Amitabh Bachchan turned 73, on 11 October.
It was a long journey, which began at Muthiganj in Allahabad, the city at the confluence of rivers Ganga and Yamuna.
To be frank, Amitabh’s connection with Kolkata, has not started with Jaya Bachchan.In fact Jaya is not even from Kolkata. They called themselves ‘Probasi Bengali'(the expatriate Bengalis). Hailing from Krishnanagar in West Bengal, his father moved out of Bengal in earlier days. After working as a journalist with ‘Nagpur Times’ in Nagpur, her father Tarun Coomar Bhaduri settled in Madhya Pradesh as a journalist. First at Jabalpur, and then permanenly in Bhopal. Jaya’s family still lives in Bhopal at Shaymla Hills.
Jaya and Amitabh’s marraige reception was also held at Bhopal.
Amitabh’s city of birth, Allahabad has a fair share of Bengalees. They were and are still at the forefront in many areas ,specially in educational and cultural realms.
Even the Hindi literary movement ‘Chhayavaad’ was supposed to be influenced by Tagore’s mysticism. And among the ‘Chhayavaadi’ movement followers, its founder Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’ was primarily educated in Bengali medium and learnt proper Hindi, only after his marriage with Manohara Devi.
Sumitranand Pant learnt Bengali to study Tagore. Maithilisharan Gupt was well versed in Bengali himself, a language which he had studied since his childhood. His teacher Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi, who represented the second phase of Modern Hindi literature, known as the ‘Dwivedi Yug’, just proceeding the ‘Chhayavaad’,was also adept in Bengali language.
Even the locality Harivansh were originally staying in Allahabad, after coming from Babupatti village in Pratapgarh was Muthigunj. Despite being a local commercial hub, it was a centre of some literary activities too, around now defunct ‘Maya Press’ at 281 Muthigunj, started by Kshitindranath Mitra.
So, influenced by the left movements in the forties, Harivansh was supposed to name his elder son,”Inquilab”!
But his personal friend, Sumitrnandan Pant, later named both of Bachchan’s sons: Amitabh and Ajitabh.
“The names that were chosen for us are Bengali names. Amitabh means the light that cannot be extinguished. Ajitabh means the light you cannot conquer, it also means the sun”. Recalled Ajitabh, Amitabh Bachchan’s younger brother, who also stayed with him, during his formative years in Kolkata. Ajitabh , married Ramola in Kolkata.
So, coming from a parentage of Kayasha Hindu father from, Pratapgarh, Uttar Pardesh and Khatri Punjabi(Sikh) mother, Amitabh unknowingly inherited a Bengali connection, since his childhood.
The 73-year-old actor, sometimes become nostalgic about the city, even after almost half a century. In his blogs, he often takes time off to recall and relive his days in Kolkata as a young executive in the late 1960s.
“With age catching up, I really treasure those memories,” he once told the Director of ‘Piku’, Shoojit Sircar.
People close to him know, Kolkata is a huge emotional connect for Amitabh.
“There’s something special about Kolkata… Kolkata always loves creative people. There’s a lot of passion around creative activities… whether it’s a sports ground or a literary festival, plays, drama… such a wide spectrum”! Amitabh Bachchan, told to a journalist.
To the ‘ABP Ananada’ journalist Suman De, in a candid conversation, he had opened his heart:
“One doesn’t forget old things. Those were beautiful days. Now, the city’s changed a little bit… buildings have come up… roads and flyovers…. It takes time to locate my old haunts. But Calcutta hasn’t changed.
Cosmetic changes have happened… but Calcutta’s heart hasn’t changed. The same people, love, passion… if Calcutta accepts you, it gives its life in backing you. That’s a very unique character of the city. They raise you on a pedestal… that’s the spirit of Calcutta…. I always tell my friends whenever they are depressed or sad… ‘Go to Calcutta’”.
Suman quoted a popular Bengali poem : ‘Ei shahar jaane amaar protham shob kichhu’… (‘This is the city which knows everything about my beginning’!)
Amitabh retorted: “Shob kichhui okhane” ( ‘Yes everything was there…’). All the restaurants on Park Street… Moulin Rouge… Mocambo… Firpo’s… Flurys…. Waldorf… Sky Room… the Prawn Cocktail there would be very good.
I spent eight years in Kolkata … my first job was here. Those initial years are very special.
Whenever I come to the city, I feel like going to those places. I don’t think there is any place in Calcutta I wouldn’t have stayed for at least a few days. I started from Tollygunge… then Chowringhee… Russell Street… Ballygunge…
I love revisiting those places…. When I had gone to to shoot ‘Do Anjaane’ in 1976, after I got some type of recognition. I would sit in the car late at night and revisit the old haunts… “.
Even, five years back, he wrote in his Blog: “Just landed in Kolkata for promo of ‘Aarakshan’… so nostalgic! Spent 8 years of my early life in this great city. All the familiar haunts, the streets, the restaurants, the people, the air, environment… had landed here in 1962 to look for a job!”
He once told another journalist:”Whenever I have the opportunity to come back to this city I feel the great joy of reliving so many memories… the days when I first came to the city to look for a job . Someone told me, you will get a good job in Kolkata. And I landed my first job… got the first ever salary in my life… Kolkata will forever be a part of me!”
In Search Of Jobs In Kolkata
Bachchan first arrived in Kolkata by a train. He was quite fascinated by the Cabway inside the Howrah station. No other Indian railway station had this facility then, even now.
He was received at Howrah station by one of his father’s acquaintances Gajendra Sarogi, who was staying at Tollygunje. Incidently Sarogi was a football lover too . On his way to Tollygunje, in the Maidan area , Ganjendra Sarogi showed Amitabh the football grounds in Kolkata, and Kolkata’s unparalleled craze for football!
Everything was new. The city. The people. The excitement.
But the question was ever asked: “After you passed out of a boarding school and a well known College in Delhi University, how come it was difficult for you to get a job”?
Amitabh has candidly answered to the question: “Well, there was a lot of rejections. Everywhere I went, I failed to get a job.
I was either not qualified enough or I was too shy, or I was too tongue-tied during my interviews and they were more qualified people, who got the jobs. Terribly frustrating time. And then finally, I just packed my bags and left for Calcutta.”
Amitabh has later blogged: “The work places – the office, the learning of executive kind, postings to the Coal mines for training, shipping and freight broking … Bird Heilgers, Blacker and Co, Mackinnon Mackenzie, Shaw Wallace, Andrew Yule and so many others … the executives often being referred to later as ‘box walas’ … I could never figure that one out …”
According to him, his first job in Kolkata was in ‘Bird and Co’ , that had paper mills and coal mines and then in ‘Mackinnon Mackenzie’, ‘Shaw Wallace’ and later he worked for ‘Blacker & Co.’, a shipping and freight brokers’ company, before making his debut in the Hindi film. ‘Saat Hindustani’ in 1969.
Amitabh has often spoken about his days in Bird and Company. “Kolkata… Calcutta then… first job as executive in Bird and Co… salary Rs 500 per month, after cuts etc Rs 460!!”
Company old timers say that Bachchan used to work at Bird and Company’s head office in Calcutta at , 4 Netaji Subhas Road, just behind the iconic Writers’ Building.
Though it is the English which was at the helm of the British Raj in India, specially from Calcutta for nearly one and half a century,there was a huge Scottish presence in Calcutta too, and it was the Scots who ran the major businesses in Calcutta.
One such company was ‘Shaw Wallace’, a name we are familiar with even today. The impressive building, named ‘Wallace House’, located at 4, Bankshall Street, is still there. The company was founded in the year 1886 in imperial Calcutta, by Robert Gordon Shaw and Charles William Wallace.
Shaw Wallace was the fountainhead of Kolkata’s as well as India’s premium liquor producer. Today it is the headquarters of the Mallya run UB group, in the Eastern region.
Bachchan’s Life In Kolkata
The particular screen name Vijay, surprisingly used in 19 of Amitabh Bachchan’s films!
So discovering Vijay, as of of Bachchan’s colleague in Kolkata, is not surprising.
Vijay Singh was among the young people who joined ‘Blacker & Co. Pvt Ltd’ in Kolkata. Amitabh Bachchan was his colleague and a close office friend.The freindship, remained intact, even after so many years.
He says: “It was early 1965, when Amit joined us. I was already there. Our then Managing Director, Mr. Shrikant, who gave him the job, got us introduced. He was inducted into our team and we worked together for four years. It was too short a time. We were the link between the shipping industry on one hand and the exporters and importers on the other. Amit would talk to the clients on the company’s behalf. It gave him the confidence to communicate and even excel in people connect”.
“I wouldn’t say he was outstanding, but he was picking up very fast. Amit was presentable and no client ever complained against him.” Singh told to an exclusive interview,
Singh remembered that, in those days, Amitabh was interested more in theaters.
Singh said that Amitabh had quite a number of friends in Kolkata and never picked up any quarrel and never complained against anyone.
His was of course missing his family in Delhi but in Kolkata, he was gradually building up his close friends’ circle.
Amitabh stayed in several places in Kolkata, sharing accommodations with friends.
Vijay Singh, talked about his colleague and friend ‘Amit’ frankly, that during their office days he showed no sign of any extraordinay talent or outstanding quality.
Acording to him, Amitabh has simply proved that it’s possible to become big from insignificance just by keen inclination, dedication and sincerity. Of course, the luck also has played a role!
Even after such a busy schedule and megastar sataus, Amitav still remembers his colleagues in Kolkata. Whenever he is Kolkata, he tries to call some of them, or tries to meet them.
And surprisingly, he visits them at midnight, when the city is asleep, changing his car from the Marc to an ordinary Santro, and leaving most of his bodyguards, behind.
Not too many people know that, it was not Satyajit Ray, but it was the other internationally acclaimed Director, Mrinal Sen, who introduced Bachchan into the film world, but not as an actor!
In the year 1968, Mrinal Sen noticed Bachchan’s baritone voice, during an audition session and selected him for just a two-minute’s voice-over in his film, ‘Bhuvan Shome’. Sen paid Bachchan a princely sum of Rs 300 , for that voice job!
Satyajit Roy, popularly known among the film stars as Manikda, whom Bachchan met several times. Jaya Bachchan’s (Then Bhaduri) first film (Mahanagar) was with him. Amitabh came to Know Roy from close, while he was making ‘Pratidwandi’…
But again Roy, despite avid wishes, offered Bachchan just a Voice Over job.
In later years, “He said he wanted to make a film on the Bhopal Gas tragedy, but it didn’t happen.
“When he made ‘Shatranj Ke Khilari’ and he asked me to do a voice-over… but a film with him didn’t happen”. Lamented Amitabh.
Amitabh shared a room in ‘Clacton Apartments’ on Little Russel Street with several other executives. His room was rather small , but with attached toilet. He had to pay Rs 350 per month for that.
He wrote in his Blog about this, once: “But there, the meager salary and how we survived with just that, 480 rupees a month! 350 rupees a month gone for bed and lodging, food separate, eating the pani puri or the puchka at Victoria Memorial. 2 rupees would fill the stomach that’s it and done for the entire day … looking forward to the free office lunch the next morning!”
Since his School and College days, Bachchan was involved in theaters. In Kolkata, he made the best use of it.
He wrote about it: “There were these two groups – The Amateurs and the Calcutta Dramatic Club … the former filled with the executive box-wala aspirants, the latter more British and whites …
We did ours and they did their’s … but in time we mixed … and the results were quite improved … most of my stage acting was done with the Amateurs – Jean Paul Satre Crime Passionale, Death of a Salesman, Virginia Woolf, Waiting for Godot.
“We did ours and they did their’s … but in time we mixed … and the results were quite improved … most of my stage acting was done with the Amateurs – Jean Paul Satre Crime Passionate, Death of a Salesman, Virginia Woolf, Waiting for Godot, musicals like The Desert Song, and so many others of eminence … A Street Car named Desire, where I was in charge of the sound effects and the curtain pulling … done for the the other … but those times were exceptional … finishing office and trudging off straight to rehearsals, meeting all the others spending time with them on and off rehearsal … ”
Vidya Mandir, an Auditorium on Moira Street, bordering Chowringhee and Bhowanipur, where most of these plays were rehearsed and staged. Undoubtedly , it was Bachchan’s favourite haunt .
The famous Cricket commentator Kishore Bhimani, who had then returned to Kolkata from London School of Economics, was an active member of theatre group ‘The Amateurs’. The other notable members in the group were, Vimal Bhagat, Junie Bose, Zahid Baig, and the firebrand CPI(M) Politburo member of today, Brinda Karat( Brinda Das then).
Bhimani can remember thr play:Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe’? Bachchan had acted in the young professor’s role. The play staged at Vidya Mandir was successful.
In the sixties, only the neswpaper ‘The Statesman’ used to publish theater reviews. Surprisingly, the well known reviewer, acclaimed almost everyone’s performance, except Amitabh Bachchan’s.
According to Bhimani: The reviewer even criticized what he narrated Bachchan’s ‘awkward movement’ and peculiar accent and observed that he was not at all promising as an actor!
Pedalling Back To Memory Lane
Amitabh gave long 18 days at a stretch, amidst his busy schedule, for shooting, in 2014, for the acclaimed Director Shoojit Sircar’s film, ‘ Piku’ in Kolkata.
Bachchan have spoken about how life seemed to have come full circle after he ended up in the city to shoot for the film after so many years!
He wrote in his Blog : “Life has a peculiar way of its cycling … it can peddle you out of it and peddle you back.”
The very streets that I would walk about as a non-entity, nondescript, non plush, seeking and searching wading through the flood waters of the monsoons, for a suitable job, today I ride my bicycle for PIKU.
The Writers Building, the Government House, the Maidan, tram services, Victoria Memorial, Chowringhee, oh, such vivid memories and those ecstatic years of 1962, when Calcutta was the most happening city in the country!
What times, the Park Street culture, where a motley collection of restaurants and bars and confectioners, dinner and dance floors all in one sequenced line one after the other and the evenings that were spent each day on those pavements walking form one to the other – Trinca’s, Blue Fox, Mogambo, Moulin Rouge, Firpo’s, Waldorf … Flurry’s … the puchka’s at Victoria Memorial, the Kati kababs at Nizam’s and across that exclusive night club the Golden Slipper ending the evening at the Grand Hotel in the ball room and after the midnight ride to Dum Dum airport, just for a coffee or that extra little.
…There was not a single area where we had not changed residence, paying guests at 300 rupees a month, Chowringhee, Tollygunj, Ballygunj, Alipur, New Alipur, Russell Street”
“And the friends we made some of them still meeting up and connecting from different parts of the country and the world The pictures we went to – Light House and Elite Cinemas and the films of the time – West Side Story a compulsive watch for a number of times – Anupama and the impression it left”.
Amitabh smoked his first cigarette in Calcutta, tasted alcohol for the first time in one of the Park Street Bars in Calcutta,and made his first entry into any dance bar also in Kolkata.
He also had enjoyed his first real ‘Azadi’ in Calcutta and had first driving experience, buying his first car in Calcutta -in a second-hand Fiat car, the cheaper one available that time .
If Kolkata based veteran journalist S N M Abdi has to be believed, Amitabh had his first love affair in the city and his first heart break too.
It was background of Calcutta’s Victoria Memorial, where he has his first photo shoot, aspiring as an actor, diligently shot by his brother Ajitabh, who was then staying with him.
And factually speaking, brother Ajitabh’s (now estranged) wife Ramola was in Amitabh’s friends circle in Kolkata, whom Amitabh himself had introuced to Ajitabh.
And getting a chance role in Khaja Ahmed Abbas’s film ‘Saat Hindustani'(1969),Amitabh Bachchan’s real big Bollywood break,according to Actor-Director Tinu Anand also came through a girl .
“I was into Abbas Saheb’s film ‘Saat Hindustani’ then. He was my father Inder Raj Anand’s friend”. Tinu said.
Abbas needed a heroine for the film but he had no money for a big star. So, he offered Tinu’s friend Neena Singh, the role.
Tinu was by that time asked to work with Satyajit Roy, by his father Inder Raj, who was a friend of Roy.
Incidentally Neena asked Tinu , if he could forward a picture to Abbas Saab, of one of her her friends in Calcutta, working in Bird and Co. Neena said that her friend was desperately looking for an entry into Mumbai’s film world!
The photograph was of a tall looking gentleman standing in front of Calcutta’s Victoria Memorial.
K A Abbas, was giving chances to many freshers in his films. But no money. He said to Tinu that the person may come to Mumbai for audition, but at his own expense . Also there was no surity, when the audition would take place, so he would have to wait in Mumbai. And that also at his own expense!
So, it was again from Kolkata’s Howrah station Amitabh Bachchan boarded a train for Mumbai, on February 16, 1969. At the age of 27.
The rest is history!
The Story After Kolkata…
Once in Mumbai, Tinu took Amitabh to Abbas Saab’s office. Abbas told Tinu, that ultimately he would give Amitabh Rs, 5,000. And that was final, whether the film was completed in one year or in five years.
Moreover, he was offered a minor role in the film. The role of the poet’s friend in ‘Saat Hindustani.’
Amitabh had agreed. He was desperate to get a foothold in Mumbai’s Tinsel town!
But the luck would have it otherwise.
In the meantime Tinu’s father got a letter from Satyajit Ray accepting that Tinu could work with him as an assistant.
So ,Tinu gave up ‘Saat Hindustani’ and left for Calcutta and Amitabh got the role of the poet Anwar Ali, that Tinu Anand was supposed to play.
Tinu came back from Calcutta, after five years.
Also Neeta Singh, who requested Tinu to refer friend Amitabh’s name to Abbas, went back home, lost interest in films and never turned up.
Shehnaaz, (Jalal Agha’s sister and Tinu’s future wife) ultimately became the heroine of the film ‘Saat Hindustani’.
Almost five years, nine out of ten films flopped in Box Office, Amitabh had to wait, for his time to come.
It was Prakash Mehra’s 1973 film, ‘Zanjeer’, co-starred by Jaya Bhaduri, Amitabh’s future wife, that put Amitabh into the limelight.
The lead role of Inspector Vijay Khanna was offered to the leading heroes of that time, Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Dev Anand and Raaj Kumar. But none had the time and they all declined the offer!
The role ultimately went to a struggling actor, Amitabh Bachchan.
By Deep Basu