“When Jayaprakash Narayan was hospitalised at Jaslok (Mumbai), I used to go and meet him, sometimes with Manoj Kumar also, and chat with him in Bhojpuri. I would also go and meet Ramnath Goenka at Express Towers. Nanaji Deshmukh would come to my house. Ram Jethmalani became a friend and remained one forever. When Atal Behari Vajpayee's adopted daughter was getting married, he personally came over to invite me. Because I had to catch a 9 pm flight, he said, ‘We’ll have the reception at 7.’ We attended the reception, went to the airport and caught the flight. All those meetings and friendships played a big part in deciding which way to head in politics.”
But there was a dichotomy there. Despite being a fierce opponent of the Emergency, SS was eager to befriend the high office of the prime minister herself and began to visit Indira Gandhi. In fact, he was awestruck enough to be tongue-tied before her.
“During the Emergency, I met Indira Gandhi,” he admitted and cockily added, “As usual, I reached late for my meeting with her. There I was sitting in a British India library kind of atmosphere with hushed whispers around me that asked, ‘How come you’ve come now when Madam gave you an appointment for 10 o’clock? It’s 10.20!’ I said, ‘Let Madam know I’ve come, and please check if she can meet me.’ It was the time Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha had declared her election invalid (1975) and I had sent him a congratulatory message. She was calling different groups of people to gauge how they felt about the Emergency. She had also called Nargis and Sunil Dutt.”
“In my entire life, I was never as nervous as I was that day when I went in to meet her. The moment she got up and welcomed me, there was no coordination between one line and the other that I uttered. I talked gibberish. Ultimately, I said, ‘Madam, I’ve become very nervous,’ and I asked her for a glass of water which she graciously gave me herself. She was good at mimicry, I believe, and I later heard that she used to mimic how I had behaved with her that day. We had a nice, long meeting. One thing that struck me was—what a star she is. I still maintain that of all the prime ministers I have met, and with due respect to Atalji, Manmohanji and Modiji, Mrs Gandhi was the true star. I was fascinated with her.”
He admitted that he was fascinated enough to have even followed her into her party notwithstanding the wide gap in their ideological leanings.
Besotted after that first meeting, SS went visiting the PMO every time he got a chance. Fortunately for him, Indira Gandhi’s personal secretary, the formidable R.K. Dhawan, was willing to entertain his requests.
“Every time I met her, she would extend the time allotted and keep talking to me. Perhaps both of us had won each other over,” he injected wishfully into the narrative. “I found not only motherly warmth in her but also a father’s disciplinary distance. That’s why I call her the biggest star ever. Once, I was so stupid that on my way from Patna when I had only four hours in Delhi, I called up Dhawansaab and asked if I could come and meet her. He asked me, which month do you want to meet her, and I said, now. He remarked, ‘Bihari hai toh Bihari hi rahega (Once a Bihari, always a Bihari)’ but I remember she did call me the same evening at 6 pm. I was at Akbar Hotel and I was surrounded by so many girls who wouldn’t leave me that when I went over it was nearly 7 pm. I was told that she had waited till 6.30 and left. That was one time I missed her but there were many more meetings thereafter. I would go and meet her even on a Sunday when she normally wouldn’t meet anyone. Videos had come in recently and she was quite childlike as she said, ‘Oh, I’ve forgotten to put off the video. I’ll go and put it off.’ Once there was a rustling noise in the room and I said, ‘It’s nothing Madam, just a leaf that’s fallen.’ This was just after Operation Bluestar. But she was so inquisitive, she was saying, ‘I hope it’s not a lizard. How could a lizard have come in?’ I was fortunate to have seen the child in her. She would say that I could do a lot. She had some vision, some plan for me. I had even discussed Bluestar with her.”
It was Operation Bluestar that finally felled her in 1984. Not only would the history of India have changed if Mrs Gandhi had survived the assassination attempt but SS’s political career would have too. Unmindful of how it would sound to his own party, the actor-politician, known to march to a beat of his own, dropped discretion and confessed, “If Madam Gandhi had survived, despite my being against the Emergency, the way she gave me so much affection and placed such faith in me, perhaps I would have joined the Congress.”
Whatever his decisions, whether to make a transition from villain to hero or which political party to align with, the one steadfast companion who stood by him, irrespective of the circumstances, was the beautiful young girl he had seen in the train to Bombay.
“It was not only a certain actress who had entered my life,” he disclosed. Like comic book hero Archie who bought ‘You’re the only one’ cards by the dozen for each of his ‘steady’ girlfriends on Valentine’s Day, SS was unabashedly ‘going steady’ with more than one girl simultaneously. The list tumbled out. “I was also going steady with a tall, very well-educated corporate executive who was a south Indian Brahmin, another short little girl who is now married. I had many friends then. I have been very fortunate that most of my girlfriends were very fine young ladies. What all of them had in common was that they were willing to let me go if I was leaving them to marry Promi. To this day, some of them have remained unmarried,” he added. Their single status seemed to make him feel a couple of inches taller.
After his mother had led him by the ear, he sheepishly asked Promi, “Despite knowing all that’s happening in my life, will you marry me?” She didn’t give in on the spot. A romantic scene had to take place and it did. He smiled affectionately, “To her eternal credit, she kept her dignity by replying, ‘I’ll give you an answer if you propose to me properly.’ Finally, on the terrace of Ramayan (SS’s house in Mumbai) I proposed to her conventionally, on bent knee, with a rose in my hand.”
“The problem was the applause I got for my performances. Amitabh could see the response, that’s why he didn’t want me in some of his films.”
One is not sure about the other women in his life but for Reena Roy, it was a wrench. Shatrughan Sinha and Reena Roy were a popular celebrity couple and everybody had accepted their off-screen intimacy. So when he chose to openly wed Poonam, it was a humiliating public rejection for Reena Roy. But she too accepted his marriage without kicking up a ruckus. “She was very gracious,” said SS. “She said, ‘If it’s Promi, it’s okay. Anybody else and I’ll kill you’.”
Reena Roy had no choice but to be graceful about it especially since she and her man were still commercially in demand. Besides, he continued to stay in the relationship with her despite the change in his marital status.
It was a reality that Poonam had accepted when she became his wife. In fact, while Bipin, Subhash and all his close friends were distributing his wedding invitation to guests in India, SS and Reena Roy were together in London doing a stage show. “Yes, I wasn’t even around for the wedding preparations,” he accepted.
Two days before he wed Poonam, he was on a London stage with Reena when Kalyanji-Anandji made an announcement that Shatrughan Sinha was going back to India the next day to get married. Reena stood by his side publicly while the bride, who knew just what was unfolding in London, waited for her big moment in Bombay. In this very dramatic triangle, both women stood by him with Reena Roy even driving with him to Heathrow to see him off—the ultimate ego boost for a man.
But if SS expected Reena Roy to continue being devoted to him despite his marriage to another, he was in for a surprise. “After my marriage, I could see her battling confusion,” he revealed. “Sometimes she would fly off to the Rajneesh ashram, sometimes stay over with someone in America. She wouldn’t talk to me for days. I could not give her the position that she felt she deserved. I couldn’t do anything about it.”
If he couldn’t, she could. Reena Roy found cricketer Mohsin Khan from across the border and married him before she could change her mind. That move hurt just about everybody around, including her man in Bombay. For she had not only married a good-looking, eligible bachelor with a name of his own but she had also done the unthinkable—crossed over to Pakistan for domesticity.
Unfortunately for Reena Roy, the nikaah on the rebound didn’t last even an innings and she returned to Bombay a single woman. It was rumoured that in her later battle for custody of daughter Jannat, it was her former lover who helped her. Jannat was finally brought to India and Reena changed her name to Sanam.
If SS had a hand in Jannat’s return to her mother, he was circumspect about it. “I don't believe in kiss-’n-tell stories,” he said seriously, the flamboyance vanishing. “To this day I think of her with respect and affection because she gave me a lot of comfort, calm and peace when I was going through the dilemma of my marriage. I will forever remain obliged to her for that. Whenever we meet, it is with dignity.”
SS’s friend Dr Upendra Sinha explained how the actor had made up his mind. “He told me, Reena loves me but Promi worships me.”
“People say that Amitabh and I made a dynamic pair on screen but if he did not wish to work with me, if he felt that in Naseeb, Shaan, Dostana or Kaala Patthar Shatrughan Sinha bhari pad gaya (having Shatrughan around worked against him), it didn’t affect me,” he said nonchalantly. “There were so many films that I dropped out of and returned the signing amount. There was a film called Patthar Ke Log—one of Prakash Mehra’s, written by Salim-Javed...so many films I gave up without a backward glance because of Amitabh. But that doesn’t mean I don’t respect his personality. I’ve seen him as a friend, we’ve worked together as colleagues, we’ve sailed together in good times and bad, I have good memories also.”
“For that reason, though people say she is short-tempered, you’d never hear me say a word against Jaya Bachchan. I think of her as a family friend. Besides, my clashes with Amitabh have always been issue-based. If I like a performance, I will praise him. But I don’t indulge in empty flattery; I’m not in awe of him. For instance, I wouldn’t praise his acting in Paa. I would praise him for his courage in doing a role like Paa, for sitting for hours to get his make-up done, for carrying off such a role. But it didn’t require a great actor; it required a great personality which he could impart to the role. On the other hand, I thought he was superb in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black.”
Only a few people know that Amitabh (along with Mehmood's brother Anwar Ali with whom he used to stay), Anil Dhawan, Asrani, Subhash Ghai and Shatrughan were all great buddies at one time, and spent several evenings together in Devdoot, the Bandstand apartment. They had so much in common—love for cinema, their struggle and a terrific sense of humour—that late nights would turn into early mornings as they chatted animatedly.
“It is true that I also recommended Amitabh for films. I had recommended him to the late Sultan Ahmed,” SS said. At the height of his popularity as a villain, SS had done Heera and Sultan Ahmed had been grateful that despite his escalating stardom, when the film got delayed, he was the only star who didn’t hike his price. “The other actors tend to follow the maxim, ‘Different times, different rates’. For me, once my fee was decided, I’d squirm to revise it,” he revealed.
“After my marriage, I could see her battling confusion. Reena wouldn’t talk to me for days. I could not give her the position she felt she deserved.”
During Heera, Sultan Ahmed would ask SS, “Where are you roaming around with this camel?” referring to Amitabh. But when the camel morphed into a saleable box-office draw, Sultan Ahmed brazenly signed Amitabh to topline Ganga Ki Saugandh—a film he’d promised SS.
SS had much to say about his equation with the Bachchans. “I don’t talk about his family members. I think Abhishek and Aishwarya make a very beautiful couple, God bless them. I also had great respect for Amitabh’s parents, Teji Bachchanji and celebrated poet Harivanshraiji,” he said, before narrating an incident that brought out Amitabh’s spontaneous wit. “When Amitabh had come back from hospital after a near-fatal accident, Promi and I had gone to visit him. We were chatting for a long time with Amitabh resting on his bed when his mother came in and started praising Promi saying, ‘Look at her, what a nice girl. She kept so many fasts, observed karva chauth, turned vegetarian for so many years and look, God listened to her prayers.’ Amitabh heard his mother and said poker-faced, ‘Poor thing, after all those fasts, look at what she ultimately got!’ He really has a great sense of humour.”
SS had a simplistic explanation for what went wrong between Amitabh Bachchan and him when they had so much going between them. “The problem was the applause I was getting for my performances,” he said shortly. “Amitabh could see the response I was getting. That’s why he didn’t want me in some of his films.”
With a little probing, another angle cropped up—women, of course. “People say that Zeenat Aman or Rekha also contributed a little to the rift,” SS dropped their names slowly. “Maybe they didn’t like something about me and they said something to Amitabh, or maybe they said things about me because I knew a lot about them. To strengthen their position, they would be by Amitabh’s side. During Kaala Patthar, a heroine who was known to be very friendly with him would visit him. She would come during Dostana also but not once would he bring her out and introduce her to any of us. In showbiz, everybody knew who was visiting whom. The media would immediately know if Reena was in my make-up room. Such things can never be hidden in our world.”
By the time Kaala Patthar happened, there was barely any semblance of the friendship that once was. “On the sets of Kaala Patthar, the chair next to Amitabh would not be offered to me, nor would his umbrella be ever trained to cover any of us. We’d be heading from the location towards the same hotel but he’d sit in his car and never say, ‘Let’s go together’. I found it all very strange and wondered why this was happening because I never had any complaints against him.”
The stand-off spilled over to the sets. “There was a fight sequence in Kaala Patthar which I had been told would be an equal fight,” SS explained. “But along with fight master Shetty who is no more, it was changed to Amitabh beating the hell out of me, beating me constantly until Shashi Kapoor separated us. On this point I had to put my foot down and protest that this was not what had been narrated to me. What if Shashi hadn’t turned up, that means I would’ve been beaten to a pulp by Amitabh? How did that qualify as an equal fight? Apart from being unfair, it wasn’t logical either because, if I was going to be in a one-sided fight, then after the interval how was I again shown taunting him the same way I did before the fight? I had to argue this out and shooting was stopped for three to four hours which irked Amitabh.”
(Subhash) Ghai drew the picture of a man who would not fraternise with someone once he went off the person. In this case it was Amitabh Bachchan with whom all of them had begun their star trek in Mumbai. “I met Amitabh Bachchan through Shatrughan Sinha at his Devdoot flat,” Ghai recalled. “Amitabh had seen my Umang and he told me that I’d given a priceless shot as an actor. I liked Amitabh because he had just paid me a compliment,” he added, flashing a sense of humour. “So we all became friends, Amitabh, Anwar, Shatru. But gradually as their careers grew, Amitabh and Shatru had some differences between them. And you know how Shatru is. If he’s indifferent to someone, he can say anything about them to the media, it can hurt a lot. I once told him, ‘Watch Deewaar, Amit has given a very wonderful performance in it.’ He turned around and told me, ‘Abhi kya main Amitabh Bachchan se acting seekhoonga (Now you want me to learn acting from Amitabh)?’ He had and he still has that quality. He would be so bitter, he would not even look at that person’s performance. He’s a man of very strong likes and dislikes, and very strong opinions.” As a matter of fact, SS never did watch Deewaar or Sholay.
(Extracted with permission from Om Books International)
More stories on Bollywood: Tale of a Scarlet Fever