'Amitabh is a Lucky Superstar'
So there I was, standing at the door of the press, all set to watch the next shot of Guru, the upcoming and much talked-about film of Mani. It is a delight to watch the director. The man, I am told, has had his share of heart attacks, but he was bouncing around, as if he was wearing springs inside his FILA socks. His eyes were rarely normal: they either pondered or twinkled. As I surveyed him surveying the press, someone touched my shoulder and said, “Excuse me.” I stepped aside and let the male voice walk in. It was Madhavan. He was wearing a vest and an assistant was presently handing him a shirt. Then another tall man in a white kurta and dhoti, with his cropped hair painted in silver, arrived: Mithun Chakraborty. The same Mithunda who disco-danced into people’s hearts two and a half decades ago wearing white – not dhoti-kurta but shirt and bell-bottoms and white shoes. But the hair was black and long.
As soon as Mithun entered the press his assistant handed him a khadi waistcoat. They were ready for the shot. Mithun plays a media baron and Madhavan plays his son-in-law who is also his reporter. The scene is that of a confrontation between the two where Mithun basically asks Madhavan to get lost.
Ever since I moved to Chennai five and a half years years ago, I have seen quite a few film shootings and quite a few Tamil stars: Ajit Kumar, Vikram, Vijay, Sharath Kumar, Ramya, Rambha, Jyothika and a few others whose names I do not know. But they were all shooting action or song sequences. This was the first time I was witnessing an intense dialogue scene. And it taught me two things: 1. You can’t beat experience, and 2. Perfection can be a pain but it is worth it.
When I say experience, I mean Mithun Chakraborty. The confrontation scene was okayed after about half-a-dozen retakes, and Mithunda breezed through each of them. Each time Mani shouted “Cut!”, the Disco Dancer would take a break in front of a pedestal fan. An assistant would give him a piece of cloth and he would dab his face.
But Madhavan had no such respite. Mani, after shouting the “Cut!”, would walk up to him and ask him to put more emotion in his dialogue. Not that what Madhavan was doing was anything wrong, but Mani wanted perfection. He would make Madhavan rehearse his lines like a schoolboy after every take. But not once did the director have a word with Mithun Chakraborty.
Mithunda, after all, is no ordinary actor. The masses might know him as the Disco Dancer, but few know that he has won the National Award thrice, including for his debut film – Mrinal Sen’s Mrigyaa. And he hopes to get the fourth for Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Kaalpurush.
Coming back to Mani Ratnam’s perfection. Perfectionists are usually an impatient lot, and impatience often breeds bad temper. And today I was witnessing Mani Ratnam’s temper. Before one of the retakes of the confrontation scene, an assistant who was barely in his twenties went around clearing the place. But in the process, he himself lingered on in front of the camera for long enough to arouse the temper of Mani, who had by now announced “Ready!” and was about to say “Action!” Mani went charging at the boy with a raised palm, as if about to slap him, and said, “You, you son of a b***h! You soiled a natural shot!” The boy’s face remained emotionless: he was clearly used to such abuses. After the shot was taken he gently told the boy that he should run out – and not stroll out – of the camera’s view after getting a shot ready. But the very next moment he lost his cool with another of his bermuda-clad assistants who was giving the clap. “You fool, don’t you know how to do it?”
Throughout the retakes I had plenty of opportunity to talk to Mithunda but I was too scared of Mani. A little later, I spotted him in the portico of the Express office. Technicians were setting up reflectors and lights and a few men were busy yanking off the backdoor of a Fiat that bore a number plate starting with M. Clearly, the movie dates back to a few decades. The door was being pulled out to enable Rajiv Menon to install his camera.
While the preparations were on, Mithunda sat on a plastic chair smoking a cigarette. A colleague who had already met him before, introduced me. He was visibly happy at having met a fellow Bengali on the sets.
For a 10-year-old watching a movie, especially in the days I was growing up, the hero was the man who could beat up ten goondas without batting an eyelid – as if it was a dance sequence. And if the hero could dance, it was a bonus. Mithun Chakraborty could do both not only effortlessly, but also convincingly. Amitabh could fight goondas well, but he was never a convincing dancer. Jeetendra danced well, but he was not a convincing fighter. But Mithun, with his dancing and ‘fighting’ abilities, made even a B-grade movie like Disco Dancer a superhit.
He was the only Bollywood star who command a parallel audience to that of Amitabh Bachchan’s throughout the 1970’s and 80’s. As a result, film glossies referred to him as poor man’s Amitabh; and when Govinda arrived on the scene later, they referred to him as poor man’s Mithun. Any other actor might have felt flattered being sandwiched between the two comparisons, but not Mithun Chakraborty, who won the National Award for his very first film as hero – Mrinal Sen’s Mrigaya, released in 1975. The success tasted even better because earlier in the same year, Mithun’s first commercial movie, Do Anjaane, was released. In the movie, which had Amitabh and Rekha in the lead, Mithun is only a junior artiste – he plays the role of a loafer who hangs around on the street outside Amitabh’s house and also has a brief confrontation with the superstar.
Ok, I think of Amitabh as a superstar, the world thinks of him as a superstar, but what does Mithunda, a contemporary and a co-actor in Agneepath (which fetched Mithunda a National Award for best supporting actor), think about the Big B? The Bengali star smiles and says: “I would say he is a lucky superstar.” Lucky? As in the Big B is no good as an actor? “Look, what is acting? Acting means you should be able to play any role given to you. Acting means playing Ramkrishna Paramhansa (in Swami Vivekananda) and also being the Disco Dancer of the nation. If you talk about acting, I think Naseeruddin Shah is a great actor, Paresh Rawal is a great actor, even Johnny Lever is a great actor. For me, they are the real actors.”
And the Big B? “He is a terrific actor too, no doubt, but I don’t think he is the ultimate superstar. As I told you, he is a lucky superstar. There are people like Naseeruddin Shah and Paresh Rawal. Even Johnny Lever. Such great actors!”
According to Mithun, the Big B’s superstar image had also hampered the growth of his son Abhishek as an actor. “Poor boy, they were all comparing him with his father. The boy has talent, and he has finally managed to come out of his father’s shadow. In fact I was first one to congratulate him and tell him that he was now an actor in his own right.”
Will his own son, Mimo, who was recently launched as an actor, won’t face the same problem? “I think he will,” Mithunda says, but quickly adds, “but he is a far better dancer than I. He dances 22 times better than me. He is a boy to watch.” Just as his face begin to assume a father’s pride I ask him a question I had always wanted him to ask: Why did he chuck everything in Bombay and come to settle in the South?
“Even while I was in Bombay, I found myself in Ooty for six months in a year. I fell in love with the place and decided to settle there. I love the South,” he explains. He also loves the South Indian approach to making movie. “They are perfectionists, technically and otherwise. The discipline you see here, you don’t see anywhere else. I want Mimo also to do films for South Indian banners before he moves elsewhere. It is a good training ground.”
His shot is called. He pulls out another cigarette and takes a few drags. The scene is like this: Mithun, the media baron, gets into the car (the Fiat whose door has just pulled out), and as soon as he gets in some goons appear and smash the car windows and decamp in a waiting taxi. Unfazed, the media baron jumps out of the car and yells at the escaping goons. The shot is okayed in two takes. The unit begins to wind up. So far, Mani Ratnam hasn’t exchanged a single word with him. Perhaps that explains the three National Awards that are currently under his belt.
But the man does not have any attitude. If I had wanted my picture to be taken with Madhavan, I might have thought thrice. But Mithunda was hanging around there like an affectionate college senior. “Aye, aye,” he said in Bengali – meaning “come, come” – the moment he saw me wanting to take pictures with him. To tell you the truth, I was never a great fan of his. But then, he and movies have been an integral part of my childhood. And after the encounter with him, I have become his greatest fan.