In an era when actresses were straitjacketed into roles which existed only to enhance the glamour quotient or visual appeal, essaying real characters was a lofty task. Jaya Bachchan was a refreshing example of how an actress - who was nothing like her coiffed, chic and elaborately made-up contemporaries - could rule the roost. Her simplistic avatar made her extremely endearing to her audiences.
Jaya catapulted herself to the top by playing the kind of roles which Hindi film actresses aspire for even today – characters that were not mere showpieces and felt real. Clad in cotton sarees with the pallu clinging to her modestly and her hair spared of the ordeal of being sculpted into a greasy bouffant, Jaya Bachchan (neé Baduri), who turns 72 today, redefined the image of the Hindi film heroine.
The rise of the deglamourised star
Born in a Bengali family in Jabalpur, Jaya was fascinated by the world of cinema and she made her debut at the age of 15 in Satyajit Ray’s Bengali film Mahanagar (1963) in a supporting role. Subsequently, she appeared in two Bengali films, which inspired her to study acting in the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune.
As a gold medalist from FTII, she was chosen by veteran filmmaker Hrishikesh Mukherjee for the lead role in Guddi (1971), a film about a 14-year-old schoolgirl who is infatuated with film star Dharmendra. Jaya’s portrayal of Kusum, a vivacious, pigtailed teenager sporting a neatly pleated uniform and eyes brimming with innocence resonated with teenage girls across the country. The film was a critical and commercial success and Jaya earned her first Filmfare Award nomination for Best Actress.
In her coy looks and demure persona on screen, Jaya reminded many of yesteryear starlet Madhubala; yet she remained admired and relatable.
In Sudhendu Roy’s Uphaar (1971), the audience saw Jaya’s finesse in depicting the transformation of an impish girl into a mature wife. Based on Rabindranath Tagore’s short story named Samapti, the film was chosen as the Indian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 45th Academy Awards. Jaya also won the Filmfare Special Award.
Although the subtle acting and girl-next-door image became her calling card, Jaya often ventured out of the comfort zone of playing the demure middle-class woman. Jawani Janeman (1972) saw her in a decked-up avatar opposite Randhir Kapoor and she was seen in a negative role in Anamika (1973).
Jaya was seen in bunch of roles that, made her stand out among her contemporaries. In Gulzar’s Koshish (1972), that depicts love story of a deaf and mute couple, Jaya’s portrayal of a differently abled person is considered to be one of the most nuanced and empathetic depictions of deaf and mute people on-screen. She maintained the same sensitivity and dignity in Parichay (1972), Bawarchi (1972), Piya ka Ghar (1972) and Mili (1975). Her work in Kora Kagaz (1975) and Nauker (1980) fetched her the Filmfare Best Actress Award.
Moving away from films
The year 1973 turned out to be a milestone for Jaya on the personal and professional front as well. She was paired opposite Amitabh Bachchan in Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer (1973). The movie garnered a cult following and made Amitabh Bachchan earn a place in the league of superstars. The film acted as a cupid between the two, and they tied the knot the same year. The couple’s real-life chemistry became a major crowd-puller at the theatres making them a star couple in reel-life as well, as their string of hits continued with Abhimaan (1973), Chupke Chupke (1973), Sholay (1975) and Silsila (1981). Silsila was the last film where Jaya was seen in a leading role before she quit films to look after her two children - Shweta and Abhishek.
In a career spanning more than five decades, Jaya Bachchan has been considered one of the finest performers of the Hindi cinema, one who achieved both critical and commercial success by following her distinct style and charming persona. By winning 9 Filmfare awards, she also became one of the most-awarded performers in the history of Hindi cinema (in female acting categories). In 1992, Jaya was awarded the Padma Shri, which is India’s fourth highest civilian award.
She returned to acting in 1998, and in 2000, she won the Filmfare Award for the Best Supporting Actress for Fiza. She was subsequently seen in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (2007) and Drona (2008).
Once her children were grown up, Jaya also ventured into politics. In 2004, Jaya was elected as the Member of Parliament from the Samajwadi Party representing Uttar Pradesh. She was elected for a second term in 2006 and continued to serve till 2010. She was elected to the Rajya Sabha for a third-time in 2012 and for a fourth time in 2018. As an MP, Jaya has been a vocal champion of the cause of women’s rights and has strongly condemned gender violence in the country. But for generations of movie-lovers, Jaya Baduri Bachchan remains the ultimate Indian heroine, one who paved the path for real women on screen in Indian cinema.
(Edited by Athira Nair)