Hindi Film 101: Abhishek Bachchan, the Quiet Prince

I just wrote about Aish and was surprised that I hadn’t written about her before. In contrast, with Abhishek I know I haven’t written about him before and I’m not quite comfortable even know. He is growing so much before our eyes, I don’t think anything I write now will be the end of his story, I don’t think I can even predict how his story will end.

Usual Disclaimer: I don’t know these people, I have no special knowledge, this is just how it appears to me based on publicly available sources.

Abhishek Bachchan carries with him, always, the curse of being the son of a Great Man. And he carries it remarkably lightly. He has quietly made a professional place for himself that is utterly different from his father’s place, and a personal place within the family that compliments but does not conflict with the place his father has.

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It was not always like this, of course, there were growing pains. But the remarkable thing is how quickly Abhishek grew up, so fast that now you don’t even think about it. Now, today, Abhishek is known as an excellent comic actor, good in an ensemble, and not afraid to stretch himself and take on unusual roles that require a more naturalistic sort of acting. You don’t think of him as “I will hire Amitabh’s son”, you think of him as “I will hire Abhishek Bachchan, familiar actor to the industry and the audience with a set of unique skills.” In the same way, within the Bachchan family, Abhishek is known as the one most likely to give a personal interview, the one who acts as spokesperson when his father is unavailable, and generally understood to be his father’s primary support and caregiver. That’s kind of amazing, to have a child of someone so incredibly successful find their own way in the same industry, and find an independent place in their family. It’s a credit to Abhishek’s talent and intelligence and strength of character, and a credit to the parents who raised him.

Abhishek was born into his father’s peak of fame, he literally has never known a life without reporters around him. And he enjoyed it, it didn’t bother him. In contrast, his older sister Shweta always hated the crowds and attention, from birth. Their parents accommodated that. If Abhishek wanted to go on a walk with his Dad, he could go on a walk with his Dad, and yes there would be photographers around and people coming up to him, but if it didn’t bother Amitabh and Abhishek, that wasn’t a problem. On the other hand, if Shweta wanted to spend time with her father, they would arrange a family trip overseas so she could go for a walk with Dad and not worry about the crowds who scared her. I truly do not think the Bachchan’s make a strong gender division between their children in terms of career, I don’t think Abhishek was forced into acting and Shweta forced way from it because of gender. The reason Abhishek was always marked to carry on his parents’ performing careers, and to be the public face of the next generation, is because he wanted it, he could handle it. Shweta was protected, Shweta was allowed to have her private life, but Abhishek, the little boy who smiled and waved at the reporters, he was brought up with an understanding that of course he would go into the family business.

We are sure this childhood picture of Abhishek Bachchan shared by ...
Let’s be real, Shweta was cuter than Abhishek anyway. Funny lookin’ little boy.

Abhishek and Shweta went to local schools and high schools, took family trips, visited Grandma and Grandpa down the block, had a happy childhood. Sometimes those family trips were location shooting with Dad, sometimes they were getaways to Dubai where they could be anonymous, but it was still family, still just them and their Mom and sometimes Dad. The biggest trauma of their childhood was in 1982, when Abhishek was 7 and Shweta 8 and their father almost died. They visited him in the hospital, and he made a little joke about all the tubes, and that was the only time they saw him for weeks. But then he came home, and got better, and life continued on. My impression is that, no matter what was happening in the larger world, Amitabh and Jaya kept their home and their children safe and happy. Amitabh almost died, Amitabh ran for political office, Amitabh had rumors around him of affairs, none of that really touched his children. They were a close family and a tight unit. When it came time to leave home, they left together. Shweta and Abhishek were sent overseas to study at Boston University together, despite the year age difference, Shweta waiting a year until Abhishek was old enough. Their parents even rented them a shared apartment off campus so they could live together.

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At 23, Abhishek returned from Boston (didn’t bother graduating, the point wasn’t the degree, it was the overseas independent growing up experience), ready to be launched in movies. Not “ready” like “I want this”, but “ready” like “has the skills, has the confidence, has the maturity and levelheadedness to handle it”. There was a lot of pressure on him from the media at this point, he was Amitabh Bachchan’s son after all, and this was a post-Hrithik era when every first film was expected to be a blockbuster, or else considered a flop. But Abhishek shook that all off and just focused on the work. He took a good role in a cross-border romance movie, opposite Kareena Kapoor, a fellow big name launch and the younger sister of the woman he had just started dating. The movie, Refugee, did okay box office and Abhishek got modestly encouraging reviews. He released two other movies that same year, including his first film opposite his future wife Aishwarya Rai. He was 23-24 at the time of filming, she was 26 and 3 years into her career. He was also engaged to his girlfriend Karisma by this point, while she was seriously dating Salman Khan.

Abhishek released 3 movies in 2000, only one in 2001, then 3 in 2002, an astonishing 5 in 2003, and SIX in 2004. Every once in a while, people will talk about how Abhishek had so many flops and still got chances because of his name, blah blah blah. Well, maybe he had so many flops because he WORKED SO MUCH!!! Between the ages of 24 and 28, Abhishek made 18 movies. While other star children get a dream launch and then dance through handpicked roles in follow up films, or have a lousy start and give up because it is too hard, Abhishek put his head down and worked like he needed the money.

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Also, he had really bad hair like he needed money. Maybe that was what inspired him? He would only let himself get a decent hair cut once he had a hit film?

At the time, his films were a mix of flops and modest hits, nothing remarkable. But if you go back and watch them now, you would be surprised by how very good he was even in those early roles. Those first 18 movies include Mumbai Se Aaye Mere Dost, LOC Kargil, Kuch Na Kaho, Run, Yuva, Hum-Tum, Dhoom, and Naach. If you’ve seen any of those movies, think back on them. Abhishek was really good, wasn’t he? Not spectacular in a splashy way, but sincerely good. Especially considering he was running from set to set working 20 hour days, and wasn’t even 28 yet.

I should say, of those 18, some of them were smaller roles. But that says something also. Abhishek carving out the time to do an extended cameo in Hum-Tum, or Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon, or Phir Milenge, that says that he had respect for the industry and humility for his part in it. And an awareness of the long term value in building those connections and doing favors for people.

During this time, Abhishek was dogged by one real media story, and dozens of false ones. The one real one was that he was dating Karisma, they were engaged, and then something happened (generally agreed to be a falling out between the mothers), and they were un-engaged. It all happened very early on, he’d hardly been launched yet. But there was a clear confirmation visible to everyone, he made 2 hit films with Kareena including their mutual launch film, and suddenly they would not be cast again. Ever. Kareena does not forgive you when you mess with her big sister. Once the Karisma relationship imploded, the press became desperate to create another relationship story for him. Literally every co-star he acted with became a rumored girlfriend. Rani Mukherjee was one of the more persistent rumors, possibly just because they had such great chemistry onscreen.

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Also rumored to be dating Esha Deol. Largely to fulfill the “Jai’s son marries Veeru and Basanti’s daughter” fantasy that everyone wanted to be true.

Abhishek’s first moment of people sitting up and going “wow, the boy can act” came opposite Rani Mukherjee. That’s kind of too bad, because their chemistry ended up making folks think of it as a joint role, like “Rani-and-Abhishek were so good in that movie” instead of “Rani, and also Abhishek, were both good in that movie”. The film was Yuva, a Mani Ratnam movie, which was made in both Tamil and Hindi. There was a different cast in the Tamil version, you can compare Abhishek’s performance with Madhavan’s. Personally, I think Abhishek’s performance is as good if not better.

2004 was Abhishek’s break out year, he had Yuva that showed he could act, and Dhoom that showed he could be a fun mainstream light film star. That was his career moving forward. The occasional dead serious subtle remarkable performance, and a bunch of really fun funny roles. You know the old acting saying “dying is easy, comedy is hard”? That’s what Abhishek proved true. He is very good at comedy. While other young actors did the tragic love stories and sad suicidal heroes, Abhishek did comedy. And when he got a chance to do a true dramatic role, not a simple tragedy but more a human story, he completely blows his contemporaries away.

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Must be said, Abhishek and Rani in Yuva were just electric.

Abhishek was lucky in his parents, not because they were famous but because they raised him to be smart and strong and sure of himself. And he was also very lucky in his timing. He could do many films a year, and none of them were big hits, and he wasn’t labeled as a “flop actor” or a “failure”. There was no social media campaign against him for nepotism, the critics weren’t influenced to like or dislike him based on anything besides his performances. So he made a strong first impression, and then worked incredibly hard for 4 years and learned his craft and earned a higher level of respect in the industry. Then kept working very hard to keep that respect.

Somewhere in there, he also figured out how to present himself in person. There was the Karisma story, which he never acknowledged. But then there were all the rumors of other relationships, which he learned to handle with a joke and a smile and nothing else. His standard date to industry events was his little niece. Or his mother. He never played the schoolboy role, never the young innocent who didn’t understand the question, he seemed older than his years and like he found all this interest in his personal life almost amusing. When he started dating Aishwarya Rai, there was a lot of discussion of the relationship, of Aish “landing” him, but no one seemed to think about her being 2 and a half years older than him and far more romantically experienced. It’s Abhishek, he just feels older, more experienced and in control than any woman he could be with.

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I’m shocked now, looking at the ages, Abhishek was only 29 when they started dating. That’s 4 years younger than Varun Dhawan is now, Varun who everyone still thinks of as “boyish”. That’s Tiger Shroff’s age, can you imagine Tiger Shroff dating Anushka Sharma and everyone going “oh yeah, that makes sense”? But it’s Abhishek, somehow everyone felt like he was in control, he could have any woman, he was the prize here and the one in charge. So they started dating, and in a year they were married. Which changed Abhishek’s position both in the industry and within his family far less than you would expect.

Normally, marriage in India is seen as the coming of age ritual. It means a boy is now a Man, he takes on responsibilities within the family and the world. But somehow Abhishek always felt like a Man. Marrying Aishwarya didn’t change the way he stepped up as family spokesperson when needed, or accompanied his father as assistant/caregiver/next in line to major events. It didn’t change the kind of roles he got onscreen either, he still played the comic relief, or the occasional serious lead role, just as before. Even Aishwarya having their daughter didn’t much change things, he kept on as before, slowly expanding the Bachchan empire (it was his idea to invest in professional sports leagues, an investment that has paid off more than anything his father did with their money), and working steadily.

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The crisis came when he turned 40. I guess that’s not unexpected, it’s a crisis point for a lot of people. And it was really only a “crisis” because he was Abhishek, he was completely solid and reliable and adult, he wasn’t supposed to have these emotions and complications and confusions like every other artist. So at age 40, he dropped out of a movie at the absolute last minute and then announced he didn’t want to do this any more, didn’t want to be the smiling part of the ensemble, he wanted to do work that fulfilled him instead.

And then within weeks, he had turned it back around again. He found the work he wanted, and he dug in and started doing it. Manmarziyaan, then Ludo, than Breathe, and two more movies in waiting. All of them strange movies and seemingly strange roles, not hero parts at all, and not parts that will bring him a lot of money and fame. I’m selfishly sad because his comedy talent is enormous and I miss seeing that in big fun films. But I am also happy for him, if this is the kind of work that fulfills him, than the past 20 years must have been a long hard slog with only a few bright spots.

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More people need to see him in Manmarziyaan, he took the less interesting less showy and far harder role, and made it work.

You know, writing this out, I really didn’t spend much time on Abhishek’s personal life. As I write it out, I am realizing that his personal life just isn’t that interesting. He is a good son who loves his parents and stays close to them (physically and emotionally, he and Aish live either in the same house or next door). He had one failed engagement right at the start of his career that ended for reasons unrelated to himself (no cheating or anything exciting like that), and then he worked very very hard for 5 years, before getting married at 30 to a woman he had known for a long time. Had a daughter 4 years after marriage. And that’s it.

There are things we can fill in, but they aren’t juicy celebrity things, just every day things. I am sure he dated in college before he was famous, I am sure he had other relationships between Karisma and Aishwarya, but that’s not really exciting, that’s just what you do in your twenties. I am sure he and Aish got engaged so quickly after they started dating because they already knew each other so well, had been friends for years, so dating felt easy. But that’s not unusual, I know loads of couples with a similar “once we got together, it felt like we had been together forever because we knew each other so well” story. I am sure he and Aish had infertility issues, which can be mapped out by Aish’s start and stop filming schedules during those 4 years post-marriage, that’s just sad, not unusual at all. I know, because he said it, that he and his father are very close but his father has a hard time saying “I love you” or “I am proud of you” or revealing any emotion to him. Unfortunately, between fathers and sons, that’s probably more common than uncommon. I know his mother dotes on him, I know in their family it is understood that his father adores his sister and can be open with her and he is the same with his mother. Again, an everyday situation. Really, there is just nothing there that makes Abhishek, The Man, stand out.

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I guess that’s the most remarkable thing about him. Here is a man born to fame, wealth, privilege. And he somehow managed to grow into a person who is just like everyone else.

10 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: Abhishek Bachchan, the Quiet Prince

  1. Refugee definitely underperformed especially as a AB Jr – Bebo launch. & almost all his films post that featuring him in the lead role flopped. Bluffmaster is the one film which hit the mark but he was never able to build on that. By the time he began accepting multi hero projects (Yuva) & bit roles (Hum Tum, Phir Milenge) it was understood that he wasn’t hero material. If it wasn’t for YRF handing him the Dhoom series as a resurrection of sorts, things would be much worse for him career wise. It’s a standing joke how his character even in the Dhoom films keeps getting more sidelined as demonstrated in the posters. This is where being a star kid makes a difference. Multiple lifelines being handed to you.

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  2. When talking about the curse of the Big Father ,can’t help comparing with Dulquer Salmaan’s who was in the exact same predicament. But from the start both Mammooty & DQ made a conscious effort to stay away from each other in the public eye. DQ never FELT like a star- kid,let alone a Megastar kid. Compare that against Abhishek using his surname as his Twitter handle. There is not a moment when we aren’t reminded whose son he is. If he chose to play up his pedigree(knowingly or unknowingly),then comparisons and expectations from him would be higher & he didn’t match up to them. I know u may have watched Yuva first,but he cdnt bring a patch of the intensity that Madhavan brought in Tamil. Same goes for the Tamil version of Raavan. Watching someone else play the same role less self consciously than Abhishek is how I know he is never not Amitabh Bachan’s son. But I admire how affectionate he seems to be to both his wife,parents,sister and nephew/niece.

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    • See, I have the opposite feeling. If you are a great man’s son, better to acknowledge it up front. Dulquer still got the real advantages of who his father is, he was handed role after role after role, chance after chance. But without using his father’s name, he left the impression that he got everything through merit, not connections. I prefer Abhishek who says “yes, I am Amitabh’s son, I am proud of that and proud of my family, and I’m not going to hide it.” Dulquer may not have felt like a star kid, but I can’t imagine he would have been handed the role in Mahanati, and this his part would have been so large, if he weren’t Mammootty’s son. It’s not just about the public knowing who he is, it’s about his Dad picking up the phone and helping him, or just people in the meeting with him knowing him since he was a little boy and vice versa.

      On Wed, Jul 22, 2020 at 1:19 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. I sort of agree with you…I don’t think AB is a great actor…okay in some roles..but nothing really to speak off…and I definitely think he got so many chances and plum roles only because of his connections and friendships…

    But I admire his real persona…he is a thorough gentleman…I get why everyone in the industry likes him and wants to cast him…funny story…I actually met AB and Kareena way back during Refugee promotions…it was a small dinner with the cast/producer/director…I was there because of family connections (long story!)…anyway…AB decided to ditch the adults and spent the entire time on the kids table…he drew us into conversation…told us filming stories…got us soda…he was just all-around awesome…I will never forget that…

    Kareena on the other hand was another story…she refused to speak to the kids (or anyone else really)…spent the entire dinner focussed on her food, nails, hair…no cellphones at that time but she found a way to zone out…

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    • I think he probably got a lot of roles through friendship, but I do think he is a good actor. That’s subjective of course though, impossible to measure. One thing that occurs to me is that I think he leaned on his connections far less than he could have. He could have pushed for more bigger high profile roles, he could have turned up his nose at ensemble parts, he could have been a real brat basically. But he seems to have taken parts with old friends when offered, and been grateful for them and worked hard, nothing more than that. Now, in the past two years, he’s not even doing that. He’s taking totally useless parts that no other actor of his stature would want with people he has no connection to just because he finds the work interesting. Ludo is the Life…In a Metro sequel that Basu was trying to get off the ground for years and just could not put together a cast, Abhishek took it when no other actor wanted it. And Anurag Kashyap was completely converted to him after Manmarziyaan, as an actor and also as a humble sincere hardworking cast member with no star behavior., even though he was dubious about him going into filming.

      Thank you for your story! That matches the impression I have always had of him. Again, credit to his parents. Amitabh is like that as well, from similar stories I have heard (random people who met him). No ego, very kind, very nice, always thoughtful of other people. Clearly he raised his son with an understanding that he shouldn’t get above himself or think he is owed anything.

      Oh, and to swing this back to acting again, that attitude of being thoughtful of other people I think also comes through in his performances, specifically his excellent work with co-stars. I’ve heard of Amitabh as well that he is willing to rehearse with his co-stars, to do multiple takes, whatever they need to give their best performance, very different from the usual starry “I show up and do one take, I don’t care about you” attitude. So many co-stars with Abhishek I have found just a notch above than their work in anything else. Not like the really good actors who are always good, but the ones who are sometimes a bit shakey, Abhishek brings out the best in them. Uday in Dhoom versus anything else, Aish in Guru versus anything else, Katrina in Sarkar, Sonam in Delhi 6, even Lara Dutta in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom! Abhishek makes them look their best.

      On Wed, Jul 22, 2020 at 8:29 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • The story of Abishek hanging out at the kids table and telling them stories and getting them soda makes me smile so much and is just so believable based on his upbringing and personality.

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  4. If we cast off the nepotism thing aside(and the entire insider vs outsider debate where both extremes are getting extremely toxic),I think Abhishek is an okay actor,but not necessarily as a main actor.It is like Keira Knightley who keeps getting roles in period dramas despite looking nothing like the popular image of the characters she plays.But she really puts an effort and the sincerity shows.Abhishek too puts effort,but it ends up looking like trying too hard more often than not.But as a character actor he is competent.But as a not cut for main protagonist sort of actor,he got too many chances.Manmarziyan,Guru,Raavan made people recognize the not at all bad actor Abhishek.Way too many opportunities to reveal Abhishek,the *kid.
    Audience does seem to think that a child of a superstar has to be nothing less than a supernova,but sometimes actors are not perfect as a main character.Or not the main lead of a shlocky romcom superstar image we like to enforce on budding actors.There are so many parallel cinema actors of the 70s-80s whom we so fondly remember.Like Naseeruddin Shah,whom I can never picture as a main hero but he gives me chills as an antagonist.Or Faroukh Sheikh,whom I personally never liked as a main hero but he brought a certain vulnerability and relatability to his roles that even Rishi Kapoor couldn’t at the same age.Try to be too mainstream-cheesy Salman flicks(not all of them,but some are too bad).Try to be simply what you want to do without caring much for box office appeal-get labelled as a repetitive Ayushmann Khurrana film.
    I don’t think that *kids is the right term,even though I used it.It either indicates that they are just kids of stars,which is demeaning as if they are nothing without their parents,or that they are kids and gonna be stars,which is pretty much a lie(unless they can see the future).Nepotism has been prevalent always,social media and “B-Town Gossip” have only worsened it.Yes,actors get a kickstart due to nepotism.They can either justify it with their efforts like Alia,or just keep serving the *kid label that is put on them lovingly or demeaningly.Otherwise there is Shabana Azmi,the daughter of Kaifi Azmi(perhaps the greatest poet lyricist of Bollywood,and my personal favourite along with Gulzar and Amrohi)and Shaukat Azmi(who seems to have passed on to Shabana her genes for playing powerful negative characters).Then there is Tiger Shroff who is as good at acting as Vidyut Jamwal(which is to say,not much)but gets way more coverage as an “action hero” when I can see nothing but some average action moves aided by camera work.He is not bad,but is he good enough to qualify as an action hero?No.When was the last time we heard Tapsee doing a mainstream “Bollywood” movie not addressing any social issue(I don’t include Mission Mangal,as 1)she wasn’t the main character,2)it was horrendous caucophony, and 3)it was social,as in astronomy made a kitchen life drama)?No surprise nepotism and downfall in quality are going hand in hand.Sometimes this nepotism thing even ends the career of budding talents by giving them a false start.No wonder as they age,they are either forgotten or try to take up more substantial roles.

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    • And the entire thing about *kid taking a role nobody would take at that stature…stature as in *kid or as a universally acclaimed bankable megastar?We put too much pressure on them.Does a child of a star always have to do as well as their parents?Or do the kind of forgettable movies everyone else is doing?And by not being haughty,one can be a good person,not a good actor.Which is one thing I admire in Abhishek.No superstar tantrums or unnecessary attitude,when there is no reason to behave that way.Some actors(*kids or otherwise)have a terrible reputation for behaving that way.Most of the time this ego stems from their social media fan following.I rarely see directors getting so irritated or throwing tempers despite having so many accolades themselves.
      Except maybe Bhansali,who can create a scene.But he also brings out the best in the actors,cinematographers,editors,set designers,costume designers,sound engineers and everything else,except the story.

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      • I think directors can be equally difficult, it’s just less likely to be reported and discussed. Anurag Kashyap is a wonderful mentor and very generous, but I get the impression he can be a bit demanding sometimes on set. Subhash Ghai was a nightmare, so is/was Ram Gopal Varma.

        On Wed, Jul 22, 2020 at 9:49 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • I agree with your assessment of Abhishek, he doesn’t shine as the standard lead. Maybe that’s what lead to his recent career shift? Years of doing well playing comic relief and supporting roles, and struggling with failure after failure in the traditional leading man parts, he finally just had enough of trying to be something he isn’t. Now he is doing leading man roles, sort of, but not the sparkling fun movie star kind of roles.

      On Wed, Jul 22, 2020 at 9:38 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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