Karan Thapar is known for being the devil’s advocate. But what happens when taking that tough line rubs an interviewee the wrong way? In his new book Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story, the journalist recalls a dramatic interaction with Amitabh Bachchan in the early 1990s. When the Bollywood superstar was questioned about his rumoured relationships with co-stars, an eerily calm interview and a not-so-calm luncheon followed. An excerpt:

The interview that I most vividly recall was with Amitabh Bachchan. Recorded in 1992, it was meant to mark his fiftieth birthday. Long before Kaun Banega Crorepati and even before the financial crisis that crippled his company Amitabh Bachchan corporation limited (ABCl), he was then both a hugely popular actor and an unblemished personality.

Although Amitabh had appeared in an earlier episode of Eyewitness, just months after its inauguration, this time round Amar Singh, then a director of the Hindustan Times and a close friend of his, had arranged the interview. since this was a prized opportunity that would not repeat itself, we decided to do a fifty-minute interview and show it in two parts in consecutive episodes of Eyewitness.

The interview was recorded in the drawing room of Pratiksha, Amitabh’s first home in Bombay. He was seated on a sofa with his wife Jaya beside him. His children, Shweta and Abhishek, whom we intended to talk to as well, were watching from a sofa at the other end of the room.

Everything went swimmingly until the first tape change. When we paused to enable the crew to do this, Amitabh spoke about an interview of actor Warren Beatty that he had watched on American television. According to him, what made this show riveting was the interviewer pointedly and determinedly asking Beatty about the women in his life. As Amitabh put it, everyone knew the stories, but it was magic to hear Beatty confronted with them and see his response.

I thought this was a very strange thing to tell someone who was in the middle of interviewing him. Was it a hint or a suggestion that I should do something similar? After all, like everyone else, I too had heard stories of Amitabh’s alleged affairs with a number of actresses although, to be honest, I was not familiar with the details and had certainly not researched these rumours to question him about them. Still, was he giving me a message or, at least, a nudge?

The tape change couldn’t have lasted more than five minutes, but it was enough to make up my mind. The temptation was too great. I decided I would take a leaf out of Amitabh’s anecdote and question him the way the interviewer had questioned Beatty.

‘We’ve just taken a pause to change tapes and during this break you told me a story about Warren Beatty,’ I began. After repeating the essential details, so the audience could follow, I added: ‘So let me do to you what that interviewer did to Warren Beatty. There have been a lot of stories of your alleged love affairs with actresses. After your marriage, have you had an affair with any other woman?’

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Namak Haraam (1975)

If he was stunned, leave aside upset, Amitabh did not show it. My eyes were on him as I spoke and he was looking back at me equally intently. But his face was unperturbed. I don’t even recall his expression changing.

“No. never.”

“They say you’ve had an affair with Parveen Babi. Is there any truth to that story?”

“No,” he replied again. “I too have read such stories. They’re not true. But I can’t stop magazines writing this sort of stuff.”

“What about Rekha?”

It might have been my imagination, but I thought I detected a slight movement in his eyes. He seemed to take just a little longer to reply. But when he did, his voice was as firm as ever. There was no change in his tone.

“No, not even with her.” He didn’t say more. He left it at that.

Suddenly, turning to Jaya, who was still sitting beside her husband on the sofa, I asked if she believed Amitabh.

Jaya was taken aback. I could also see that Amitabh had turned his head to look straight at her as we both awaited her reply.

“I always believe my husband,” she said.

“Do you really mean that, or are you only saying it because he’s sitting beside you?”

Jaya smiled. She now turned her head to look at Amitabh before she answered. “Of course I mean it. Why should I not?”

Having exhausted what little I knew on this subject, I reverted to my planned questions and we continued the interview. It went on for perhaps another half an hour, by when I was convinced that the Bachchans had not taken umbrage at the diversion into his love life. I was even more certain of this when Amitabh insisted that the crew and I stay for lunch. Indeed, when we demurred, in the belief he was being polite, his refusal to take no for an answer suggested he was keen that we should stay. So clearly, I said to myself, he’s not upset. He obviously wanted me to ask those questions and he was ready and willing to answer them.

Karan Thapar
Karan Thapar

How wrong I was. Like a volcano, anger had been building up inside him and it exploded shortly after we sat down to eat in the adjoining dining room.

It started when Jaya asked Amitabh if he would like some rice. “You know I never eat rice,” he snapped. “Why are you offering me something I never have?”

It sounded like an explosion. This time his face also revealed his fury. Together they charged the atmosphere. The television crew and Amitabh’s children, who were with us, were not just stunned but petrified.

“I’m only offering you rice because, as yet, the rotis haven’t come,” Jaya explained. She spoke very gently and softly.

“I don’t want rice!” now he was shouting. “I never have rice and you know that. I’m not complaining that the rotis haven’t come, but stop offering me rice instead.”

It was clear that this was his delayed and deflected response to my questions. That made it yet more embarrassing for us to be sitting at his table, eating his food. We were – or, at least, I was – the cause of the problem. Yet there I was, enjoying his hospitality as this spectacle played out.

“I’ll just check what’s happened to the rotis,” Jaya said. I’m sure she was trying to calm him but then, unthinkingly, she added, “Why don’t you have a little rice in the meantime?”

“Stop it. Just stop it,” he replied. “I’ve said I don’t want rice and I’m happy to wait for the rotis. Can’t you understand that? What’s the matter with you? Why can’t you just listen to what I’m saying?”

Jaya left the room and never returned. Shortly afterwards the rotis appeared and Amitabh started eating. The rest of us, however, had no appetite left. We hurriedly ate what was on our plates and excused ourselves on the grounds that we had to get back.

For the ten or fifteen minutes we were there, I don’t think anything was said. We ate in stunned silence. None of us could believe what had happened. He had lost his cool, shouted at his wife and, to be honest, disgraced himself. There was no denying or hiding this fact.

The whole thing left me confused. Part of me was embarrassed. I had trespassed into someone’s privacy, lit a fuse and created confusion. However, another part of me was chuffed. My impromptu questions had clearly hit their target and even if bullseye was not delivered on screen, it was apparent for all to see at lunch.

We had barely got back to our hotel before the phone started to ring. First, it was Amar Singh. Amitabh had been in touch and told him all that had transpired. Amar Singh, who had arranged the interview, felt let down.

The next to ring was Shobhana Bhartia. No doubt Amar Singh had informed her. She felt a sense of responsibility because she owned Eyewitness.

When we got back to Delhi the next day, I was asked to drop the questions about Amitabh’s alleged love affairs. Even though I argued that he had enticed me to put them, I was told I had either misunderstood or it was improper to probe in this way. Since I wasn’t entirely sure of the propriety of what I had done, I agreed.

This meant that Eyewitness released the interview without the best bit! Amitabh had not said anything dramatic, but I felt that the mere fact that he was questioned about his alleged affairs would make his answers riveting, even if they were denials. However, this part was never shown.

Excerpted with permission from Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story, Karan Thapar, HarperCollins India.