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I first saw Jaya—not met, just saw—even before we had joined the Institute.

Having a choice of two specializations to offer and not knowing what the rest of them involved, I had applied for Acting and Direction. In Acting I saw great riches and beautiful heroines, while Direction promised artistic authority and beautiful heroines.

For Acting course, the interview was held closer home in New Delhi’s Ravindra Bhavan. And there she was, Jaya, on its lush green lawns in the distance—it wasn’t then the clutter of buildings that it is today—a fairy in white, accompanied by some down-to-earths in dhoti and kurta. The rest of the crowd was mostly boys, clowns and jokers as far as I was concerned. Acting required you to be just matriculate in those days, something that could be even further relaxed for girls, but only Jaya and another girl Rashmi Sharma finally made it. Rashmi later married batchmate Anil Dhavan. David Dhavan joined Editing much later.

My grandmother would describe Jaya’s ‘untouched by hand’ quality as unwrapped from layers of paper! Seeing her made me wish we would both be selected but only she was; Jagat Murari asked me what else I had applied for and advised that I take that up more seriously. Apparently the scene that I had written for my performance that same afternoon had impressed him.

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Acting course, it turned out, was an Institute within an Institute. Roshan Taneja ran it as a fiefdom. A bald Yoga teacher came from outside and one Asha Chandra—perhaps a pass-out from an earlier batch; routinely cast as a street whore in student exercises but a very fine woman—assisted him day to day. Asrani, whom years later Mani Kaul came calling by his full name from Jaipur, Gobardhan Asrani, was another assistant who went about as a self-appointed, compulsive comic, spreading cheer and laughter in the group. Roshan Taneja was a short stocky man with receding forehead, curly hair, thick theatre voice but very few words. For some strange reasons, which we never found out, he stayed perpetually hidden behind dark glasses. He was Jagat Murari’s favorite and was never seen with the rest of the teachers except when they all headed towards Murari’s office for faculty meetings.

Acting students had no common classes with the rest of us; they could only be cast at the end of our three years in diploma films! “But they aren’t ready!” grunted Roshan Taneja assuming troubled looks whenever cornered. And yet they were there, loud and noisy, all over the place. Between classes, they would rush into the canteen and begin to shout expensive orders; then carry plates and glasses to the Wisdom Tree, forcing those sitting there to quietly slink away. In the hostel if you suddenly heard somebody start to shout his gills out in the middle of the night, you knew it wasn’t someone gone crazy but just an acting student voice training!

Prof Bahadur and others had told us that film was director’s medium and accordingly we saw ourselves as potential Rays and Kurosawas and Antonionis and Fellinis—some like Vinay Shukla later on as Robert Bressons and Jean Luc Godards via Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. The rest of the unit members were riff-raffs, mere technicians—“My cameraman,” “My editor”—who were to be kept in good humor only so they don’t turn vicious and spoil your masterpieces. But we never quite understood how to relate with the actors. Either they were to be after us or we after them; it couldn’t be an even-handed equation. Gossip magazines laid a lot of emphasis on a certain photogenic quality but the term didn’t seem to apply beyond Bollywood. Was the Bicycle Thieves hero, a bricklayer when deSica picked him up, photogenic? Was the La Strada pair of Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina, even though established stars, photogenic? Why, even Charlie Chaplin, for that matter; nobody ever accused him of being photogenic! Wasn’t fitting the character more the consideration for film actors where anybody could qualify? And who decided that if not the director?

So while as self-styled auteurs with allegiance to a certain homegrown New Wave, we went about with our noses in the air expecting the actors to be chasing us, the actors, confirmed photogenic from the fact of their admission but taught nothing about filmmaking, put their faith in acquiring that mysterious quality called stardom. The Institute too helped going to ludicrous lengths in that pursuit, arranging driving and even horse riding lessons for them. You actually saw them taking turns being led on a limp pony around different blocks of the Institute, or, less bizarrely, packed inside a Kulkarni Motaar School Fiat along with a puny—do notice the delectable pun with pony—instructor. Soon they began to disappear over the weekends making ‘contacts’ in Bollywood and then connecting up with them in the only 5-star hotel in town called Hotel Blue Diamond when they came visiting on whatever pretext—location scouting, story/script-listening, famous Poona races, or on just plain escape from Bombay. Raj Kapoor had a farmhouse in the suburbs at Loni and the acting boys and girls vied with each other to be seen as ‘insiders’ there. Some enterprising producers went ahead and signed up acting students immediately upon admission, and even gave them Fiat Padminis to go up and down the Institute main road for two years and starch up as stars by the time they came out.

The bubble burst in 1977. Sadly this was the undoing of the Acting course in that first phase that lasted from 1965 to 1977. (Naseer speaks about the closure in greater detail in his brilliant book And Then One Day: A Memoir.) All the names that you hear are from that period—Subhash Ghai, Jalal Agha, ‘Khamosh!’ Shatrughan Sinha, Dastak girl Rehana Sultan, Zareena Wahab, Suresh Oberoi, comedians Paintal and Asrani and Satish Shah, villain Dangzongpa, NSDites Naseer and Om, Dheeraj Kumar, Kiran Kumar (Deepak Dar of the Institute rolls s/o yester-year villain Jeevan), Raza Murad (s/o character actor Murad); not Amol Palekar, not Faroukh Sheikh, not Smita Patil, but yes, Shabana Azmi, yes, the master lech Shakti Kapoor (he had a different name in the Institute rolls, which I forget) and yes, the doe-eyed Rameshwari; not Gajendra Yudhistir Chauhan, but yes, Mukesh Shaktiman Khanna.

And of course, Jaya.

A real rich haul for Bollywood, come to think of it.

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I recall 2-3 incidents featuring Jaya during her two years in the Institute, 1968 to 1970. The first happened within weeks of our joining.

Since ragging sessions were turning somewhat ugly that year, Jagat Murari thought of an evening of mass introduction to try and bring the nuisance to a close. The event was held in the Main Theatre and all newcomers were required to participate. An Editing student Raghav had signed up to present a Bengali folk dance and came begging me to join the chorus line up at the back. Having recently applied for acting I couldn’t refuse. All I had to do was don a desi costume and join a group at the back to do some simple movements. That Jaya was the main performer was our main incentive not to ditch Raghav at the last moment.

But when our turn came, it was Jaya that ditched everybody. Where was she? As the commotion between the green room and back-stage built, I saw this as nothing but an example of the infamous star tantrums. “Already?” I said to myself in disbelief. But just in time a dazed Jaya materialized from somewhere and all of us scrambled to the stage. After the show and fresh from appreciation and cheers, we cornered Jaya. I had thought she would argue and fight back but to everybody’s surprise, she just broke down. For the first time we realized we were dealing with a girl much younger than ourselves and felt guilty.

Another incident highlighted the same fact from another end. One day as Vinay Shukla and I reached the canteen for breakfast, all tables were talking about a hot film shown in Nair sahib’s archive screening the night before. Titled Helga and from Max Mueller Bhavan, it was a sex education film showing an uninhibited portrayal of human reproduction and sexuality. As the day advanced, everybody converged under the wisdom tree demanding a repeat showing of the film that most had missed. Jagat Murari discussed the issue in a faculty meeting. True, we were exempt from censorship but would it be proper to show a film—a brand new 35mm print, in colour and German!—that showed actual childbirth full frontal and real time on camera?

Finally the faculty first saw the film, with chaprasis in khaki (bossed over by the inimitable Rehman chacha with a cane) guarding the gates and next day Prof Bahadur stood softening the pitch with a charming introduction before the film was unleashed upon a houseful of salivating us. On Murari sahib and Bahadur sahib’s lead, everyone seemed concerned about Jaya. She was given a seat close to the exit and we saw the film with one eye on her. She braved through the build up for quite a long while but eventually walked out well before the waters broke on the screen!

Years later when I met Jaya, she had no memory of Helga. Instead she remembered a stylish leather sling bag that I used to carry about as a student. Which I had all but forgotten!

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It was this little girl persona of Jaya’s—the little sister, whom you instinctively felt like reaching out to protect—that charmed filmmakers to write films on her. Hrishikesh Mukherjee was the first to introduce her in 1971 as a star struck adolescent in Guddi but we felt proud that before that our own Madan Bavaria had cast her a similar age in his diploma film Suman. Hrishida had been a regular visitor to the Institute in those days and it’s unlikely he hadn’t seen Suman. In fact Bavaria wouldn’t spare even passers-by without showing his film!

Suman is about the coming of age of a village girl Suman who bounces about freely all over the neighborhood until chance proximity with a playmate suddenly sends her feeling uncomfortable. Diploma films were given six shifts and 4000 feet of negative in those days, plus the Institute’s famous dark blue TMB to commute. Bavaria shot Suman in the small temple town of Baneshwar an hour from Pune and the unit travelled up and down each day. Every evening we would connect up in the hostel to discuss progress. He had been postponing shooting the climax hoping to find a ‘comfort’ level with Jaya and was growing nervous as days went by. “But she has seen the script, hasn’t she?” I teased him. “Now there you go behaving like a perfect Jat!” he snapped back hurt but not surprised by my insensitivity. “You wouldn’t understand!” But on the last day he wanted me by his side. “Agar koi garbar ho jaye to sambhal lena yaar…”

The scene was set up under a guava tree in the open, where Jaya and her innocent-looking Nepali classmate Timilsinha come running across a field and settle down heaving. Jaya picks up a raw fruit from the ground and pushes him to eat when the boy happens to look to her chest. The dreaded final shot was Jaya’s reaction to Timilsinha’s stare.

Jaya wore a typical Maharashtrian half-sleeve blouse that buttons up in front and the V above the top button was where all eyes were now stuck. How could that be opened a little wider? Or better still, the button undone ‘just casually, you know’? A glum Bavaria went busily between the cameraman (UMN Sharif?) and Jaya a couple of times as though working out his aesthetics; then took courage and implored her in a whisper. I still remember the moment: Jaya looked at him unblinking, abruptly got up and went to the TMB. Five minutes later when she emerged, all hearts sank. The button had opened but the V had narrowed! The shot was somehow gone through and at the end of it she wiped an eye, went back to the TMB and sat quietly on her seat. Soon Bavaria joined her sitting next to her like a culprit. Nobody spoke throughout that hour-long drive back home but we were relieved that the ordeal was over.

Ultimately as it happens the split of dress is of little consequence in that lyrical film. Despite looking like a perfect script-demands-it situation, we had been after a grossly misjudged emphasis little realizing that the point of the story was the girl’s reaction to the gaze, not the showing of her cleavage. Today we can laud Bavaria as being understated but the fact is he had tried otherwise and failed.

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Within months of joining the Institute, some of us paired off. Rashmi Sharma with Anil Dhavan, Indira Agarwal with Raja Chauhan, and yes, Jaya Bhaduri with Bhaskar Choudhury, who was one year her senior in Acting. I was too timid, too small town; very keen to wound but shit scared to strike. Incidentally, I remained that way for a long time to come.

Recalling him after 45 years—phew!—I think Bhaskar had more of a model’s crispness than an actor’s agility. You never saw him laughing in a guffaw, for example; I can’t imagine him running wild, say, from hostel to the main gate, as the more ‘physical’ acting students often did chasing each other. He just wasn’t the type. And lovers back then, unlike in later years when there were more girls and more couples, were not very demonstrative either. We just saw Jaya and Bhaskar always together, almost like siblings: In the canteen, under the wisdom tree, in the screenings. Or even outside, shopping at Dorabjee’s in the Main Street, for example. Once Nirad, Shukla and I saw them come to see a Hollywood film in Alka theatre across the Lakdi Pul. The customary Films Division documentary had just finished and we stepped out for intermission when they entered the porch. (Being tightly knit and short, Hollywood films didn’t have a built-in interval, so a slide used to be inserted after many trailers of ‘forthcoming attractions’, followed by one or two longish Film Division documentaries.) With a cigarette dangling from his lips and eyes screwed, I can still see Bhaskar taking out his valet from the hip pocket and counting cash at the ticket counter as Jaya stood by waiting. We felt relieved when they took the spiral staircase for the balcony; we didn’t want to run into them and be thought as kabaab mein haddi.

Bhaskar and Jaya were together for just under a year and already in that period everybody wondered how the relationship would hold with him soon gone struggling in Calcutta. Another year and both went off our radar, she in Bombay pursuing Guddi and he sticking it out in Calcutta—Bhaskar had too strong an accent for Hindi films. Then we vaguely heard of a son of Allahabad poet Harivanshrai Bachchan come to join Bollywood. With some glee we had learnt (or was it mere wishful thinking?) that the matchstick-thin youth had applied for the Institute’s acting course and was rejected. When he started hanging out with the Institute pals Jaya and Denzongpa, we instantly saw a connection. “Oh, the Institute training from the back door?” we declared maliciously. “But that’s as close as he would ever get to the Institute!” Probably he heard the taunt for he went ahead and ended up as son-in-law of the Institute!

When news first came of their romance, popular Institute sentiment favored Bhaskar. “Given the difference in heights, she would have to wear a 6-inch patla under her feet!” When they announced marriage, the physical mismatch was uppermost in our minds. “How would they… It’s obscene!”

I recall two images from their visits to the Institute during courtship. One when Jaya was the star and he a mere boy friend. I was entering the canteen as I saw and recognized Amitabh coming out from a seedy-leaky corner toilet behind the Editing department. (That Editing department is today the Central Camera store.) Jaya’s retinue was already gone past the wisdom tree and he hurried to catch up with them. The second time round they had Denzongpa with them. Jaya had again gone somewhere on her own, leaving the two of them in front of the CRT when I passed by. Denzongpa introduced me to Amitabh who suddenly struck me as not all that tall after all. The fact that I didn’t wash the handshake and kept holding out my hand to everybody to smell the rest of the day would indicate that Amitabh Bachchan was already a big star in his own right. Soon he would be the mega star and Jaya, the star wife.

Sadly, Bhaskar died of a heart condition within 2-3 years of the Institute. Or was it a road accident? He wasn’t missed.

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Jaya was still at the Institute when Hrishida came to cast her for Guddi. Asrani’s recall of that visit in a recent TV interview is worth a recount. Instructor Asrani was crossing the road in front of the Wisdom Tree when he heard Hrishida call out for him.

They were a whole load of Bengali brigade just arrived in a jeep. Writers Bimal Dutt and DN Mukherjee, actor Kali Banerjee and assistant Gulzar. Asrani who had been chasing Hrishida for good two years for a role at first thought they had come to sign him. “We’ve come to see a girl, Jaya Bhaduri, let’s meet her!” Hrishida ordered. Jaya was sitting in the canteen taking chai with Danny Denzongpa and Anil Dhavan and almost dropped her cup when told of Hrishida asking for her. “Hrishi-kaku! Hrishi-kaku!!” she fled outside and touched his feet. Introductions out of the way, everybody switched to Bengali and started walking towards the wisdom tree. Asrani followed them for some distance, then tried to check with Gulzar if there was something for him in the film too. “Don’t mention me but there is a 2-scene role of a young man who comes from the village looking to be a hero and returns after playing a junior artiste.” After two months came a letter from Hrishida asking Jaya over for audition but Asrani presented himself ahead of her. Guddi was the lucky break for both instructor and the pupil. “Asrani, your name would be Asrani Mukherjee!” Hrishida laughed when the film was a success.

This is Asrani at his self-deprecating best. I don’t think Gulzar had by that time assumed his trademark crisp, lightening-white dress otherwise it would flash through the Institute. Years later when he came again, it was impossible not to notice that crackling, starched glare.

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After the Institute, I lost touch with Jaya for decades. I saw her on the TV or read about her and her films in the papers. Guddi, Uphaar, Koshish, Kora Kaagaz, Zanjeer, Abhiman, Chupke Chupke, Mili, Sholay, Silsila, and after a long hiatus for starting a family Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Ma, Fiza, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Kal Ho Naa Ho came and went. Since after joining the Institute we had stopped seeing Hindi films, we merely noted their Bollywood character from the corner of our eyes and carried on in our own little world. More exciting things were happening in the new wave and repeated setbacks of failed promises of its leaders made us that much more determined to make it work. Pity that eventually the Wave fizzled out without even a proper obituary, even less a recorded history.

In 2003 or 4, the Institute decided to revive the Acting course and Jaya was invited as ex-student expert to advise on the contours of the new course. She was now a more settled and mature individual with only traces of her old impulsive streak. She still wanted the actors, for example, to join the course straight from school in order to retain ‘that innocence’ but gamely gave in to the majority view. I had no problem reconnecting with her after so many years. In fact she was easier to deal with now than during the dazzle and bounce of our student days.

My most recent interaction with Jaya was in 2010 when my book on the analysis of Pather Panchali was going to the press. I had fished out two Ray articles from old issues of Filmfare which no one knew about and thought they would go well as appendices at the end of the book. The first titled A New Approach was about how in PP the book Ray saw a potential for both popular as well as good cinema and second Should A Filmmaker Be Original? incorporated within its larger subject of adaptation Ray’s plot division of Bibhutibhushan’s two books PP and Aparajito over the three films of the trilogy. This last one I thought was particularly helpful coming from the man himself since there have been so many confusing versions afloat in the air.

Sandip Ray was happy to learn of the dig and gave a prompt go ahead but Filmfare surprisingly turned out to be an impenetrable jungle. That’s when I thought of Jaya and sent her an SOS. Immediately came a one-line approval from editor Jitesh Pillai that lodged itself right into the heart of my laptop. In gratitude I described Jaya as the first lady of Indian cinema in the preface of my book.

Looking at her life and career—born in an eminent journalist’s family, debut in a Satyajit Ray film, Film Institute, Bollywood stardom, marriage in Harivanshrai Bachchan’s family (duly spiced up with a certain ‘woh’ element), politics, moving in and out of the Gandhi household, more politics—I think Jaya is more a destiny’s child than anything else. She has looked a certain way and that is charming beyond compare.

Truly a star plus.

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