I honestly thought I had already written this, and I am very excited to discover I have not. Jaya is a fascinating woman, and a bit of a mystery in many ways. Oh also, I will use literally ANY excuse to post adorable young Amitabh-Jaya photos. I think they are tied with Dips-Ranveer for “all time cutest dating couple”.
Usual Disclaimer: I do not know these people, I have no special knowledge, this is just how it looks to me based on publicly available sources.
For most of the history of Hindi film, from at least the 1970s to today, there were two flavors of actresses. The first come from desperation, poverty, and the outskirts of society. Meena Kumari whose dancer mother lay dying at home while her father dragged his daughters from studio to studio begging from them to get roles so the family could by food. Or Nargis, whose mother was an accomplished artist from the Tawaif tradition, they never starved but they were also never welcomed in the Best homes. Or Rekha, illegitimate daughter of an actress with many children, thrown into films to feed the family at age 15. Or today, Katrina Kaif, Sunny Leone, Ileana D’Cruz.
And then there’s Jaya. Or Sharmila Tagore, or Waheeda Rahman, or today Swara Bhaskar. They come from very good families, and very liberal families. They are in film by choice because there is no downside for them. Their families are far too progressive to judge a woman just because she acts, and they have a soft cushion to fall back on if things don’t work out. They can afford to be picky about their roles, to carefully prepare for every performance, to have years of training before they start working. Most of all, they carry themselves in such a way that no one would consider looking down on them. While actresses like Katrina Kaif are boxed in as just eye candy, expected to wear sexy clothes onscreen and off, and constantly disrespected by the media and the public, actresses like Radhike Apte are respected, asked about their careers, their personal life almost never discussed. How you perceive yourself teaches others how to perceive you. For the actresses who turn to acting out of desperation rather than choice, that shame never goes away. For the actresses like Jaya, the pride and respectability of doing something by choice never goes away either.
Jaya was raised in the UP by a writer father, a journalist and researcher. As a teenager, she acted in a Satyajit Ray movie, and then two other small Bengali films. This is not uncommon, Bengali filmmakers like natural acting, especially Ray. They would see the daughter of a friend who has an interesting face and ask her to take a small role in their movie. It wasn’t a “launch”, it wasn’t even a training ground, it was just showing up and saying some lines and then going home. The fact that Jaya was in a Ray movie tells me less about her as an actress and more about her family as intellectual liberals. Her father the writer must have known Ray, moved in the same general circles, for Jaya to have this role. Which tells me that they were part of the general artistic world, the highest most progressive and out there world, of the UP and West Bengal.
Because of Jaya’s teenage acting experiments, she decided she wanted to go to the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune. This is the best school in the country, very competitive. And very hard, and with no guarantee of a career after graduation. Also, very very far from the UP and her parents. Jaya going there says that her family values education, that she was serious about this career, and that her parents and Jaya had no hangups about a young woman being alone in a big city. And that she didn’t really need to work. Those other actresses didn’t get to go to FTII because they had to be bringing money home to their family as soon as possible. Jaya could go study, or sit home and cook with her mother, or do unpaid volunteer work, there was no pressure behind her.
In the present day, Jaya is mostly known as “Mrs. Amitabh Bachchan”, but back in 1971 when she was 23, she was the most brilliant young actress in India. She graduated from FTII with a Gold Medal (symbol of being the best student of her class). And she was immediately cast by Hrishikesh Mukherjee in an almost impossible role that she carried off with casual aplomb, winning the hearts of India along the way.
Guddi is a delightful little movie, with one of those performances at the center that looks easy but is actually extremely difficult. Jaya plays a school girl with a massive crush on Dharmendra (playing himself). She declares she wants to dedicate her life to worshiping him from afar, and never marry. Her indulgent brother and sister-in-law come up with a plan to gently cure her of her crazed fandom. They take her to Bombay and manage to get on set and meet with Dharmendra, and ask him to meet Jaya and help her understand the difference between the movie star and the person. Jaya meets Dharmendra, slowly gets over her crush, and ends up finally really “seeing” the nice boy next door and falling for him.
Jaya has to be young, impulsive, foolish, all those things so we understand why she has to grow up. But she also has to be so charming and sweet that we still love her, even while she is being impossible. And she has to convince us of a real journey from star infatuation to true love, without losing the essential core of her character. Jaya makes it look easy. For years, I believed that this was her first film, that she really was 16. But no, she was 23, had lived on her own in Pune for 4 years, had a degree from a top acting school, was a fully grown up woman who effortlessly put on the persona of a teenage girl and made us all fall in love with her.
After the success of Guddi, Jaya got an apartment in Bombay and started her real acting life. This came up briefly in Rekha’s biography, they actually lived in the same building. But while Rekha had spent years as a teenager living alone in hotels, having a crazy vagabond existance, before finally reaching financial independence and maturity to have her own apartment, Jaya smoothly went from her parents house, to the FTII hostels, to a nice small respectable apartment where she hosted friends and lived a reasonable mannered balanced life. She was still playing adorable young woman onscreen, but in reality all signs pointed to her being an independent modern career woman with her life firmly in control and on track. Even her career choices point to that. Jaya did not limit herself to simple roles in simple movies. She threw in films like Koshish, playing a deaf and mute wife of a deaf and mute husband. And her favorite director Hrishikesh Mukherjee made film after film with her at the center, she was a lot more than just a pretty face who sang and danced. She was a star, and a great actress, and everyone knew it.
This is when she met Amitabh Bachchan. They are both extremely private people, and extremely dignified people, so we don’t have a lot of cute stories of their romance. My impression is that it was a romance like any other two college educated young people starting careers would have back then, or today. They had mutual friends, they met at some group events, they hit it off, they started going out one on one, they became a couple, they dated for a few years, and then decided to get married. Being actors really had little to do with it, the same story could be told about any young urban couple.
What I find interesting is how extremely similar Jaya’s background was to Amitabh’s. They both were the children of writers, they both were raised in liberal intellectual circles, they even both came from the UP. That matches with the few quotes I have read from them about their dating life. They had a lot in common, they thought the same way, and so on. They met early on, Amitabh had a small part in Guddi as himself, a young actor just starting out. Dating seriously happened sometime soon after that. So far as the industry is concerned, they have been a couple since forever. Amitabh was never known within the industry to be dating anyone before Jaya, and Jaya was with Amitabh since shortly after her launch. Amitabh used to run in and out of her apartment, they would go to parties together, picnics, just be a normal young couple in a serious relationship. There was no drama, no parental objections, no angry exes.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t love. One story that comes up regularly was on the sets of Bewarchi. Rajesh Khanna was acting opposite Jaya, and of course he was difficult and unpleasant and no one liked him. It’s Rajesh, he was always The Worst. Anyway, he used to twit Jaya all the time about her weird ugly unsuccessful boyfriend who kept coming around the set to see her. Until finally she burst out “You wait, one day my Amitabh will be such a big star people will forget your name”. Or something like that. Accounts vary. But there are A Lot of accounts. It sounds like it was a loud angry outburst, in the middle of a crowded set, the kind of thing no one ever saw from professional serious Jaya Bhadhuri and which set the whole industry to talking and everyone there telling their own stories about it. Jaya may have been calm and quiet and professional, but if you attacked her boyfriend, she could turn into a tiger.
From Amitabh’s side, he didn’t like to express emotion. It wasn’t dignified, or right. But the stories you hear from that time is that he really really wanted Jaya to be cast opposite him. He didn’t like to be away from her. If it was a long shoot, like Sholay, he would suggest her to the producers, and then go around to her house and say “why don’t you do this, it will be fun, we can be together”. Not “I want to be with you, I will miss you”, because Amitabh doesn’t say those things, but the message came through. Amitabh and Jaya, they were a package deal long before marriage. A nice young dating couple that were quietly glowingly happy if they could be together.
During the time they were dating, what was most remarkable to outsiders was that Jaya was dating Amitabh, since he was so far below her (metaphorically, obviously). Jaya was that rare actress who was both publicly adored and critically acclaimed. Oh, and also respected and liked within the industry! She wasn’t flirty and fun, she didn’t go around to a lot of parties, she was never going to be Hema Malini with every actor chasing her, but she could easily have set her sights higher (metaphorically) than weird looking young actor Amitabh. He came from a very respected family, but not a wealthy one. His career was dead in the water. He wasn’t handsome. And he wasn’t settled and mature, just a year older than her after all. Heck, just being an actor should have disqualified him! It wasn’t the secure or profitable job. Other actresses like Jaya, the “respectable” ones, had married kings of industry, or literal Kings (remember Sharmila). Or they had remained properly single so that, after retirement, they could marry a nice doctor or lawyer and settle into a proper life. Jaya was hitching her wagon to an extremely strange and unreliable star. The best she could hope for was that Amitabh would give up on his acting fantasy and get a nice secure business job that could support them both. Or that she would come to her senses and break up with him before it was too late and she got too old, and go after some nice young man with a proper job. But Jaya didn’t care about all that. She liked and believed in her strange young man.
And then they got married. The one part of their relationship that had to be a little bit public, although they made it as private as they could. And the one story everyone knows from their romance. Amitabh had talked Jaya into co-starring with him again, this time in a funny police movie Zanjeer. He believed in the script and he promised her that, if it was a hit, he would take her on a trip to London (familiar territory for Amitabh, thanks to his father’s connections with Cambridge). And then it was a hit. Amitabh booked the tickets for the two of them and they made their plans. Until, at the last minute, their parents said “wait a minute! Our son/daughter is not going to LONDON with their girlfriend/boyfriend without being married!” And so, in a great hurry, they organized a tiny wedding ceremony in Jaya’s apartment with only their families in attendance. And then rushed to the airport for a London trip that was now a honeymoon.
Two things jump out at me in this story. The first is that Jaya and Amitabh, and their friends in Bombay who all knew about the London promise, saw nothing wrong with it. That is the kind of liberal crowd they were running with, and that is the kind of solid accepted couple they were by this point. Heck, they weren’t even worried about the media! It’s a big deal today when two non-married stars travel together, they figured either the media wouldn’t report it or no one would care. It was the out of town parents who woke them out of the haze of “this is no big thing, right?” And the second part is that the marriage feels like more of a crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s decision than a big thing. Of course they were going to get married someday, that was never in question, might as well be today as any other time.
In the years of stories about Amitabh’s infidelities, Jaya’s unhappiness, and so on and so forth, what can sometimes get lost is the very undramatic and every day way that they loved each other, for years, before they got married. A couple who supported each other’s dreams, who spent as much time together as they could, who everyone knew were in love and together and nothing could tear them apart. Today, they feel like a boring old couple, you might assume they had an arranged marriage, they had nothing in common, they were forced together. But it isn’t true. They had years of being in love and choosing every day to be together, years of private moments in Jaya’s Bombay apartment, years of jokes and dates and fights and figuring things out. And then, finally, a small wedding that was just for their parents, because so far as they were concerned, they were “married” in their hearts all along.