Fact #2: The average American probably has no idea that he exists. (But then again, he doesn’t really need Hollywood.) And yet, when filmmaker Baz Luhrmann released his remake of “The Great Gatsby” in mid-May, the media — both Indian and otherwise — has been going gaga over the cameo of Bachchan in the role of gangster Meyer Wolfsheim.
Do a simple Google search of Bachchan and the film and you can find hundreds of articles written in such a way that a person unfamiliar with the film would rightly think Bachchan played the role of Gatsby himself — instead of a forgettable villain. And on a personal note, I can count on two hands the number of friends I have who went to see the film purely to see the Big B make his first Hollywood appearance. (Yes, it was the same people who went to see Anil Kapoor in “Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol.” Another disaster.)
Is the reaction predictable given the man’s status as a Bollywood legend? Absolutely. Proportionate given the fact that Bachchan spends a total of two minutes onscreen? Absolutely not. Especially if you consider that the character of Wolfsheim has always been a source of controversy. (See: “There has been much muttering about Fitzgerald’s faintly anti-Semitic caricaturing of that character.”) But let’s save the whole “was-he-racist or was-he-not-racist”debate for another day, as well as the “are-South-Asians-the-new-Jews” talk and focus a bit on Bachchan.
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.
When Bachchan agreed to meet with Luhrmann, it was a gesture of courtesy towards a fellow artist, but it was also a political statement. Bachchan’s own close friend, Bal Thackaray, the head of the jingoistic Shiv Sena group, had just called for a ban on Australian cricket players in Bombay because “[o]ur boys are being stabbed, burnt at, and shot at in that country” and therefore it was wrong for Indian cricketers to play with them in harmony. Bachchan’s agreement to work in Australia at that moment in time, and to work for an Australian, was a very big deal.
Bachchan may be playing a stereotype. Luhrmannn may have cast him because, as a South Asian, he is “really exotic”. But, at the same time, their collaboration is a moment of two people reaching out across barriers and trying to find peace through art. As Luhrmann says, it is a “gesture of friendship between our two countries.”
Of course Bachchan himself seems completely oblivious to the history of South Asians in Hollywood, telling one reporter, “This is the first time an Indian has played a non-Indian in an American film.”
Whatever Bachchan’s reasons to star in The Great Gatsby may be, it’s unfortunate to see the disproportionate amount of attention he’s receiving for his “Hollywood debut.” It seems a waste for the media to froth at the mouth over a mere appearance instead of lobbying for greater roles for South Asian actors as a whole. Maybe next time, instead of two minutes, we could get two hours of Bachchan? Just a thought. It might be nice to see Senior Bachchan actually act in a Hollywood movie.