It is Jaya Prada’s tragedy that despite being a three-time MP, she makes news when men pass comments about her. Much before SP leader Azam Khan there was filmmaker Satyajit Ray. And he had something totally different to say about the actor, who moved from a successful career in Telugu cinema to playing largely conventional roles in Bollywood, usually opposite Amitabh Bachchan and Jeetendra.
The great maestro Ray had called her the “most beautiful face on the Indian screen”. In stark contrast, Azam Khan, nine-time MLA from Rampur, who is currently taking on Jaya Prada in his bastion, recently reduced the actor to the supposedly “khaki” colour of her underwear as only someone raised in the deeply misogynistic culture of the old Samajwadi Party can –remember Mulayam Singh Yadav saying boys will be boys when it comes to rape?
A new life in politics
Jaya Prada, 57, burst onto Hindi film screens going toe-to-toe as a mute dancer with Rishi Kapoor in Sargam. The year was 1979, and the newcomer in Bollywood didn’t have to utter a word of Hindi. She soon corrected her linguistic deficit, often twinning with her southern compatriot Sridevi in several films, most memorably in Tohfa (1984) where they were both competing for the affections of an all-white Jeetendra.
There was a time, before the digital explosion, when actresses who ran out of steam on the silver screen usually retired to matrimony or went straight onto maternal roles, with no commas in between. Although Jaya Prada did marry a married man, film producer Srikanth Nahata, and did play a mother in a 2004 Malayalam film, Ee Snehatheerathu, she sought a second life by joining politics. And unlike her largely dutiful and submissive screen presence, Jaya Prada has been a tigress on the prowl in her political avatar. She was selected by her former co-star and the late N.T. Rama Rao to campaign for him in 1994, but as Rao became more ill, his son-in-law N. Chandrababu Naidu staged a coup. Jaya Prada, displaying the first of her skilled manoeuvres, adroitly moved to the new Telugu Desam Party, with Naidu nominating her to the Rajya Sabha in 1996.
But then her life changed again when she was prevailed upon by Amar Singh, the ‘chhote bhaiya’ of her former co-star Amitabh Bachchan, to join what was then his personal fiefdom, the Samajwadi Party. Amar Singh – that very important collector of very important people – was by her side when she won the Lok Sabha elections from Rampur in 2004 and then again in 2009.
It was long-time Rampur MLA Azam Khan who had introduced Rampurwalas to Jaya Prada in 2004 and asked them to vote for her. They did, electing her over Rampur royalty Begum Noor Bano, she of the tall bun and the all-white saree. By 2009, Jaya Prada and Azam Khan had become enemies. The issue? Azam Khan was upset over Amar Singh’s influence on her. He worked to defeat her, but she managed to win on an SP ticket – at that time Azam Khan had been expelled from the Samajwadi Party. It is this period that Jaya Prada referred to when she said while filing her nomination, as a BJP candidate this time, from Rampur: “Mai Rampur nahi chhodna chahti thi…Mai Rampur isliye chhod gayi, kyonki mujhe us din tezab se attack karne ke liye socha tha, mere upar hamla kiya tha (I didn’t want to leave Rampur, but had no choice when they threatened to attack me with acid).”
In another conversation with author Ram Kamal, she said: “Amar Singh was on dialysis and my morphed pictures were being circulated in the region. I was crying and saying I don’t want to live anymore, I want to commit suicide. I was going through that trauma and no one supported me. Only Amar Singhji, who came out of his dialysis, stood next to me, supported me. What will you think of him? Godfather or someone else? Even if I tie rakhi to him, will people stop talking? I don’t care what people say.”
But electorally her luck ran out in 2014. By now, both she and her mentor Amar Singh were formally out of the Samajwadi Party, and had launched the Rashtriya Lok Manch, which performed disastrously in the 2012 Assembly elections. Two years later, Jaya Prada had made yet another party switch, running from Bijnor on a Rashtriya Lok Dal ticket. She lost. Although no one can rule it out, this latest move to the BJP is possibly Jaya Prada’s last political migration.
Reel and real
If Azam Khan can dish the dirt, Jaya Prada has shown she can dig into her bag of histrionics. Witness her talking about the acid attacks, immediately after filing for nomination, post a regulation temple visit (given the party she has just joined), addressing a rally clad in a red Benarasi sari, where she broke into tears, which she artfully dabbed with the tips of her fingers. In a nationalist patriarchal society, there are few sights as potent as a woman in distress, that too a God-fearing Hindu woman, at the hands of a Muslim, whom she cleverly likened to Alaudin Khilji in March last year after watching Padmaavat, a comment India TV dutifully recorded and played out, clearly in preparation for her forthcoming electoral battle.
“Jab main election lad rahi thi, kis tarah unhone mujhe pareshan kiya mujhe recall huya hain. (When I was fighting elections in Rampur, Azam Khan behaved like Khilji constantly harassing me).” A day later, in a drama that seems to have been in preparation for a year, Azam Khan said at a meeting: “Agar naachnewalon ke muh lagenge to siyasat kaise karenge (if we fight with dancing girls how will we do politics).”
Also read: MY543 – Rampur, Uttar Pradesh
In 2004, when an India Today story on her campaign in Rampur talked about how she would devotedly follow Azam Khan’s instructions on what to wear (in a churidar kurta) and how to appear (demure, head covered, kohl-laden eyes, and adaab when required). Jaya Prada’s screen image has been of great help. At the height of her career, when she and the late Sridevi were engaged in a battle for the top position, magazines often pointed to the former’s traditional image. As India Today wrote at that time: “Her classic features, expressive eyes and long, lustrous hair casts her in the perfect traditional housewife mould. She refuses to appear on screen in even a swimming costume.”
And it must be said that though Jaya Prada has parlayed several parties, she has remained loyal to “Amar Singhji“, who has since been deserted by two of the power trio once known as the Three As – Amitabh (Bachchan), Anil (Ambani) and Amar (Singh).
When Amar Singh was sent to Tihar Jail in 2011 for his alleged involvement in the 2008 attempt to bribe MPs in a trust vote in Parliament, she wept on camera after visiting him and said: “The big celebrities, he fought to get them land. The famous people, where are they now?”
Brother, godfather, or just a good friend, this is one relationship that has survived Bollywood and politics. As for Jaya Prada’s political career, will it survive the Draupadi (as Sushma Swaraj called her) of Rampur 3.0 phase? To paraphrase her famous dialogue in Sharaabi: “Neta sirf vote ka bhooka hota hai, tareef ka nahin.”
Azam Khan, bring it on. Jaya Prada can give as good as she gets.
The author is a senior journalist.
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