Jaya Bachchan: A Slot-less Act
Jaya Bachchan is a name synonymous with endearing, real and honest characters in Hrishikesh Mukherjee films. However, the acting powerhouse has much more to her than her image. Her subtleties, mastery of craft and the ability to convince make her a talent we just don’t write enough roles, stories and textures for. In this piece we try and un-layer Jaya Bachchan’s stellar performances.
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
The commercial Hindi film industry or Bombay Cinema was fast becoming a haven receiving love, innocent dreams and the only place that could change fortunes. Socialist streak in the most successful films was now making way for more personal stories, of love, life and relationships. Color had infused black and white, taking away a lot of the poetry, mystique and grandeur that the former brought. Films were now not critiquing dreams of modern India, but fuelling them further. Glamour had begun to infect the storytelling. The likes of Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor, Chetan Anand had brought stellar films, superlative stories, and great talent into the industry and for the audience. But the appetite of audiences was changing. And so was the way films were thought of, created and served.
It was the time of contradictions. Films were larger, but not as large as the personas they gave birth to. The original superstars were seeing unprecedented fan following. Never before had India witnessed a phenomenon that had the country’s hearts beating as one. Rajesh Khanna had arrived, and with him stardom. It had been two years since Aradhana (1969), a story of a strong woman going through life basis the choices she made. Khanna was unstoppable or so it seemed. Women were still instrumental to stories. Think Kati Patang (1970), Aradhana (1969), Safar (1970), Anupama (1966), Khamoshi (1969), Satyakam(1969). Each of these you will remember to still have a soul.
What is also common to these, is that many of the films listed above are directed by the great, Late Hrishikesh Mukherjee, well titled as the filmmaker everyone loves, by Jai Arjun Singh in his recent book on the maestro. And that is where Jaya Bhaduri’s journey in Bombay cinema begins. Jaya Bhaduri boasted of credentials well before this beginning. Having worked in Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar, she entered the hearts and minds of the audiences with her very convincing, innocent and charming turn as and in Guddi (1971).
Playing the title role of Guddi as the innocent and charming Kusum
Guddi continued the school of Hrishikesh Mukherjee films. Believable, earthy, lovable characters that restored faith of audiences in the goodness of the world. Hrishida’s world’s protagonists had an innate honesty that invited trust. Insightfully drawn, real people, willing to and wanting to live with their imperfections, and with an undying belief in concepts of feelings, love, truth, relationships and possibilities. Jaya Bhaduri carried that world forth well, across Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films. While accepting a lifetime achievement award, she referred to Hrishida as a father like figure who she greatly misses. And it is very evident why.
Guddi was a beautiful way of looking at the film industry from an outsider’s view. The mirages, the fakeness, the need for deception all wrapped in the foil of humor, and through this little teenager’s eyes, infatuated with an image of a man. Guddi was also feminist in her own innocent ways, whether wanting to be Meera or choosing a partner (albeit led by approvals). It is hard to believe that the vulnerable wide-eyed girl who stared at the arc lights with amazement is a gold medalist from the Film and Television Institute of India (now at a precipice of attempted but rightly contested, change and saffronisation) before the film was brought on floors. That is the power of Jaya Bhaduri’s talent.
She admits in an episode of Guftagoo, that it was always more important for her that the overall film was well made than just her role. And the spate of films that follow Guddi, are testimony to that fact. These were great films and her performance in each instrumental and powerful. Uphaar, Koshish followed in 1972. And the same year and 1973 saw Jawani Deewani and Zanjeer.
It is crucial to pause here and contest the reason to box her in the ‘girl next door image’ that Jaya Bhaduri’s iconic films have fetched her. In Zanjeer she played a feisty, loud, street comfortable character, while Koshish, is its exact opposite. A sensitive portrayal and narrative of the journey of a deaf and mute couple, Jaya Bhaduri wove magic in silence. In Anamika she plays a woman often questioned. With Jawani Diwani she brings back the glamour.
Jaya Bhaduri’s talent is visible with the seamless shift she makes in characters that are strong, to characters that are amicable, with genuine veritable ease. The shift between glamour and soul. The one between voice and silence.
A sensitive portrayal and narrative of the journey of a deaf and mute couple in Koshish
Gulzar and Hrishida, in my humble opinion, carry forward the mantle of Bimal Roy’s school of simple yet powerful storytelling that induces thought, pain and emotions in varying degrees in each scene. It is important to mention Koshish (1972) here. With Gulzar’s simplicity, poignancy and impeccable casting of Jaya Bhaduri and Sanjeev Kumar, the film can still stir up a storm in our hearts.
Jaya Bhaduri talks with her eyes, the helplessness yet the need and strength to be able to make what she wants of her life are palpable. The film itself, embraces the concepts of imperfections and the need to find partners and friends that complete us in more ways than one.
Jaya Bhaduri talks with her eyes in Koshish
Notice the flawless ability of these actors: Jaya Bhaduri and Sanjeev Kumar, that they play a mix of characters that have very different and dramatic relationships with each other! Lovers in Anamika (1973), Father-daughter in Parichay (1972)and Father-in-law and daughter-in-law in Sholay (1975)! All within four years!
Her longest, most noticeable tryst however does come with Hrishida. And crossing over a few years, it is important to mention some enduring films, a few being my absolute favorites. Not for the films alone that they are, but for Jaya Bachchan’s (the change in name since she married this year) super act.
The first on that list is Abhimaan (1973). Released in the same year as Zanjeer. Abhimaan has conversations in silences. Often explained to be a story of a man who feels thwarted by fate because of a choice he made, and torn between love for his wife and contempt for her talent, is also a story of an egoist man bred in patriarchy, refusing to take the first step towards reconciliation.
The film marks several landmarks, and was the first positive role for Bindu. The story however, is of Uma. Jaya Bachchan retains the soul of the film. She elevates it with her silences, her strength, her fragility and her desire. Impeccable lip-syncs to melodious songs, with grace she brought alive the conflicts of her character even with the smallest body movements. Watch how she pulls up her palla in the song ‘Piya bina’, with tears in her eyes permeating the sadness, and the need to belong to the man she loves, down to the marrow of our bones. Or the way she breaks down and chooses to leave her home, refusing to be humiliated further by her angst-driven husband. Watch her discomfort in talking to Bindu about issues in her marriage- accepting her love for her husband, but not judging or questioning it.
Uma is a woman with a mind of her own. Confident of her talent, vocal of her choices, she reprimands Subir, plays with him coyly, and disengages with him when she needs to. Abhimaan uses tense underplay to peel the complex layers of power and envy. That is what lingers on, long after the arc-lights are dimmed.
Watch how she pulls up her palla in the song ‘Piya bina’, with tears in her eyes permeating the sadness, and the need to belong to the man she loves (Abhimaan, 1973)
Abhimaan should be counted amongst her best, and amongst Amitabh Bachchan’s finest films portraying the Angry Young Man. As should Mili.
It is again important to note, that while the persona of the Angry Young Man was rising in these years, with Zanjeer and cemented then further by Deewar in 1975, Mili too released the same year. A film riding on Jaya Bachchan’s shoulders. A story of a bright girl fighting a fatal disease. The film does remind you forcefully of Anand, the similarities between the narrative, protagonists and parallel characters palpable.
Here again Jaya Bachchan’s ability to depict layers and polar behavior for her characters (seen also in Sholay and Abhimaan), and towards her gradual inevitable end, yet rescuing a man from his own demons is sensitive. With that, the same year, an impeccable act of restraint and subtlety in Sholay, complimenting Jai, and providing solace from the loud Veeru and louder Basanti. And several other great pieces of work in Chupke Chupke, Bawarchi, Kora Kaagaz, Nauker, and many more, soon after.
Another landmark was Silsila (1981). Not for its much-publicized casting coup, but Jaya Bachchan’s strong, diginified character, of someone willing to live with her choices. Liberating yet closed, whether it is for her pregnancy pre-marriage, her decision to marry her lover’s brother or even her refusal in asking her husband to stay back in the marriage, Jaya Bachchan’s restraint, dignity and craft remained unmatched.
The next innings began with Hazaar Chaurasi ki Ma (1998), 17 years later, a soul stirring adaptation by Govind Nihalani, of Mahasweta Devi’s novel by the same name in Bangla. She forced the industry to understand her mettle. And once again, the fact that she shouldn’t be boxed in an image became apparent.
Jaya Bachchan has often said that lead roles for actors her age are rarely written. I tend to agree. After Hazaar Chaurasi ki Ma, we saw her play her age but in supporting roles only, several of which didn’t even scratch the surface of what she is capable of doing, playing straight into the hands of stereotypes she so deftly challenged earlier in her career.
She forced the industry to understand her mettle in Hazaar Chaurasi ki Ma
I have often wondered why she decided to leave at the time she did, before deciding to return with the gritty Hazar Chaurasi ki Ma. The fact remains that towards the later 70s and until the 2000s, and in fact well after, our films were steadily pandering to patriarchal mindsets, with only alternate voices substantially celebrating women’s journeys. Would the spectrum of those decades have differed had she agreed to stay on? We can only speculate.
Jaya Bachchan showed us that it is sheer mastery of craft that leads to perfection and adulation. It is never about shortcuts, or being slotted. It is about challenging status quo every day. It is about being brave and defining roles, images and categories for one’s self. It is about being an imaginative storyteller, and loving films every single day. We hope films and stories are written about the journeys of women at the age that she is. To once more welcome back one of the finest actors commercial cinema has seen. Her presence had come to define a school of thought that walked the commercial and the art. That found a balance in the contradictions.
Did you know, that she and Amitabh Bachchan together produced Abhimaan under Amiya Productions? And that she wrote the story of Shahenshah (1988). Girl next door, did you say?
More to read in Retrospectives
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