It is indeed most befitting to describe Bharati Jaffrey as the daughter of the legendary actor Ashok Kumar, we all refer to as Dadamoni. Ratnottama Sengupta pays a heartfelt tribute to her ‘Didi’, the talented actress who left her indelible mark in her underplayed film roles and in various other capacities.
Her father was an icon for my father. Both the fathers lived when Nabendu Ghosh directed Anmol Ratan for Doordarshan, and penned Ashok Kumar: His Life and Times for Harper Collins. Both were gone when I organised the legend’s birth centenary in Kolkata and mounted an exhibition of his art and posters of his films – which brought me really close to Bharati Jaffrey.
So, when the biography was republished by Speaking Tiger as Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar, I approached her to pen the Foreword. She was very happy to receive the first copies earlier this year. “I want some more copies, all the children and grandchildren should have a copy na!” That was the last time I heard her voice. Death snatched her before I could reach more copies to her.
‘Actor Ashok Kumar’s daughter Bharati Jaffrey passes away,’ newspapers headlined on September 21, a day after the news was announced in the social media by her actor son-in-law Kanwaljit Singh, married to actor Anooradha Patel, her daughter from her first marriage to Dr Virendra Patel. Yes, Bharati acquired the surname Jaffrey after she married Hamid Jaffrey – brother of actor Saeed Jaffrey. Point is, in all this reporting most people overlook or under-report the fact that Didi – as I was privileged to address her – herself was no mean actor.
It is indeed most befitting to describe Bharati Jaffrey as the daughter of the legendary actor we all refer to as Dadamoni. Her looks echoed her father’s, especially in the setting of the ‘square jaw’ that did not meet with the approval of his first director, Franz Osten. But she blended in the dreamy eyes of her mother Shobha Gangoly. More important to me is that she also inherited her father’s liberal values, his caring soul, his sunshine outlook. Perhaps that is why, even at 80, her family of friends are mourning the departure of “the many-splendoured,” “talented,” “vivacious” lady “full of life, of energy, of positivity.”
That could also be why she so admirably wore the mantel of Ashok Kumar Foundation, which supported the Homeopathic hospital in the Mumbai suburb of Ghatkopar; supported exhibitions of young artists, supported young filmmakers who went on to win National Awards and compete for the Oscar in Hollywood.
As for herself, Didi won an international award for playing Mrs Sujata Patel, an Indian immigrant in Germany, in the German film, Marry Me (1914). Aber Bitter Auf Indisch – the German title of the film – was shot in Germany, and Didi had to stay in Berlin for three months to speak German. Here too her inspiration was her Papa who spoke no less than eight languages. “It was one of the high points of her life, personally and professionally,” Didi’s daughter in law Kiran shared in her memorial gathering. For, the role had brought Bharati Jaffrey a Best Actor award – her first, at the age of 70!
This wasn’t her first appearance before the camera, though. She had acted in Ashok Banker’s A Mouthful of Sky (1995). She played mother in Saans (1998), the television series Neena Gupta directed for Doordarshan. Likewise, in Devi Ahilya Bai (2002) on the Holkar queen. She was seen in guest appearances, be it Hazar Chaurasi Ki Maa, and in Kalpana Lajmi’s Daman (2001). What an impressive range for someone who made only sporadic forays on the screen, be it big or small, Hindi-English-or-Marathi, national or international!
And if this wasn’t enough, in her twilight years she won hearts as well as laurels by essaying a day in the life of an aged, bedridden woman in My Pot of Gold. Directed by a 28-year-old Priyanka Tanwar, the hour-long film reaped awards at Cincinnati, Nigeria, and at the Dadasaheb Phalke Film Festival in India. Surely her Papa would have been proud of her although — when she was in her prime — he didn’t want her to be in films!
Being his first-born, Didi was fortunate to have shadowed her father the longest. With him she went to many filming locations where she was indulged “like a princess,” she’d recall. He exposed her to world cinema as much as the creative arts. “Papa opened every door of experience for us,” she would say, admiring his liberal upbringing. But why did he not want his daughter to be in films? “’Because it would be difficult to marry you off,’ he’d say!”
But Didi did not fight her Papa’s unshakeable faith in the values instilled in him by his upper middle class parents who had seen his engagement being called off because Ashok Kumar had just debuted in Jeevan Naiyya! “No, it wasn’t funny, it was cruel,” Dadamoni had explained. Because, back then, actors and dancers were social outcasts even though everyone enjoyed their performance.
Coming out of those times, Ashok Kumar achieved every success in life – money, fame, legendary stature – as an actor. And that is why, the man who was mostly suited booted on the sets, would dress only in pyjama kurta at home, and insisted that Didi, once she turned 12, should be in a sari “at least at home.”
But subconsciously she must have longed to act, for that is what she’d seen her father do, although he set out to be a director. He’d trained himself in acting, and learnt to rely less on dialogue; express more through body language. “In acting, you have to give so much of yourself, yet not be yourself,” Dadamoni had taught his daughters. Preeti, the youngest of the three sisters and one brother, had gone on to FTII to master the craft of the art and had made a place for herself in the limelight before her untimely death. While Rupa, the second sister, settled in marriage with comedian Deven Varma, Bharati drew from her own resources to be somebody on stage. She designed costumes for Alyque Padamsee; she assisted Pearl Padamsee; she even taught acting. That is why she was so convincing even in guest appearances, in Hazar Chaurasi Ki Maa or Daman.
All this came out of her admiration for Papa. “People overlooked the craft in your screen avatars, they believed that you were simply there. But there’s a large measure of thought, preparation and empathy that goes into acting, and it is far from easy to make it look effortless and natural. You exemplified this, for you always drew from within.” Didi wrote in her Foreword for Dadamoni.
Didi’s favourite Ashok Kumar film was Aashirwad, not because it won him the Golden Lotus for Best Actor, but because of the persona: Dadamoni too was one such lively father, telling stories, singing songs. But most of all, because of the heart rending depiction of the father-daughter bond. “I’ve never been able to sit through a second viewing of the film,” Didi told me when I was selecting films for the Ashok Kumar Birth Centenary at Nandan, the West Bengal Film Centre in March 2012.
This bonding also explains why Mili was so close to her heart: “It is such a highly emotional story of an agonised father who realises that his daughter is about to be claimed by cancer!” However, it was Khatta Meetha that brought the whole Gangoly family together. Was it closest to the boisterous, fun-filled mood of Bollywood’s First Family? If the father aced as the Parsi widower with five children who marries a widow with three of her own, daughter Preeti, son Arup, and granddaughter Anooradha too were involved in various capacities!
The Centenary event had led Amol Palekar, Mousumi Chatterjee, Basu Chatterjee, Anooradha Patel and of course Bharati Didi to travel down memory lane. They made it clear that Dadamoni would study not only his characters, he would closely observe his co-actors: how they sat, how they moved, how they cast their glance, how they reacted when he spoke. He observed even the patients who came to him for his homeopathic medicine. And he used his observation for his paintings as much as for acting, Didi had elaborated.
“Papa could have made a career as a painter,” Didi told me as I was mounting the exhibition of his paintings at Nandan. “His grandfather wanted to send him to Italy to master the art when he was only twenty years old. Surely he had it in him. That is why, in 1954, while shooting for AVM’s Bhai Bhai in Madras, he took two days off and visited Paul Raj, an artist he had read about in an international magazine on art,” Didi narrated with evident pride in her voice. And why did he travel some 60 miles away from the city? “Because this artist had mastered the art of painting watercolours — the most difficult medium to handle as it permits no correction, no alteration – WITHOUT first pencilling the figures!”
Didi was with her Papa over the two days he spent learning to paint in the same manner. “That day onwards, painting became his creative outlet. In 1960, when he fell sick and was confined to bed, he took resort to painting. And at Iftikhar Uncle’s suggestion, he continued to paint even after he recovered. He perfected even the use of oils. He got so good at it that when M F Husain saw his paintings, he said, ‘These are not the strokes of an amateur,’” Didi has recorded in Dadamoni…
Naturally, a great source of joy for Didi was that the gift of painting has filtered down three generations to flower in the art of Aditiya, her grandson from Anooradha and Kanwaljit. A few years ago I had the opportunity to view the competence of his art at an exhibition at Mumbai’s renowned Jehangir Art Gallery. And days before she passed away Aditiya delighted his Nani with a warm portrait of her.
Didi’s last performance before the camera was While It Lasts, revolving around two strangers, one very old and one very young. “They sit on a bench and talk,” Didi had shared in an interview. “Because sometimes people are more comfortable opening up their inner selves to strangers who won’t be judgmental,” she had explained the theme to me. She was delighted by her grandson Varun Patel’s involvement. “See, Papa’s legacy in cinema too has percolated to the fourth generation! Varun is doing short films and television…”
Being an institution by himself, the actor who spanned six decades between 1936 and 1999 left a priceless legacy for generations to follow. To share that with everybody, Bharati Didi had set up the Ashok Kumar Foundation (AKF). Furthering his attachment to homeopathy, the charitable organisation donated medicines to clinic that cared for deprived children. Through events, it raised funds to be donated for relief work and other philanthropic causes. AKF funded noteworthy scripts — the first recipient of which was Shwaas (2004), the Marathi film that won the National Award for Best Film before going on to the Oscars. It also actively supported new theatre groups and art exhibitions by upcoming artists. And this had started with a fascinating incident.
One afternoon, the doorbell rang. “Speedpost!” said the man at the door. While Didi was signing the delivery sheet, the postman asked her, “Ma’am is that painting by Paul Raj?” Yes, that was the artist under whom Ashok Kumar had mastered the art of painting in watercolour without pencilling an outline. Stunned, Didi asked him, “How did you recognise the signature?” The courier revealed that he had joined the J J College of Art in Bombay but didn’t have the money to continue. In that instant, she resolved to help debuting artists in mounting shows, bringing out brochures – and sharing space with Dadamoni’s art.
Naturally Didi was deeply saddened when infirmity and ill-health compelled her to wind up AKF. She was also disillusioned by Bollywood’s indifference to the legacy that was Ashok Kumar. “All I wanted was to see an award instituted in his name. Could they not institute an award for the Outstanding Performer of the Year in the name of the man who laid the foundation for what is Bollywood today?”
Kolkata artist Jagannath Paul was “blessed” with Didi’s unstinted support from the very beginning of his career, when he was in need of a platform in Mumbai. Moved by “Bharati Ma’am’s” passion for the world of art and her dedication to AKF, he made a banner for her with Ashok Kumar’s sketch on it. “The stories she shared had profound love and affection for people,” he wrote after her demise. “She never missed a chance to help out,” he remembered. His deep respect expressed itself in the portrait he sketched: it has captured Didi’s expressive eyes, her winsome smile, the radiance of her personality, indeed, the benevolence of her being.
“On looking back, I realise that there was a certain happiness in Papa which he could spread in the people around you. He was always laughing. His image was that of a staid old man but he was full of fun. And he always told us, ‘There is no happiness outside of yourself, it is always within you. Seek inside and, always, you will find happiness from within you…’”
This is perhaps the greatest lesson Bharati Jaffrey inherited from her father. No ostentation, no flamboyance despite being the first-born and therefore closest to the iconic Ashok Kumar, she imbibed his equilibrium when actors and star kids alike revelled in hype and splurge.
I will always remember Didi with her winsome smile and her sparkling eyes. The moments I spent in her company did not straddle decade; I still thank her for the love and friendship she has left behind for her family of friends.
Kanwaljit Singh’s Instagram tribute to Bharati Jaffrey
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