Exactly 20 years ago, Abhishek Bachchan broke onto the silver screen with Refugee on June 30. 20 years later, he is breaking the OTT screen with Breathe Into The Shadows, an Amazon Prime Original. It is a pleasant coincidence that the trailer of his digital debut dropped exactly after he completed the 2-decade mark on July 1.
Well, a lot has changed over the last two decades for Junior Bachchan. He doesn’t say yes to every role offered to him as he used to when he was younger. But then, a lot hasn’t changed either. “The jitters, the butterflies and the sleepless nights,” he tells us, have already started in anticipation. And while he waits with bated breath for Breathe Season 2, he finds himself somewhat bang in the middle of theatre owners vs OTT debate, and a pandemic, of course. What’s his stance? “You role with the new normal,” says The Big Bull actor in an exclusive chat with IndiaToday.in.
Excerpts from the interview:
Your Bollywood debut was 20 years ago, and now 20 years later you’re stepping into OTT. As an actor, how has your selection process changed over these 2 decades?
A lot has changed, as it should. I think you need to keep evolving as a creative person, and if you’re doing that your thought process changes. Early on, you may say yes to a lot of things that later seem frivolous to you. When Mayank Sharma narrated Breathe to me, I instinctively wanted to be a part of it. I had a gut feeling that this is the right one to be a part of. Now, that distinctiveness hasn’t changed over the decades. What captures you at that moment has to do with your mood, it could be because you’re in a certain phase in life. At the start of my career, I said yes to everything anyone offered me because I was just hungry to work. With experience, you learn to narrow down your wishes and wants. So you realise what you want to be a part of or don’t want to be a part of.
The mood and phase of life you speak of, in Breathe you play a father to a young daughter, is that one of the aspects that drew you?
Well, I played a father to a then 68-year-old man in 2009, also. But, yes, after you have experienced parenthood in real life, you do tend to understand the depth of the emotion better. In the case of Breathe, playing a father looking for a missing child has been difficult. You are bound to dive deep to bring out those emotions because as actors, we have to look inward. But some things are bound to stay with you even after ‘cut’.
How do you then centre yourself? Is there a process you follow to detach from the character you’re essaying?
I think the credit of this has to be given to Mumbai traffic (laughs)! The amount of time we spend commuting is good enough to snap anybody out of any stooper they might be in. But on a serious note, it is very difficult. Especially in the last couple of years, if you see the kind of work actors are getting, the depth and variety make it so real that it is not easy to snap out of. I have immense respect for actors who can switch on and switch off. But you try to deal with it.
A web series is meant for close viewing, as opposed to movies which are meant for the big screen. Does this shift alter an actor’s acting process? Do you have to be mindful of say camera angles, etc?
The approach, much to my happiness, was exactly the same as filmmaking. The same camera and same lights are used. One luxury you have is that you get time over multiple episodes to etch out your character.
There was a time when film actors turning to television was considered a step-down. But OTT, since the time it was introduced, was always considered exciting, if not aspirational. Why do you think that’s the case in India?
I think people just want to be associated with good quality work. Streaming platforms do not compromise on quality, in fact, if anything they are more thorough as compared to films. The budgets are the same. Content-wise, because you are catering to a different aspect of the audience, it is not the same as cinema. Cinema, in India, to a large extend is still a family outing. And that comes with a certain checklist of dos and don’ts. With series like Breathe, you can push that envelope. If you ask me, would I release this as a film, I would say no, because it doesn’t suit that format.
Web shows come with a plus that they are not dependant on a Friday collection. Does that take the pressure of a hit or a flop off the actor’s back?
In theory, you are right. But, the jitters, the butterflies and the sleepless nights have already started. Because at the end of the day, it is not about the (box office) collection but the reaction (of the audience). The collection has always been a barometer for the reaction.
So how was it working on a web series? Especially with Nithya Menen, Amit Sadh and Saiyami Kher?
Oh, I felt like a kid in a candy store! Amit is a force to reckon with. I have known him for 7-8 years. He then went to work with my father (Amitabh Bachchan) in Sarkaar 3. He has a tough exterior but is childlike on the inside. He is very collaborative. I loved working with him. And he’s actually become a dear friend now. Nithya was a revelation to me. I had seen Ok Kanmani but I haven’t followed her work post that. But she’s such an actor, that when she performs, you just look at her. Hindi is not her preferred language, but she makes every dialogue believable. She is playing a South Indian lady on the show so she’s maintained her accent. Saiyami (Kher) joined us later, but just aced her role. I honestly lived off their reflective glory, knowing they will make me look a lot better.
Moving on to The Big Bull, the film will drop on Disney+Hotstar. And that’s triggered the second round of OTT vs theatre owners battle. Recently, during the release of Choked, Anurag Kashyap pointed out how this battle is also very self-serving. Because they are fighting over a Gulabo Sitabo and not a Mukkabaaz…
(Cuts in) But didn’t Mukkabaaz release in theatres?
Yes, much later. He spoke about how he always struggled to release smaller films like Mukkabaaz in theatres. And now, OTTs, that could have been level-playing field, is also turning into the same battleground. Do you agree that smaller films are being sidelined?
No, I don’t agree with that. I think this suits some people’s rhetoric. People just want to watch a good film. The decisionmakers who are choosing where to release a film are doing that based on market research and demand of the audience. It’s always been about the audience, and it’s high time someone said that. Nobody complained when movies were releasing on television. Nobody complained when theatre actors went from theatre to cinema. Anand Pandit and Ajay Devgn (producers, The Big Bull) have invested crores to make a movie. The movie is ready for release. We had announced a September date for theatre release. Having said that, there’s no clarity on when cinemas will open, and even if they do, if people will feel safe to come to the cinemas. Now, within these confines, if we have an avenue to reach the endpoint – the audience – why won’t you want to avail that?
The good thing about a streaming platform is that there’s very little a brand can bring. Your brand equity matters when you’re trying to lure people into the cinema, commute, spend money on tickets and popcorn and sit there for hours. None of that matters here.
Where do you find yourself in this debate? Is it the need of the hour or a paradigm shift?
To be honest, if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, we wouldn’t be having this debate. Having said that, the entertainment industry has taught us to always be ready for change. I, as an actor, I want the audience to watch my films, and I will use whatever medium to get through to them. If that’s the new normal, then that’s what we need to do. Even today we have some who have said hold on, I’ve envisaged this on the big screen, and I will wait. I doff my hat to them. But if this were to continue for another say five years, would you still wait or look for an alternative? We have to roll with the new normal.
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