Rampur, Uttar Pradesh: Jaya Prada asks the men to move aside — “make space for the women”, she says, parting a sea of chanting Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters with a sweeping movement of her right hand.
From a socially designated corner of a rally speech in the Chhitria Jageer village of Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, a group of Hindu and Muslim women tentatively step forward.
“I want you to promise me, that when 23 April comes, you’ll vote first and cook later,” Jaya Prada tells them Tuesday.
Hours later, her opponent and bitter arch-rival Azam Khan’s press secretary Shanu will tell ThePrint that the Samajwadi Party leader’s team made a similar promise to their boss two days ago — Khan’s men, however, will “vote first and eat later”.
But Khan, who was banned by the Election Commission Monday from campaigning for 72 hours after he indirectly made a reference to the “khaki” colour of Jaya Prada’s underwear, wasn’t always on the other side of the fence. He was once Jaya Prada’s trusted mentor, and the man who introduced her to Uttar Pradesh’s political landscape back in 2004.
“Azam Khan thought I would win under his guidance and sit at home or go back to Mumbai. But I worked and the people of Rampur supported me, and he couldn’t stand that,” Jaya Prada tells ThePrint.
‘I’ve been harassed by Azam Khan for years’
The former Telugu and Hindi film actor, who joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in March, is referring to her time as SP’s star campaigner. She won the Lok Sabha seat from Rampur in two consecutive elections (2004 and 2009).
But in 2010, following differences within the party over her growing popularity and allegiance to another ‘unpopular leader’, Amar Singh, Jaya Prada was unceremoniously “kicked out” of the SP, she says, adding that it “still unsettles her” to think of those times.
“I have been harassed by Azam Khan for so many years and it’s really taken a toll on me”, Jaya Prada says. “At the time, there wasn’t a single word of support from Mulayam (Singh Yadav) or Akhilesh (Yadav)”.
Her fight for the Rampur constituency this Lok Sabha polls isn’t merely playing out as a battle between the SP-BSP alliance and BJP, it’s also a political manifestation of a personal fallout between a teacher and his student.
The student, a film actor who has been a three-time MP, has had to fight a lot to survive in the jumpy waters of Uttar Pradesh’s politics. Her latest move to the BJP and contest with Khan is only reflective of her larger political philosophy — adapting with the changing wind.
Sanjay Kapoor, a former MLA from Bilaspur, is the Congress candidate up against Jaya Prada and Khan.
An actress re-born
Jaya Prada was only 13 years old when she was scouted by a director during a dance recital at her school’s annual day function. She laughs when she remembers the time, and says “she thought it would be a one-off role, but the offers never stopped coming”.
From the very beginning, Jaya Prada, born Lalita Rani in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh, on 3 April 1962, harboured a love for performance.
On Tuesday, sitting in the back of her white Mercedes SUV, which has an Andhra Pradesh (AP) number plate, one can see a sliver of skin exposed underneath a layer of concealer — the UP heat has made her sweat, but she doesn’t mind it.
“We have 18 mores stops to go,” she says.
It is already past noon. Back at The Riverside Inn, the Rampur hotel where she is staying, the receptionist tells us she won’t be back before 1 am.
With sarees in shades of pink draped over her head, delicate manicured hands, and fair skin, Jaya Prada still embodies an aura of old world glamour — carrying her traditional housewife avatar from screen seamlessly forward onto the political stage.
The actress, once called “the most beautiful face on the Indian screen” by director Satyajit Ray, left an indelible presence on the big screen — as a top Telugu actor to a consistent co-star for the likes of stars Amitabh Bachchan and Jeetendra in Mumbai through the 1980s.
Now, Mustafa Hussain is the one who remains by her side all the time. As her right-hand-man, Hussain, whose father had been a Congress MLA from UP, says his loyalty to Jaya Prada extends above and beyond any fickle political allegiance.
“I was always a fan of Jaya Prada, from the time of her movies to the moment she came into UP politics. When I met her in 2004, I knew I would dedicate everything to help her career,” Mustafa tells ThePrint.
As Jaya Prada spoke at her rallies Tuesday, Mustafa stood just behind her on stage, whispering the names of men to add in her thank-you segment, and reminding her, hidden from the sight of a cheering crowd, of the names of all the bridges she had built in Rampur, of where the schools were located, of which family had been keeping sick.
Mustafa has been with Jaya Prada through her stints with SP, Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and, now, the BJP.
The face Jaya Prada presents is still unlike some of her Bollywood counterparts in Parliament — her voice lacks arrogance, and her gestures accommodate the crowds that want to greet her.
Saira Khan, whose family started NGO Aamir Bilal in Rampur to help the impoverished, tells ThePrint that she once made Jaya Prada wear bangles in 2004.
“She makes it a point to meet us whenever she’s here,” says Saira, adding that all she wants to be able to tell the former MP that “we are with you in these difficult times”.
Beginning from Telugu politics
In south India, where the phenomenon of the personality cult precedes the “Modi wave” by decades, Jaya Prada’s entry into politics was only a matter of time.
Her close association with co-star and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) founder N.T. Rama Rao, “whose house I would keep coming and going from as a child of six or seven years old”, she says, “compelled me to come on board and campaign for him when the party was in crisis”.
A lot like her acting career, which Jaya Prada says “just happened on impulse, without any former plan to be an actor”, her entry into politics came from a “place of affection for NTR”.
“Without really thinking about the consequences, I jumped into help him,” she says.
Jaya Prada is not an unfeeling politician — the trajectory of her success and failures is littered with equal excesses of loyalty and abandonment.
In 1995, when N. Chandrababu Naidu pulled off a coup against his father-in-law and TDP chief NTR, Jaya Prada swayed to his side, even as she now claims to have carried on with the legacy of the late actor’s work.
Naidu later nominated her to the Rajya Sabha in 1996, beginning her long career in the Indian Parliament.
After Naidu, it was Amar Singh’s undeniable and undying influence that drove Jaya Prada to the Samajwadi Party in 2004. Khan, the Rampur MLA was the perfect fit to show her the ropes — he was desperate to end the reign of Congress’ Rampur royalty, Noor Banu, and used his intimate knowledge of the Muslim-dominated constituency to achieve this end through Jaya Prada.
“Ek zid thi mere andar (I was certain),” says Prada of joining the SP.
“Mujhe Naidu ko yeh dikhana tha ki main kahin se bhi contest lad sakti hoon (I wanted to show Naidu that I can win an election from anywhere in the country),” she says of her decision to migrate north.
But for the girl from Andhra, who had picked up Bollywood’s Mumbaiyya culture along the way, heartland UP was a whole different ballgame.
“I didn’t speak the language or eat their food or understand their problems at the time and that was the biggest adjustment for me,” she says.
Her Hindi still falters, tripping in the fine-lines of gendered syntax — “Ek aurat ka samman bhi kuch cheez hota hai (A woman’s honour means something),” she says, talking about Khan’s recent misogynistic remarks against her.
‘Mother, daughter, sister’
After nearly 10 years with the SP, Jaya Prada made one last switch before joining the BJP.
As columnist Kaveree Bamzai wrote for ThePrint, “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,” wrote Bamzai.
For Jaya Prada, party affiliations are merely vehicles for ‘vikas‘ (development).
“I’ve tried to stand by the ideology of whatever party I join, but these memberships are a way for me to keep doing my work,” she says, aware and unable to answer how her speeches championing secularism align with the exclusionary nationalism of the BJP.
When asked about Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and instances of Muslim mob lynchings, Jaya Prada says “it is election time”.
The BJP candidate’s rally speeches also make a point at reminding everyone that she is exactly what Khan keeps targeting — a woman.
Jaya Prada appeals to the patriarchal sentiments of her vote-base, asking them “how they would feel if someone said this about your mother, daughter or sister”.
“I used to call him brother, despite all the terrible things he said and did to me. In 2009, he circulated lewd photographs of me to harm my chances. You all saw those, you all saw what he’s capable of,” she said while addressing residents of another Rampur village, Dhanupura, Tuesday.
A few hours earlier, at the exit of her hotel, her son Samrat touched her feet and hugged her. The cameras clicked, as he said, “Azam Khan ne kaha the ki meri maa se logo ki shaam rangeen hoti hai. Jab bakse khulenge, toh unki shaam zaroor rangeen hogi. (Azam Khan had said that my mother makes other people’s evenings. When the electoral boxes will open, his evening will certainly be made.)”
“When Azam Khan brought my mother into politics, did he forget that she was an actress? Now he calls her ‘naachnewali‘ because he can’t tolerate her outshining him,” he added.
‘Vote for Modi’
But in Dhanupura, residents say that though Jaya Prada never visited them before, their vote “is always for the lotus”.
“We haven’t got the gas that the government promised or any money that Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised in our bank accounts. But I’ll still vote for Modi,” says Soni, a far-hand in the village.
“Agar Modi humein bhooka maar de na, tab bhi humara vote unke saath hai. (Our vote is for Modi even if he starves us to death.)”
Bhumika, a 19-year-old student who will be voting for the first time, cites the ‘Beti Bacho, Beti Padhao’ campaign to say that “women are a lot safer in public spaces now”. Her neighbour Pravesh, a housewife, has the recent Balakot strikes on her mind when asked what PM Modi has done for the country.
“When our soldiers were martyred, Modiji took revenge. There hasn’t ever been a prime minister like him.”
Dhanupura may end up voting in the name of PM Modi, but the vote will ultimately go to the woman who has now taken the saffron colour to beat her political guide for yet another survivalist move in Uttar Pradesh politics.
Get the PrintEssential to make sense of the day's key developments