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July 1, 1997


Jaya Bachchan returns to the movies!

Suparn Verma at Rajkamal Studios

Jaya Bachchan will stage a comeback to the silver screen after a lapse of 19 years.

That, at least, is the official figure, though her last official appearance on screen was in 1981, when she starred in Yash Chopra's Silsila -- a celluloid retelling of a romantic triangle featuring her husband, Rekha and Jaya herself which, at that time, was reportedly mirrored in real life.

In her comeback, Jaya Bachchan will play a middle-aged mother who discovers, after his death, that her son was a Naxalite. Directing her will be Govind Nihalani, and the film, based on Mahashweta Devi's Jnanpith Award-winning Bengali novel, is named Ek Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Ma.

The mahurat, at the Rajkamal Studios on Tuesday morning, saw the entire Bachchan clan in attendance. Amitabh and Jaya hugged and kissed for the cameras, while son Abhishek preferred to lurk in the background, an amused smile on his lips.

Appearing relaxed as she prepared for the inaugural shot, Jaya Bachchan said, "Why would I be feeling jittery about facing the camera? It would be an insult to the years of training I have had at the Film Institute."

With husband Amitabh giving the clap, Jaya enacted the scene wherein she receives over the telephone the news of her son's death. Interestingly, the voice on the phone belonged to Jaya's oldest friend, producer (Hum) Romesh Sharma.

Her hibernation, apparently, has not dulled her skills, for Jaya -- vice-chairperson of Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd, chairperson of The Children’s Film Society and much else besides -- was at the sound of the clapper board transformed, with effortless ease, into Mrs Chatterjee. The casual hello into the phone, the shades and nuances in face, voice and gesture as the caller told her that her much loved son was dead -- the clock had turned back twenty years and Jaya Bachchan was back doing what she does best.

"Jaya was my first choice for the role of the mother," says Nihalani. "We have been talking about working together for the last 10 years. However, it is only now that we have finally come together. Earlier, she would tell me that she was not yet ready because her family was taking up her time, but now that her children are grown up, she decided to come back to the sets."

But why 19 years? Didn't she receive any offers in the interim? There is a touch of melancholy in her smile as she answers: "You will be surprised, the answer is, I didn't."

"Jaya has a quality of sensitivity combined with vulnerability, which is very rare," says Nihalani, explaining his choice.

"Do you think I am vulnerable?" smiles Jaya. "Certainly not!"

The laughter is mocking. And whether the mock is directed at herself or elsewhere, the lady knows best.

1997 would appear to be the year of comebacks for the Bachchans, though Amitabh tends to shrug it off as a mere coincidence while Jaya for her part points out that she has never been away. "I was backstage all the time. There is no question of a comeback," she argues, "because I have been involved in various other activities in the film industry."

Even as Jaya prepared to cut the cake, Amitabh was being facetious at the expense of (1942: A Love Story) director Vidhu Vinod Chopra, one of the invited guests. "Oh, here comes the great director, I am in the company of big men today," quipped Bachchan. "Kya sir, am I the only one you found this morning?" asked Chopra, rather tamely.

One member of the Fourth Estate took the bull by its horns and asked Jaya if she had sought her husband's consent before returning to the screen. "He is my husband, not my guardian, for God's sake," was the lady's exasperated retort.

Ek Hazar Chaurasi Ki Ma is a film with strong political overtones, though it does revolve around the apolitical mother who discovers that her life is affected by politics. Jaya Bachchan is quick to disclaim any fellow feeling with the story. "My sole agenda is Mr Nihalani's film and what he wants me to do in it."

Experts figure that Jaya Bachchan is proving smarter than her husband, by coming back to the screen in a non-commercial film -- unlike hubby Amitabh, who staked all on a commercial comeback like Mrityudatta and is now reeling from the shock of its failure. Asked what she feels will be the toughest part of her comeback role, Jaya points out that her character spans 30 years. "The tough part will be playing a young woman again... to be young again, that is not easy," she says, her youthful laugh belying that fear.

Though Ek Hazar Chaurasi Ki Ma will for all intent be known as Jaya's comeback film, it merits mention that the likes of Nandita Das (Fire), Joy Sengupta, Anupam Kher, Seema Biswas, Bhakti Barve, and Milind Gunaji play major roles. The film is expected to be complete by the first week of August.

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda