Director Baz Luhrmann’s big budget adaptation of author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” isn’t exactly a cut-and-paste Hollywood update of the classic tale of love and obsession. The film is a lavish and star-studded affair, which isn't terribly surprising given the “Moulin Rouge” director’s equally extravagant and talent-filled previous work. However, many viewers probably weren’t expecting 3D visuals and a hip-hop infused soundtrack from the glamorous 1920s set drama.
Aside from the music and eye-popping visuals, one other thing that sets Luhrmann’s “Great Gatsby” apart from previous adaptations of Fitzgerald’s book is the movie’s truly international cast. Featuring Americans (Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Macguire), Brits (Carey Mulligan), and Australians (Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, and Jason Clarke), “Gatsby” also includes one of India’s biggest actors in a small but integral role: Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan plays gangster Meyer Wolfsheim.
The 70-year-old icon and star of classic movies like “Zanjeer” and “Deewaar” has nearly 200 films to his credit, but had surprisingly never appeared in a movie outside of India until “The Great Gatsby.”
So, how exactly did one of Bollywood’s biggest stars end up playing a 1920s Jewish gangster in Luhrmann’s $130 million adaptation of an American classic? It all started with a trip Luhrmann took to India several years ago.
“I was travelling through India on a motorcycle on one of my debriefings,” Luhrmann told Yahoo! Movies Canada, referring to the globe-trotting trips he often takes after finishing a movie. “Bachchan is a legend there and because I’m in the film biz, I went via the compound that he lives in and met him.”
The director remembered his first encounter with Bachchan fondly, calling the Bollywood megastar “beautiful of spirit” and “very gracious.”
Shortly afterwards, the director found himself deep in pre-production on “The Great Gatsby,” and was wrestling with just who exactly to cast as Wolfsheim.
“I was trying to solve the issue of Meyer Wolfsheim because there’s a big question there,” Luhrmann recalled. “Fitzgerald draws the character in what some might say is a very broad, anti-Semitic manner.”
Wolfsheim was loosely based on a number of contemporary 1920s criminals, most notably alleged 1919 World Series fixer Arnold Rothstein (a character very familiar to anyone who watches HBO’s prohibition era series “Boardwalk Empire”), but that was not how Luhrmann wanted to depict the character in “Gatsby.”
“What Wolfsheim really represents is the ‘other,’ the underworld,” said Luhrmann, pointing out that he isn't the first director to take a different approach with a character like this. “Wolfsheim relates to a historical figure, but if you take someone like Nicky Arnstein - who was Fanny Brice’s gambler friend and a person that Wolfsheim would have known – in ‘Funny Girl’ he was played by Omar Sharif.”
In trying to find his Wolfsheim, Luhrmann stressed that he was trying to find someone “really exotic” who wouldn’t be known to Western audiences. Bachchan fit the bill perfectly.
“So I rang him and said ‘Would you consider doing this?’ and Wing Commander [Ramesh Pulapaka, the head of Bachchan’s production company AB Corp) said that the one condition is that he must not be paid. 'It is to be a gesture of friendship between our two countries.'"
In speaking with Luhrmann, it was clear the director was thrilled to have Bachchan be a part of "Gatsby." The filmmaker quipped that if star Leonardo DiCaprio was the prince, then Bachchan was "the king.” The director appeared genuinely pleased that more people would come to know the Indian actor as a result of his film.
“Bachchan is the biggest actor in the world. In the world,” Lurhmann said, repeating for added emphasis. The Bollywood actor could quite easily pass unnoticed in Canada or the United States, but in India, he would almost certainly be mobbed instantly.
“He’s technically got a greater following than Leonardo,” Luhrmann joked. “He’s also happens to be a grand and great actor, and a superbly wonderful person."
"The Great Gatsby" hits theatres on May 10.