Happy Birthday Farida Jalal: B-Town’s Most Dependable Co-Actor
Farida Jalal in a still from <i>Mammo</i>. (Photo Courtesy: Khalid Mohamed)
Farida Jalal in a still from Mammo. (Photo Courtesy: Khalid Mohamed)

Happy Birthday Farida Jalal: B-Town’s Most Dependable Co-Actor

Sweetheart, pyari si sister, maa, dadimaa, nanimaa – she’s done it all, or almost. In the sweetheart domain, it was a brief stay. Shafted into the domain of the character actress prematurely, Farida Jalal who turns 69 today, has been apna Bollywood’s most dependable fixture.

Those who are on terms of endearment with her call her Freddy Aunty, the rest call her Faridaji in keeping with the showbiz adab. Cuddly, even cherubically so, and chatterboxy, she was bumped off this year by an internet post on 20 February (but then so has practically every adored film personality) to which her alarmed response was,

I am hale and hearty… Initially I laughed, but from the last 30 minutes my phone has been constantly ringing and everybody is asking the same question. It’s a bit irritating, I wonder why people spread such rumours.

Her laughter like her dialogue pitch, is jaguar-fast. And yet every peal of ha-ha, and every word she delivers, is perfectly intoned, embellished by an Urdu tadka. A lost art nowadays, when movie dialogue is more Hinglish than Hindustani.

Besides the skillful dialoguegiri, she’s a natural-born artiste, extracting knowing smiles from the audience with her joie de vivre and tears when she’s confronted by those cataclysmically tragic script situations.

Am I gushing about Freddy Aunty? Frankly I am, mainly because we seem to have taken her for granted and partly for a personal reason since she incarnated the role of my late grand-aunt in Mammo, directed by Shyam Benegal way back in 1994.

Real-life versus reel-life <i>Mammo</i>. (Photo Courtesy: Khalid Mohamed)
Real-life versus reel-life Mammo. (Photo Courtesy: Khalid Mohamed)

Two decades and more have elapsed. I have met her intermittently, once again to offer her a part as a grandma, but the project vamoosed through the cracks. She had heard out the script narration patiently in an Arctically airconditioned vanity van and remarked, “I’ll do it, no question. Thanks for thinking of me. I wonder why the Yashraj people and Dharma Productions don’t call me any more nowadays. Maybe grannies also need fresh faces.”

She was wrong about Dharma though. A couple of months after her lament, she was cast by Karan Johar as Sidharth Malhotra’s grandma in Student of the Year.

Moral of the story: no one can quite ooze the milk of human kindness as Freddy Aunty does. She’s indispensable.

Not surprisingly, when I’d requested Jaya Bachchan to accept the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award eons ago, she’d snapped. “How come, you guys never think of Farida Jalal? Surely, she deserves that award more than I do at this point.” The point was noted but it’s still to come true.

On the other hand, she has snagged the Filmfare trophy four times over: as Supporting Actress for Paras, Henna and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, and as Best Actress, the Critics’ Award for Mammo (no Kangana Ranautish charges of ‘nepotism’ applicable here please, I wasn’t part of the jury, ahem).

By the way, Farida Jalal is pretty cool about not making it as the quintessential Bollywood heroine. “Yah yah, many remind of the Baaghon mein bahaar hai song from Aradhana with Rajesh Khanna,” she narrates.

“See, I was discovered at the Filmfare United Producers’ Talent Contest. Tarachand Barjatya saab cast me in Taqdeer and Shakti Samanta saab in Aradhana. There was the cameo of a pagli girl in Raj Kapoor saab’s Bobby. Phir, I did a few films as a heroine lekin woh chali nahin. Then I leapt at the chance of playing sister to Dilip Kumar saab in Gopi just to be in the same frame as him. After that I became the aapa of every hero. Shaayad yehi kismat mein likha tha. I’ve received more than I’ve given.”
Farida Jalal with Rajesh Khanna. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter)
Farida Jalal with Rajesh Khanna. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Her filmography comprises over 200 films, ranging from the excellent and the good to the bizarre. When I’d asked her of the brain-roaster Elaan, in which she’s strapped with bombs by the baddies for the climaz and goes up in flames in broad daylight on the Flora Fountain square, she didn’t flinch,

Arre, our films have their own logic and drama. I’m not critic, I’m an actor who tries to do her job diligently. And please don’t forget Elaan was a huge hit, it did wonders for Akshay Kumar’s career during his early days.

Ulp, right.

In TV land, she has been seen in a bunch of serials (most notably Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, Dekh Bhai Dekh and Ballika Vadhu). Between 1983 and ’90, she had shifted to Bangalore with her husband, Tabrez Barmavar, who owned a soap factory there. Soon after he passed away, she returned with her son to Mumbai, back where she belonged before the camera.

Farida Jalal in <i>Dekh Bhai Dekh</i>. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter)
Farida Jalal in Dekh Bhai Dekh. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

On that aforecited personal note about Mammo, the lead part of Mehmooda Begum actually went by default to Farida Jalal. The script was written with Waheeda Rehman in mind. Benegal sir and I travelled to Bangalore, where she was living in a state of semi-retirement on a farmhouse. We returned home disappointed. Waheeda Rehman felt the story could spark controversy since it focused on an aged Pakistani woman who wishes to resettle with her sister in Mumbai. That was that.

For a while, Shaukat Azmi was being considered for the title role. I suggested Jaya Bachchan but Benegal sir felt she wasn’t doing any films at that stage, and he didn’t like the idea of getting another rejection slip. One afternoon, he called to ask, “What do you think of Farida Jalal?”

Farida Jalal and Jaya Bachchan. (Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)
Farida Jalal and Jaya Bachchan. (Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

Now, that was an inspired sleight of casting. In retrospect, the firelog warmth between her and theatre actress Surekha Sikri as her sister Fayazi, couldn’t have been bettered. Mammo won the National Awards for Best Feature Film in Hindi and the Best Supporting Actress for Surekha Sikri.

Farida Jalal in <i>Bobby</i>. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter)
Farida Jalal in Bobby. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter)
Was she disappointed? I wondered. A pause and then she laughed that thunder-clap-loud laugh of hers, “Don’t be silly boy. Surekha Sikri ka us award pe pura haque banta hai. She was playing my younger sister, remember? And the chhoti aapa always wins.”

Some logic that. But then that’s Freddy Aunty, always the sporting one in a business of sore losers.

(This story is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 14 March, 2017. It is being republished to mark Farida Jalal’s birth anniversary.)