November 30, 2011

Amitabh first met Rajiv Gandhi when he was 4 years old

Author and journalist Rasheed Kidwai has chronicled the recent history of the Congress in 24 Akbar Road. Here is an excerpt on the highs and lows between the Bachchans and Gandhis

The Bofors scandal took a heavy toll on Rajiv in more than one way. He lost his friendship with his childhood friend, Amitabh Bachchan.

The Gandhis and the Bachchans have never spoken about the actual reason why their friendship soured, but common acquaintances blame it on personality clashes, ego tussles and one-upmanship amid failures and tragedies.

The 'split' has been painful for both sides. For Sonia, it is the loss of the first friend she made in India. Amit, as she affectionately addressed him, was the one who received her off the aeroplane at Palam Airport on the chilly winter morning of 13 January 1968.

Her civil marriage to Rajiv Gandhi took place forty-three days later on 25 February. During this period, Sonia stayed at Amitabh's house with his mother, Teji Bachchan and father, Dr Harivansh Rai Bachchan.

Family friend Mohammad Yunus and Indira Gandhi's confidant, T.N. Kaul, had zeroed in on the Bachchans after Indira said she was not keen on Sonia staying in a hotel or at her residence before the marriage. At that time, Amitabh was yet to become a superstar and Rajiv was a carefree soul.

Along with Ajitabh 'Bunty' Bachchan and Sanjay Gandhi, Rajiv and Sonia were frequently spotted on the India Gate lawns, eating ice cream. Rajiv Gandhi had an old Lambretta scooter, which often had ignition problems. Invariably, either Sanjay or Amitabh had the 'honour' of pushing it for a few metres till it started.

The families were so close that when Rahul and Priyanka grew up, they addressed Amitabh as 'mamun', which is Avadhi for maternal uncle. When Rajiv was assassinated at Sriperumbudur, Amitabh was in London and Rahul in Boston.

They landed in Delhi together from London. Amitabh then took charge of the funeral arrangements with Priyanka, while Rahul stayed at home, trying to console Sonia and accepting condolences.

In several interviews, (Mishra, Sumant, Main Amitabh Bol Raha Hoon: In Candid Conversation, Egmont, Mumbai, 2003) Amitabh has fondly recalled that his first meeting with Rajiv was when he was four years old and Rajiv, two: 'There was this fancy dress party on Bank Road (the Bachchans' residence in Allahabad).

Rajiv Gandhi was two years old and had been dressed up as a freedom fighter. Ma says he messed up his pants. We were all such tiny kids then, absorbed in our little games, that it didn't seem such a big deal that Pandit Nehru's grandson was in our midst.

'He often visited me on the sets, like the time I was shooting for Ganga Ki Saugandh in Jaipur. He was extremely unobtrusive and would wait patiently till I completed my shots. His nature was such that he would never misuse his name or family connections.

On the contrary, more often than not, he would not disclose his surname, fearing the distance it would create between him and the common man,' remembered Amitabh.

He said, 'The last time I met him before leaving for London was in Delhi on 8 May 1991. On the 20th, which was a Monday, the hearing of the Bofors case against a Swedish newspaper began in London.

On the 21st, the judge summarized the case and, on the following Wednesday, the verdict was to be announced. At five o'clock UK time, we returned home after lunch. That's when we received the news of the horrific incident...

'My first reaction was of complete disbelief. The fact that something like this could actually happen was unthinkable. As humans, we find ourselves hoping that we will never be victims of such unspeakable tragedies... I was shocked for quite a while and remained numb and speechless. I am afraid I cannot describe it in words.'

Asked if he considered joining politics to assist Sonia, Amitabh said, 'By force of habit, I find myself totally involved in any work I take up and want to complete it at any cost. Now that I'm deciding to cut down on my films (this was in October 1992), people surmise that it is because I intend to join politics.

Yes, Rajiv was a very dear friend. It is also true that I am one of Soniaji's genuine well-wishers and I'm close to her family. But how will my entering politics ease her concerns and her pains? And why should she need me or require my help? She is an extremely strong, sensible, competent person, fully capable of taking her own decisions. She is aware of what she should and should not do.'

In Mohammed, Khalid's To Be Or Not To Be, (Saraswati Creations, Mumbai, 2002) Amitabh talked about the Gandhi-Bachchan family ties, and said: 'Rajiv and Sanjay studied in Doon School, Ajitabh and I were in Nainital... But our holidays fell around the same months. We'd hang out and swim every day at the pool of Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The friendship continued. After school Rajiv went off to Cambridge. Whenever he would be back home, we'd get together and exchange notes... When he started flying, I'd go with him to provide ballast at the Flying Club of Delhi. I'd glide there for hours... Panditji died. Mrs Gandhi became PM and the family moved to 1 Safdarjung Road, which was close to our home at 13 Willingdon Crescent. Rajiv, Sanjay, Ajitabh and I formed a closely knit group of friends.' (Mohammed, Khalid, To Be or Not To Be, Saraswati Creations, Mumbai, 2002.)

By Amitabh's own admission, it was Rajiv and Sanjay who exposed him to avant-garde cinema at a young age through the European films that were specially screened for the Gandhi family at Rashtrapati Bhavan. 'Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi and I would attend screenings of The Cranes Are Flying and Czech, Polish and Russian films, which often packed an anti-war message,' Amitabh recalled.

Actor Mehmood's biographer, Hanif Zaveri, has many interesting and anecdotal accounts of young Amitabh and Rajiv. When Amitabh was a struggling actor, Mehmood, the comedy king of that era, became his patron. Both Mehmood's brother, Anwar Ali, and sister, Zubaida, became close pals of Amitabh.

In Mehmood: A Man of Many Moods, author Hanif Zaveri reminisces: 'Just before the release of Bombay to Goa, Amitabh had brought a very fair young friend to Mumbai. The friend had accompanied him from Delhi. Mehmood was on a high after taking Calmpose tablets, a drug to which he was addicted.

Anwar introduced the young man to Mehmood, but in his state, he was unable to understand what was said. Mehmood took out five thousand rupees and handed them to Anwar to give to Amitabh's friend.

A puzzled Anwar asked what the money was for. Mehmood said the young fellow was fairer and smarter than Amitabh. He could become an international star. The money was the signing amount for taking the young man in Mehmood's next project.'

Mumbai Mirror


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