STARDUST MEMORIES: This article, written by Taroon Coomar Bhaduri, The Statesman‘s correspondent in Bhopal for many years, was published in the Illustrated Weekly of India, March 5, 1989.
On the occasion of the marriage anniversary of the legendary actors Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bachchan, Silhouette presents this beautifully penned piece.
When Jaya joined films way back in 1970, Satyajit Ray told me: “For a year or so, at least in Bengal, she will be known as your daughter. Thereafter, you will be known as her father.” True enough, this came to pass—rather too soon—and, I must say, to my surprise. although not without unmixed pleasure. The disciple does usually steal a march over the teacher as they say, though of course in the strictest sense I was neither her guru nor she my chela.
And as if this was not enough, suddenly out of the blue I had to one day become the father-in-law of one who has been variously described as a ‘superstar’ and a ‘super phenomenon-Amitabh Bachchan. To be father and father-in-law to two celebrities can put one in quite an unenviable enviable, did you say?—situation. Their popularity has rubbed off on my wife and me. Almost overnight, we found that our friends were overfriendly towards us. Strangers wanted to know us socially. We started getting cocktail invitations from wholly unknown people. “There go Jaya’s parents and Amitabh’s in-laws,” curious passers-by would whisper. The professional journalist in me felt slighted, but the father in me felt elated.
There was for me another hazard. Wherever I went, I was besieged with requests for photographs of Jaya and Amitabh—not only from teenage fans but grandmothers too. Even now when I go out on tours. I have to carry these.
My wife and I are asked to sign autograph books not because we are what we are but because we are what we are to Jaya and Amitabh. Some years ago, my wife was given a public reception at a hill-station in Uttar Pradesh and made a patron of, of all things, a sports organisation because she happened to be Jaya’s mother and Amitabh’s mother-in-law. I, in my turn, was invited to one town to open a new judo club—because Amitabh is supposed to be the angry young man who fights his way out with judo, karate and what have you. But the ultimate was reached in another town where a women’s organisation invited me to speak on Amitabh’s ‘affairs’. This unnerved me no end, and I told them I was too busy mismanaging my own affairs to bother about someone else’s.
But I am supposed to be writing about the Amitabh you don’t know. This I am doing at the request of several friends and against my own better judgement, simply because I am doubtful if I could be objective in my assessment of this man so over-exposed as to be called the one-man industry.
What more is there to know?
But perhaps my friends are right. There is a lot to be known about him. What the public knows about him is only the tip of the iceberg, and perhaps the wrong tip.
I met Amit one night in early 1972 when he was courting Jaya. Tall, lanky, dressed in a silk kurta and lungi—his then customary casual wear—he stood near his slick Pontiac (or was it some other car?), parked a few feet away from Jaya’s flat on Juhu beach. I was coming back from a party and, as I got down from my car, the tall man (Lambuji as he was called by Jaya) suddenly emerged from the darkness and touched my feet. I looked up to see the white figure silhouetted against the darkness. “Are you the author of—?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied.
“It is beautiful,” he said. That was all. But the resonant voice I heard that night still haunts me.
My wife those days was staying in Bombay with Jaya. and I lived in Bhopal, only occasionally going down to Bombay. I still remember the date—May 25, 1973—when I got a surprise trunk-call at Bhopal. The caller said, “Baba, I am Amit. Can you and Ma come to Bombay tomorrow?”
“What for?” I said.
“Ma knows, she’ll tell you.”
My wife told me: “Damn it, you are getting old. They are getting married.”
And presto, we were in Bombay the next day to make arrangements for a ‘secret marriage’ on June 3, 1973. There is no point now in going into the details of how the whole affair was kept secret and the marriage arranged in the flat of friends of our family, the Pandits, at Malabar Hill. But there is something more to it.
I am an atheist, but my wife is not. She insisted that it should be a proper Bengali marriage. A Bengali marriage is usually a long-drawn-out but a highly interesting affair. The Bengali priest (who was located with great difficulty) at first protested against having to preside over a marriage between a Bengali brahmin (Jaya) and a non-Bengali non-brahmin (Amit). After a lot of hassles, this was sorted out. Amit went through all the rituals, offending no one, and the ceremony went on until early the next morning. He did with sincerity all he was told to do. The following day, they flew to London. On their return, I held a reception at Bhopal and again Amit did whatever he was told to do.
Whenever he met someone who knew his father, he would touch his feet. When introduced to a VIP, he would always say “Sir”, and he meant it all, because he is neither pretentious nor a hypocrite.
I am often asked what sort of a man Amitabh really is. Is he a modern-day Don Juan, a fellow always out for fun? The fact is he is just the opposite. Amit, in real life, is an introvert. He talks only when it is necessary. He is not given to unnecessary exuberance.
He is not a fanatic, but he is religious in his own way. He reads his Gita every morning and he plays his sitar. If he had the leisure, he would devote his time to books of which he has plenty. He is very fond of music. He is a thoroughly professional man, reporting for his shift on the dot. He doesn’t quarrel with his directors but obeys them. On Sundays, he likes to be left alone with his family for fun and frolic. At times he can be like a child.
In spite of his image. Amitabh is a vegetarian, teetotaller and a non-smoker, not by conviction but by choice. Normally a recluse and very reticent, he has a fantastic sense of humour. But he also is a very sensitive person who gets easily hurt. He is a man of strong likes and dislikes, and his circle of friends is a very close one. He goes to parties very rarely.
But in spite of all this, he is perhaps the most misunderstood and maligned man in the film industry. So much venom and calumny have been poured on him by a section of the Bombay film press that any other man in his place would have cracked up. He takes it all in his stride. But he also knows how to hit back, and this he does occasionally.
He has, of course, millions of crazy fans all over the country and abroad, yet he is wary of flatterers. I remember one incident. After their marriage, Jaya was doing a film and when the posters appeared, her maiden name was billed. Someone, obviously trying to flatter Amitabh, said: “Why should this be? She should be billed as a Bachchan.”
Amit promptly retorted: “Of course, she is a Bachchan, but you should know that in the industry and professionally, she is more famous as Jaya Bhaduri.”
In February 1979 when my second daughter got married in Lucknow, Amit was in his element. He played the dholak and danced and sang. Not only that, on the last day of the ceremonies he took upon himself the role of a bearer, serving lunch to the guests—of course, in the process, swallowing quite a few rasogollas himself!
It may seem strange, but whenever we meet we discuss almost everything under the sun from kings to cabbages—but never films.
An impression was deliberately created at one time in the press that I was not happy about the Jaya-Amitabh marriage. This is slander, plain and simple. Some people including a section of the press—have gone out of their way to sour our relations with the Bachchans. That they have not succeeded is another matter. I would like to know just one good reason why my wife or I would have been opposed to the Bhaduri-Bachchan alliance. Amitabh was, and is, a lovable boy. He struggled hard to come up in the world of films. Initial failures did not deter him, and with a teutonic doggedness, he pursued his career. He proposed marriage to Jaya only when the film Zanjeer clicked and he has not looked back since.
So, what reservations could we have? That he was not a Bengali and was a non-brahmin? How ridiculous! Another daughter of mine too is married to a non-brahmin, and if it is any consolation to my detractors, my second daughter is married to a Roman Catholic. Apart from my wife and I, my elderly parents, too, not only joined in the marriage celebrations but blessed all the three couples and this, in view of scores of invitees. And my father was a very proud brahmin. His words still ring in my ears: “It is their life. Who are we to throw a spanner in the works? If they are happy, so should we be.”
Over the years this bond between the Bhaduri and Bachchan families has become increasingly firm. In the first week of June 1988, I was admitted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences with a rather serious respiratory problem. I saw Amit and his mother Teji Bachchan (his father Dr Bachchan was also in the same hospital) at their generous and concerned best. They would come and cheer me up any number of times.
These are private matters and I would leave them at that. What, however, is not private is the near-fatal accident Amit had in Bangalore on July 24, 1982, while shooting for Coolie.
In June, Jaya and I had gone to London to see my younger brother, Himanshu, who was dying of cancer. The tragedy is that we left London on June 14 and by the time we reached Bombay, we got the message that he had expired on June 15. All my three daughters were very close to him. I returned to Lucknow a broken man. Like a bolt from the blue came the news that Amit had met with an accident on July 24 in Bangalore during the shooting of Coolie.
We flew to Bombay from Lucknow. All over the country, people were praying for Amitabh’s recovery. This was something unheard of—the whole country praying for one man. But there it was. Amitabh survived. My wife and a million others said it was “due to God’s grace”. I do not agree. I told my wife and Jaya that if Amit had not survived, everyone would have blamed the doctors. Now that he had survived, why didn’t they praise the doctors? They had no answer. They thought it was God’s miracle. I don’t think so. It was a medical marvel of the Breach Candy Hospital.
I have often been asked about my relationship with Amit. I would say that there are no problems, in the sense that since he is an introvert and I an extrovert, there is hardly any communication between us. But when we do meet, we get along famously. This may not make Amit’s or my detractors happy. But I couldn’t care less.
Let me revert to Amit’s accident. When we were informed about it in Lucknow, my wife was worried sick and wanted to go to Bombay as soon as possible. When we landed in Bombay, there were several friends including the Aroras, whom we knew and others whom we didn’t. But all of them said, “The whole country, irrespective of caste, creed and religion, is praying for him. Nothing will happen to him.”
That night I slept soundly in the belief that if prayers had any meaning, Amit would survive.
But being an atheist, I had my doubts. The next morning, Jaya took me and my wife to the intensive care unit of the Breach Candy Hospital. There he lay on a bed with multiple tubes stuck into his body, cheeks hollow and stubbled, eyes sunken. My wife, on seeing him, collapsed. He whispered, “Hello Baba, I can’t sleep.” I said, “Don’t worry, you will,” knowing fully well that this was useless consolation.
Two days later, Mrs Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi also flew in separately. To Mrs Gandhi, Amit again said, “Aunty, I can’t sleep.” Mrs Gandhi broke down and sobbed, “No, my son. You will sleep. I also don’t get sleep sometimes, so what?”
And now, let me pass on to my daughter.
Jaya was 12 or 13 when she first acted in Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar. In 1962, I had gone to an outdoor location shooting of a friend’s film. Jaya went along with me. She was a student at St Joseph’s Convent in Bhopal then. On our way back from Puri, we stayed over in Calcutta for ten days.
That was when Ray met her. He was working on the script of Mahanagar then, and asked her over for lunch. Subsequently, we returned to Bhopal didn’t give any more thought to the matter.
Then, out of the blue, I got a wire from Ray saying, ‘I want her for this film.’ Jaya was mortally afraid that the nuns at St Joseph’s would be at her throat if they discovered that she was working in films. But that’s how it all started. In Mahanagar, she plays the typical sister, a girl who is between the frock and saree stage.
Ray loves her very much. When she wanted to join the Film and Television Institute of India, she asked him for a testimonial. Ray’s only reply was, “I don’t think you need any training in acting.”
Before she acted with Ray, Jaya had been on the stage. In fact, my wife and I have been very active theatre workers. So, from her childhood, Jaya was brought up in this atmosphere.
My daughter was always very serious about acting. She used to collect thousands of film magazines and was a great fan of Dilip Kumar. In 1968, after she passed her higher secondary examination Jaya suddenly asked me one day: “Baba, is there a place where I can learn acting?” I told her to apply to the film institute. She not only got in, but won a scholarship and passed out with a gold medal as well.
While she was still in Pune, Basu Chatterjee wanted her for Sara Akash, but as there is a rule that one cannot act in outside films while one is still a student, Jaya passed it up. Then, Jagat Murari, the then director of the institute, suggested her name to Hrishikesh Mukherjee for Guddi. But before she started working in the film, she did three Bengali commercial films in a row, out of which one was a big box-office hit. Then there was Guddi. And the rest is history.
I never had any doubts about her success, even though I knew she would not fit into the conventional heroine’s slot. My daughter was made of different stuff altogether. Whatever she did, she did with seriousness and confidence. Acting was not the only thing she was good at. She learnt Bharatanatyam for five years, was a serious NCC cadet and won the Prime Minister’s baton for the best girl cadet at the Republic Day parade in 1966.
Originally, Amitabh was to play opposite her in Guddi. That’s when they met. On the sets in 1970. Amitabh took part in a few shooting schedules, but then Hrishikesh probably felt that what he wanted was a totally new face for the role, and replaced him with Samit Bhanja.
Her marriage was a bolt from the blue. Jaya has always been my girl and she was open with me. “Baba, we are doing this. Are you unhappy?” she asked. I said, “No, as long as you are happy, I am too.” She was worried that her mother would take it amiss. I told her not to worry. After all, it was her life and in any case, our family has always been a liberal one.
Moreover, I liked Amitabh. I felt he was not the run-of-the-mill Bombay film star. There were vicious people who said that Amitabh married Jaya because she was a big star, but it’s totally untrue. He waited for Zanjeer to be a success. But Jaya would have married him anyway. I know that for certain. She is not a fickle-minded person. She is a very determined individual, bent on having her way since childhood. It is difficult for me to say what drew them together. But one thing is definite—Jaya would not have fallen for an ordinary person.
Somehow I was always confident that Amitabh would make it to the top. He had tremendous determination and perseverance. He suffered one disappointment after another but was indomitable. That is character as I see it.
After Zanjeer, their biggest hit was Abhimaan. Sholay came much later. Then there was also Mili and Chupke Chupke. Mili was one film in which I was tremendously impressed by my daughter’s talent. Abhimaan, Kora Kagaz and Annadata are also great films.
When Jaya decided to quit films, we said nothing. In my family, we have never thrust our decisions on the children. When Jaya said she wanted to join films, we said all right, go ahead. When she decided to quit, I felt, of course, that her talent was being wasted. But it was purely her decision.
I don’t think she’s ever regretted it. The amazing thing is that even though she has left films, her image remains intact. She is still an entity in her own right. Even today if she wants to continue, there are plenty of roles for her. She says that if she gets a good script, she’ll think about coming back. I don’t think Amitabh can be blamed for Jaya’s decision to quit. But he has been blamed for so many things, poor fellow.
Jaya has been a roaring success since her first film, so much so that we needed policemen whenever she came to our house. But success has never affected her. She can adjust to anything. If the house is too crowded, she doesn’t mind sleeping on the floor.
When both Jaya and Amitabh visit us together, it’s a major law and order problem. When, in 1979, Amit came to Lucknow for my second daughter’s marriage, there was a lathi-charge and mounted police had to be called. Don had just been released, and I was forced to request Amitabh to stay elsewhere. I put him up at a hotel in Lucknow.
Jaya is still the same. She is a very organised person. One should see how she runs her household. Her eye for detail encompasses everything. She also does a lot of work for spastic children. I think she is a good mix of the traditional and the modern.
You should have seen Jaya during the days Amitabh was in hospital. She appeared unruffled and cool. But at the same time, she did whatever people told her to do—she wore all sorts of beads, talismans and prayed fervently for Amit’s recovery. She put up a brave front but underneath, she was realistic. She was prepared for the worst.
In politics, Jaya is much more mature than Amitabh. My reporting has been mostly political in nature, and she has seen chief ministers and ministers come to my house and discuss politics late into the night. Once, when she was a schoolgirl, she met with a bad accident. The chief minister and his entire cabinet went to see her in hospital. On one occasion, the state cabinet was actually formed in my house. Amitabh’s association with politics was not as close—his friendship with the Nehru family was purely a family relationship.
Jaya and Amitabh have beent married for 15 years now. And theirs has been one of the most enduring marriages in the film industry. It continues to be a very strong relationship and as a parent, I am proud of it.
Even though she retired from the marquee over a decade ago, Jaya’s mystique remains intact. In the ephemeral world of razzmatazz, her appeal and magic have withstood the test of time. Her fans, as during her heyday, continue to rhapsodise about her performances which made her the darling of the masses.
In my childhood, one of the first nursery rhymes I had to learn was Twinkle twinkle little star. Well, the two stars in the family are twinkling as brightly as ever.
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