Abhishek Bachchan talks about the freedom that comes with streaming platforms, and why he won’t let COVID-19 steal his milestone year
The year 2000 was unforgettable for Abhishek Bachchan. His first film alongside débutante Kareena Kapoor, Refugee, by JP Dutta, premièred in June and it garnered more attention than it would have if the newcomers weren’t from the first families of Hindi cinema. In a recent interview with Rajeev Masand, Bachchan recalled how he and Kareena were nervously clutching each other’s hands during a special preview show for the cast’s families in Mumbai. It’s been a long two decades since that night. Over the years, the actor has dealt with hits, flops, acclaims and criticisms, but he vividly remembers that première even today.
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Likewise, 2020 will be etched in Bachchan’s memory forever. In his 20th year in films, he was looking forward to the release of two exciting projects: Amazon Prime Video’s Breathe: Into The Shadows, and Ludo, directed by Anurag Basu, a filmmaker he’d wanted to collaborate with for a while. The year was supposed to break a dry spell on screen for Bachchan who was last seen in Anurag Kashyap’s 2018 film, Manmarziyan, which itself had come after a two-year gap.
But just days after Breathe… — his web series début in July — he and his family contracted COVID-19. With everyone at home having recovered now, his focus is back on work. “I’m itching to be in front of the camera again,” Bachchan says, as he talks about Basu’s working style and the difference between web series and film on OTT:
This is your 20th year in cinema. How has your approach to films and acting changed from your début?
The passion is the same. My inquisitiveness is the same. So is the hunger to learn and improve. The one thing that has changed is that there is a bit more ease and comfort in front of the camera.
Apart from Anurag, what made you sign up for Ludo?
Just that. We got into the story and the script after I agreed to come on board. Working with dada [Anurag] is a bit like opening presents. You don’t know what’s going to be inside. He plays his cards close to his chest and doesn’t like to divulge too much to the actors. As an actor, you’re looking forward to going on set the next day to discover what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. In that sense, there’s a mystery around working with him.
- In Ludo, Bachchan is oft-accompanied by débutante Inayat Verma. The interactions between their characters — a ruffian missing his daughter and a little girl yearning for her parents’ affection — are one of the most endearing portions of the movie. “There was a bit of apprehension before she came on set,” he says of his six-year-old co-star.
- “When you are working with a child, you need to have a different level of patience. And Inayat’s character was the lynchpin of our story. If she was not going to give a convincing performance, the entire thing would fall flat,” he says, adding, “After watching her walk on to the set and doing her first rehearsal, all those fears went away as here was a complete pro. For me, she was the best part of the movie.”
Is this mystery difficult for you to deal with as an actor?
No, as I used to work like that at the beginning of my career. For Refugee, JP Datta had the same process and he didn’t want the actors to rehearse or come prepared. We had to be a blank sheet, on which he could draw and colour the way he wanted. I was very comfortable doing that. Things work differently today. Everything is done before you go on set: there is extensive homework, rehearsals and readings. I can understand if the newer actors prefer that, but I thoroughly enjoyed Anurag’s way of working. It felt nice to go back to what I used to do after a long time.
Breathe… was an Amazon Prime series, Ludo is a Netflix release and your next film, The Big Bull, is going to be on Hotstar. What is your take on OTT platforms?
It’s wonderful. The kind of exposure you get on a streaming platform is something which we might not have got previously. Ludo released in over 190 countries simultaneously and that’s a fantastic reach not just for me, but for Indian cinema.
There is, however, a distinction between a film and a web series and you can’t generalise them as OTT content. The approach towards making these two should be different. The writing process, especially. For a web series, you have the luxury of time and can deep-dive into characters, the sub-layers and subtexts. You can’t do that in a film.
I am enjoying the liberties that come with the medium. OTT platforms are a boon and the future; they are here to stay. Having said that, one of my greatest experiences in life is still watching a film on the big screen.
Does OTT-specific content liberate you from the commercial constraints of big-screen films?
To a certain extent, yes, as you’re not required to convince your audience to travel to a movie theatre and buy tickets. They can watch the film whenever they like, so certain commercial requirements are not required. Hence, you’ll see more new faces. I can concentrate purely on performing and not think about other stuff. But the way you look, the way you dance, the way you sing, the way you romance, the way you fight, all these things matter in cinema.
Did your experience with COVID-19 change the way you look at your life and work?
Towards my work, I don’t think there’s any change. For an actor to sit at home for eight months is a tough job. I have a house filled with professionals, so that was different for all of us. Despite suffering from this virus and understanding its severity, I got so much time with my family, which is a rarity. In a sense, I enjoyed this lockdown. I’m not going to complain. I’m just happy that everybody’s safe and healthy.