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| Sunday, June 28, 2015 |
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When Big B was banned

Bharathi S. Pradhan Celebrity Circus
Bharathi S. Pradhan

Given his proximity to the family that imposed the Emergency and therefore to I&B minister V.C. Shukla, the media believed that Amitabh Bachchan had a big hand in the censorship of film magazines. Two years later, when the Emergency was lifted and Mrs Gandhi lost the elections, the editors of five top-selling film magazines of the day got together and decided that it was payback time. In an ill-advised move that was as undemocratic as the Emergency itself, the editors of magazines like Stardust, Cine Blitz and Star & Style decided to ban him. They did that on a perception and not on solid proof - which made it wrong and unethical as well.

Unlike current times, when even respectable dailies require daily supplements of film-related stories for survival and hundreds of TV channels thrive on large doses of entertainment news, in 1977, every non-film publication turned up its nose at anything filmic. Film star interviews and filmland stories were largely published only in the few film magazines that existed then. By banning Amitabh, the editors probably thought they were teaching the actor the lesson of his life.

When I crossed over from a daily newspaper to a magazine as a young collegian who worked part-time, I was categorically told not to meet or interview Amitabh anymore. Hey, I cried, that's not fair. He was always amiable, approachable and gave great copy. But that didn't matter as the editors' diktat prevailed over good sense. The media carried it to such ridiculous lengths that if there was a group photo where Amitabh figured, he was either cut out or blanked out. Amitabh became so conscious of this reverse censoring that he began to accommodate the editors in the most co-operative manner possible.

"I stand at the extreme left or extreme right of every group photograph, so it's easier for you to cut me out," he said to me. Although we never spoke about the ban, I must mention here that he impeccably observed old world courtesies like opening the door or springing up from his chair when I walked into his set. It was said that he didn't allow journalists in his workspace and wouldn't give a shot if he spotted one around. I didn't personally experience the ban from his side but he would go to the furthest end of the set to avoid a conversation. I didn't blame him, I blamed the dreadful ban by the band of five. The short-sighted editors had managed to turn a cordial and trusted relationship into a cold, uncommunicative one.

Short-sighted because what the editors failed to read was that the actor they had banned would very soon become a superstar, a one-man industry. After a spate of box office hits like Deewaar (1975), Sholay (1975), Kabhi Kabhie (1976), Hera Pheri (1976), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) and Trishul (1978), he couldn't care less about the magazines but they couldn't do without him anymore. Desperate overtures began to be made by the same editors who'd banned him.

It was pathetic to watch some of them grovel by selecting him as the Best Actor of the Year and sending him sweet notes inviting him to their awards functions. Amitabh continued to maintain a dignified distance from them and sharply observed that after ignoring him all these years, after making up categories like Parallel Hero and Circular Hero, they were finally forced to bestow the ultimate Best Actor trophy on him. But whatever its name, he wasn't about to accept any trophy from any of the magazines.

As a part of Rajiv Gandhi's inner coterie, when he took on heavyweight H.N. Bahuguna in the 1984 elections (post Mrs G's assassination) and won thunderously, he became even more powerful. The editors who had banned him seemed puny in comparison.

Only in 1989 did he relent when his political bête noire V.P. Singh became the Prime Minister. Fearing persecution and prosecution, Amitabh sent his old PR man Gopal Pandey to invite a few of us for exclusive interviews with him. I remember meeting him over lunch in his make-up room when he was shooting for Ajooba, the film his friend and co-star of many movies, Shashi Kapoor, was directing. It was as if there'd never been a gap in the communication as AB horsed around the set calling Shashi Kapoor "Ceausescu" (the Romanian dictator who'd just been executed) and the stiffness in our equation soon vanished. He told me, "I'm going to be jailed," and that became my cover highlight. That statement with AB on the cover sold like hotcakes and ended his decade-long ban on the media.

Whether Indira's Emergency or the editors' ban on Amitabh, India will hopefully never see such dark chapters again.

Hey, psst: Rati Agnihotri was in the ICU for a day, so I went to visit her at home. And guess who joined us for a cosy evening full of food and fun? Her estranged husband, Anil Virwani. You heard it first here. There's a settlement in the offing.

Bharathi S. Pradhan is a senior journalist and author