Lalita Pawar: Remembering the evil ‘sasumaa’ on her birth anniversary
It was filmmaker Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s vision to cast Lalita Pawar as something other than an evil woman, first in ‘Anari’ and then in ‘Anand’.
Lalita Pawar owes her fiendish image as a hellish mother-in-law to the comedian actor-filmmaker Bhagwan Dada. On the sets of a film called Jung-e-Azadi in 1942, Bhagwan was supposed to slap Lalita Pawar. New and excitable, Bhagwan let go a tight one.
So tight that Lalita Pawar lost balance and fell to the ground. For three months she lost all sensation on one side of her face. Her eye was permanently damaged. This facial damage with the left eye permanently half-shut, proved a blessing in disguise for the actress. She was flooded with offers to play the evil mother-in-law. The vile stereotyping started with V Shantaram’s Dahej in 1950. Lalita Pawar’s shrewish avaricious scheming mother-in-law act continued through much of the 1950s and 60s.
Recalls Waheeda Rehman, “Lalitaji played my wicked mother-in-law in many films. I don’t know why she was typecast in that role. In real life she was anything but mean. She was kind gentle and very hardworking. She was always the first one to reach the sets. And she knew all her dialogues in advance. She gave all us heroines a very hard time on screen. But off camera she was just the opposite.”
It took a man of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s vision to cast Lalita Pawar as something other than an evil woman, first in Anari and then in Anand. In Anari Lalita Pawar was cast as Raj Kapoor’s mother-like landlady Mrs D’Sa. The film fetched her the Filmfare award for Best Supporting actress. In Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand she was the stern but compassionate head nurse who showers love on the terminally ill protagonist. Hrishida was always prone to cast the evil women on screen in positive roles. He did it with Lalita Pawar. He also did it with the 1970s favourite vamp Bindu in Arjun Pandit and Abhimaan.
Speaking on stereotyping Lalita Pawar in Hindi cinema Hrishida mentioned to Firstpost, “She was such a storehouse of talent. She could do anything on screen. All I had to do as a director was to ask and she was ready with the expressions. I don’t think it was fair to cast her in negative roles. So I decided to offer her a positive role in Anari. I was advised against it. I was warned audiences would not accept her in a positive role. But they loved her. She was the most favourite character in Anari.”
Lalita Pawar started her career as a child artiste in Raja Harishchandra in 1928. She had the rare privilege of journeying through seventy years of Indian cinema, from the Silent era to the Talkies. Perhaps her most popular role was that of Manthara in Ramanand Sagar’s serial Ramayan where she brought her image of the scheming woman to full fruition. In a rare interview she recalled how she saw cinema as an extension of the Ram Leela when she started in the movies. She had no idea of camera angles and had never seen a film in her life. Gradually she became addicted to acting and would do any role that came her way. “It’s not the length, it’s the strength,” she was fond of saying echoing the most famous dialogue from one of her best films Anand. Lalita Pawar died a lonely death on 24 February 1998. Her body was discovered days after her death. None of her relatives took care of her in her last years.
Lalita Pawar represents a very crucial tragedy of the Indian entertainment industry wherein the veterans have no financial support. Asha Parekh who had the privilege of working in a number of films with Lalita Pawar says, “She worked from the age of nine. And finally, she had no one with her during her death. It is essential that the film industry look after its veterans. We need to institute a fund dedicated to old artistes.”
Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.
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