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     Volume 4 Issue 20 | November 5, 2004 |

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A Roman Column

Jaya Bhaduri

Neeman Sobhan

She is easy to spot in the crowded drawing room. I notice her sitting demurely on the sofa as soon as my husband and I make our late entrance. I head for the hostess to apologise to her. She immediately grabs my hand and leads me to the prim figure on the sofa. Of course, I know who she is. But as soon as she acknowledges the introduction her nose crinkles into the artless, famously endearing smile that wipes away the mask of the 'buddhi' and transforms it into the 'Guddi' that any Indian film fan of the seventies would recognize.

Jaya Bachchan is in Rome in her capacity as an Indian Member of Parliament, but for me she is Jaya Bhaduri, the actress who captured Bombay with her Bangali naturalness in her debut film 'Guddi' and my favourite, 'Uphar' (based on my beloved Tagore story 'Shomapti' about a tomboy bride). For the world of commercial Hindi cinema, saturated with glamorous stars, the arrival of Jaya was a breath of fresh air. But for me, a Bangali familiar with the deglamourised world of Kolkata films of an era when actors were untouched by the artifices of Bollywood, I never found Jaya Bhaduri all that extraordinary. She was undoubtedly a natural, spontaneous actress, but I knew of other natural actresses, and I was a fan of Shabana Azmi. So, while I was proud of Jaya Bhaduri because she was Bangali, I was never really her fan. Yet, today, by the time the evening ends, I become a fan. Ironically, I am a fan not of the actress but of Jaya, the woman, the social worker and MP.

The first observation I must make about Jaya Bachchan, apart from the fact that there is nothing of the star celebrity in her modest, well mannered persona, is that she has a lovely face, far lovelier and younger than it looks on screen or magazine photos. Her dusky skin is youthful under discreet make up. In fact, a little enhancing would make her look unchanged from her heroine days. But with her matronly demeanour, it seems as if looking virtuous and deglamourised is an article of faith with her. A wicked thought tiptoes across my mind: she has the same colouring and Indian features as Rekha; perhaps, this is why she has chosen not to go the cosmetic way of her glamorous nemesis!

We talk in Bangla, lapsing often into English. Her prime concerns as an MP are mother-and-child issues and those related to children with special needs. "I love children and have always worked with handicapped children, especially with the improvement of facilities for the care of mentally and physically challenged children." This is a topic close to my heart since I grew up with a brother who was hearing impaired since birth and whom my determined mother helped overcome the hurdles so that today he is a confident young man who speaks as normally as possible and leads a dignified and independent married life. I am touched that Jaya is genuinely interested in my brother's story, specially the struggles of my admirable mother, and the experiences of my whole family.

We speak of the need to sensitise society about differentiating between the physically and the mentally challenged; and aid the training of handicapped adolescents towards productive, self-sustaining adult lives.

I ask her if her interest started from the time of her memorable performance as the female half of a deaf-mute couple in the film 'Koshish'? She smiles but immediately deflects the question and the compliment by plugging, instead, a recent film of her mega-star husband. "Oh! You must see the recent film of Amit-ji called, 'Black', about a handicapped adopted girl-child who is deaf, mute and blind since birth." "Like Helen Keller?" "Yes. And Amit-ji plays the father and teacher who is slowly losing his memory to Alzheimer." I gasp, what a story! A handicap within another! "Who plays the child?" I forget whether she said Rani Mukherjee, because in the same breath she continued, "But Amit-ji's performance was so sensitive. The whole film is so beautiful that I had tears in my eyes."

It is obvious that she adores her husband. But I remember her as being the better actress, the one who should have been adored and not have been playing second fiddle either in films or in life to a man who always struck me as a trite and plastic product of Bombay Film industry's hero-manufacturing machine.

Both Amitabh and she graduated from the Pune Film and T.V Institute of India, but it was she who thought of uplifting her Alma Mater. She also started the Children's Film Society. Now with her seat in the Rajya Sabha as MP she has scope to work for issues like literacy, security and health care for women and children.

I know that she has done quite a few films recently that have brought the actress back to the screen with a bang, and I am not thinking of commercial fare like 'Kal Ho Na Ho' (though she made her character come to life even within formula material) and 'Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham', but stronger ones like 'Fiza' and Govind Nihalani's 'Hazar Chaurasi ki Maa'(based on Bangali writer Mahasweta Devi/Mohasheta Debi's story, 'Hajar Churashir Ma', about an upper class Kolkata mother trying to understand the mind of her Naxalite rebel son after his death).

She sighs: "Challenging or original subjects and roles like that are hard to come by. I am reading many scripts but there is nothing exciting for a woman of my age." "Such a pity that neither our audience nor our film makers seem ready for films about women, who after a certain age are more interesting and beautiful than young girls in conventional romance stories." "Exactly." Jaya responds enthusiastically, about to say more when two Italian ladies are introduced to her. These are women parliamentarians whose interest in Jaya Bachchan is as a colleague. "How many women M.P's are there in India?" She is asked. "I don't know the exact figure, but not many." "Same here in Italia," they nod.

I tell the parliamentarians that Jaya has another identity as a much-lauded actress. They smile indulgently as if hearing about a hobby, not least impressed. How can I tell them that here, within all five foot of her, stands a legendary figure of my times? "Like your Sophia Loren" I start to say, then decide that something will be lost in translation. And I don't want to diminish either Jaya or my admiring memories of her by adding that she also happens to be the wife of India's 'super-star' and the mother of an up-coming star.

They ask,"The young in India must be very spiritual?" Sotto voce I tell her in Bangla that the Italian youth has recently discovered the spiritual wealth of India and are enthusiastic about yoga, meditation, Ayurveda, classical music etc. She laughs, "In India, as everywhere, spiritualism among the young is a fashion. Real spiritualists practice quietly." To me she whispers in Bangla, "I am not a religious person." So says this person who believes in the religion of humanity and its essential goodness; who spends time in the welfare of others rather than in self-promotion; and who is a person at peace, having found her own route to it. I find this unpretentious woman a deep and rich person. We could have spoken for hours. But I take my leave. She takes my hand warmly and gives me the crinkly smile. I feel I am taking leave of an old friend.

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