Another story! How Amitabh took his only western film role, not the only role he had ever been offered, but the only role he chose to take. And no, of course it wasn’t for the money.
In 2009, there was a sudden burst of violence against Indians in Australia. Or there was a sudden burst of reporting of violence against Indians in Australia. Either way, it was a real issue that came to the fore of the national consciousness. Baz Luhrman, famous film director, is proudly Australian. He is also proudly a fan of the Indian artistic aesthetic. Not Indian culture as a whole, although he isn’t a non-fan of that, but as a visual artist, he appreciates the stage traditions, the clothing styles, and yes, the films. In 1993, before he became a world famous director, he put on a stage play of Midsummer Night’s Dream in Sydney using colonial era Indian aesthetics (an idea originating with his future wife, the play’s production designer).
Baz has many artistic interests, India is one of a number of influences, but it was always there in his work more than in other Western artists. Partly because he was Australian, it is just more accessible there. Australia has a long connection to India, which is easy to understand purely based on geography. Shipping routes, airlines, and just climate zones, all put the two countries close to each other. Indian soldiers were often stationed in Australia, and vice versa. That’s how Fearless Nadia ended up in India, her father was an Australian soldier stationed in India her entire childhood. When Baz first became interested in the Indian artistic aesthetic, it was easy for him to learn more, to even travel to India and buy silks and investigate old palaces and so on, to design the look he wanted.
So in 2009 when suddenly the hatred and racism in Australia towards those of Indian descent was brought forward, Baz was personally devestated. He felt terrible, as an Australian, that his country was doing such things and wanted to make a personal atonement. So he and a friend and fellow artist decided they would go on a motorcycle trip across India, creating public art along the way, trying to tie their two countries together through personal interactions and art. Baz took a break in preparing for his next film, an adaptation of The Great Gatsby, in order to make the trip.
His friend was a portrait artist and, once they reached Bombay, he wanted to make a portrait of Amitabh Bachchan as part of his series of peace and harmony and friendship between Australia and Indian artworks. Baz and his friend went to Amitabh’s house and knocked on the door, explained what they wanted, and were invited inside. Amitabh and Jaya sat with them in the living room, talked with them about their project and the purpose behind it, shared food, met as fellow humans and friends, and Amitabh agreed to have his portrait done.
At some point in the conversation, Baz mentioned that he was preparing for The Great Gatsby and would love to have Amitabh a part of it. Amitabh was interested, they talked about it. Baz returned to Australia, and he and Amitabh stayed in touch with phone calls, coordinating filming schedules and so on. No agents, no producers, no “people”, just Baz and Amitabh chatting on their personal phone numbers. Amitabh set aside as much time as was needed, not only filmed his scenes, but even flew out for the premieres. And never was money discussed, at any point. Or a promotion campaign for his “American debut”, or how he might be up for international awards, or any of it. I am sure he was paid, but that was not why he did it.
If you see The Great Gatsby on Amitabh’s filmography and wonder why he was in that movie and not, for instance, in Slumdog Millionaire where a role was actually written for him, it is because of the context. He won’t do an overseas role for fame, or money. But he will do it as a gesture of peace and friendship, when it is offered as a gesture of peace and friendship.