In many ways, he is like a Jack-in-the-Box. Every time the media decides it is time up for the actor, he springs back with rejuvenated energy. He has been doing this for almost four decades. His career, his personal life and even his medical history is the stuff best sellers are made of. He has travelled from B&W [black and white] to colour films, from Dolby to Sync sound, from single screens to multiplexes. From small budget movies to multi-starers and English films, and from working with older to younger co-stars and directors. the list of his accomplishments is endless. In his career spanning 40 years and 182 films, he has played all kinds of roles, donned all kinds of costumes, befriended different animals—tiger, falcon, an Alsatian, even a dolphin. He has walked on fire, rolled in mud, flown over a carpet and jumped over bombs. He has played urban, rural, young, old, the good and the evil.
He is the first to be regarded a sex symbol in his autumn years. The first to stage concerts of international standards, his celebrity status transcends national boundaries with fans in every corner of the globe. And this, without having to go through Hollywood.
He is the sole survivor of his contemporaries—the only actor to be discovered at every turning point of Indian cinema.
Conversations with the legendary patriarch.
What kind of a child were you?
Normal.I would say, quite reserved and not particularly argumentative.
What do you recall of those early days?
It’s strange, but early memories remain vivid even after so many years. There are times when I’m not able to recall what happened ten years ago or sometimes, even ten days ago but memories of childhood are imprinted on our psyche. Probably because life at that time was much slower and little moments left an impression. Today, everything occurs so swiftly and rapidly, that it’s impossible to recapitulate events. I have vibrant memories of my childhood.I remember the various homes we lived in, our daily routine, our conversations at the dinning table.
Was growing up turbulent?
Not much turbulence. To a large extent, the sobriety of living life on an even keel came from the family. All our problems were referred back to mom and dad. The first major conflict came soon after completing college. It was the beginning of the uncertain phase—of not knowing what to do or where to go. These are conflicts everybody has to go through.
Can you share some of the early memories with your father?
Dad was always either at his desk, or away at work. My predominant memories of him are of him behind his desk, writing. He was very focused, very disciplined and spent most of his time in the study. He worked 12 to 14 hours every single day and the discipline continued even when we shifted to Delhi and I began to attend college. Or even many years later when I started working in Calcutta and then shifted to Mumbai. There were times when he was consumed by his writing and totally shut out from the rest of us for days at a stretch but no matter how busy he was, he was always accessible to us.
Your wife says you are a lot like your father.
Yes, I like to keep to myself and by temperament, I’m disciplined. Like him, I worry if a family member falls ill. One could always depend upon dad and my family knows that they can rely upon me. My mother says that I was responsible even as a little boy. I have heard my parents recount stories about me.
One day, my mother just collapsed on the floor at night. Dad was away in England and my younger brother was too young, so I lifted her up from the bathroom and sent the servant on a bicycle with a written note to summon the doctor [we didn’t have the telephone then]. For days, my mother couldn’t stop talking about how responsibly I had conducted myself.
You have often said that in moments of stress, it’s your father’s poetry that rejuvenates you. Will your children be able to say the same about your work?
No… they will not find solace in my work but they will definitely feel rejuvenated after reading my father’s work. My work will become obsolete in a year or two, but my father’s work will continue for centuries. It will provide them and their children the strength to move on.
Your work engages you constantly in the company of the new breed. Do you ever feel out of place?
Not in the least. I can never feel out of place simply because I have a living example of a youngster in my own house, my son Abhishek. I’m familiar with the new breed lingo and feel equipped to fit in to their world. I find the new breed extremely stimulating and enjoy their company. I would like to believe that they enjoy my company equally, for, I’m thoroughly clued in about what’s happening in their world.
For a long time, you were the only actor in the family. Now every member of the family is an actor. Does that increase the level of pressures?
Not at all… Do families that have three businessmen, three doctors or politicians, have increased pressure levels? So why should it be any different with a family of actors? We are normal people and much as people don’t like to believe it, we lead a very normal life.
For the position you are in, do you find yourself surrounded by unwarranted advisors?
Somehow advice has always been there. It has come in from all quarters—at times productive, at other times, not so productive. I find consolation in the fact that I’m important enough for people to entertain thoughts about my career and life in their conversations. I would like to believe that I matter to people offering me advice whether warranted or unwarranted though I accept that unwarranted advice is not always flattering.
What does friendship mean to you?
I don’t think friendship can be defined…relationships are too precious and cannot be slotted in compartments. These are areas I’d like to keep to myself. Talking about them destroys the very essence and should remain between the two people involved. Talking about sensitive issues defeats their very purpose.
Do you believe that friendship is always between equals?
I have never thought about it in this perspective. Friendship is private and subjective and there cannot be rigid rules governing it.
What does happiness mean to you?
It’s a difficult question to answer but I would say happiness is seeing the welfare of the people who depend upon you. To be able to see your children prosper…To be able to wake up in the morning and see your loved ones healthy. I think one reaches a stage in life when all these things are of prime importance because it’s the worry of those you care for that really bogs you down.
Do you ever feel unconfident or unsure?
Of course I do, don’t all of us? And isn’t it natural to feel so? I’m unconfident all the time—before a new film, before a new shot or before a new release. Insecurity is an overwhelming emotion in any creative profession but challenge lies in rising above these anxieties both as an actor and as a person. That is life and as long as there is life, there is struggle.
How important is reassurance to you?
Very important, especially when I’m in distress or feeling weighed down but not from outsiders. I seek reassurance only from the family and I know that they will stand by me at the cost of personal sacrifices. The reverse is also true.
When you look back on your Herculean past, how would you describe your journey?
I would say I have flown with the tide…I have no complaints with my life. I think I’ve got much more than I deserved and feel humbled by the love and affection of the people for so many years. Remember the famous poem, ‘There’s a tide in the affairs of men…’? I have just followed that.
The camera is often intrusive; have you ever felt caught off-guard?
The camera does its job and it is the artiste’s responsibility to conceal what he does not want to reveal to the world. When an actor is in front of the camera, he feels a number of emotions but not all of them are for display. Actors are human beings too and we endure the same pressures that other individuals go through, only they don’t face the camera so in that sense the actor is far more vulnerable.
You once mentioned feeling angry with Marlon Brando for getting old.
I was angry because he had put on too much weight and neglected his appearance. I felt the same way about Al Pacino when I saw him after a very long gap. He had aged and didn’t the same look the way I had grown up watching him. It was a phase of transformation for the actor and also the viewer. Gradually, I got accustomed to the new look and accepted my heroes whole-heartedly.
You went through a similar phase too.
Yes, the actor and the audience need to have the maturity to accept that everyone is human and change is inevitable…We need to accept that all of us will get old and age is not always flattering… If we can accept this gracefully, without resentment, then good for the actor and good for the viewer! Life is all about acceptance.
Do you still read the Bhagawat Gita regularly?