Bachchans & Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty: A friendship that cracked

Updated: 04 Aug 2016 04:45 PM
(Amitabh Bachchan was a close friend of Rajiv Gandhi. That friendship was born of the close association his parents, Harivanshrai Bachchan and Teji, had with Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. What went wrong? Why did friends fall apart? This is the first of a three-part series.)


The Bachchans’ tale of friendship with the Nehru-Gandhis dates back to Anand Bhavan, Allahabad. Indira was still unmarried and Sarojini Naidu had introduced poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan and his Sikh wife Teji — Amitabh’s parents — to Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter as “the poet and the poem”.


Amitabh was barely four years old when he was introduced to Rajiv, who was two then. There was a fancy dress party at the Bachchans’ Bank Road residence in Allahabad to which Rajiv came dressed as a 'freedom fighter'.


Years later in an interview Amitabh recalled: “Ma (Teji) says he messed up his pants. We were all such tiny kids then, absorbed in our little games that it did not seem a big deal that Pandit Nehru’s grandson was in our midst.”


When Nehru moved to New Delhi’s Teen Murti Bhavan as India’s first Prime Minister, Rajiv and his brother Sanjay were often spotted playing with the Bachchan siblings Amitabh and Ajitabh, along with Adil Shaharyar, the son of Indira's aide Mohammed Yunus, and Kabir Bedi.


While Rajiv and Sanjay were studying at Doon School, Amitabh and Ajitabh were at Nainital’s Sherwood. During the holidays in New Delhi, which fell around the same time, the boys met and swam every day at the pool of Rashtrapati Bhavan.


Rajiv and Sanjay exposed Amitabh to avant garde cinema when European films were specially screened at Rashtrapati Bhavan for the Nehru-Gandhi family. Amitabh recalls attending with Rajiv and Sanjay the screening of films like Cranes are Flying and other Czech, Polish and Russian movies rich in anti-war message.


Indira’s close aide Yashpal Kapoor was extremely fond of Amitabh. Kapoor, more famous for toppling Opposition Governments in States, is said to have tried getting Amitabh to Delhi’s prestigious St Stephen’s College. For some reason, Amitabh did not join, preferring to move to Kirorimal College (perhaps due to a better course option) but his younger brother Ajitabh studied economics at St Stephen’s.


Amitabh’s first break in Bollywood was in KA Abbas’s Saat Hindustani, based on the liberation of Goa. Abbas was considered close to Indira, the then Prime Minister, and there were whispers that she had put in a word for the struggling actor. But Abbas stoutly denied having acted at Indira’s behest.


Harivansh Rai, later to become a Rajya Sabha member, was requisitioned in the foreign office by Nehru’s Government while Teji was made director of the Film Finance Corporation in 1973. This was the time when Amitabh got married to Jaya. The guest list was extremely short but Sanjay was present, representing the Gandhis.


When Amitabh emerged as an actor, Rajiv would often visit him on the sets, extremely unobtrusive, waiting patiently till he completed a shot.


Amitabh recalled: “His nature was that he would never misuse his family name. More often than not, Rajiv would not disclose his surname, fearing the distance it would create between him and the common man.”


Then came the Emergency. Amitabh, who was frequently seen in Sanjay’s company, faced media wrath for supporting it. On April 11, 1976, Delhi hosted a function called “Geeton Bhari Sham,” ostensibly to raise money for Sanjay and Rukhsana Sultana (actress Amrita Singh’s mother)’s controversial family planning programme. Both Amitabh and Jaya were present in the company of Sanjay.


Around that time when Indira’s Emergency Information and Broadcasting Minister Vidya Charan Shukla was clamping down on violence in Hindi films, came Ramesh Sippy’sSholay.


Writers Salim-Javed and the rest were tense if the film would pass the Censor Board. Amitabh’s association came in handy as the otherwise intimidating Shukla cleared it with minor cuts, including a change in the climax.


Throughout the 19-month-long Emergency, Amitabh remained silent on the ban imposed on Kishore Kumar by All India Radio and Doordarshan and the ostracisation of the likes of Pran and Dev Anand, both outspoken critics of the Government.


Film journalism faced stiff censorship where even a gossip item about a young Amitabh and the sensational Zeenat Aman was not tolerated.


After Sanjay’s death, the entry of Rajiv saw Amitabh offering his signature voice at the 1982 Asian Games opening ceremony in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru stadium. Rajiv, the chief organiser, sat in the front row as Amitabh anchored the show.


Following the Bofors uproar, Amitabh, an MP from Allahabad, left politics, disillusioned. The superman was accused of being a middleman. Amitabh fought for his honour and won a protracted legal battle, but he could not sever his links with politics.Amitabh’s parting with Gandhis singularly contributed to Rajiv’s downfall as the Allahabad Lok Sabha by-election in 1987 gave a fragmented Opposition a sense that together they could humble the Congress which then had 413 MPs in the 542-member Lok Sabha.


Writing in The Hindu, noted journalist Harish Khare had observed on August 29, 1998, “No one should grudge Mr Bachchan his millions. Like any another businessman he is entitled to make his pile. But the problem is that he is not just another businessman. He has to be understood as a mascot of our recent times. During the 1980s he was an icon of a dream gone sour; in the 1990s he symbolised the flight of allegiance at the elite level when he chose to become a non-resident Indian; and, now, in the second half of the decade he struts around as a one-man corporation, recasting himself for a role in a quasi-globalised, market-oriented economy. A remarkable journey for a young man from a middle class family to the very pinnacle of corporate glory.


Khare, who subsequently served as media advisor to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, wrote further about Bachchan, saying, “A man who made good in India, a man who became the mascot of the unity of `the Indian sentiment' in the memorable musical montage, Mile Sur Mera Tumahara, such a man found India stifling, cramping his style. Mr Bachchan became an NRI. Perhaps an unwitting betrayal of a friend who had presided over the Indian state for nearly five years. Mr Bachchan's preference for an NRI status, with all the implications of divided loyalties and allegiance, was representative of a hypocritical elite. Having first helped itself to public monies while all the time pretending to be doing a `public service', this elite cheerfully abandoned the motherland when things became ugly and frightening. The beautiful people simply could not stand the stench of Ayodhya, Surat, Ahmedabad and Bombay.”


Khare concluded in words that still hold good and rings a note to ponder when he said, “Like any other citizen, Mr Bachchan was and is at liberty to engage in any vocation of his choice; but what invites public scrutiny is the continuing need for a cozy relationship with the political crowd. In fact, the country needs to refute this brand of entrepreneurship which hinges on connections and obligations with political leaders.”