The Jaya Bachchan You Didn’t Know

The Jaya Bachchan You Didn’t Know

On her 70th birthday, Subhash K Jha writes about the woman and actress who is in a league of her own
The Jaya Bachchan You Didn’t Know

In one of her finest performances Jaya Bachchan played mother to a very, very endearing son who just becomes a  number: 1084.  In real life, she’s  mother to a son who’s well on the way to becoming No1. Co-incidentally I saw Jaya Bachchan playing mom to Joy Sengupta in Govind Nihalani’s unforgettable Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa just a day before Abhishek won an award for his fine performance in Yuva.

Minutes after his name was announced, I had received a message from the proud mother informing me of the same. I could see the tears of pride and joy glistening through the words.  Jaya’s role as mother matters more to her than any other. That’s precisely why she gave up superstardom in 1973, when she ruled the boxoffice,  to become wife to Amitabh Bachchan and subsequently  mother to Shweta and Abhishek. “Everyone saw it as a big sacrifice and painted me as Mother India. But the fact is, I did what I  wanted to. There  was no martryrdom involved because I’m not that kind of  a person. No one can make me do what I don’t want to.”

That this  woman of substance won’t  do something only because it’s expected of her, goes without saying. Jaya is a woman of steel  in the truest sense of the word. In spite of being the first lady of filmdom, with  the accompanying baggage of obligations and responsibilities,  she’s  as real and rooted to  the ground as anyone  can get.

You won’t find her saying or doing anything she doesn’t believe in. Nor will you come across anyone who can accuse her of being unfair. Frank, sometimes brutally so, she calls a spade a spade.  How often has she pulled me up for my  personality-oriented  page-3 writing?  “You aren’t meant to do these things. We need serious writers who can put  our  cinema into a perspective. We’ve enough peeping-tom journalists writing about which star sneezed at which party.”

In fact Jaya, in all her  candid  objectivity, believes I  write too much about her husband.  I agree. When I see her give a performance like the one in Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa or the earlier ones in Doosri Sita, Uphaar, Annadata, Koshish, Kora Kagaz and Mili, I feel film history has been extremely  unfair to  Jaya Bachchan.  You  really can’t blame me entirely for the scarcity of writings on this formidable actress. She doesn’t allow me  to write about her,  unless I throw  a major tantrum and threaten  to go on a hunger strike in front of her beautifully kept residence Jalsa  in Juhu, Mumbai.

Let’s not forget,  this pioneering performer heralded naturalistic acting into mainstream Hindi cinema.  Before her there was Nutan, and after her there are Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi. But Jaya occupies a  unique position.  When she  came into the movies with her two back-to-back performances in Guddi and Uphaar in 1971,  Jaya’s  complete denial of ‘filmy’ glamour became a  trend-setting phenomenon.

While we tend to  think of Jaya  Bhaduri as the actress in a crumpled cotton sari and loose hair playing authentic middle-class characters  in middle-of-the-road movies by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Asit Sen, Gulzar and Anil Ganguly,  she in fact, created a fashion statement. In 1972-73 her hairstyle and specially-designed blouses with puffed sleeves, became a rage among women in the country. Jaya was  a fashion icon. “Oh I thought  other actresses were fashion icons. I was  just…Jaya,” she laughs uproariously. “I just wore and did what seemed right for me. To me the thought of doing anything that doesn’t come naturally to me seems unacceptable. That applies to both my personal and professional dealings.”

The daughter of a crusader and pioneering journalist Taroon Kumar Bhaduri, I’m proud to say she’s my closest friend among the Bachchans and perhaps the most short-changed in terms of career and recognition. Everyone seems to think Amitabh Bachchan  is the mega-star of the family. To me Jaya is the tallest Bachchan. You have to see  the well-oiled running of her impeccable household, and how cool she remains in spite of work-related and personal guests swarming her residence, to realize how tall her presence looms over her distinguished family.

Everyone sees Abhishek as his father’s son, when in fact he has more of his mother than his father in him. The smile and those eyes…. They’ve been bequeathed to the Bachchan heir from his illustrious mother who, at one point in the history of cinema  was so huge, she could shoulder the then-struggling Amitabh Bcahchan’s endeavour to become a star.

So far she has been seen with her son only once in a  Bengali film called Des where she played a social crusader who’s about to be whisked out of the country by her NRI son. Abhishek played the son.

I don’t think  Jaya is comfortable with the idea  of playing her own son’s mother on screen. It’s hard for her to play a  role that  she has perfected in  real life. It’s  even harder for her to trifle with truth. So many struggling directors have been told bluntly that  they need to improve their  act. Her husband would never take upon himself to assess people.  He would simply turn away with a smile. Jaya can’t do that. She confronts people situations and crises headlong,  gets to the bottom of  the problem and then moves on.

Zanjeer wouldn’t have  happened to her husband  if Jaya hadn’t agreed to play the relatively short role opposite  Amitabh Bachchan.  Many leading heroines including Mumtaz had said no. Jaya sportingly stepped in at the eleventh hour, adding great star value to the film… the rest   is too well known  to be repeated.

What needs reiteration  is the intense success-streak that she enjoyed fromn1971 to 1973 , right up to Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s AbhimaanMili and Chupke Chupke, all three with her husband, before she called it quits. Virtually every  film that she consented to do, made money at the box-office.  For a while, it seemed there was no other leading lady except Hema Malini to challenge Jaya’s rein at the top.  “I never thought of all that.  I just did the quality and quantity of work that suited me.  Then I moved on  to  look after my home and family.  Today  when the two boys in my life don’t need my presence that compulsively I’ve taken on the responsibility of being a  Rajya Sabha member. That’s so no self-indulgence for me. I take my job as parliamentarian very seriously.”

And films? “Where are the roles? Show me challenging roles for an actress my age , and I am  game, as I was for Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa or even Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and Kal Ho Na Ho where I didn’t have much to do in terms of footage. But at least there was  space for me to breathe in the script.”

Then she looks dreamily out of the window, probably thinking of the dinner guests that night.