This was the time when Amitabh Bachchan ventured into business with the launch of ABCL in 1995. The vision was to build a mega entertainment company which would bring everything connected to the entertainment industry under one roof. It included producing and distributing films, selling music rights, TV production and event management. The group moved pretty fast and recruited 150 top professionals from different fields. It launched 15 films and dabbled in music rights of several others. The initial start was encouraging as the company managed its target turnover of 65 crores, registering a profit of 15 crores. The second year was when the problems started. Amitabh Bachchan agreed to do shows abroad but did not route the billing through ABCL. The senior team didn't appreciate this and finally, the top management was fired and a new team moved in. Sanjay Gupta, the CEO was replaced by Gautam Berry. But things didn't change. Moreover, their own production Mrityudaata did poorly at the box office.
The Miss World beauty pageant was the last straw. A British company made an offer to ABCL to handle the contest in India for them. They wanted to shift the venue from Sun City to India and were looking for an Indian company to sponsor it. They had four months to get going and host the event. Amitabh Bachchan was sceptical as he felt the time was less. As the captain of the ship, he asked his crew i.e. the ABCL professional team if they would be able to deliver. The team was gung-ho and confident they would pull it off.
Hence, the prestigious pageant took place in Bangalore on 23 November 1996. Eighty-eight contestants took part and it was successfully concluded. There were protests by women's groups but it was finally conducted without any big hitch. The aftermath, however, was financially backbreaking as the contestant who won the pageant demanded a fee of $2 million and combined with other costs, the bill ended up being $5 million. It was a financial fiasco.
A BBC online poll conducted in 1999 named Amitabh Bachchan the 'Superstar of the Millennium', over the likes of Alec Guinness and Marlon Brando of Hollywood. But at the same time, the situation at ABCL was very bad. The public confidence had taken a nosedive and salaries were not being paid as money was stuck in the production and distribution of films. Amitabh Bachchan was being hounded by creditors. He was shocked to see that the same people who had treated him with so much respect and awe a few months back started being rude and discourteous. It was very demeaning for him.
In June 2000, he became the first living Asian to have a wax statue curetted in his honour at Madame Tussauds. However, the same year brought a tsunami of financial and emotional troubles for him. When the entire world was busy celebrating the new century, Amitabh Bachchan was cursing his disastrous fortune. He had no films, no money, no company and a million legal cases against him. The tax authorities had even put a notice of recovery on his house. In one of his interviews, he admitted that he had very little knowledge of managing finance and business and went along with whatever his top management advised him to do. That was a big mistake.
In a TV interview, when he was asked if he had any regrets that the film industry and the professional fraternity didn't come to his rescue during his difficult times, he responded candidly by declaring that it was his decision and he had not expected someone else to take that responsibility and help him. He added that he had no regrets and didn't hold anyone responsible.
The Indian Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction declared Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited a 'sick' company with a debt of $ 14 million. His friends advised them to close the losing venture and move on but they decided to clear all their debts despite huge losses. They re-started the production of films.
Amitabh Bachchan clawed his way back from the abyss of gloom. Slowly and gradually, he began returning the 90 crores he owed to different people. Remembering those days, he told India Today that he paid one and all, including Doordarshan. When they asked for the interest component, he did commercials for them. He revealed he could never forget how creditors used to land at his door, be abusive, threaten and demand, and worse still, when they came for 'kudkee' at Prateeksha, his residence. These were difficult times for Bachchan, not just financially, but emotionally too. After all, here was the presiding deity of Indian cinema, virtually bankrupt.
He added that there was a sword hanging on his head all the time and that he spent many sleepless nights. He had no films. His house and a small property in New Delhi were attached. He felt like everything was going wrong together. He also admitted that it was without a doubt one of the darkest moments in his 44-year-old professional career. It made him sit and think, and look for options and different scenarios. The answer came to him one day and he walked to Yash Chopra who stayed behind his house. He implored him to give him work. That is how he got Mohabbatein.
Excerpted with permission of Rupa Publications India from Excellence: The Amitabh Bachchan Way by Virender Kapoor. Order your copy here.