The Big B in ‘The Great Gatsby’: TIME’s Q&A with Amitabh Bachchan

Amitabh Bachchan is India’s biggest and most-enduring movie star, with hit films ranging from Sholay in 1975 to Paa in 2009. He also hosted five seasons of the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Bachchan has a cameo role in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, and spoke to TIME’s Jyoti Thottam in New York on May 6.

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Actor Amitabh Bachchan attends "The Great Gatsby" world premiere at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, on May 1, 2013.
Jemal Countess / Getty Images

Actor Amitabh Bachchan attends "The Great Gatsby" world premiere at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, on May 1, 2013.

Amitabh Bachchan is India’s biggest and most-enduring movie star, with hit films ranging from Sholay in 1975 to Paa in 2009. He also hosted five seasons of the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Bachchan has a cameo role in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, and spoke to TIME’s Jyoti Thottam in New York on May 6.

How did you meet Baz Luhrmann?

Baz Luhrmann was on a private visit to India a couple of years ago, traveling around on his motorcycle, visiting a friend of his who was an artist. He came over, and we talked about everything but films. And then a year or so later I got another message about a film that he’s doing, we spoke on the phone, and we Skyped and he said, you know, Amitabh, I’m making Great Gatsby, and there’s a small role, I know it’s not worth your while to do something like this but I’d be very delighted if you could.

This is your first Hollywood film. Why now?

Primarily because of the way Baz Luhrmann came across, more as a friend than anything else. I just felt that I had the time and perhaps the ability and the intention to do something like this, truly as a gesture rather than looking at it as a stepping stone for another release in Hollywood. I didn’t think of doing it like that but now that it’s done and if there are opportunities, I would certainly consider it.

What different about making movies in Hollywood, rather than Bollywood?

We make over 1000 films every year. Hollywood makes about 300, but Hollywood makes more money. That just shows the reach and the marketability. That’s something that we lack. We don’t know how to market our films. Now all the corporations are there in India. They’re co-producing films, they’re distributing them. I just feel that sooner or later the sheer potential of the demographics of India, which is 1.25 billion people, will eventually be very attractive to the entertainment industry.

In Slumdog Millionaire, the young hero is willing to go through anything to meet you, but the film uses a double. Did Danny Boyle ask you to appear in the film as yourself?

No, but his office did call to say, we’re wanting to use images of yours from films. Is that okay with you?

You’ve had success in film and TV; how are they different?

TV is huge now in India. It is certainly bigger commercially now than films. Its reach and its connectivity is instant; it’s faster than film.

Is it as satisfying for you as an artist?

I don’t mind it. When the proposal for KBC [for Kaun Banega Crorepati, the Hindi translation of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?] was made to me, I found it an exciting show. I was hesitant about how it was going to be conducted in India so Star TV took me to England. I went and saw it and said, if you can give me a the same production in India, I’ll be very happy to join. And to their credit, they did. And as an actor I would not mind to do something more than just a game show. I find that American television for example, there’s a huge amount of production value in their shows, and I’m amazed about how they’re able to do this. I’m very keen to be involved in something like that.

Any American TV shows that you watch?

I see a lot of them; I can’t remember all their names. They’re all so fantastic. The last ones that left a lot of impression was the one about the White House. West Wing? With Martin Sheen. Grey’s Anatomy. Game of Thrones. Yes, superb.

You’re moving into digital entertainment now; what’s it like to move to smaller and smaller screens?

If the modes are changing, one goes along with it I guess. A lot of people think that when you’re playing leading roles you don’t want to take the risk. I don’t think in terms of risk right now. I’m no longer in that category—of the superstars, the younger generation—so I can do those things, you know, just to satisfy my curiosity. I write my own blog every day. I do the Twitter every day and the Facebook. Without a gap. I do everything myself, I load my own photographs, I sometimes take my own videos and post them.

Are you getting more involved in the business end of digital entertainment?

We are holding hands now with CA Media, which is a Peter Chernin company. He came across and he met me and we talked about films and entertainment in general. I actually talked to him about digital promotion. When I started my blog one of the things that I felt awkward about was asking people to pay to read my blog. I still maintain that. But if it is done in a guarded fashion and it doesn’t look as though I am doing this as a business, and they can protect that, then it’s fine.

Many investors feel that the business climate isn’t as welcoming in India as they would like. Are people starting to cool on India?

No, I don’t feel that. Even in a cool state we’re still percentages higher than the rest of the world [in terms of GDP growth]. Even if we’re not doing 9%, we’re doing 7%, okay, it’s still more than the United States. I think you need to go with the basic thought—the basic thought is that you will not be able to ignore the kind of demographics that exist in our country.

For a while, people were expecting that a Bollywood film might break big internationally, but that hasn’t happened yet. Why do you think that is?

I don’t know. I don’t know in what way people expect that. Are you wanting to make a film in English? In Chinese or Japanese or what? Because you can make a film in Hindi and it can be dubbed. But if you’re saying you want to make a deliberate subject, which is going to cater to the United States of America, perhaps not. What I find now is a lot of realism – realistic cinema and topics and subjects that project the real India are going through, so now you have someone like [director] Anurag Kashyap, whose Gangs of Wasseypur is being previewed and invited to the Cannes Film Festival.

How has the film industry changed since you started?

I feel very out of place at times because the average age on set is about 25. And I’m 71. But I’m very excited to see them. It’s a huge change from when I started in the 1960s, but what is really impressive is that the number of ladies on set, the women working on set is a huge percentage. There used to be no women. It was just the leading lady’s mother, perhaps the hairdresser and the makeup person. But you have women now working as assistant directors, assistants to cameramen, production managers, scriptwriters, doing dialogue, directing films.

How has that changed the dynamic of filmmaking?

If you have a woman who’s directing it her perspective is going to be in it. And if you have a leading lady who’s a woman – [the 2012 thriller] Kahaani was a tremendous example of that. It’s a lone battle of a woman who succeeds in the end. It’s like the leading man of the old times.

Your son, Abhishek, is also in the film industry. Do you see it differently than he does?

I don’t know. I had this feeling that if I had a son, that he would be my friend, that I would not be a father figure. So we just, you know, we are friends. And we talk about music or films, or clothing, where to go, Skyping, Facetime, I was just on Facetime. It’s a state of mind really. You can live with your past and be quiet. But I’m still in the business.