I just wanted to catch a glimpse. The moment I found that he was going to be there, I knew I had to see him. I should have been up at the crack of dawn, but as usual I overslept. Showered, dressed and almost ready to go, I frantically searched my phone for where I'd be able to see him. The fear of a lost opportunity was so cumbersome thatI kept checking his schedule over and over again after boarding the train. 10:03, Millenium Bridge, 10:06 Globe Theatre, 10:19, Southwark.
That's where we were finally going to meet.
Last Wednesday evening, when the Big, or rather, Sr. Bachchan announced to his three million or so Twitter followers he's going to carry the flame in Southwark, thousands of admirers flocked to catch a glimpse of the most enigmatic Bollywood icon ever. While Dilip Kumar is the greater actor and Rajesh Khanna the first superstar, it is Bachchan whose career graph has soared like no one else's; from 1969 till 2012 and still going strong, he has been known and loved by generations. He was participating in the torch relay on the same day as UK-based steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and UN Secretary- General Ban Ki Moon but still managed to draw a crowd much larger than these two put together.
Moguls and diplomats have nothing on the people through who breathe life into the magic of the movies.
I sprinted down Southwark Bridge Road, panting as I paced along trying to forget how uncool I was looking, but thankfully, spotted some men (Indian or Pakistani, maybe) doing the exact same thing. They had their cameras out like me and were speaking to friends, maybe family, and cheerfully explaining their dilemmas at full speed. We were clearly headed in the same direction and driven by the same force.
“I only stepped out of the office for a couple of minutes but and now have been running for more than half an hour,” said Paresh Choudhary, an analyst at Deutsche Bank. “My boss will be waiting for me when I get back, but I've never done this sort of thing before. I don't know what overtook me when I saw other Indian guys trying to get ahead - I just thought, 'Paresh you need to run too!'"
We soon got the sense of something momentous happening. Muscular security guards, photographers with only god knows how many inches long lenses attached to their fancy cameras, heavy police motorbikes, the impassioned onlookers and yes the torch too. I saw it, saw how the 8000-pored (one perforation for each torch bearer to carry it) aluminum Olympic torch looked every time it was alighted, how it was graciously passed over to the next bearer and how its triangular shape aptly represented the three Olympic values of respect, excellence and friendship.
And yet it seemed that the surging crowds were mostly not interested in any of the other torch bearers; hardcore fans, Asians mostly (Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Indonesians, Malaysians, Surinamese) were running on the roads, bypassing security and determined to get ahead of the bodyguards, paparazzi and police. I was so occupied trying moving forward that I ran past him. I turned back as someone shouted,'Amitabh Bachchan!'
And there he was.
The icon, the legend, the superstar: the Coolie, the Don, the Sarkar, the Sharaabi. He seemed to look a little different that day or perhaps I hadn't ever thought to picture him in the white tracksuit he wore that day. I guess it was just a case of being too used to seeing him in bespoke designer suits and retro glasses or the crisp white kurta pajama he favours often. The handsome and congenial man cut an entirely different figure as he held the torch aloft and paced himself. Ever the well-prepared actor, he had practiced for the relay - not the fastest man in the world, but a superstar and a nationalist aware of the fact that, “It was not a flame he held but the pride of 1.25 billion people of India.” That was the message sent to Big B by his makeup artist, a Bollywood man himself who understands the force that is Indian cinema - the seller of dreams and aspirations that brings not only Indians but Asians together in millions.
While the subcontinent is well aware of potency of this force, the Western hemisphere has only woken up to it in the last decade. Amitabh has had a few firsts in his life, including being the first living Asian actor to be immortalized in wax at London's Madame Tussauds and being awarded the Officier de la Legion d'Honneur, the highest distinction that can be conferred in France for his contribution to cinema. One can read more into why an Olympics host city, and that too London - which kept the opening ceremony so very British - requested an Indian actor to be a part of their celebration. After all, Amitabh Bachchan is no athlete and has little to do with sport or British society, unlike other torch bearers, so one wonders if the move was more of an attempt to woo the Asian crowd to participate more actively in the games or a reaction to India's increasing economic prosperity and the part it will play in world politics, economics and an increasingly multicultural Great Britain.
At the opening ceremony of the Olympics that was both lauded and criticized for being quintessentially British, Oscar winning director Danny Boyle did throw in Indian composer AR Rahman's Punjabi track 'Nimma Nimma Jogiya' to celebrate Indian influence in the U.K. Let's also not forget that while Danny Boyle may have been a cult favourite after films like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, it was Slumdog Millionaire that got him that golden statue, the ultimate accolade from Hollywood - a film set in the slums of Mumbai and the set of a show based on Kaun Banega Crorepati - Bachchan's masterful take on Who Wants Be a Millionaire? Bollywood's growing influence in Europe and the Americas is apparent. On the flipside, Bollywood and its three-hour-long masala movies with heaps of melodrama, 'dishum-dishum' fighting and dance extravaganzas have clearly become India's greatest export to the world; with many of them shot in Britain now boosting tourism and Asian interest there. Now, Visit Britain, the national tourism agency even has a Bollywood movie map, which features numerous British locations used by Indian directors in their movies so fans can visit the places shown in their favourite films.
It is this Bollywood boom and the simultaneous rise in the Asian profile that culminated in the ultimate Indian idol waving to the elated crowd while briskly jogging through a street festival celebrating the Olympics. His supporters and devotees lined up the streets for hours, arriving from all corners of London to see the 69-year-old run 300 metres carrying the Olympic torch.
"We have come all the way from Edgware, which is on the outskirts of London," confessed Kamini Varsani who had taken the morning off from work to bring nine members of her family to set eyes on Amitabh Bachchan. "The oldest amongst us is our mom who is 63 and the youngest is my cousin's daughter who is just 21-months-old. But we were standing in a great position and got some amazing pictures so it was all worth it in the end - worth getting up at six in the morning!"
For the elder Indians present, Amitabh's jog was a moment of pride and nostalgia, bringing back memories of the 'angry young man' who could single-handedly knock down 20 people at once. There was a palpable sense of reverence in the air, for the one and only Amitabh Bachchan and then came a rude interruption. Someone shouted out his name and 'murderer' in the same breath. The words caught his attention over the buzz of a euphoric crowd. For a moment, he was startled too.
The chanting of, “murderer, murderer, you will be exposed”, grew louder. But then the police moved in taking control of the situation, determined not allow anyone to tarnish the event. The offenders were Sikh activists calling for Amitabh Bachchan's arrest and prosecution for inciting communal hatred against the Sikhs following Indira Gandhi's assassination by her Sikh bodyguard in 1984. They were harsh as they remembered the Sikh genocide in which the Indian Government reported that over 2700 Sikhs were killed in Delhi alone; more around the country. It was a tumultuous year for India, the Sikhs and Amitabh Bachchan. Family friends with the Gandhis, that was when megastar Bachchan took a backseat from acting and contested elections to support his friend Rajiv Gandhi. His political journey ended with him being implicated in the infamous Bofors scandal. He was acquitted but left politics soon after, distanced himself from the Gandhis, and went returned to acting with Shahenshah in 1988. The rest is history... the major slump in Amitabh's acting career, and him keeping at it despite all odds. It was 2000 when Aditya Chopra's Mohabbatein released that the Amitabh Bachchan that we know in the new millennium was born. Life is a struggle even when you are a superstar and it has to be said that the seasoned Amitabh Bachchan handled the angry Sikh interruption like a pro.
The incident left a bittersweet taste in everyone's mouth as people faced the tragedy, strife and divisions that mar much hyped image of ‘Shining India’. Amitabh did look shaken, but only for a bit - he is an actor after all, one coud see the self control, the restraint, the smoothness with which he brought the aura of a magician back and made it prevail. Of course, it helps when you are invited officially and the police move in to ensure that all goes as planned without a hitch. Everybody was all smiles as he passed on the torch to its next bearer and was carefully and cautiously escorted back into the volunteers' van. Bachchan has not made any statements about this incident. Indeed you won't even find it in mainstream newspapers, just on Sikh websites; it did happen - the show however, went on.
If there is one thing Amitabh Bachchan understands it's the continuity of the show, the importance of moving on without bitterness and the courage to let bygones be bygones. He inspires a fair amount of controversy, indeed he is not afraid to court it. In Pakistan, he is criticized for his relationship with Narendra Modi, the notorious CM of Gujarat who is widely believed to be complicit in the massacre there and his friendship with Bal Thackeray, the founder of the Shiv Sena. Amitabh sees no conflict at all in playing all sides and lends that famous Bachchan magic wherever it's needed. He will promote tourism in Gujarat because that is a part of his country and Modi is its elected CM, and he will also sign on to play ambassador for Aman Ki Asha to promote peace between India and Pakistan. He has historically denied the Sikh allegations of inciting hatred against them, reminding his accusers that his mother Teji Bachchan was from a Sikh family. Meanwhile, even Sikhs can’t deny that he has come a long way from the politics of the Congress.
Maybe he said something in the heat of the moment back in 1984, he was young, after all, and his friend's mother, the Prime Minister of the country and and India's founding father Jawaharlal Nehru's was murdered. It was an emotional time and one would like to give an enduring Indian cinema legend the benefit of the doubt.
That said, it's not pleasant when one can see the wounds of history that haven't quite healed yet, a reminder that things are not always shining and perfect as they seem. All one can do is take solace in the beauty of moving on. Everyone does.
This is not the Amitabh Bachchan of 1984. He has been around since. One can safely say that the Olympics have nothing on the races he has he run and lost and won. All the world is a stage and at long last Amitabh Bachchan has learned to play his part perfectly.
The writer works for The News in London and can be reached at email@example.com