporter I know you need to ask all the unpleasant questions. You were only doing your job.” I heaved a sigh of relief that he had not been offended.

I still have a little bit of that perfume (‘Amitabh Bachchan for Women’) thar I got at the time, though  I have not seen it on any shop shelves, lately (it bombed). However, by the time I got to meeting him I had gotten more confidence. So I had no problem asking him the next question: why did you give up politics when so many from tinsel town are dying to join up various political parties?

His answer was very revealing: as a Congress MP, he had been to Assam for campaigning. There was an insurgent movement on in that North-Eastern state at the time and the Assam Gana Parishad was going very strong. Bachchan said there was some kind of demo organised against his rally (there were other political leaders accompanying him) but seeing the angry crowds, they decided to take off again even as they had just landed. At that time, a youth came running across and slapped a piece of paper on Bachchan. When he later unfolded that chit inside the aircraft, it said, “Mr Bachchan, you are a great film star; I am a great fan of yours. But I hate the Congress. So please do not put me in a situation where I have to choose between your two personalities.”

Said Bachchan, “I then decided it was not fair to put my fans who came from all sections of society through that turmoil. I would stay out of politics. I would concentrate only on films.”

But somehow, now, all these years later, it is sad that he is being drawn into politics against his will. And his own towering film persona, which he chose over the greater pull of politics, is what is leading him into these controversies: if he hadn’t had to seek a tax rebate from the Gujarat government for his film Rann, he would not have had to endorse Gujarat and be equated with Narendra Modi. Ditto Kerala. And now his presence at the opening of the new carriageway on the Bandra-Worli sea link has stirred up yet another political controversy.

But this one’s really petty. And I think also downright disrespectful and insulting. Even an ordinary man does not want to be invited to a party and then told he is not welcome. I can feel Bachchan’s hurt and would like to say to all those who started the controversy: don’t try to be more loyal than the King.

For, Sonia Gandhi was once family to the Bachchans. She could return to being family again.

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