On 10 June, Bollywood actor Aditya Pancholi’s son, Suraj, was arrested by the Mumbai Police on charges of abetting actress Jiah Khan’s suicide. Jiah, who co-starred with Amitabh Bachchan in 2007’s Lolita-inspired Nishabd, was unhappy in her relationship with Suraj, a budding actor himself. According to a 12 June report in DNA newspaper, the Pancholi family was worried that Aditya’s own reputation could hamper their case. They thought it wise to replace him with wife Zarina Wahab as their public face, in a bid to counter Rabiya Khan, who the Pancholis felt was attracting all the sympathy as the deceased’s grief-stricken mother.
The tactic worked. Zarina Wahab has since trumped Rabiya to become a figure of sympathy—and also, just by chance, a reality show-style celebrity. As widely reported by the media, Zarina paid a courtesy visit to Rabiya at her Juhu home after Jiah’s funeral, sending out signals that she cares. Her dignified handling of the situation has won her kind words from unexpected quarters. ‘Sadly, in this terrible saga,’ Shobhaa De wrote in her newspaper column, ‘there’s one more mother to think about—Zarina Wahab… a sensitive actress I have always admired.’
Elsewhere, another columnist said, ‘In the unfortunate suicide of Jiah Khan, my heart actually goes out to the silent Zarina Wahab, a successful, well-liked heroine in her time (the 1970s).’
Amiable, warm and well-anchored emotionally—that’s the picture one gets of Zarina, her personality strikingly at odds with that of her much-younger husband Aditya Pancholi. Actor Kiran Kumar, a long-time family friend, describes her as a brave woman who put family and children before her film career. Says Kumar, “She is a simple person at heart, someone for whom two and two is four, never five; she knows no manipulation. Even if there is a big problem, she always deals with it with a smile.”
As an actress, she is respected for her spontaneity and professionalism, he adds. At the peak of her cinema career in the 1970s, Kumar says, Zarina was seen as a girl-next-door, like, say, Jaya Bachchan or Vidya Sinha. Trained at Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India, her career took off with great promise. One story goes that when she met actor-director Dev Anand, he didn’t even want to see a portfolio of her photographs, convinced at a glance that she was ‘photogenic’ and cut out for stardom. He gave her a spot in 1974’s Ishq Ishq Ishq, which became her launch pad.
Her big Bollywood breakout was Basu Chatterjee’s Chitchor (1976), in which she plays a demure village belle who falls for a city slicker (Amol Palekar). She paired up with Palekar again in Gharaonda. The song Doh deewane sheher mein, picturised on the couple house-hunting against the backdrop of a building being built, gave voice to an urban middle-class aspiring for a dream home.
In recent years, she has caught much attention playing mother roles, most notably in My Name is Khan and Agneepath. She is also quite a familiar face on primetime television, thanks to the popular Colors show Madhubala: Ek Ishq Ek Junoon.
Kumar says she could have done a lot more work and been far more successful if she so wished. “You have two options—you either have a domestic life or a career that can end anytime. Zarina opted for security. She chose to settle down and have kids. It was a wise decision.”
Her marriage to Aditya aka Nirmal Pancholi, a faded star of the 1990s who has repackaged himself as a baddie in the past decade (Race 2 and Bodyguard), is best summed up as tumultuous. Aditya, who married her in 1986, was of a film family. He was once clubbed along with Salman Khan and Sanjay Dutt as industry ‘bad boys’—a reference to his knack for hitting headlines for all the wrong reasons. His drunken brawls with neighbours and run-ins with the media, followed by prompt messages of apology, hardly make news anymore. Recently, when it looked as if the dust was finally settling over the Suraj case, he got into a row with a neighbour and was booked under assault charges by the police. Notoriously temperamental, he was once dumped by model-actress Pooja Bedi for allegedly raping her 15-year-old maid. “I made a logical decision that infidelity wouldn’t be part of my life,” Pooja Bedi had told the tabloid Mid-Day at the time.
Aditya’s philandering is not much of a secret. His affair with actress Kangna Ranaut was conducted in full media glare, for example. In 2007, she lodged a police complaint against him for allegedly ‘threatening and intimidating’ her. In many interviews, Kangna has expressed relief at breaking off the “physically abusive relationship”.
Though there is no evidence to suggest that Aditya may have physically mistreated Zarina, a shadow of doubt hangs over their marriage. “Has anyone seen him beat me?” she once retorted on being asked a question about domestic abuse. “I earn enough to look after myself. If Nirmal was abusive to me, I would have left him long back. But yes, Nirmal loses his temper very easily,” she said, describing his temper as ‘soda water’. Her argument, of Aditya being a good provider who’d given her a house and comfortable life, sometimes almost appears to condone his dalliances as something of a star privilege.
Some have always suspected Zarina of being a submissive partner, but she has never seen herself as one. The actress has not only taken everything in her stride, but also rejects anything said against her husband.
“When you marry a goodlooking younger man, you have to be prepared for him to stray...” she was quoted as saying in The Telegraph, referring to their six-year age gap. “I have a lot of freedom in this marriage to go wherever I want and to do whatever work I want,” she said in the same interview, “He is a good husband, never mind what he does outside the house.” A friend of hers who insists on anonymity confirms that Aditya grants her ample latitude to lead her life the way she wants. She says that their marriage may look uneasy and traumatic from afar, but it’s not an unhappy one. “It’s true that Nirmal is a chauvinist,” discloses the friend. “He thinks a man can get away doing anything. You can call him ‘difficult’, but not ‘cold’. He cares a lot for Zarina.”
Concurs Kumar: “It takes two people to keep a marriage alive. Zarina is a strong and successful woman. If at any point she was unhappy with her husband, she would have moved out with her children.”
Despite everything, Kumar says the Pancholis have raised their kids well. The couple also have a daughter, Sana; a Bollywood aspirant too, she was in the news in connection with a drug scandal a few years ago. “Both kids are honest, well-mannered and talented,” Kumar declares, “especially Suraj, who is about to start his career.”
Suraj, 23, is being groomed by Salman Khan for a remake of Subhash Ghai’s 1983 blockbuster Hero, a film still remembered for having featured Reshma’s classic Lambi Judaai.
The family, says Kumar, is more concerned about Suraj’s future than Aditya’s past. “He got the raw end; he was trapped in a situation... he isn’t to blame,” says Kumar, forecasting a bright future for Suraj. “People have short memories. When they see him on screen, they’ll forget all this.”
As for Zarina, Kumar urges the media to leave her alone. “She has never been very comfortable with the spotlight. Yet, she is fighting on. All she wants is to safeguard her family.”