REMEMBERING TEJI AUNTY
This lady from Lahore seems to have been missed by all who have admired other members of her family. She rightly belonged to the ﬁlm world but managed only a brief spell of seconds in one ﬁlm. Veteran ﬁlm historian and ex supercop, Gautam Kaul, recalls his moments with her, whose anniversary falls 0n 21st December.
Indira Gandhi’s death closed the chapter on my Teji Aunty as well.
Before that Teji Aunty’s mention was frequent in our family conversations. My Father reminisced about his frequent visits to the Nehru residence Anand Bhavan in Allahabad during the pre-Partition days. Mother remained forever nostalgic about her days in Lahore. Those were the exciting times of their youth and the intelligent and beautiful Teji Aunty was an integral part of those memories.
Amitabh Bachchan(Srivastava) does not mention his Mother much in public conversations. His fans urge him to dwell on the poetic compositions of his Father before he became a member of the Rajya Sabha.
Harivansh Rai ‘Bachchan’ shunned glory and public adulation, but Teji Aunty reveled in her celebrity status whenever she was center stage, being a natural. She loved drama and had a talent for singing. The Bachchans in New Delhi were often found singing popular songs in soirees in the homes of relatives and friends. The couple continued to liven up many a gathering when they shifted permanently to Mumbai.
The Bachchans had a house in Gulmohar Park, Delhi’s first colony for journalists. The poet had chosen it upon his arrival in the nation’s capital. Teji made it a warm and welcoming home for their friends, Indira Gandhi being one of them.
Born Tejinder Kaur Suri on 12th August 1914 in a Khatri family of Lyallpur, (now in Pakistan) she was schooled in the city and went on to graduate from Punjab University, Lahore. A bright and vivacious student, she started teaching Psychology in the city’s Khoob Chand Degree College. The job anchored her firmly in the intellectual and social circle of Lahore, a hub for many conventions, seminars and thematic conferences attracting young scholars of North India. At one such gathering Tejinder Suri was introduced to her future husband.
The poet had been recently bereaved, his beloved wife having succumbed to an illness. It was perhaps the melancholic look on the face of the poet from Allahabad which prompted Tejinder to extend a friendly hand.
Harivansh Rai had once shared a prison cell with Jawaharlal Nehru and the two became kindred spirits as freedom fighters. Teji Aunty perhaps figured out that a lifelong relationship with the poet from Allahabad was a risk worth taking. She proposed marriage to the poet who saw in her the muse who could be his sunstone in life. They married and settled in Allahabad. Harivansh Rai’s life was made easier by Teji Aunty who not only took over the domestic management but also made each and every decision in the family’s and in the ‘national interest’.
Harivansh Rai ‘Bachchan’ was a man of merit in his own right. He taught English literature at Allahabad University as well as a Hindi poet of standing, championing the promotion of the Hindi language. His collection of poems titled Madhushala are considered among the best writings in the language. Little else is remembered of the poet, perhaps because he did not know how to market himself. His wife made up for his timidity by working single mindedly in this direction.
Teji Aunty pushed her husband to participate enthusiastically in seminars and poetic soirees. She got pressmen to interview him and promote his talent in circles that mattered. She shifted to New Delhi, realizing that Allahabad was not big enough a field for her husband’s talent .Both her sons benefited by the exposure and better schooling.
Teji Bachchan’s friendship with the Nehrus helped in Harivansh Rai’s appointment as Hindi Advisor in the Ministry of External Affairs. The next step was his nomination for the membership of the Rajya Sabha.
My own introduction to Teji Aunty happened by accident. I had accompanied my Mother Sheila Kaul, to Indira Gandhi’s home where we found Teji Aunty in animated conversation with her. Teji Aunty and my Mother immediately hit off like a house on fire with reminiscences of their Lahore days. Mother introduced me to her and from that time on she recognized me wherever we met. She would regale me with her stories about the young women she had known in Lahore, the Singha sisters and my Mother being among them. My Mother had been a badminton champion of United Punjab for over two years and remained a formidable opponent till she moved out of Punjab at the end of the 1930s.
The Singha sisters were the beauties of their times. I got to know really well one of the sisters, the much talented Champa Mangat Rai, when I was posted in Chandigarh. The saga would never be complete without mention of Teji Suri, the star singer and stage artist of Lahore.
Teji Aunty’s love for theatre was genuine. From her own days on stage to the audience rows of her son’s performances, the journey was not a long one. When son Amitabh was a rage in Hindi cinema, the Mother got a brief foothold as a cameo role in film Kabhie Kabhie in which her son had the lead role. Teji Aunty never mentioned this small achievement to me.
However, much earlier in time, a well coiffured Teji Aunty had stormed into Indira Gandhi’s home on a Sunday morning. She perhaps had something else on her mind but seeing me, got her distracted to something more personal. She addressed me in full ire:
“Gautam, you are a well respected film journalist, why don’t you speak to Sunil Dutt and tell him to restore Amitabh’s role in his Reshma Aur Shera? Do you know that out of sheer jealousy Sunil has shortened Amit’s role by nearly twenty minutes of running time, fearing that Amit will dominate the picture”?
While it was true that I was being recognized for my writings on cinema, being Delhi based had put me at a disadvantages. I hardly knew anyone in the film world of Mumbai.
I resisted gently, “Aunty, how can I advise Sunil Dutt how he should conduct his business. He is a film director; it’s his film and he has the right to decide which scenes to retain”.
“No. No. You can speak to him…”, then turning to Indira Gandhi she repeated her complaint, “Indu you should get a word to Sunil to reconsider his decision on Amit. Amit is brilliant in this film”. Mrs Gandhi smiled at Teji Aunty, and that was where it all ended.
Later, when Reshma Aur Shera was commercially released, I was particularly curious to find out if Teji Aunty’s observations had been correct.
Amitabh had played the role of the mute brother of the main protagonist. Seeing how his sister-in-law (Waheeda Rehman) was being ignored, even mal-treated at home. Amitabh had no words but his silent scream of protest had caught the attention of all film viewers and critics, including yours truly. The world did not know that Amit had lost 20 minutes of acting time on the film editing table. Had his role been given its full length, Amit would have won the best supporting actor’s award for this film.
Amitabh had decided to quit his job at the British owned firm in Calcutta in order to try his luck in cinema. He arrived in Mumbai seeking an appointment with Khwaja Ahmad Abbas who was planning his latest film, Saat Hindustani. He had signed Amitabh for one of the roles but the project got delayed due to financial problems.
Sunil Dutt knew that Abbas had already signed Amit for a film. Probably Teji Aunty’s string pulling led him to assign a role to Amit in his film under production and scheduled for outdoor shooting in Rajasthan. Sunil’s film got stuck for a while due to a dispute with the film’s original director, Sukhdev, with its release date indefinite.
Abbas’s problem got resolved and his film raced to a happy conclusion. Saat Hindustani became Amit’s first film followed by Reshma Aur Shera. However, it was the latter film which carved Amit’s future in the film industry.
Indira Gandhi’s death and Amitabh’s professional career path distinctly carved out, were the reasons for Teji Aunty’s permanent move to Mumbai. The Gulmohar Colony home was sold off.
There would be no looking back to New Delhi and its political conspiracies. The senior Bachchans were diabetic and resigned to their life in Mumbai. Age caught up with gracious Aunty Teji and she moved once more at age 93, but this time to the ethereal world on 21st December, 2007.
She would have had no regrets.