How Jaya Bachchan, face of middle cinema in India, carved a niche with her girl-next-door charm

Jaya Bachchan, née Bhaduri, celebrated her 72nd birthday on 9 April this year. In a short but wonderful career, she delivered several memorable performances in films like Guddi (1971), Mili (1975), Abhimaan (1973), Koshish (1972) and Sholay (1975), among others, thereby becoming a household name.

She was only 13 and unaware of Satyajit Ray’s stardom when she debuted as Bani, Subrata Mazumdar’s (played by Anil Chatterjee) younger sister in Mahanagar (1963), on being persuaded by some family friends. It was an experience so wholly enjoyable to the teenager that she began taking a keen interest in films thereafter. She would regularly watch Indian and international films screened by a local film society, and discuss them with her family. Once, during a dinner table conversation, her father, well-known writer and journalist Tarun Bhadhuri, commented on a certain actor lacking professional training or skill. His daughter was intrigued to know that such schools actually existed. Few years later, she enrolled in the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune, and passed with a first-class-first. When she joined the film school in the 1960s, the independent cinema movement was still thriving. Back then, celebrated cinema scholar PK Nair regularly held screenings at the institute, and stalwarts like Satyajit Ray would make frequent visits.

 How Jaya Bachchan, face of middle cinema in India, carved a niche with her girl-next-door charm

A young Jaya Bhaduri (now Bachchan) in a scene from Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963), with Madhabi Mukherjee and Anil Chatterjee.

Full of vigour and idealism, Jaya found herself at home in the “middle cinema” of the 1970s. Hrishikesh Mukherjee was a pioneer in this genre, and Guddi was also created in the same vein. The “fresh-faced, scrubbed-clean” Jaya totally fit the role of a school-girl, despite being in her early 20s at the time.

For film critics and the audience alike, Jaya came as a “gale of fresh air”. Heroines in the ’60s wore their hair elaborately, besides donning jazzy dresses and dramatic eyeliner, in contrast to which Jaya and her unfussy look made them feel like ‘one of them’ was on screen. “No girl going to college could think of dressing the way heroines in movies did. I may sound as if I am bragging, but girls felt closer to films when we joined, because we were like them. We brought cinema closer to the people,” she said, wearing her ‘modest’ appearance with pride.

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“I couldn’t handle the weight of the hairdo and the make-up. And there has to be a gali somewhere for plain-looking actresses,” Jaya said in an interview to Girish Karnad. This attitude also marked her defiance. She wanted to prove the directors — who thought her appearance was only good for character-roles — wrong. So, she consciously held her own through her ‘difference’ and newness, distinguishing herself from the lot. “Moushumi Chatterjee ko le liya, usse achcha toh main kar leti (Moushumi Chatterjee was chosen for the role; I would’ve done a better job at it),” she said when she heard that Hrishikesh Mukherjee had finished casting for Guddi.

Her cheekiness was refreshing and endearing, and Guddi was created around this persona. In one of the early scenes in the film, she tells her friends, “Aisi acting ki, ki Meena Kumari ki bhi chutti kardi! (My acting will put even Meena Kumari to shame).” The Meena Kumari reference, however, is not cursory.

Jaya Bachchan sought to place herself in the league of actresses of the calibre of Meena Kumari and Waheeda Rahman, and even by her own admission, Geeta Bali. These leading ladies were known for their “effortlessness” — a word constantly attributed to her acting style.

But while effortlessness was one thing, the actress did not have a formal training rooted in the theatrical traditions of rasa or bhava. She was neither a stellar classical dancer like Waheeda Rahman, nor was she a poet with the ‘nazaaqat’ of Meena Kumari. In fact, her oeuvre boasts very few dance sequences. ‘Maine Kahaa Phoolon Se’ (Mili), ‘Pallo Latke’ (Nauker), and ‘Chakku-Chhuriyaan’ (Zanjeer) are among the more familiar ones, but none of them pander to the typically captivating image of a Hindi film heroine.

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However, while we are on the subject, the song ‘Baahon Mein Chale Aao’ from Anamika (1973) deserves a mention. This track from Raghunath Jhalani’s only noteworthy film features the actress and the actor Sanjeev Kumar. Her character is seen seducing the hero. The words of the song by Majrooh Sultanpuri are evocative and sensual, especially when coupled with the music of RD Burman and the voice of Lata Mangeshkar, thereby hitting the right notes throughout. One would conventionally imagine the visuals to such a song as risqué, flaunting a heroine in a lacy dress or a transparent chiffon saree, delicate bangles, kohl-rimmed eyes, partly-wet hair, and raindrops lashing against the window, the works. But nothing of that sort happens in the song, where Jaya is seen wearing a baggy, high-neck, full-sleeved bright (phosphorous) orange kurta and dhoti-pants, with no flashy make-up. Her aadaayein barely dazzle, and yet, she manages to look adorable in the song, owning the screen with her contagious effervescence.

I believe in praxis, this departure from the traditional, or at least the customary, is what added to her ‘newness’ – her contemporaneity that made her relevant to the times. Besides her temperament, her acting technique that made her extremely relatable to her yesteryear audience was something she inherited from her mentor, Hrishikesh Mukherjee. There was a strict ‘no retake’ policy on his sets. All actors were briefed about the scene on the day of the shoot, and were encouraged to improvise. They had to remain on set throughout the shoot, and were expected to learn and contribute by observing others. This acquired spontaneity is what everyone called her “natural” acting, making her instantly relatable to her audience.

Jaya Bachchan and Sanjeev Kumar in a still from the song 'Baahon Mein Chale Aao' from the film Anamika (1973), directed by Raghunath Jhalani. YouTube screenshot.

Jaya Bachchan and Sanjeev Kumar in a still from the song ‘Baahon Mein Chale Aao’ from the film Anamika (1973), directed by Raghunath Jhalani. YouTube screenshot.

Jaya Bachchan in and as Guddi (1971), directed by Rishikesh Mukherjee. YouTube screenshot.

Jaya Bachchan in and as Guddi (1971), directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. YouTube screenshot.

Jaya Bachchan’s stardom would remain incomplete without her association with middle-class cinema. These films made a shift from hero-centric narratives to story-centric ones, and featured ensemble casts. But what made her stand out was how she dwarfed her co-stars – the tall, the seasoned, and even the mighty ones – each time. Her overshadowing of Dharmendra in Guddi, in a much-written about debut, won her a nomination in the Filmfare Best Actress category.

However, let’s take her second Hindi film Uphaar (1971), directed by Sudhendu Roy — an acclaimed art director and production designer — and revisit her introduction scene. It was one of the most memorable scenes for an actress of her times, where she’s shown laughing in the hero’s face after he trips. A big audacious laughter that instantly infuses energy into the film, and pushes it into second gear. From the first scene itself, it is clear as to who is in charge. Her co-actor in the film was Swarup Dutta, a well-known Bengali actor, but a stranger to the Hindi film audience.

Uphaar was perhaps Dutta’s only Hindi film, thereby implying that Jaya had already attained the ‘hero’s position’ in the production. The film not only won the actress her second Filmfare Award nomination, but was also India’s official entry to the Oscars that year. Even in Koshish (1972), Gulzar’s much-acclaimed directorial that won Sanjeev Kumar the National Award, Jaya, despite being only a year old in the industry, was a competent lead opposite the much senior and seasoned actors. And every time she worked with her contemporaries like Randhir Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan and Danny Denzongpa (in Abhi toh Jee Lein), the artiste outwitted them all.

Each time she emoted, the camera was firmly in her grip. One can actually compare the number of times the lenses zoomed in on her, to the number of times it captured her male co-stars in wide shots. In fact, as is widely held, when all actresses refused to star opposite Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer (1973), Jaya stepped up and showed him the way to stardom. Ironically, it was also the film that ended her stardom by shifting the focus on to her husband’s newly-minted alter-ego of the ‘Angry Young Man’. So, would one be in the wrong to say that she shook the industry that was ruled by the heroes?

Jaya Bachchan in and as Mili (1975), directed by Rishikesh Mukherjee. YouTube screenshot.

Jaya Bachchan in and as Mili (1975), directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. YouTube screenshot.

There were other actresses — her contemporaries — who were also associated with the middle-cinema movement. Vidya Sinha, for instance, was someone who I would like to identify as the ‘queen of the middle-class cinema’, besides Deepti Naval, who came in much later. And yet, Jaya was the more successful face. Firstly, due to the credibility she built with her work in Indie cinema, she was able to transition into the mainstream effortlessly, boosting her following subsequently. There was an indisputable star quality to her. And secondly, she was comfortable doing smaller roles if the film was ‘good’, like Chupke Chupke, marking her history in film-school training.

Also, there was an undeniable larger factor at play. For all their thespian achievements, a ‘star’ in Hindi cinema is ultimately the sum total of their acting output and social capital. In this piece that I wrote recently on Guddi, I read the film as the story of a teenage girl’s family, who plot to arrange a traditional marriage for their daughter by purging her of her love for films, and her heartthrob Dharmendra. I explain my postulation by stating that Guddi was “intended by Hrishikesh Mukherjee to critique popular film culture and to unmask what he considered to be an illusionary ’reality’ constructed on the screen by Bombay film companies,” and how this task is carried out in the film by an agent of patriarchy — Kusum’s uncle, Professor Gupta, played by Utpal Dutt. I concluded my analysis of the film by saying that this triumph of the family unit over promising female aspirations is symbolically akin to Jaya Bachchan’s (initial) journey in the Hindi film industry. I stand by that argument.

Jaya Bachchan in a still from Uphaar (1971), directed by Sudhendu Roy. YouTube screenshot.

Jaya Bachchan in a still from Uphaar (1971), directed by Sudhendu Roy. YouTube screenshot.

Remember that these films were produced in the era of the Film Finance Corporation or FFC (now NFDC). The middle-class cinema was intended for an emerging urban bourgeoise class, promoted on the Nehruvian ideal of the greater social good. So Jaya’s contemporaneity, as discussed earlier, was not a radical one, but a product of the times, crafted partly by this cultural bourgeois project, and partly by her own assimilation. Just as Anand (1971) marked the end of a feudal era of heroes to birth a new era of the angry young man, Guddi, released in the same year, and part of the same Hrishikesh Mukherjee universe, defined the role that women played in this new nation – as citizen subjects and as spectators (who were movie-goers — an act normalised in the film).

So, when Jaya Bachchan remarks that people liked her because she “looked” exactly like them, it is because she subliminally created a world that the spectator saw themselves in, and reflected back to them through her. All her films through these years — Guddi, Piya Ka Ghar, Kora Kagaz, Uphaar, Abhimaan, Koshish, and Mili, were concerned with the consolidation of the middle-class, upper-caste identity, and the resolution of social tension through marriage.

Her characters in Guddi to Uphaar, and Piya ka Ghar to Abhimaan and Mili, could actually just be perceived as the story of the same girl passing through the various stages of socialisation — from childhood to puberty, with the ultimate goal of conjugal harmony. It’s amazing how each film presents Jaya’s character as “different” from the conventional Hindi film heroine, so much so that it convinces the viewer of the film’s progressive politics.

Jaya Bachchan and Amitabh Bachchan in a still from Abhimaan (1973), directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee

Jaya Bachchan and Amitabh Bachchan in a still from Abhimaan (1973), directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee

Meenu of Uphaar is an unruly-haired dame who sings her own tune; Mili is not materialistic like “other girls” (and is supposed to be an angel); Krishna of Bawarchi (1972) is a mother-less recluse; and Shobha of Silsila (1981) is an unwed, pregnant fiancée of a martyr. So, by creating the illusion of giving space to the unconventional, the narrative, bit-by-bit, curbs every single instinct and eccentricity that made Jaya different in the first place.

Though her visible impact is pleasant, she’s complacent in her transactions of the bourgeois sexual economy, by consciously (co-)opting for a desexualised image. In Shor (1972), for instance, she plays a foul-mouthed, petty-thief named ‘Raat Ki Rani’. When Manoj Kumar wanted her to wear “skimpy clothes”, she simply refused because it was against her dignity, as she’s noted saying in an interview with Belu Maheshwari in 1998.

Jaya Bachchan with her male co-stars in Sholay (1975), directed by Ramesh Sippy

Jaya Bachchan with her male co-stars in Sholay (1975), directed by Ramesh Sippy

Jaya Bachchan and Rekha in a still from Silsila (1981), directed by Yash Chopra

Jaya Bachchan and Rekha in a still from Silsila (1981), directed by Yash Chopra

This is why actors like Vidya Sinha, despite being a proponent of the same school of cinema, did not enjoy as much popularity as Jaya Bachchan. In Rajnigandha (1974) or Chhoti Si Baat (1976), her characters aspired for a sexual mobility that was dangerous to endogamy in the bourgeois imagination, as it presented the woman with the power to make choices through autonomy. While Guddi, Uphaar, Abhimaan and Piya Ka Ghar are also about purging any desire that may be transgressive to the bourgeois state of being, there is also a solid patriarchal machinery engineering her characters’ decisions and resolving them in favour of marital union within the film. There’s nothing that spells defeat more than that moment in Uphaar, when even before she could complete her sentence expressing her resistance to marriage, the scene cuts to the shot where she’s shown as a child bride. From asserting difference, the actress blends into a world bereft of it.


Soon, the rise of the angry young man overtook middle-class cinema, and the actresses were consequently reduced to mere glam-dolls. The heroes who were playing catch-up with their female counterparts even till a few years ago were now running the show. For the headstrong Jaya, it was simply beneath her to continue invalidated, thereby choosing to take a sabbatical from films, and build a new life with her family.

Jaya Bachchan in a still from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), directed by Karan JoharJaya Bachchan in a still from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), directed by Karan Johar

Jaya Bachchan in a still from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), directed by Karan Johar

Of course, there is also the (in)famous modern marriage fable, on which the film Abhimaan is said to be based. It tells us that domestic harmony is compromised when the wife decides to surpass her husband in public. The public imagination of Jaya Bachchan as the self-sacrificing wife was the foundation on which Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) was built. Overshadowed by the supreme presence of her husband and his social status, her character of Nandini Raichand may have been devoted, dutiful, resigned, and suffering in silence. However, call me a contrarian, but that is not how I see Jaya Bachchan. It may have taken the arrival of a new millennium, but Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham staged the revenge of Abhimaan. In the epic moment when Nandini finally says to her patriarch, sovereign husband, “Keh diya na, bass keh diya,” she brings the house down by defying decades of (conjectures of her) obeisance to him.

If there is an actress who can shut down the persona that is the ‘Shahenshah‘ with one fierce gaze, it is Jaya Bachchan, and that is how I see her.

All images via Facebook, except where indicated otherwise

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Updated Date: May 03, 2020 11:24:36 IST

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