The "Big B" Book and the Culture of Celebrity

Posted on March 28, 2007


Picture courtesy:



A new “biographyâ€? of the Big B isn’t much more than a bunch of trivial musings, but the attention it’s received says as much about our obsession with the star as with the culture that surrounds celebrity.

MAR 25, 2007 – THE MINUTE you open a book and the minute you note bhel puri annotated as “a snack food,â€? you know it’s a western audience that’s being talked to. And so it is with Looking for the Big B (Bollywood, Bachchan and Me) – a purported biography of Amitabh Bachchan by Jessica Hines targeted at those who need to be told that Hum Aapke Hain Koun is “a massive hit film about an extended family where nothing much happens except dancing and eating. The only event to speak of is when a young mother falls down the stairs.â€? That’s the kind of deadpan tone only the Brits seem to be capable of, and this irreverence keeps you reading, intended audience or not. Writing about Bachchan’s flop phase after Anand, Hines tells us that he played gentle roles, “dressed mainly in a dhoti.â€? She moves on to the hotels in Mumbai, anointing the Airport Centaur as “even uglier than the Juhu Centaur (think tropical social-realist bling),â€? and when she finally gets around to asking her subject about the electric chemistry between him and Sridevi in Khuda Gawah, she notes his reply (“It was a very sexy time.â€?) and wonders, “What does he mean by that? He and Sridevi finding a way to beat the cold?â€? That’s when you murmur a silent thank-you to the powers behind this book, for it’s highly unlikely that an Indian biographer would have speculated on whether it was more than just the furs that were keeping the hero and heroine warm between takes in Afghanistan.

That said, Looking for the Big B isn’t much of a biography. If you’re looking for stories about the infant Bachchan’s temper tantrums (Angry Young Baby?) and the adolescent Bachchan’s first crush (a plump, dusky, South Indian neighbour?) – that is, the early events that would, by extrapolations Freudian or otherwise, define his later life – you’re not going to find them here. In fact, there’s very little that Hines tells us about our biggest star-actor that we don’t already know – except, perhaps, that he always chooses seat 1A in the airlines because it’s at the front and next to the window. And Hines is the first to acknowledge this, through her incredulous reaction to someone’s suggestion that she make pilgrimages to pit stops paralleling the Bachchan journey. “I have just read Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes,â€? she marvels, “and this is what biographers seem to do; go to old houses and schools and stuff.â€? No, she’s not into any of that. Yes, she does talk to (or about) shapers of the Bachchan mythology –Yash Chopra, Salim-Javed, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shashi Kapoor and, in a particularly moving section, Prakash Mehra – and there are a couple of pages devoted to Bachchan’s infamous political phase, but the key to understanding this so-called biography is in its title. Hines is merely looking for the Big B – an actual biography might have resulted in a finding – and what we have here are her adventures while trying to write a biography of the Big B. It’s just vignettes of her efforts, her searches, her experiences while running after Bachchan from Hyderabad to Malaysia to Bangkok to Dubai.

In other words, Hines – whose research material included Stardust and Star & Style – is the very type Auden was referring to when he dismissed biographers as “gossip-writers and voyeurs calling themselves scholars.â€? After all, what can she tell us about the Big B that we don’t already know? What can she discuss about the Big B that others haven’t already discussed? And what can she find out about the Big B that others haven’t already found out? Did the publishers really think that this Jane-come-lately hanger-on would unlock, for instance, the mysteries of the alleged Bachchan-Rekha affair? Oh, Hines does try. In her efforts to get to the bottom of the rumours surrounding “his alleged mistress Rekha,â€? she meets Shobha De (who says that the whole thing was a figment of Rekha’s imagination) and Khalid Mohammad (who says… nothing), and you wonder why she bothered. Doesn’t she know that – even without Sarkar – the Big B is the industry’s de facto Godfather, whose empire is subject to the code of omerta? And she thought she’d get people to rat on the man who makes their jobs possible? Yet, it’s this very aspect that tells us why this book is far more useful as an insight into not just one celebrity but the culture of celebrity that surrounds us. If someone actually sat down and wrote something titled The Culture of Celebrity, we’d probably laugh it off as an impressionistic snooze – university libraries would love it though! – but by attempting to chronicle the mystique that surrounds one of the biggest celebrities of our time, Hines has inadvertently written a book whose most interesting aspects are the scribbles on the margins. 

THE PARTS that resonated the most with me are those where Hines describes what it’s like to try to corner the rich and the famous for interviews. (“…a bit like running in dreams: I am working away and running and running but my limbs aren’t moving and I am not moving.â€?) Every writer about film will have a been-there-done-that flashback at this description of the time-swallowing frustration that waiting for (and writing about) celebrities entails, and Hines even manages to wring laughs out her experiences with the staff that picks up the phone. She declares that there surely must be some sort of Star Servant Training Course, where the “first prize would go to [the trainee servant]… who could make the caller collapse on the floor sobbing, having lost the will to live.â€? But you don’t have to be a journalist to have rubbed shoulders with celebrity. You could just be a fan – a devout fan like Hines, who practically deifies her subject while detailing his birth. “Harivansh Rai Bachchan lies sleeping next to his heavily pregnant wife Teji,â€? she writes, informing us that the contractions started in “the hour before sunrise, an auspicious time known as the Brahma muhurata, ‘the hours of god’.â€? She adds that Bachchan Sr. has a dream about reading the Ramcharitramanas, the point where sage Manu asks Vishnu for a son like Him… We’ve always looked on the Big B – or any other star for whom we’ve built temples, or made giant cutouts that we’ve showered with milk and performed aratis for – as some sort of demigod, but this book may be the first to actually literalise this notion.

And it’s this obsession that makes us track down the silliest, minutest details about celebrities. It’s what gives us a tingle of pleasurable anticipation when Hines says a “strange friendshipâ€? developed between them, and we are rewarded with such monumental nuggets as the revelation that the reason Bachchan smells so good is that he has a different perfume for different parts of his body. Does our excitement over such ephemera reduce us to being an equivalent of the paparazzi? Perhaps so, for what are we doing by hungering for this trivia if not stalking our celebrities, pretty much the way photographers do! With his Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock propped up the conceit that anyone who watches a movie is a voyeur, and that idea has now permeated far beyond the insides of the theatre. We are all voyeurs today. We crave information of the kind where Yash Chopra recalls how Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor drifted on their rafts into the sea in Goa after an evening of “merrymakingâ€?. We want to know that Bachchan still uses the motor-home that he was gifted by Manmohan Desai, and that he’s refused to get a new van for sentimental reasons. Even the fringe entries are of weird interest, like the fact that Manisha Koirala’s recipe for punch includes vodka, red wine and fruit juice. Hines warns us that her biography is, “A cautionary tale: or what happens when you get too close to your subject,â€? but that’s what we want. We want her to get too close to her subject because we ourselves cannot and she’s our surrogate.

If Amitabh Bachchan permeates our consciousness in ways that his superstar predecessors never quite did, it’s as much his charisma as our curiousness. Earlier generations had their own crushes, sure, and we’ve all heard of the letters written in blood to Rajesh Khanna – but the media wasn’t as all-pervasive then, and even if our starstruck mothers or aunts wanted glimpses into more than what the film glossies of the time gave them, there was no way to go about this honourable goal. For better or for worse, we can – partly because we love gossip, and mostly because we love the movies. Cameron Crowe – in Almost Famous, his great valentine to music – showed us that there were two kinds of fans. One group consisted of the people who waved their arms and their cigarette lighters in front of the band on stage, the people who were just out to have fun. The other kind of fan knew all the lyrics by heart and sang along, and this type of fan was what the character of Penny Lane – named, so memorably, after the Beatles’ song – represented. One of the film’s most vivid moments has her in the empty concert hall after the performance, in the midst of the confetti and the pennants and the trash on the floor. There’s Cat Stevens on the background, crooning his opening lines from The Wind as Penny Lane smiles and executes faux balletic pirouettes, soaking up the last bits of atmosphere from the event that just ended. “I listen to the wind/to the wind of my soul…â€? This lyric mirrors her love for the band, for the music – a love that’s so internal, it appears to emanate from her very soul.

Those of us who lap up books like Looking for the Big B, we’re all versions of Penny Lane – and so is Hines. The reason this biography works – despite being some 100 pages too long, despite eventually losing its way in a haze of self indulgence – is that Hines is not a hip outsider to Bollywood, training a mocking, postmodern eye on the world’s biggest film industry. She’s not a cigarette-lighter waver, but someone who dances in empty concert halls. If she didn’t love the movies with her soul, she wouldn’t have been capable of capturing the essence of what an autograph means. Watching Bachchan sign his name for an adoring fan, she muses, “People always stare at a star’s hand when they sign the paper, as if by doing so they can somehow keep the physical presence of the hand there.â€? Hines knows what it is to be a fan – that it’s sometimes from the heart, as in the autograph episode, and sometimes from the loins, which is why she says of her subject’s famed action sequences, “I like to think that he accesses some well of primordial male energy, but maybe I just need to take a cold shower.â€? Sure, she’s an Englishwoman, so the feelings that Bollywood engenders in her are inevitably based on a conception of the exotic other. (She likens her flights out of Heathrow – to Mumbai – to a magic carpet ride, whizzing her off to a world of Arabian Nights delights.) But her love for the movies is as universal as it gets. It’s not a crime that Hindi cinema is escapist, she argues, because, “We all have times in our lives when we… want to escape into other possible realities. I have often escaped into five-star hotels, exiting my life in London and entering the sparkly world of the famous where everyone is beautiful and shimmers.â€? And that’s the essence of why we worship celebrities. Because they’re our gateway to a little bit of utopia where everyone is beautiful and shimmers.

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express