Guwahati: The year 1975 was a watershed in the career of Amitabh Bachchan. The veteran Bollywood actor had already become a major star after the success of Zanjeer and Abhimaan, but that particular year was going to catapult him to another level altogether. Two of his most iconic movies — Sholay and Deewaar — released in 1975 along with other classics like Chupke Chupke and Mili.
However, not too many people now that in the same year, he had also shot for an Assamese film Sonti, based on Oliver Twist, the classic novel of Charles Dickens.
Unfortunately, the film didn’t see the light of the day due to a tiff between the producers and exhibitors. The lone memory of the film is a fading black-and-white photograph where Bachchan is ready for a hand-to-hand combat with Dinesh Das, the main antagonist of the movie on the roof of an Assam-type house.
Das’ voice lights up even after all these years when asked about the scene. “This shot was taken on the second floor of Technician Studio in Kolkata. They had built the set of an Assam-type house in the studio and we had to fight on its roof. I had a knife in my hand and had to attack him. You can call me an expert in knife-fighting and knife-throwing. I had learned the art for six months before shooting an Assamese film called Manab Aru Danab, where I played the villain,” he said.
Das, who started his career in the 1960s has been the numero uno antagonist in Assamese films. He has done around 70 films and barring about five or six, he has played negative roles in all of them. He was recently seen in the Zubeen Garg-starrer, The Underworld.
In Sonti, he was to play a role based on Fagin, the main antagonist in Oliver Twist, who teaches young children pick-pocketing and other criminal activities.
“They had named my character Fatik Chand,” laughs Das, adding, “I was this bad guy who uses kids for illegal business. Bachchan was playing the role of Sonti’s father. A boy named Mridul played Sonti, the character based on Oliver Twist.”
When asked how the film was conceived and Big B came on board, Das says, “This adaptation of Oliver Twist was being made in three languages — Bengali, Odiya and Assamese, albeit with different cast. In the Bengali version, renowned theatre personality Sombhu Mitra played my role. Amitabh Bachchan was there only for the Assamese version.”
According to Das, Juneja, better known as Tito, who was producing Sonti was also producing the Bachchan-Rekha starrer Do Anjaane. Bachchan had come to Kolkata to meet the producer who requested him to be a part of Sonti. “I don’t recall fully but this was how he came on board for Sonti. I remember shooting with him for a week,” he says.
From his interaction with the megastar, Das remembers him as a soft-spoken gentleman with no starry airs, whatsoever. “He had told me, ‘Das Babu, why don’t you come to Bombay? I will help you’. However, it would have been a gamble for me at that time. Many actors from Assam went to Bombay to try their luck there but had to return eventually. I had a government job that time at that time and had a family to run so I couldn’t take the risk.”
He, of course, regrets the fact that the film didn’t release. “I had done one of my best works in the movie. It would have been a treat for the audience in Assam to see Amitabh Bachchan mouthing Assamese dialogues in an Assamese movie. It would certainly have been a very positive development for the movie industry in Assam.”
Veteran actor Nipon Goswami, who also acted in the movie doesn’t have much recollection about it. “It was shot so long back. It is unfortunate that the film didn’t release due to a stand-off between the makers. I don’t know what difference its release would have made to the Assamese industry, but surely it would have been a landmark moment,” he says.
Goswami, who acted with Bachchan in the Hindi movie, Do Anjaane, which released in 1976, has fond memories about the ‘Shahenshah of Bollywood. “He is a very accommodating actor. I cherish working with him and remember him as someone who always gave space to his co-actors to perform,” he recollects.
As Bachchan is gearing up for his next, YRF’s big-budget period saga, Thugs of Hindostan, Assamese cinema is also breaking new ground with Rima Das’ Village Rockstars being selected as India’s official entry to the Oscars this year. Apart from Hindi and English, Bachchan has worked in regional languages like Bengali, Bhojpuri, Malayalam and Telugu. Assamese, definitely, would have been a welcome addition to the list, but sadly it was not to be.