The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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To be or Not to be: Amitabh Bachchan By Khalid Mohamed, Saraswathi, Rs 2,950

When the courier staggered up my front steps with a heavy parcel, I wondered what it could be. My new computer or a new heater for the winter' After signing for it, I opened it warily — these are dangerous times — and out came, with some struggle, To Be Or Not To Be, the coffee-table book to end all coffee-table books, Jaya’s loving present to the Big B on his 60th birthday.

Only I dare not keep my coffee cup on my coffee table in case it spills over one of the most beautiful-looking books I have seen in my life. My kitchen scales won’t take it, but at a guess, the book weighs about four kilo. It is far too heavy to be balanced on the knee and, I suggest, should be read spread out on one’s writing or dining table. Plastered discreetly just above the Big B’s eyebrow on the cover is the price and there is nothing small about it — Rs 2,950. Both the front and back covers have the Big B’s face in huge close-up. Leaving aside the bigness and the price, the introduction promises that a paperback edition, and in different languages, is also in the offing. So the common man (and woman) will hopefully get a peek into Amitabh Bachchan’s life and films.

The book is a professional job from cover to cover. The photographs of Bachchan are mesmerizing and excellently displayed. Family albums, stills from films, revealing moments on the sets with film associates — from top directors to humble co-workers, and personal reminiscences by his wife, son, daughter and son-in-law (written with loving care) recount every facet of his character, moods and values. There is a long conversation-interview by Khalid Mohamed in the beginning of the book, which was inspired by Jaya. Mohamed has perhaps seen Bachchan’s films, and met and written about him more than most writers on cinema. This has helped to establish a rapport which is evident from the probing questions he asks and the candid answers he gets.

Bachchan not only has a beautiful speaking voice (which Satyajit Ray used in Shatranj ke Khilari) but he is also a very articulate man. He is easy to follow because his sentiments about the many people and events in his life are frank, thoughtful and honest. Two quotes will suffice: “Anand: Rajesh Khanna — the word superstar was coined for him. I was noticed because of him. Here was a brilliant script and story, exceptionally handled by Hrishida. The film looked so real, it left millions of Rajesh Khanna fans emotionally disturbed.”

Sholay: “The role of Jai was narrated to me soon after the release of Zanjeer. From a stiff intense guy I was to play someone who has his moments of frivolity, which was quite a welcome change. Still, there were moments of sobriety with the widow played by Jaya and larkish ones with Veeru played by Dharmendra. He was the extrovert...he had the punch lines while I was the brooding introvert. We were bracketed eventually as a likeable duo, we were crooks but merry crooks. We indulge in petty crimes but never in killing or bestiality.”

It is impossible, in the course of a short review, to go into more detail about what is a truly fascinating book. But evidently, The King can do No Wrong. Even if all the good things it says are true, the book need not have been hagiographic. There was a good deal of controversy, especially in Bachch-an’s personal life, which is not even mentioned in passing here. And in an otherwise meticulous production, I can point out several typographical errors. Most of all, one misses an index. I had a very hard time finding a few lines on Kaun Banega Crorepati, although Bach- chan’s films are listed in chronological order. The book is evidently a rush job but it is a very good one in the circumstances. One hopes the next edition is better.

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