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How KA Abbas gave Amitabh Bachchan his big break

Writer-director K.A. Abbas recalls how he ended up casting a lanky unknown as the lead in his film Saat Hindustani

A promotional still from 'Saat Hindustani'. Amitabh Bachchan is on the far right. Courtesy Penguin Random House India
A promotional still from 'Saat Hindustani'. Amitabh Bachchan is on the far right. Courtesy Penguin Random House India

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I used to see eight to ten photos every day. So I had very little hope of finding a suitable face. I glanced casually at the photo; it was demi-sized but there was something there which made me look again, carefully. First, the boy was very tall; second, his eyes were beautiful; third, he was wearing the clothes I wanted this character to wear: churidar pyjamas, kurta and Jawahar jacket.

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I had no idea who he was, where he was from or whose son he was! Was he educated or was he a ‘matric fail’? ‘I will meet him day after tomorrow.’ (The next day I had to write Last Page and Azad Qalam for Blitz.)

Jalal’s friend said, ‘Fine, Sir, he will be here.’ I thought he was from Bombay.

‘I will wait for him until then . . . but no longer. Because this is why the film is stuck!’

‘The boy will be here,’ Jalal’s friend assured me.

On the appointed day, the young man stood before me. Tall, thin, fair and shy. I took one look at him . . . Anwar Ali, just as I had imagined him. I asked, ‘When can you start work?’ '

Work?’ he was startled. But his voice had a fine timbre, sounded good. ‘At once.’ ‘But,’ I said disclosing all the facts, ‘this film has seven heroes; the seventh is, in fact, a heroine. We can’t give more than 5000 to anyone—neither the seniors nor the juniors.’

'Sone Chandi Ke Buth', by K.A. Abbas; published by Penguin Random House India 240 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599
'Sone Chandi Ke Buth', by K.A. Abbas; published by Penguin Random House India 240 pages, 599

‘I agree,’ the boy said. ‘But won’t you take any tests?’

‘No, we don’t take tests.’

‘I have the results of three or four tests. Should I show them to you?’

‘No. I don’t want to see others’ tests. By the way, who took these tests?’ He named four famous producers (if I reveal their names, it would be an insult).

I said, ‘In any case, I don’t take tests; I take the artist on face value.’

He smiled; an innocent look. The smile then extended to his eyes. ‘I didn’t understand . . . other producers took repeated tests, including dialogue delivery tests. They measured me, weighed me.’

‘And then?’ I asked.

‘Rejected. They said I was too tall, too ungainly, looked like a caricature and no heroine would want to work with me.’

‘This is irrelevant for me. I have six heroes, one heroine, and she is new. I have found the boy I was looking for.’

‘Found?’ he repeated my sentence.

‘Yes, found,’ I said.

‘Who is he?’ he asked.

‘You! Who else!’

Amitabh staggered, held the edge of the table. ‘What do I have to do?’

‘Sign a contract. I assume you can read?’ He told me he had graduated from Delhi University. He had performed in many college plays. To this, he added that he had been employed in a major Calcutta firm at 1,400 per month. He had a free car, free flat. The emphasis was on ‘had’. ‘Until yesterday, not now.’

‘Why?’ I asked, a deliberately foolish question.

‘I resigned.’

‘Why?’

‘You called, so I came.’

‘I called only to see you. No one told me that you were in Calcutta. Had I known, I would have thought a dozen times.’

Then I made a mental calculation. ‘No train runs so fast. You flew down to Bombay?’

‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘Ajitabh! Did he not mention this to you? He sent me a telegram, which stated: “Role fixed in Saat Hindustani. Have to report day after tomorrow.”’

I exclaimed, ‘He told you such a big lie! What if I had refused to take you?’

‘I would have tried elsewhere! Sunil Dutt Sahib is planning a new film. Perhaps he would have taken me. In any case, I was fed up with the Kolkata job.’

In my heart, I appreciated the courage of this young man who had left a steady job on such a flimsy hope. Hope and self-confidence, a good combination.

I said, ‘You can go to my secretary and sign the contract. But first answer a few questions. Name?’

‘Amitabh.’

‘Can’t be only Amitabh. Amitabh what?’

‘Bachchan. Amitabh Bachchan.’

Alarm bells. ‘Are you related to Dr Bachchan?’

‘Yes,’ he hesitated, ‘he is my father.’

‘Then this contract cannot be signed today. He is my old friend. I cannot give you this contract without his permission.’

‘So send him a telegram asking him. He will reply by tomorrow. But I have already written to him, telling him everything.’

‘I cannot write all this in a telegram. It has to be a detailed letter. I will write to him now and ask for a reply by telegram. You can go now. If we get his permission, you have nothing to worry about. You can come the next day and sign the contract.’

Amitabh left. On the third day, the telegram came. ‘If he is working with you, I am happy.’

Now I had no apprehensions, so I signed on Amitabh for 5,000. We then began the rehearsals. All the characters and roles were deliberately scrambled, mixed up. The characters had to act ‘out of their natural persona’.

Famous Bengali actor Utpal Dutt had to act as a Punjabi and deliver the dialogues accordingly. Malayali actor Madhu had to act as a Bengali and learn Bangla. Jalal had to abandon his dapper suits, wear a Maharashtrian dhoti and let the barber take off his beautiful curly hair. Madhu from Meerut had to speak Hindi in a Tamil accent and Anwar Ali (brother of Mahmood and producer of Khuddar) had to speak pure, Sanskritized Hindi.

Amitabh as a Bihari Muslim poet had to sing, not recite Urdu couplets, just like my friend, the poet Majaz, used to do. In two days, I realized that whatever instruction was given to Amitabh became ‘set in stone’ for him. He was the best student of our ‘school’.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Sone Chandi Ke Buth’, by K.A. Abbas, published by Penguin Random House India.

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  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    04.08.2022 | 10:22 AM IST

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