For the team, the launch is just the start of the journey. “While the experience is great, we don’t believe that we’re done here. In true Amazon spirit, it is still Day-1,” said Abhishek Bhatnagar. “We’re on a journey that keeps getting better as the AI learns. The digital persona of Amit ji will constantly keep evolving as more customers start interacting with his voice and we hope to continue to work with Mr. Bachchan to add more delighters.”

Amazon has launched India’s first celebrity voice feature on Alexa featuring the legendary icon of Indian cinema - Mr. Amitabh Bachchan. This milestone moment was the culmination of countless hours of effort by a diverse team spread across seven time zones.

Dipa Alexa India
Dipa Balakrishnan, Senior Manager, Alexa Experience
Photo by VAISHALI BHATIA

Bringing this to life involved a series of firsts – this is the first celebrity voice offering outside of the US and the first instance of a bilingual celebrity voice feature. Keeping in mind that India is a mobile-first nation, it is the first country where in addition to Echo devices, customers can interact with Amit ji’s voice on their mobile phones via the Amazon shopping app (Android). Just say “Alexa, introduce me to Amitabh Bachchan” to start the purchase and interact with Mr. Bachchan’s voice using the wake word ‘Amit ji’. More here: https://www.amazon.in/amitji.

For the team working on this project, it was special in many ways as they came together to build something that was truly India-first, and therefore Indian at heart.

'Mr. Bachchan - an obvious choice for India’s first celebrity voice on Alexa'

Divij Sharma, Manager, Alexa Marketing
Divij Sharma, Manager, Alexa Marketing

When discussions around launching a celebrity voice feature began, the team started from a largely blank canvas. The choice of the celebrity was an important factor since the first celebrity voice in any country would have to resonate with a majority of the population. The team wanted to offer customers an instantly recognisable voice and personality – and who better to work with than Mr. Bachchan to bring his iconic voice to life for Alexa customers!
Dipa Balakrishnan, Senior Manager, Alexa Experience at Amazon says, “Mr. Bachchan being extremely tech-savvy himself, recognised that this was another interface to reach out to his extended family of fans. So, it was an honour and privilege for us to work with him and make this a reality.”

'Virtual persona on Alexa represents his unique personality'

 Ashish NarangSenior Product Manager, Alexa
Ashish Narang, Senior Product Manager, Alexa

Amitabh Bachchan means different things to different people – from the ‘angry young man’ of films like Deewar or Sholay to the venerated host of Kaun Banega Crorepati. For several others, he’s a fatherly, almost godly, figure who they look up to and respect immensely. Therefore, defining the persona of ‘Amit ji’ meant bringing in all these different nuances of his personality and presenting him in a manner that resonates with all these audiences.

As is the Amazon way, the team started backwards from customers, and conducted research to understand how customers perceive celebrities in India, and what they picture when they imagine talking to Mr. Bachchan. It was clear that customers were keen to interact with Mr. Bachchan to hear motivational quotes, jokes, poetry, music, and of course, stories from his life. Mr. Bachchan also shared many personal anecdotes from his experiences while shooting and tidbits from his life, that can be discovered when his virtual persona is asked to play a popular song from his movies or tell a story.

The team found an opportunity to bring out Mr. Bachchan’s witty side while executing requests for everyday tasks. For instance, when you set your morning alarm, Amit ji’s voice will say, “Alarm to humne laga diya hai, but dekhiye snooze ka button na dabana aapka kaam hai.” Ashish Narang, Senior Product Manager, Alexa adds, “Mr. Bachchan himself played a very active role in helping shape ‘Amit ji’ on Alexa and his personality shines through in the experience.”

Abhishek Bhatnagar, Principal Product Manager at Amazon Alexa
Abhishek Bhatnagar, Principal Product Manager at Amazon Alexa

Another interesting addition from Mr. Bachchan was the inclusion of tongue twisters. “In one of our brainstorming sessions, Mr. Bachchan mentioned that many well-wishers, when they meet him in person, ask him to repeat his popular tongue twisters like ‘Samajh samjh ke samajh ko samjho’ or ‘Kachcha papad’,” said Divij Sharma, Manager, Alexa Marketing. “At that very moment, we decided that this feature should definitely be a part of the Amitabh Bachchan celebrity voice experience. We also ensured tongue twisters were highlighted in the ad film so that the millions of fans, who might not have got a chance to meet him, can fulfil their request through Alexa.”

'Mr. Bachchan's iconic voice was reproduced to sound exactly like him'

Alexa is AI-based, so there is no precedence on how the voice service should sound. With Mr. Bachchan, everyone knows exactly what he sounds like, so there was very little margin for error. His signature style includes his rich, distinct voice that conveys deep emotion and has a large degree of intonation.

Ami Sampat, , UX Designer, Alexa.
Ami Sampat, , UX Designer, Alexa

Abhishek Bhatnagar, Principal Product Manager at Amazon Alexa said, “It was certainly daunting to think about bringing an iconic voice like that of Mr. Bachchan to life via Text-to-speech or TTS, which is the technology to create synthesised speech from text. We had to ensure that we’re doing justice to his stature, his persona, and the tall expectations from his fans. Most importantly, we had to live up to the trust that Mr. Bachchan had placed in us.”

“He did not shy away from saying, ‘let’s try that again’ till he was satisfied.”

The team therefore put a great amount of effort in getting his voice right through technologies such as neural text to speech, which is based on deep neural networks and deep learning, and other advanced machine learning techniques. “We needed to answer questions such as: At what speed should he speak?” said Ami Sampat, UX Designer, Alexa. “The speed of our speech varies according to the type of emotion. For instance, one might speak slowly while giving advice and fast when answering a question,” she added.

Shridhar Pathak, Senior Technical Program Manager, Alexa TTS
Shridhar Pathak, Senior Technical Program Manager, Alexa TTS
Photo by Picasa

“Mr. Bachchan is a perfectionist and was very specific about the way a sentence is delivered, where there is a pause etc. So, he did not shy away from saying, ‘let’s try that again’ till he was satisfied,” said Shridhar Pathak, Senior Technical Program Manager, Alexa TTS. “Moreover, this range of emotions needed to be delightful across two languages.”

'Working closely with Mr. Bachchan was a masterclass in humility'

“The first goose bump moment came during a test session where he was recording some iconic dialogues and it really hit home that this is that same person who delivered all these dialogues originally,” said Seema Somshekar, Managing Editor at Amazon.

Seema Somsekhar
Seema Somshekar, Managing Editor at Amazon

Seema also recalls a time when they had recorded some poems for about two hours with Mr. Bachchan and the team was quite satisfied with the results. The next day, we received a request from him to re-record some of the poems because Mr. Bachchan wasn’t satisfied. He re-recorded the poems and the results were even more stellar.

“Once Mr. Bachchan joined at 9:45 a.m. for a 10:00 a.m. session and the sound engineer was frantically calling the team saying, “Sir is here already!””

“Working with Mr. Bachchan was a masterclass in humility,” said Dipa Balakrishnan. “He was always self-critical, receptive to our suggestions, and emphasised on attention to detail. He was also always punctual and incredibly hardworking. Truly an inspiration to the team.”

While his commitment to perfection and excellence, professionalism, child-like enthusiasm, openness to ideas, excitement towards trying new things, and punctuality are well known, experiencing it first-hand left the team in complete awe of him. Like the time when Mr. Bachchan joined at 9:45 a.m. for a 10:00 a.m. session and the sound engineer was frantically calling the team saying, “Sir is here already!”