It is Bollywood baroque with a touch of class. The spotlight is on Raj Babbar, who glows and dims by turn under its glare. He quickly puts his hair in place with his fingers as a television news channel positions its 750-watt baby lights on the sets of his bungalow in central Delhi. The man who has played such diverse parts as that of a serial rapist and a whimsical king is now essaying a new role: battling his former mentor Mulayam Singh Yadavs Samajwadi Party (SP) in its own citadel.
The walls are lined with Satish Gujrals paintings and the showcases are crammed with trophies and mementoes. In the midst of it all, the actor-politician sits comfortably. For someone who has lived with the flash of arc lamps and the aura of celebrityhood for over 30 years, Babbar actually looks thrilled with the idea of sitting through another interview. He cant count the number of interviews he has given in the five hours since his return as victor from Firozabad.
The November 7 by-poll was an election like no other for 57-year-old Babbar. Although he had won two other Lok Sabha elections from neighbouring Agra, Firozabad was special because he wrenched it from the Samajwadi Party (SP) of which he was a member for 17 years. The victory was more delectable because the seat was originally held by Mulayams son, Akhilesh. The icing on the cake was that he defeated Akhileshs wife, Dimple. Its an ignominy that Mulayam will find hard to live down — as the votes were being counted and it was clear that Babbar was winning, an SMS hit the airwaves. What kind of a leader is he who cannot protect his bahu, it said.
Few had thought that Babbar would defeat Dimple Yadav. But Rahul Gandhi did a heavy bout of campaigning in the region — and Babbar emerged as the surprising victor.
Rahul Gandhi took a big risk but an achiever is one who takes the risk. The credit goes to the people of Firozabad and to Rahul Gandhi. He gave credibility to the election. The words I uttered sounded more convincing the moment he endorsed them, says Babbar.
The Gandhis have never campaigned in a by-election except in 1977 when Indira Gandhi took over Mohsina Kidwais electioneering in Azamgarh. On a limb following her defeat in Uttar Pradesh, Indira reckoned that if Mohsina won the Lok Sabha seat the Congresss return in the heartland was a given. Mohsina won and so did the Congress in the next election.
Rahul was the second Gandhi to put himself out in a by-poll; Babbar lost the May 2009 Lok Sabha election from Fatehpur Sikri as a Congress candidate.
This time, everybody — the SP, BSP, BJP — was fighting the Congress. I dont treat this election as a defeat of another person. I created a different kind of situation. I talked of development. My fight was not against Dimple, it was against lack of taps, electricity poles and roads, says Babbar.
For the actor, politics came along with cinema. His first film Kissa Kursi Ka in 1977 was canned and consigned to the archives because Indira Gandhis conscience minders thought it was an attack on the Emergency. But while the roles kept him busy, Babbar didnt lose his interest in politics. He came close to Vishwnath Pratap Singh when Singh left the Congress on the issue of Bofors. From launching his political career on an anti-Congress plank, Babbar has travelled full circle.
Born neither into privilege nor opportunity, Babbar grew up with politics in Tundla near Agra. His father, a Punjabi, was a class IV employee of the railways and led the local workers union.
But his was not a hard-knock life either. When he evinced interest in acting and earned a scholarship to study drama at Patiala University after graduation, his parents indulgently let him do it.
Babbar was a student activist while studying for his Bachelors at Murfid-e-Aan at Agra and later at Patiala. I was influenced by the socialist ideology. Later I was influenced by Marxism because of my father-in-law, he says, referring to Syed Sajjad Zaheer, a founder of the Progressive Writers Association.
Babbars first wife was Nadira, a well-known theatre personality. But it was his relationship with his second wife, actress Smita Patil, that gave Babbar the air of a brooding romantic. Smita died soon after giving birth to their son in 1986.
A pen-and-ink drawing of Smita — with her piercing eyes and sculpted cheek bones — distracts me. The sketch, by a Pakistani artist, has a couplet that reads, How can I define our relationship? It has defied expression in words of love till now.
Babbars reluctant to speak on Smita but hes effusive about the rest of his family. Their son, Prateik, who lost his mother hours after he was born and looks a mirror image of her, joined Nadira and their children, Aarya and Juhi, in the Firozabad campaign.
Yes, Prateiks into films like Juhi and Aarya. Hes in a very good film, Dhobhi Ghat by Aamir Khans wife, Kiran Rao. All of them worked very hard. Aaryas film Jail was being released on November 6 yet he stayed till the last day, he says.
I mention following Aarya as he toured the villages of Fatehpur Sikri under the blistering heat of May in jeans and a linen shirt and how he made the right moves from genuflecting before the sarpanches to hugging grandmothers. It is something they have imbibed from my family. I was brought up in a joint family and we were taught to touch our elders feet, so these things come naturally to my children, says Babbar.
He cant be faulted on political correctness, though his statements on secularism sound as though they were plucked from a film script. My forefathers hailed from Jalalpur Jattan in Baluchistan from where all Pakistan Prime Ministers have come. Some four years ago, Babbar went to Lahore on a personal trip and travelled to Gujranwala to see his ancestral home. I found that it had been converted into a mosque. An old woman was staying in a room as a caretaker. She embraced me. I said your blessings are proof of the divine soil that nurtured my ancestors.
Babbar lost 40 family members in the massacres that followed Partition. Yet I bear no animosity towards the Muslims because it was a Muslim family that saved 20 more from my family.
His commitment to secularism and social justice lured him to the fledging Samajwadi in the 90s. Mulayam Singh came up from being a zero. I admired him.
What went wrong? It wasnt because of one individual. The party was hijacked by persons who pandered to the very rich. I was accused of being pro-Congress. As an MP if I got projects sanctioned by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, instead of being happy I was accused of being a UPA stooge. It isnt as though Mulayam was in the dark. I invited him to inaugurate all the projects, says Babbar.
For someone as smoothly tactful in his comments as him, Babbar sounds bitter about Amar Singh and, to a lesser extent, Amitabh Bachchan. In the last (May 2009) elections things were unclear. I didnt know what line to take because the Congresss alliance with the Samajwadi was tenuous.
The Samajwadi workers of the area were with Babbar because as an Agra MP he had helped create the local wing of the party. Then Babbar heard that the Samajwadi Party was also going to contest from Agra. I was in a vacuum. Half my workers went away. I had to raise a new team, he says.
Babbar says he tried to make up with Amar Singh, the Samajwadi Party strongman. I sent flowers on his birthday but on TV he said the flowers were full of thorns. I phoned him but he was cold. I have never taken his name since February 4, 2006, when I left the Samajwadi. Today I have.
Babbar is more circumspect about Bachchan. He is very senior to me, his image is larger than life and I never felt like a competitor. But there is no dearth of mischief makers. We never worked together, barring in Bunty aur Babli. Even then we came face to face for just two minutes. That was my only recent encounter with him.
The actor, who made his mark as a villain and not a conventional hero, will clearly have less time for cinema now. And negative roles for an MP, after all, wont be the best of publicity. Babbar, however, stresses that a negative character is weightier in theatre because he performs a turning (catalytic) role rather than a carrying forward one.
Babbar isnt sure whether hes turning politics or carrying it forward. For the moment, I am only looking at my (election) certificate again and again, he says, beaming non stop. The smile is almost as dazzling as the arc lights.