The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Two films tell story of a split
- Spat comes as surprise after years of silence

Oct. 15: It was the launch party of Amitabh Bachchan's Khuda Gawah in a Delhi hotel and Rajiv Gandhi had turned up.

When Rajiv Gandhi spotted Sridevi, he called out: 'In Khuda Gawah, you were seeking villain Habibullah's head, here I have a real-life Habibullah for you.'

The reference was to 1968 Jammu and Kashmir cadre IAS officer, Wajahat Habibullah. Everyone burst out laughing and Rajiv Gandhi hugged Amitabh. Then they posed for a picture with Sridevi, as a smiling but demure Sonia Gandhi looked on.

Cut to 1999 when Abhishek Bachchan debuted in Refugee. An invitation was sent to Sonia. But it was politely communicated that the Congress president does not visit 'extravagant' five-star hotels as the party philosophy revolved around simple living and high thinking.

Sonia's 'no-show' was not taken kindly and it added fuel to suggestions that one of the most celebrated friendships in India had soured. But even then, the two families kept their cool and held their silence.

But in the last few days, the two sides have broken the code of silence. Social circles are abuzz and rumour mills wagging on what could have prompted them to go public after keeping mum for years.

The 'split' is painful for both sides. For Sonia, it is a loss of the first friend she made in India. Amit, as she affectionately addressed him, was the one who received her on a chilly winter morning at Palam airport on January 13, 1968.

Her civil marriage to Rajiv Gandhi took place 43 days later on February 25. During this period, Sonia stayed at Amitabh's house with his mother Teji Bachchan and father Harivansh Rai Bachchan playing host.

Family friend Mohammad Yunus and Indira Gandhi's confidant T.N. Kaul had zeroed in on the Bachchans after the then Prime Minister said she was not keen on Sonia staying in a hotel or at her residence before the marriage.

At that time, Amitabh was yet to become a superstar and Rajiv was a carefree soul. Along with 'Bunty' Ajitabh Bachchan and Sanjay Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia were frequently spotted on the India Gate lawns having ice cream.

Rajiv Gandhi had an old Lambretta scooter, which often had ignition problems. Invariably, either Sanjay Gandhi or Amitabh had the 'honour' of pushing it for a few metres.

The families were so close that when Rahul and Priyanka grew up they addressed Amitabh as mamun ' Avadhi for maternal uncle. When Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated at Sriperumbudur, Amitabh was in London and Rahul in Boston. They landed in Delhi together from London.

Amitabh then took charge of funeral arrangements with Priyanka while Rahul stayed home trying to console Sonia and accepting condolences.

Family friends and associates blame 'politics' for ruining the ties. They said the first blow came when Rajiv Gandhi entered politics and 'requested' Amitabh to help him out.

Amitabh had a disastrous stint in politics as Rajiv Gandhi was sucked into controversy after controversy ' Bofors, Fairfax and the HDW deal.

Amitabh's name figured in several scandals in which Rajiv Gandhi was the principal character. Libel suits, allegations and counter-allegations followed, resulting in Amitabh quitting politics. That was much against Rajiv Gandhi's wishes and according to family friends and associates against Sonia's too.

Rumours and often-unsubstantiated allegations of disputes over money and matrimonial prospects between the Gandhi-Bachchan children grew louder with both sides refusing to confirm or deny them.

In 1999, Ajitabh fell out with wife Ramola, leading to a separation. But while the Nehru-Gandhis had few remaining links with Amitabh, Jaya or Ramola, the family remained close to Ajitabh.

10 Janpath insiders said Sonia has been deeply hurt by Amitabh's one-liner to a TV channel that it was she who shut the door on him. Sonia is also exercised by Jaya's tirade against the Nehru-Gandhis in Barabanki.

Sonia has been told that Jaya's tirade should be seen in the context of the Samajwadi Party-Congress tussle for one-upmanship in Uttar Pradesh. Rahul's reaction to Jaya's remark at Amethi that the Gandhi-Nehru family was not known for betraying anyone was a sign that Sonia is not prepared to take things lightly.

But sources claimed that the two sides do not wish to indulge in a no-holds barred slanging match even now.

Till late tonight, 'well-meaning' persons and common friends were trying to bring about some sort of rapprochement.

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