“Pal bhar kisi janam mein
Kabhi chuthe na saath apna
Tumhein aise gale lagaayenge…
Betaab dil ki tamanna yahi hai…”
The lines from Hanste Zakhm that speak of everlasting promise also sum up late Priya Rajvansh’s abiding relationship with mentor and maker Chetan Anand. Erudite and elegant, the RADA trained Priya, was an interesting contradiction. Though she never married Chetan Anand, her devotion towards him was nothing short of that of a soulmate. Her life and career both were defined and demarcated by him.
Though an oddball according to Hindi film standards, given her Western inflection, she was exotic in demeanour and carriage. Both being connoisseurs of art and poetry, the soirees at Chetan Anand’s ‘shack’ in Juhu were lit up with mesmerising music and maverick minds - a haven of art lovers.
Sadly, this very strong-room of memories rang a death knell for Priya.
Reportedly, she was strangulated to death in the sanctum sanctorum on 27 March 2000 – the seaside chalet being an alleged bone of contention between Chetan’s sons Vivek and Ketan Anand and Priya after the filmmaker’s demise in 1997.
“Chetan Anand was the man who made Priya and… marred her… He was the biggest tragedy that could ever happen to her. Chetan would never allow Priya to be directed by anyone else. That affected her career… Time was passing Priya by but she could never hear its footsteps. My sister’s only problem was her sense of over commitment to Chetan. She lived with him and his inclinations for over 30 years,” late brother Kamaljit Singh (Gulu) reportedly told Chandigarh The Tribune in 2002 expressing his grief at his sister being short-changed in life and betrayed in death…
Priya was born to a Sikh father and a Punjabi Hindu mother in Jhelum (now Pakistan) on 30 December, 1939. The family moved to Simla after the Partition. She grew up with her brothers, Kamaljit Singh (Gulu) and Padamjit Singh (Bill), who later relocated to the UK and the US.
Her father was a conservator in the Forest Department. Priya was a brilliant student at the Auckland House School. Fond of acting, her first play was the award-winning World Without Men. She continued her education at St. Bede’s College and performed in several English plays at Shimla’s Gaiety Theatre.
It was Uma Anand ( late wife of Chetan Anand), who was instrumental in bringing Priya into Chetan’s life. Uma saw Priya perform at a function in Chandigarh and gave her Chetan’s card. But Priya soon left for the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London. Incidentally, she’s the only Indian actress from RADA and hers is the only photograph framed there.
Eventually, Priya’s photographs reached Chetan. Excited to have found his ‘Heer’ in the stunning young girl, he asked her to fly down to Bombay. Priya was in her 20s, while he was 16 years her senior.
Heer Ranjha went through some delay. So Priya first featured in Chetan’s Haqeeqat (1964). Dedicated to Jawaharlal Nehru and the soldiers in Ladakh, the film was based on the events of the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Priya played Angmo — a half-Kashmiri and half-Ladakhi girl, her robust physicality suiting the character. Lata Mangeshkar’s Zara si aahat hoti hai, filmed on her remains memorable.
Eventually, Chetan separated from Uma. By the time Heer Ranjha (1971) was completed, Priya and he were close. Priya played the statuesque Heer, the screen version of Waris Shah’s classic poem Heer (1766). The screenplay, written by Kaifi Azmi, was rendered in poetical verse. Chetan’s ode to his muse was elevated by Madan Mohan’s melodies like Milo na tum toh hum ghabraye, Meri duniya mein tum aaye and Do dil toote.
In Hanste Zakhm (1973), she played the much-in-love prostitute Chanda. Madan Mohan and Kaifi Azmi’s Aaj socha toh aansoo bhar aaye, Betaab dil ki tamanna yahi hai and Tum jo mil gaye ho toh enhanced the poetic pathos of her character, a casualty of circumstance.
Hindustan Ki Kasam (1973) saw her in a double role as Indian intelligence scout Mohini and Tahira, fiancée of a PAF pilot. The tracks Hai tere saath meri wafa and Har taraf ab yahi afsane hai are retro favourites. In 1977, Saheb Bahadur paired her opposite Dev Anand.
The reincarnation drama, Kudrat (1981), had her play Karuna, a lawyer, who discovers the crime committed by her father (Raaj Kumar). The image of Karuna, playing the piano as she’s engulfed by the flames, is a standout. Her last film was Haathon Ki Lakeeren (1986).
All of Priya’s seven films in her 22-year career were with Chetan. Though she was not a conventional heroine and was panned for her deadpan delivery, she was distinct in bearing. Artistically-inclined, she remained involved in every aspect of filmmaking from story, scripting (reportedly co-wrote the scripts of Hanste Zakhm and Kudrat) to post-production.
Chetan, too, never made a film without her. Uncannily, her characters died in all the films, except in Hindustan Ki Kasam. Though, she received offers from top filmmakers including Raj Kapoor and Satyajit Ray, Priya didn’t move beyond Chetan, bounded by ‘loyalty’.
According to friends, Priya was ‘true blue royalty’ given her penchant for punctuality and propriety. She was a fine ballroom dancer, be it fox-trot, waltz or jive.
The late Maharaja Virbhadra Singhji and the late Maharani Brijraj Nandini Devi of Bhavnagar were Chetan Anand’s neighbours at Ruia Park in Juhu. They often socialized with each other in the evenings. Maharani Samyukta Kumari, then-daughter-in-law of the royals, was also close to Priya and recalled her as ‘a complete romantic’ and ‘a voracious reader’.
Priya owned a flat in Kalumal Estate and a bigger house in Mangal Kiran in the vicinity. But in keeping with her daily routine, every afternoon she’d go over to ‘the shack’, which she’d painstakingly decorated. She’d have lunch with Chetan, discuss work and then return to her Mangal Kiran apartment at 4 pm. Then again, at 8 pm, Chetan’s car would pick her up. She’d have dinner with him and leave.
Chetan and Priya seemed to be ‘at peace with each other’ without the commitment of marriage. He was totally dependent on her, whether it was regarding his medicines or his scripts. “At one point, marriage did cross her mind. ‘Let the boys grow up’ was Chetan saab’s stance. He kept putting it off. Later, she accepted the situation because the two had become great friends,” told scriptwriter and friend Moin Beg to Filmfare in a past interview.
Music connoisseur and friend Bobby Sethi seconded that when he told Filmfare, “Initially, Priya did have a desire to marry Chetan. Moreover, she was more concerned about taking care of Chetan saab than the selfishness of being his wife.” When Chetan fell sick (he was asthmatic), Priya nursed him day and night. She grew increasingly lonely after his demise in 1997.
Reportedly, Priya inherited a part of the Ruia Park bungalow, along with his sons Ketan Anand and Vivek Anand. Apparently, she asked them to buy her out if they didn’t want to sell it. ‘I want to live and travel the world,’ she’d say.
But sadly, the property became a bone of contention. “ A soothsayer had also warned her. All of us would advise her not to go to the shack... She’d say, ‘I’ve given my life to this man. I’ve a right to the house’,” Moin Beg was quoted saying in the Filmfare interview.
“She kept hoping she’d get her share one day. All that Chetan saab had left her was one Reza painting and a diamond ring, which she always wore. I’d describe Priya in three words – trusting, extremely loyal and in some ways stupid. Her loyalty and love for Chetan took her to the shack every evening,” insisted music connoisseur and friend Bobby Sethi in the past chat with Filmfare.
Uncannily, an evening before she died, Priya called Moin to her home. She showed him where she’d kept her bank papers and locker keys. Then she asked him to bring down a porcelain Ganpati placed high on the wall unit. Inside the Ganpati were kept her ornaments, which she reportedly wanted to be given to her brothers’ children.
On March 27, 2000, Priya was supposed to spend the evening at the Maharani’s home. But out of habit she went to the shack to have her first peg. When she didn’t turn up, which was strange given her penchant for timekeeping, they sent for her. They were told that she’d fainted in the bathroom. The family ran across. But it was too late!
Initially, it was reported that Priya had died of a ‘heart attack’ and that she had consumed plenty of alcohol, being in depression after Chetan’s death. However, the post-mortem reportedly said that Priya had died because of ‘asphyxia due to strangulation’.
The police charged Ketan Anand and Vivek Anand along with their employees Mala Choudhary and Ashok Chinnaswamy with her murder, the motive allegedly being Chetan’s bungalow, one-third of the sale proceeds of which were bequeathed to Priya in Chetan’s will.
Two years later, in 2002, Mala and Ashok, were convicted of the murder, while Vivek and Ketan were convicted for plotting to murder Priya. Later, the four moved the Bombay High Court in 2002 against the verdict. They were granted bail. In 2011, the high court accepted the appeals filed by the brothers against their guilty verdict.
Having grown up in the North, Priya often spoke of the mountains and how much she loved the Church of St John in Wilderness in Upper Dharamsala to Maharani Samyukta Kumari. As a fitting tribute, the Maharani and her family built a memorial for their dear friend Priya on her birthday (December 30). “It was our bid to put her soul to rest. Hope it can be her final resting place,” she was quoted saying about Priya’s final homecoming.