Another positivity post! Which is also slightly informative, if you are trying to follow this news story, or any Amitabh news story really.
Freedom of the Press is a tricky thing when it comes to personal stories of public figures. I suppose the line is hypocrisy versus privacy. If my wife is a drug addict, and I am leading a campaign for incarceration for all addicts at the same time, that is hypocrisy and the press has a right to challenge my public statements with my private business. But if my wife is a drug addict and I never speak publicly or deal in any way with drug related issues, than it is simply wrong for the press to make my private pain into front page news.
In general, this is still the rule for Indian film press. And I’m okay with that. If people in same-sex relationships, or open marriages, or struggling with drug addiction want their privacy to deal with their issues, that should be their right. So long as they are not the ones making it a public issue.
The exception to this rule is when a star becomes so big that it is just too tempting to report the secret things. Or, when there is outside political pressure that makes you bend your own morality and break the rules of the press. Both of those things are true in the case of Amitabh Bachchan.
In the early 80s, a story broke which absolutely crossed the line for Amitabh and made him cut off press access completely for years. And it was NOT the story of the affair with Rekha. That was of the first kind, Rekha gave interview after interview claiming an affair and (although this broke the unspoken privacy rules a little bit), the media couldn’t resist running with it. Amitabh was just too big, his marriage to Jaya too temptingly perfect, the media just had to burst that balloon. And Amitabh and Jaya cared, enough to try to prevent the story from getting bigger by stopping public acknowledgement of Rekha, but not so much that it made them cut off press access.
No, the story that lead to that was a rumor that Amitabh used his connections to the Gandhi family to punish papers who printed stories against him. Honestly, I could believe this story. I could believe it happening with or without Amitabh’s knowledge, party workers leaning on newspapers in an attempt to please their leaders. But I don’t believe it because Amitabh’s response showed that he had an innate shock and horror at the idea. Instead, I believe that anti-Congress political figures leaned on the papers to print it. Or at the very least, the awareness that those political figures would give them cover if they printed it, lead to them breaking the story.
For years in the 80s, Amitabh politely and calmly removed himself from the press. It wasn’t just that he gave no interviews, if a newspaper photographer was taking pictures, he would excuse himself and back up a few feet to avoid the camera. If you called his house about a story, he would say “no comment” and hang up. Or just hang up. A commenter here recently confirmed what I had always understood, that during this time Amitabh remained scrupulously polite and respectful to journalists. He just would not talk to them. The people on the ground, the reporters and photographers dealing with this policy, they had no issues with him because he treated them with humanity and respect. It was the editors who were frustrated by the lack of content that drove a sense of anger, that he had no “right” to refuse access like that, and blacked out content on him in return, leaving a gap to be filled by rumors.
The fans didn’t care either. During this time, Amitabh started his policy of weekly greetings of the fans outside his house. There were no photos in the newspaper, but you could go see the man in person any time you wanted. I’ve also heard numerous stories from this time of people who approached him sideways, not through the media, and were received with warmth and openness. Scholars, researchers, writers from outside the regular Bombay press, all welcomed warmly to his home. A few years ago I gave a talk at a conference, and afterwards one of the people there mentioned that he had met Amitabh during this time. He was a little boy, his uncle was writing about Amitabh for some reason (I got the impression it was an in depth profile for a journal, not the standard newspaper reporting), his uncle brought him along, they walked along the beach and talked, and afterwards Amitabh showed him the beach, and let him sit in his fancy car. This is not a petty man angry at being asked questions, this is a professional man who calmly made the decision that it was not worth it to interact with the common press any more, not when there was so much reason for them to twist his words.
Sometime in the 90s, Amitabh opened himself up to the media again, but still in an extremely restricted way. If you interview Amitabh, there are things you are allowed to ask about and things you are not. If you veer off the chosen subject, he will simply say “I won’t talk about that”. You had also better show up on time, and show up prepared, treat it as a job not a casual visit.
This was frustrating for fans and, I believe, for Amitabh himself as well. He didn’t trust the media to act as intermediaries between himself and his public. He made as many opportunities as possible for direct connection (weekly viewings, ready to talk to pretty much anyone who came to his door, traveled the world doing concerts), but that still wouldn’t reach everyone. And then came social media, and Amitabh reached for it like the answer he had been wishing for his entire public life.
Amitabh calls his social media followers his “EF” or “extended family”, and that is how he treats them. He asks for help with technical issues on his tablet, he posts cute pictures of his grandkids, he reposts videos people send him of babies and animals doing funny things, he doesn’t act like an impressive movie star at all, he acts like a 70 year old Grandpa who is thrilled to be on the internet. Yes, when his movie is coming out, he will be sure to put up a trailer, and if you send him fan art or remind him of a movie anniversary, he will acknowledge it, but that is the extent of his “public persona” that you get on his social media feeds. Otherwise, it is all grandkids and complaints about technology and videos of babies eating ice cream. And the occasional philosophical question or quote from his father’s poems. The only time I can even remember him interacting with fellow movie stars on twitter, instead of fans, is when Shahrukh sent a message to him about how much fun he had playing board games at his house the night before, and Amitabh replied asking when he could come over again. It read like when your Grandpa and his friend get confused between private twitter chats and public, and that’s probably what it was.
If you want to know what is happening with the Bachchan family, Amitabh’s social media is the only reliable source, and the fastest best most honest source. That’s how the family operates. If something happens in their lives, Amitabh will tell his “EF” the same way he would tell a traditional “extended family”. At the moment that a regular person would pick up the phone to call their great-aunt and let them know the baby is born, Amitabh is on twitter telling the world. That’s how we found out Aishwarya was pregnant, even before the director of her next film knew, Amitabh went on twitter because he was so excited to tell people he was going to be a grandfather, and then the PR professionals had to play clean up after him.
So now, as the family is dealing with a complicated rapidly changing situation, I continue to follow the policy Amitabh has made clear. If something is happening, he will tell us personally, he will tell us immediately, and he will tell us clearly. Because he loves us, and believes we have a right to know.