Only a few people know that Amitabh Bachchan (along with Mehmood’s brother Anwar Ali with whom he used to stay), Anil Dhawan, Asrani, Subhash Ghai and Shatrughan [Sinha] were all great buddies at one time, and spent several evenings together in Devdoot, the Bandstand apartment. They had so much in common – love for cinema, their struggle and a terrific sense of humour – that late nights would turn into early mornings as they’d all chat animatedly.
“It is true that I also recommended Amitabh for films. I had recommended him to Late Sultan Ahmed,” SS said. At the height of his popularity as a villain, SS had done Heera and Sultan Ahmed had been grateful that despite his escalating stardom, when the film got delayed, he was the only star who didn’t hike his price. “The other actors tend to follow the maxim, ‘Different times, different rates’. For me, once my fee was decided, I’d squirm to revise it,” he revealed.
During Heera, Sultan Ahmed would ask SS, “Where are you roaming around with this camel?” referring to his buddy, Amitabh. But when the camel morphed into a saleable box-office draw, Sultan Ahmed brazenly signed Amitabh Bachchan to topline Ganga Ki Saugandh – a film he had promised SS.
SS had much to say about his equation with the Bachchans. “I don’t talk about his family members. I think Abhishek and Aishwarya make a very beautiful couple, God bless them. I also had great respect for Amitabh’s parents, Teji Bachchanji and celebrated poet Harivanshraiji,” he said, before narrating an incident that brought out Amitabh’s spontaneous wit. “When
Amitabh had come back from hospital after a near-fatal accident, Promi and I had gone to visit him. We were chatting for a long time with Amitabh resting on his bed when his mother came in and started praising Promi saying, ‘Look at her, what a nice girl. She kept so many fasts, observed karva chauth, turned vegetarian for so many years and look, God listened to her prayers.’ Amitabh heard his mother and said poker-faced, ‘Poor thing, after all those fasts, look at what she ultimately got!’ He really has a great sense of humour.”
Unfortunately, things did go amiss between Amitabh Bachchan and SS.
“During Shaan, I had my first experience of dealing with the death of someone close to me when my father passed away. I was in Delhi and that particular day I was really keen to go to Patna to see him, he had been ailing. But my secretary, Pawanji said, ‘The set of Shaan is ready and waiting.’ It was a scene with Raakhee, where there’s firing on a bridge. So I came back to Bombay and was having lunch when Jarnail Singh, my late friend who used to rehabilitate drug addicts, came to tell me that my father was no more. I had never seen a dead body from close quarters before this. When my favourite singer Mukesh had passed away, I had gone to his funeral but couldn’t muster up enough courage to see his body. It was the same when Meena Kumari had died. My neighbour and filmmaker, Devendra Goel who was God’s good soul, lived next door to Ramayan. He had made very successful films like Ek Phool Do Mali and Aadmi Sadak Ka. I had starred in the latter. When Devendra Goel died, I had gone next door, very scared, and seen a body for the first time. I had forced myself to go and see Devendraji, not in a close-up but in a mid-shot. I had quickly paid my respects and come away. I had to face it full-on a little later in my life when Baba passed away.
“Baba passed away on April 10, 1979. It still seems like yesterday. I went home to Patna, I cried a lot but because of my presence, there was lathi-charging at the crematorium, there were crowds and much yelling. Somebody commented, ‘What big eyes he has’; someone else wanted to hear a dialogue. It was beyond control. Amma had broken down. She said something that I wrote in my diary: ‘Kitna tumhe kandhe pe ghumate thay. Aaj tum unhe kandhe pe le gaye na? (He used to take you around on his shoulders and today you had to lend your shoulder to his body).’
“I don’t think I’ve cried as much as I did at my father’s funeral. Even when my mother died on April 22, 2002, I didn’t cry as much as I did that day. Perhaps I’d become a little mature by then and I’d already seen death from close quarters. When Sanjeev Kumar died, I was standing for nine hours by his gate. My best friend had died but I didn’t shed a tear. I had matured.”
He didn’t question it but even in his grief he had noted that Amitabh had not paid him a condolence visit when his father had passed on during the shooting of Shaan.
SS had a simplistic explanation for what went wrong between Amitabh Bachchan and him when they had so much going between them. “The problem was the applause I was getting for my performances,” he said shortly. “Amitabh could see the response I was getting. That’s why he didn’t want me in some of his films.”
With a little probing, another angle cropped up – women of course.
“People say that Zeenat Aman or Rekha also contributed a little to the rift,” SS dropped their names slowly. “Maybe they didn’t like something about me and they said something to Amitabh Bachchan, or maybe they said things about me because I knew a lot about them. To strengthen their position, they would be by Amitabh’s side. During Kaala Patthar, a heroine who was known to be very friendly with him, would visit him. She would come during Dostana also but not once would he bring her out and introduce her to any of us. In showbiz, everybody knew who was visiting whom. The media would immediately know if Reena was in my make-up room. Such things can never be hidden in our world.”
By the time Kaala Patthar happened, there was barely any semblance of the friendship that once was. “On the sets of Kaala Patthar, the chair next to Amitabh would not be offered to me, nor would his umbrella be ever trained to cover any of us. We’d be heading from the location towards the same hotel but he’d sit in his car and never say, ‘Let’s go together’. I found it all very strange and wondered why this was happening because I never had any complaints against him.”
Amitabh Bachchan’s side of the story
The entire portrait of SS got its finishing touches from superstar Amitabh Bachchan, a friend who knew him from 1969. Amitabh looked at SS with the gracious wisdom of an older sibling who accepted the whole package with affection and amusement.
“Shatru and I and all his other close friends would spend a great amount of time at his apartment in Bandstand – a luxury I did not have,” said the renowned baritone of Hindi cinema, as he talked of early times spent together in Bombay. “I was hopping around from benches on Marine
Drive to close friends’ homes, with no permanency,” he added, exhibiting characteristic humility, “while Shatru was an established star at the time – he was working in important and large-profile banners with elite stars as colleagues…
“His apartment was always filled with his friends. He has always had many people around him, and his has been a very welcoming grace to all, a trait one observes, he has maintained to this day.”
As two outsiders who looked for acceptance from Bombay, Amitabh and SS shared more than just a struggle. The seventy-three-year-old legendary actor recalled how the companionship helped withstand the initial blows. “He (SS) was an established star at that early stage, notwithstanding his very commendable credentials from the FTII,” Amitabh said. “We never went out job-hunting together. He did not need to; I did. On several occasions, he would ask us to come along with him where he was shooting and would generously introduce me to directors and other star colleagues with great compliment. Struggles were discussed with humorous interjections. We all had that odd story to narrate to each other. But being in collective company was an asset. Sharing your issues together would, at times, reduce the pain of struggle or disappointment. Shatru always had a streak of humour, no matter what the circumstance, attached to his experiences good or bad. And he still does.”
Excerpted with permission from Anything But Khamosh The Shatrughan Sinha Biography, Bharathi S Pradhan, Om Books International.