He doesn’t have a sweet tooth and even likes his coffee without sugar. “Cheeni kum” is a constant refrain for writerfilmmaker R Balki and an apt title for his directorial debut as, he points out, it was “a very romantic but sarcastic love story, without mush or meetha, without anyone uttering the words ‘I love you’ even once”.
In fact, that was the line the director used to pitch his first film to the then 64-year-old Amitabh Bachchan, his leading man of choice. To Balki’s delight, the Big B responded shortly, “write it”, and once it was fleshed out as a script, reacted with a “let’s do it”. Even Tabu, whom Balki had sounded out when she was in Los Angeles, jumped on board as soon as she returned and they’d met for the narration. She played Nina Verma, 30 years younger than Amitji’s Buddhadeb Gupta, the grouchy chef-owner of London’s best Indian restaurant. Their summer-winter romance was what made Cheeni Kum daringly new back in 2007.
Interestingly, its writerdirector doesn’t consider the film particularly brave because, for him, the age difference was but just a number. “I wanted to make a film with Amitabh Bachchan, who may have been a little older by then, but, in my mind, he was still ‘the’ Amitabh Bachchan. For me, it was not the love story of an older man and a young woman, but the story of Amitabh Bachchan and Tabu who I had in mind while writing,” says Balki, recalling that at the film’s first screening at London’s Empire Cinema near the famous Leicester Square, an audience of 2000 was screaming for the Big B like they used to back in the ’80s.
Why Tabu, you wonder, and Balki explains, “It was always Tabu because she is the quintessential Indian woman— soft, feminine, conservative in her appearance, yet progressive and mature in thought—a perfect match for this caustic bachelor as she replies to his poker-faced remarks with an easy smile.”
Balki also roped in Zohra Sehgal to play Bachchan’s always-hectoring 85-year-old mother, Paresh Rawal as Tabu’s tetchy father who learns, to his shock, that his son-in-law-to-be is six years older than him, and Swini Khara as Sexy, his nineyear-old buddy neighbour. “Like Tabu’s Nina, Zohraji’s character, too, was not intimidated by her son, neither in reel life nor in real. She knew all her lines, and Amitji’s, too. If he skipped a word, she would ask for a “cut” and sternly tell him he forgot his dialogue,” the director chuckles at the memory.
Balki adds that every day, the veteran actress would have a drink before calling it a night, admonishing them for being too exhausted to join her and declaring that they wouldn’t live long. “She was fantastic, so spirited, coming to shoot that scene at the Qutub Minar in 44 degrees centrigrade in a wheelchair on her 94th birthday, then, standing up and walking for the camera,” he marvels.
He’s equally gung-ho about li’l Swini, who came from a conservative household in Mumbai, but had the quiet confidence to pick up the British accent of a girl born and brought up in the UK, and dub her lines herself. “Like her character, Sexy, she was a surprise, and like the other ladies, wasn’t overwhelmed by Amitabh Bachchan.”
Paresh was equally quick to sign up, telling Balki excitedly, “I want to do this film, tell me when we shoot”, brought his phenomenal comic-timing to the sets. “His interactions with Amitji were as hilarious for the team as they were for the audience.”
Given the perfectionist he is, did Amitji pick up any culinary skills to play the chef? “Amitabh Bachchan takes just five minutes to learn anything, and he has seen enough chefs in his life, to play one. The first scene required him to fume at his chefs and he did it with a lot of fire. I asked for one more take… Then another. ‘What do you want me to do, not express my anger?’ he shot back and I nodded,” recounts Balki, and in an instant, his ‘hero’ knew what was required. “He faced the camera, stood quietly, and with one steely glance made his displeasure clear. After that, never again did he show any anger on camera, and shots were okayed in one-two takes.”
Balki remembers that the day they were shooting the nowfamous scene (August 27, 2006), when en route to Nina’s apartment for an intimate dinner, Buddha stops at the drugstore and blushingly asks for a condom, they learnt Hrishikesh Mukherjee, one of Amitji’s favourite directors with whom he had a long and personal connect, had passed away. “Amitji was distraught, but professional. He went to a corner, composed himself, returned to face the camera, gave the perfect shot, then, vanished. That’s what makes him the Amitabh Bachchan,” Balki concludes.