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Book excerpt: Saat Hindustani and the entry of a new star, Amitabh Bachchan


In an excerpt from the book Bread Beauty Revolution, writer-filmmaker-journalist Khwaja Ahmad Abbas recounts how he found his Urdu-speaking Muslim fanatic.

Our Correspondent

On this day half a century ago, a star was born. Well, not literally. Amitabh Bachchan wasn't born on 7 November 1969. That was the date he made his acting debut in a film with not one or two but seven leads! (He had made his cinema debut six months earlier by providing the voiceover in Mrinal Sen's Hindi breakthrough film Bhuvan Shome.)

The film was Khwaja Ahmad Abbas's Saat Hindustani. Of course, neither did the film zoom to the top of the box-office charts nor did the filmmaker's 'discovery' become a star overnight — stardom was still a hard four-year grind away — but, well, at least he was on his way after several attempts.

Bread Beauty Revolution: Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, 1914-1987, a selection of writings encapsulating the ideas and ideals of the filmmaker, novelist, screenwriter, journalist, short story writer and playwright, includes a chapter titled The Scrambled Seven, in which Abbas recounts his first encounter with the gangly young man who was to become Hindi cinema's biggest superstar and his casting in Saat Hindustani.

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Following is an extract from the book, edited by independent filmmaker Iffat Fatima and Syeda Saiyidain Hameed, cultural, social and women’s rights activist, educationist, writer and chair of the Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust:

I wanted to prove by my casting that there was no particular Hindu or Muslim, Tamilian, Maharashtrian or Bengali ethnic “type”. To begin with, I would transform the smart, sophisticated and versatile Jalal Agha into the Maharashtrian Powada singer. Even Jalal was shocked to hear this. But I reassured him that, with the proper make-up and get-up, nobody would recognize him except as a rural Maharashtrian folk singer. Madhukar, who hails from Meerut, would be a Tamilian; Sharma (Brahmin by caste) would also undergo a similar transformation; and Utpal Dutt, the cigar-chewing admiral [a role Dutt had played memorably in the play Kallol], would be the tractor-driving Punjabi farmer.

So far the casting was clear in my mind. Now only the Hindi and Urdu fanatics were left. Jalal one day brought with him his friend Anwar Ali (brother of the comedian Mehmood), in whose eyes I saw the Jana Sanghi fanaticism. So I decided to make him the Swayamsevak who hates Urdu and speaks jaw-breaking Hindi. That left one Indian, the Muslim Urdu fanatic. Since I wanted these boys to be of different ages and different heights, the one vacancy left was for a tall and handsome man. He had to be thin, also corresponding to the thin image of my friend, the late Asrarul Haque 'Majaz'.

One day someone brought a snapshot of a tall young man and I thought that the boy was in Bombay. I said, “Let me see him in person”. On the third day, punctually at 6 pm, a tall young man arrived who looked taller because of the churidar pajama and Jawahar jacket that he was wearing. This young man would one day be known as Amitabh Bachchan, the heart-throb of millions. But I did not know his name. Roughly, the following dialogue took place between us:

“Sit down, please. Your name?"

“Amitabh.” (Not Bachchan.)

It was an unusual name, so I asked, “What does it mean?”

“The sun. It’s also one of the synonyms for the Gautama Buddha.”

“Education?”

“BA from Delhi University.”

“Have you worked in films before?”

“No one has taken me so far.”

“Who were they?”

He mentioned very prominent names.

“What did they find wrong with you?” The boy spoke with frankness. “They all said I was too tall for their heroines.”

“Well, we have no such trouble. In a way we have no heroine in our film. Even if we had, that wouldn’t prevent me from taking you.”

“Taking me? Are you really going to take me? Without even a test?”

“That depends. First I must tell you the story. Then I must tell you your role and see if you will be enthusiastic about playing it. Then I shall tell you what we can afford to pay you. Only then, if you agree, shall we sign the contract.”

I told him we could pay him no more than five thousand rupees, which was the standard figure for all the roles.

He seemed a little hesitant, and I asked him, “Are you earning more than that?”

“I was,” he said.

I asked him what he meant.

He said that he was getting about sixteen hundred a month in a firm in Calcutta. “I resigned the job and came over.”

I was astonished. “You mean to say that you resigned a job of sixteen hundred rupees a month just on the chance of getting this role! Suppose we can’t give the role to you?”

He said, “One has to take such chances”, with such conviction that I said, “The role is yours.”

Then I called my secretary, Abdul Rehman, to dictate the contract. I asked the young man for his name and address.

“Amitabh...,” after some hesitation, “Amitabh Bachchan, son of Dr HR Bachchan.”

“Stop,” I said. “This contract cannot be signed until I telegraph and get your father’s consent. He is a colleague of mine on the Sovietland Nehru Award Committee. I wouldn’t like to have a misunderstanding with him. I am afraid you will have to wait for two days more.”

“You can ask my Dad, but frankly, do I look like a runaway?”

I told him that runaways don’t have any particular look. So I dictated, instead of the agreement, a telegram to Dr Bachchan in New Delhi and asked him if he was willing to let his son become an actor. Two days later a telegram came reading, “No objection where you are concerned.” This is the whole story about how Amitabh Bachchan came into films.

Excerpt from the book Bread Beauty Revolution, reproduced with permission from the Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust. Click here to buy the book online.