Remembering Atal Bihari Vajpayee: Plaza cinema, chakli and other Marathi connections

Days ahead of the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, when the National Democratic Alliance’s India Shining campaign was in full swing, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in Mumbai. Those were hectic times, buzzing with poll campaigns and strategy meets. And yet, despite all the work engagements that must have been demanding time from Vajpayee, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)made time for something that had nothing to do with elections: a Marathi film.

That year, India’s entry to the foreign film category at the Oscars was Shwaas, directed by Sandeep Sawant. Vajpayee, who had a fondness for Marathi cinema, requested a special screening of the film. “I still remember this incident because those were hey days of the electoral campaign, but Vajpayeeji took time out for a movie. That was my first formal meeting with him. I still remember his warm smile and him asking me ‘Kaise ho, thik hai?’ He enjoyed Marathi cinema and was quite fluent in the language as well,’’ remembered Keshav Upadhyaya, a BJP spokesperson.

The late BJP patriarch was a film buff – he was a fan of Hema Malini’s and in 1972, he reportedly watched Seeta Aur Geeta 25 times – and he had a soft spot for Marathi language, cinema and food. Old timers in the BJP recall how Vajpayee, in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, would make trips to the Plaza cinema in Dadar, to catch Marathi movies whenever he had some free time in Mumbai. It was before the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power and Vajpayee did not have to bother with security issues, said Upadhyaya.

In those years, Vajpayee would often stay in the Matunga residence of union minister Piyush Goyal since his father Ved Prakash Goyal had been a BJP treasurer and was a former Union minister. Goyal’s mother Chandrakanta, who had been a BJP legislator for three terms, was also a close associate.

Vajpayee’s other close association in Maharashtra was with late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan, who was known to be Vajpayee’s protégé, and Mahajan’s brother-in-law, Gopinath Munde. During Munde’s tenure as the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, Vajpayee would often stay at his official residence, Ramtek. “I remember we had taken him to Shivaji Mandir with the family to watch a Marathi play. I don’t recollect the name but it was a comedy and the thing that stayed with me was his open laughter. He thoroughly enjoyed the play, but then he knew how to enjoy the arts, whether it was a play, a movie or Bhimsen Joshi’s classical recital,” said Rekha Mahajan, wife of late Pramod Mahajan. The Mahajan family called Vajpayee “Bapji”.

Vajpayee was also fond of Maharashtrian cuisine. “I recall one Diwali in Delhi when we had carried home-made sweets and savouries for him and he preferred the humble chakli to all sweets and snacks that had been brought from outside,” remembered Rekha. “Bapji was great personality and yet he always retained his humility and openeness to people and experiences,” she said.

Rural development minister and Munde’s daughter, Pankaja Munde recalls Vajpayee as a “grandfatherly figure” and “towering personality” who seemed to be at home, no matter what the situation. “My father used to drive an open jeep and Vajpayeeji would tour the state sitting next to him. He was comfortable in the rural hinterland and his rallies even then used to gather huge crowds,” said Pankaja, recalling the tours from the 1980s. Vajpayee is also remembered by BJP workers as someone who was soft-spoken and kind to everyone. Mukand Kulkarni, secretary of the BJP office, recalls how Vajpayee turned up to wish him on his wedding, which was held in Delhi in 1996. Perhaps the most cherished of memories for Mumbai and BJP, however, is the address Vajpayee delivered at BKC in 1980. On the occasion of the party’s foundation day on April 6, Vajpayee had prophesied that “the lotus will bloom”. “Andhera chatega,” Vajpayee had said, “suraj niklega, kamal khilege.” His words were a dream then, but would soon come true.

First Published: Aug 17, 2018 00:55 IST

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