Then: The young man sat silently in Parliament as others around him worked their lung power. When he did speak — on the oh-so-boring topic of education — even party colleagues found it “drab”. The more Congress workers saw of Rahul Gandhi, the more they longed for Priyanka to “lead” them
Now: Rahul Gandhi is the star Congress campaigner in the Uttar Pradesh polls. Every verbal grenade from him creates a stir, sometimes even across the border. The Prime Minister dubs him the “future”
Then: In the old Bachchan family albums, you have trouble separating him from the background. In his Bollywood foray, he was so wrong as a period prince that director J.P. Dutta had to scrap Aakhri Mughal. An astrologer suggested Abhishek should dump the Bachchan surname if he wished to make any headway in tinsel town
Now: He is the head-shaking cool dude in the Motorokr ad and the heartthrob of millions of women. The nation’s eyeballs are riveted on his marriage to Aishwarya Rai, Bollywood’s “wedding of the decade”
A late flowering of inherent potential' The fruits of painstaking apprenticeship, a steady learning of the ropes, by the scions of two of the country’s most famous families'
Yes and no, if India’s leading image gurus are to be believed. To them, the turnaround in the fortunes of Rahul Gandhi and Abhishek Bachchan are principally the result of careful planning and smart brand marketing by their families and advisers.
According to ad-man and lyricist Prasoon Joshi, it just shows how a dose of controversy and aggression can be used to transform a public personality’s image from goody-goody and boring to virile and interesting.
“The biggest crowd-pullers, especially in politics, are those who offer an element of surprise in their speeches,” says Joshi, whose brand-imaging skills have turned several drab products into successful brands.
Joshi’s point is simple. Rahul had spent much of the past two years taking a crash course on rural India, attending seminars and picking academics’ brains on the nuances of micro-financing, health, education and the like.
Yet, while all this may have prepared him for a future role in governance, it would not have added the spice his image needed in electoral politics.
“It’s his recent, uncharacteristically controversial remarks on emotive issues such as the Babri demolition and the division of Pakistan that have done the trick,” a Congress functionary said.
The Babri Masjid, Rahul declared, would still have been standing had a Gandhi been at the helm of the nation in 1992 — so what if that sounded like a slur on the late P.V. Narasimha Rao, who was Prime Minister of a Congress government when the mosque fell on December 6 that year'
A few days later, he cited two of the Gandhis’ achievements: Indian Independence and the “division of Pakistan” in 1971, provoking an outcry that he was usurping for his family credit that should be more widely spread.
Islamabad held up the Pakistan comment as proof that “liberation of Bangladesh” was an Indian excuse for Delhi’s real intention: dividing its neighbour.
“Rahul has done two things by his remarks. One, he’s introduced an element of surprise in his speeches. This is what leaders like Lalu Prasad and Bal Thackeray do, though in a more extreme form. People listen to them because they are likely to say something provocative — and, therefore, interesting,” Joshi said.
“More important, he’s building his image as the Gandhi scion independently of the party’s image. He is directly saying, ‘Vote for me even if you have problems with the Congress’. He’s the Brand, not the Hand.”
It’s this newfound aggression, Joshi believes, that has helped the young MP finally step out of mother Sonia Gandhi’s shadow.
Living in the shadow of one’s parents — that is something Abhishek would be familiar with. In his pre-Bollywood days, the reserved young man seemed anything but a star son.
Whenever the question of him taking over his father’s formidable mantle came up, the answer was always negative. It was only after his academic career flagged that the Bachchans thought of trying him out on celluloid — the one arena where Amitabh could provide his son with a jumpstart.
Abhishek landed flat on his back. The son wasn’t ready to be counted yet.
After the Aakhri Mughal disaster, even Rakeysh Mehra’s Samjhauta Express got derailed. So Refugee, J.P. Dutta’s second shot at an Abhishek debut, it had to be. It bombed.
Comparisons with his father got big on Abhishek and not many were backing him after a string of flops: Tera Jadoo Chal Gaya, Dhai Akshar Prem Ke, Bas Itna Sa Khwab Hai, Haan Maine Bhi Pyar Kiya Hai....
All this while, from 2000 to 2003, pop Bachchan kept a hawk eye on where his son was going wrong. Disgusted with Abhishek’s dubbing in Shararat, he had him re-dub it. By the time his 13th film had come and gone, Abhishek doing a Zanjeer seemed as far-out an idea as ever.
It was then that Amitabh got Mani Ratnam to write a special role for his son. The genius from the south, who had changed many a celluloid career — from Kamal Haasan’s to Madhavan’s — turned the fledgling actor into, guess what, an Angry Young Man.
Yuva released and flopped but the nation sat up and took notice of a new Abhishek. The award ceremonies rained Best Supporting Actor trophies on a confident, cool and very capable-looking young actor.
Amitabh got his friends to tailor-make their best movies for him. Ram Gopal Verma made Sarkar and Yash Chopra produced Dhoom and Bunty Aur Babli. Finally, Abhishek was a bankable star. Still, the Shah Rukh Khans and Hrithik Roshans were miles ahead and a Main Hoon Na and a Koi Mil Gaya undid all the Chhota B’s good work.
The trump card came in the shape of “the world’s most beautiful woman”. Suddenly, photos of Aishwarya and Abhishek were all over the newspapers.
Was it a coincidence that the AbAsh jodi visited so many public places so many times before they were officially together' Anyway, the prateeksha was over: Bachchan Junior was no more a wannabe — he had arrived.
The professional spin doctors now predict a series of rumours and planted stories in the coming days. For instance: Is Aishwarya pregnant' Is everything going well between the couple'
Image guru Dilip Cherian says their “reluctance as image inheritors” is why Abhishek and Rahul had a slow start. “Now they seem to be learning how to best use their family legacy without letting it burden them.”
For instance, a Congress source said, Rahul would earlier make plain his distaste when people garlanded him or tried to touch his feet. This disappointed many heartland workers and functionaries who couldn’t help contrasting his “aloofness” with Priyanka’s easy ability to communicate.
“Rahul couldn’t stand sycophancy. There was this man, Jagdish Piyush, who brought out a paper called Amethi Times that basically printed paeans on the Gandhis. Rahul cut him off from the party completely.”
But, as opposed to Abhishek, there is a limit to how far Rahul can take his make-over, Cherian believes.
If the young Gandhi were marrying Aishwarya, it may have helped him shine on the Page 3 circuit, but not necessarily in politics. “That’s one advantage Bollywood stars have over politicians. The girl factor,” Cherian says.
The other plus lies in the difference between performing on carefully made up sets, with the chance of numerous retakes, and having to hold the attention of tens of thousands in a field under a merciless sun with the knowledge that a single slip-up could be fatal.
The market maestros, however, have a warning for Abhishek. The spotlight from the glittering marriage may help for a while, but he may soon have to again reinvent himself.
“Politicians need to establish themselves only once, but actors must keep changing their image,” says Cherian.
He cites how Amitabh graduated from the Angry Young Man into action hero and much more in his first innings. Then he came back, first in KBC and then in diverse film roles, with a completely new persona and gravitas that became his years.
If either young man stutters, neither need look very far, Cherian adds.
“Rajiv Gandhi and Amitabh, too, had struggled at the outset. The two sons may face pressure from time to time, but their legacy is likely to ensure success in the long run.”
One comes from Indian politics’ first family, the other from Bollywood’s
Rahul went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and Abhishek to Boston University
Both were shy, staid young men
The actor can ride piggyback on the “girl factor”, no such luck for the politician
Abhishek has the insurance of rehearsals and retakes, Rahul’s shows must be live and often impromptu
Chhota B must keep re-inventing himself, Rahul has to find the right image once for all
Abhishek can dazzle with his wardrobe, Rahul’s choices are limited