Flashback | Sharmila Tagore opens up on success after marriage: 'I was never a victim of stardom'

'I think it is believed that a certain section of the audience doesn’t like to see an actress when she’s married. But I feel if you give them a good story and a good film, they cannot ignore you,' says Sharmila Tagore in an exclusive interview on her 77th birthday.

Subhash K Jha December 08, 2021 14:43:08 IST
Flashback | Sharmila Tagore opens up on success after marriage: 'I was never a victim of stardom'

Sharmila Tagore

A favourite of mine, Sharmila Tagore ruled millions of hearts with her glamour and talent in the films of Satyajit Ray's Apur Sansar and Devi, then Shakti Samanta’a Aradhana and Amar Prem, and Basu Bhattacharya’s  Aavishkar and Grihapravesh. No actress combined the best of the East and the West so fluently in her personality.

Miraculously, her best innings came after her marriage to superstar-cricketer Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi.

Recalling the days when she ruled the box office, Tagore says, “Those times were different. The directors had more of a say. And the actors were very respectful of directorial impulses. Not that today a Sanjay Leela Bhansali has any less of a say. I really don’t know how or why some of my best Hindi films came after marriage. But even Vidya Balan has been able to hold her own in spite of marriage. I think what went in my favour is that I didn’t withdraw from other activities after I married Tiger. I engaged with life. The quality of my work matters. And I do whatever I like. And I’ve never isolated myself from the real world. Even when I was working as a leading lady, I didn’t restrict my interaction to the people I worked with. If today, some public figures like to isolate themselves being surrounded by bouncers etc,  I say that’s their  choice. One can mingle with people without the danger of losing one’s privacy. I mean I still can’t go to Lodhi Gardens for a picnic. But I can meet the people I want.”

And yet there is an unapproachable aura about the gorgeous Tagore. “I have always wanted a normal life. I wanted to meet people from all walks of life even when I was working on the sets, and I made sure I did. In our times, we saw India through our work. We shot in places like Meghalaya and Kashmir where there were no five-star hotels those days. Today’s generation doesn’t get a chance to see the real India. I missed talking and reading in Hindi. I was the only one who’d speak in English on the sets. But now, everyone speaks in English. Even the Hindi dialogues are written in English. I guess our cinema has become more globalised. Most heroines are seen in gowns at awards functions. Some of us still prefer the sari. I think it’s desirable to stay in touch with our roots.”

Flashback  Sharmila Tagore opens up on success after marriage I was never a victim of stardom

How did she manage to balance a Satyajit Ray with a Manmohan Desai in her career? “I never wanted to be stereotyped. I wanted to play every woman. And I wanted to enjoy every aspect of being a woman. I wanted to be have a family because I had grown up in a large family. I didn’t want to be only a career woman. Though I come from a middle-class family, where all of us had to share everything, I never felt any insecurity about my career. I am not a high-maintenance person. I don’t need to have three air-conditioners and five imported cars.”

The only thing that Tagore could not do on screen was dance. She laughs that seductive laughter. “You are right.  I  didn’t enjoy dancing for a very long time. Then when I was doing OP Ralhan’s Talash (in 1968), I got a chance to work with Saroj Khanji. She  taught me to loosen up, and enjoy the dancing,” Tagore remembers fondly. Hence her fluenc with her steps in the popular Talash dance numbers 'Aaj Ko Jhunli Raat Ma' and 'Khayi Hai Re Humne Kasam.' "When I came into Hindi cinema, I carried a lot of inhibitions with me about singing and dancing. I could feel myself enjoying the process of singing and dancing after films like Talash, Daag, and Raja Rani. A lot of the credit for this goes to Saroj Khanji, who not only taught me the step but also how to be comfortable performing them.”

Tagore shot some of her most successful films while pregnant. “During the shooting of Asit Sen’s Safar and Choti Bahu, I was pregnant and quite unwell in the last phase of my pregnancy. Then during Besharam, I was pregnant  with Sabaa. I have lots more time for my grandchildren than I had for my children, the kind of  pressures on time that I tackled earlier are no more there, though I do keep myself busy with professional commitments like the random ad here and a cinema conference there. But definitely, I now have more time for not just my grandchildren but also my children. I have more time for our ancestral home in Pataudi also.”

How about a biopic on her illustrious husband? “Well, it will depend on who the captains of the ship are, the producers and director. It is a good story I think, with all the twists and turns in his life… father’s death, losing his  eye after which his average came down from 60 to 30. To receive such a blow at such a young age… I don’t think anyone else has been able to make those adjustments, and that kind of an impact with one eye. He not only batted but also fielded after the eye accident. I think he was a wonderful sportsperson. God knows what he’d have achieved if he had both his eyes. He had a wonderful temperament. He absorbed that loss, and moved ahead. Tiger’s life was filled with losses, his father, his eye, his privy purse... In her book (The Perils of Being Moderately Famous), Soha (Ali Khan, daughter) has written so well about her father. I learnt so much from him. I do miss him immensely. I wish he was here for me. So many of my friends are still together with their soulmates. You see your friends celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary… But it was  not meant to be (for me). So what can I do? I do practice gratitude. In my thoughts, actions, words, I am deeply grateful  for what life has given me.”

Flashback  Sharmila Tagore opens up on success after marriage I was never a victim of stardom

with Tiger Pataudi

Of all the films that Tagore did in Hindi, my favourite is Amar Prem. From its opening montage of a young rustic girl watching her callous husband bring home another wife, to the dying moments when the woman, now in her  twilight years, is taken away to the relative comfort of her foster-son’s home as the festivities of Durga Puja break out on the streets of Kolkata, Amar Prem is a glorious homage to that favourite Bollywood archetype: the golden-hearted prostitute.

That Tagore plays the woman whom men of all ages gravitate to in pursuit of some heavy-duty nurturing is a very happy situation for the screenplay. In the film, a seven-year old boy and a 30-plus man both  desire the same kind of emotional attention from her. This prostitute is not about sex. She is about soul. Tagore brings to this timeless adaptation of  Bibhutibushan Bandhopaddhyay’s story a kind of simpering beauty that levitates the lyricism of the tragic but uplifting tale to the level of a supremely seductive saga.

Tagore's character, a homeless childless woman who is tricked into a life of prostitution, is not just a mother-figure to the lonely neglected near-divorcee Anand Babu (Rajesh Khanna). She is also the woman the ill-treated neighbourhood imp Nandu (Master Bobby, who played pivotal roles in films like Ek Phool Do Mali and Amar Prem before disappearing into adulthood) keeps running to for solace and samosas, in spite of being severely punished by his stepmother (Bindu).

In one of the many sequences simmering with seductive synergy, Tagore wonders aloud why Anand Babu insists on coming to her when he has a home and wife. “Even Nandu has a home and a family. Why does he come to you?” counters Rajesh Khanna, thereby raising an important issue. Indian men of all ages look for their mother in every woman they love. In Amar Prem, the Oedipal complex is turned on its head… away from the bed. The men in Pushpa’s life want to be mollycoddled. Though she is a prostitute, she is never shown having sex. Men want something far more basic from her. Pushpa is the Devi Maa reincarnated. So giving, the men forget she is human after all.

Pushpa’s relationship with Anand Babu is purely platonic. She serves him drinks, and provides him a much-needed shoulder to cry on. She is attentive and compassionate but never over-inquisitive. There is only one sequence where she actually asks him about his wife. And even there, Anand Babu does not tell her the truth about his marital life. The truth is his wife has no time for him.

It is Tagore’s stylised but supremely seductive performance that holds the mutating plot together. Her heavy silk saris, elaborate hairstyles, jewellery, and innocent coquettishness contribute cogently to making Amar Prem the experience that it is.

Flashback  Sharmila Tagore opens up on success after marriage I was never a victim of stardom

In Amar Prem

There are moments of honey-dipped pure cinema carpeting this delicately-threaded tale of a devi and her two devotees. The sequence shot in red-light area leading up to Lata Mangeshkar’s timeless and pristine 'Raina Beeti Jaye' is a classic study of divine seduction. It has its antecedents in the film Adalat, which came 18 years earlier. The sequence of Nargis singing Mangeshkar’s 'Unko Yeh Shikayat Hai Ki Hum' in Adalat and Tagore singing 'Raina Beeti Jaye' in Amar Prem are formatted on the principle of the Divine Woman’s magnetic voice and beauty pulling the tormented man into reading the sleazy ambience of the kotha as a place of worship.

Recalls Tagore, “I had seen the original Bengali film before doing Amar Prem. Shakti da had made both me and Kaka (Rajesh Khanna) see it. I quite liked the original film. It was more about the woman and her relationship with the child.I had recently become a mother so it was relatively easy for me to do the motherly character. And Kaka’s role was to be done by Raj Kumar. But Kaka, who had done Aradhana with me and Shakti Samanta, insisted on beng a part of the film. Since Uttam Kumar had done such a fabulous job in the original, Shakti da made Kaka model his performance on the original. This was one of those films that just turned out right. We were not looking at the box office. We just felt emotionally connected to the characters. The film became a hit, and it continues to be liked by new generations. That’s the magic of the story. Also, I’d say a major reason for the film’s success was R.D Burman’s music and Anand Bakshi’s lyrics. The music and the words carried the story forward. I remember the premier of Amar Prem was attended by Field Marshall Manekshaw. And the very next day, after the premiere, the 1971 Indo-Pak war broke out. Kaka and I did many films together. We really worked well together. I was pregnant with Saif (Ali Khan) during Aradhana, and with Soha when Kaka and I did Choti Bahu. Kaka and I had two major problems. He came much too late on the sets, and our best profile on camera was the same. So when we were in the same frame together, Kaka and I were always trying to get the cameraman to shoot our right profile.”

Devi, which Ray directed in 1960, was the  great filmmaker’s sixth work. His third film with Soumitra Chatterjee (who was to Ray what Toshira Mifune was to Akira Kurosawa), and his second with Tagore who considers Devi her personal favourite among all her performances. Indeed her performance as the underage child-bride Dayamoyee  is so heartbreaking, I found myself choking with sorrow at many  unctures in a story that is as timeless as it is  timely.

Consider this. Happily married into a Zamindar’s family to a progressive, if not exactly enterprising or radical,  husband Umaprasad (Chatterjee), Dayamoyee’s fairytale life upturns one fine morning after her father-in-law Kalinkar Chowdhary (played by the great Chhabi Biswas) wakes up claiming she is Ma Kali reincarnated. Ray had discovered back in Apur Sansar how much Tagore can convey through her eyes. She barely speaks out her pain  and protest in Devi as her tyrannical father-in-law takes over her life, rendering her roles as a woman and a wife  completely redundant.

Flashback  Sharmila Tagore opens up on success after marriage I was never a victim of stardom

in Devi

Tagore's earlier sequences in happier days with her husband remind me of Apur Sansar. There is a lengthy dialogue between Dayamoyee and Umaprasad at the start of this progressive tale of domestic violence on a level that the law cannot even conceive, where he asks if she would like to accompany him abroad if he goes away for further studies.

Among all of at films, Devi stands out for its silent protest, for its deeply wounded attack on religious bigotry and blind faith. Dayamoyee’s plight is recorded in every droop of her jaw, every cringe of her shoulder. When her father-in-law leaps forward to touch her feet, she recoils her feet are bundled away from his hand as though salvation lay not in deification, buts its repudiation.

Some consider Ray’s debut film Pather Panchali to be more powerful than Devi. I  disagree. The power of Devi comes from its young vulnerable female hero’s powerlessness. The more she is deified, the more she is doomed. No one has  spoken of  the sexual undercurrents in the father-in-law’s obsession with his 17-year old daughter-in-law. Even the great Ray was like Umprasad at the  end  of day, a fashionable reformist. Dayamoyee was a mere child put on a pedestal from where she can only fall.

What made Tagore so strong, independent, and non-vulnerable in her heydays? “Probably my family background. We’ve always had very strong women in my family. Also, I had the self-confidence. I wasn’t career-oriented. I liked the work, and I enjoyed it. But I had other  interests. I had a strong sense of self derived from my family, and perhaps that kept me from harm’s way. Also, I had a very protective hairdresser Neena, who always checked my  behaviour. She was always saying, ‘Why are you doing this… Why are you talking so loudly?’ etc , Neena was my constant companion at  outdoor shootings. She also gave me a lot of objective perspective .

"You have to appreciate the fact that acting is not the be-all end-all of my life. There is so much more to life. In any case, unlike Jaya (Bachchan) or Shabana (Azmi) who went to acting school, I was an accidental actress. I remember seeing Jaya at age 13 with her father, the distinguished journalist Taroon Kumar Bhaduri. Even at that age, she was decked up, a rose in her hair and so on. She was very enamoured of the camera. She was destined to be an actress. I had no such aspirations. I actually wanted to go to Shantiniketan. I wanted to be a dancer. My life changed when I was introduced to Satyajit Ray. It was acting for me thereafter. But I kept telling myself I’d quit after every film. I saw myself in my first Hindi film Kashmir Ki Kali ,and I didn’t like myself. I said one more film then I am done. So it continued," says Tagore.

But I left so many films: Khilona, Tere Mere Sapne, Roti Kapda Aur Makaan, Aadmi Aur Insaan... When I was offered the last by Yash Chopra, I told him I was quitting. I wanted to accompany Tiger on his world tours. There was always that conflict between home and career. But ultimately, it all balanced out. But there was a lot  of sacrifice involved. There were no mobile phones, and one constantly remained anxious about the children while working. I made my daughters appreciate my work. Every day, we’d rate my work. They’d ask if I got 10 out of 10 for my shots. They took my work as seriously as they took their studies. During those days, working women had to constantly apologise. Society didn’t approve of women who went out to work leaving their children working. Neither of my girls resented my work. I had to go out of India for a long time to shoot Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala. We had to keep in touch through  letters. Tiger was there, and my mother-in-law also took very good care of children. But I missed them when I was away," Tagore adds.

Flashback  Sharmila Tagore opens up on success after marriage I was never a victim of stardom

with Saif Ali Khan

Tagore agrees she has led a charmed life. “Looking back, I am grateful everything went smoothly in my life. "Anything could’ve gone wrong. But it didn’t. My children grew up to be self-sufficient. All three are successful in their work. When Saif came into films, he had no family backing. He was thrown out of Rahul Rawail’s film. I rang up Rahul. But it didn’t happen. Eventually, Yash Chopra launched him in Parampara. He survived, and became successful on his own. Soha too pays her own rent. Saba is also working. All my three children live within their means. Soha is not trying to live like Saif. They take holidays, they enjoy life.”

Tagore is the only actress who became more successful after marriage. How did that happen? “Right choice of films and director. Ultimately, it’s the films that work.

I think it is believed that a certain section of the audience doesn’t like to see an actress when she’s married. But I feel if you give them a good story and a good film, they cannot ignore you.

I did very powerful films like Aradhana, Amar Prem, Mausam, Grihapravesh, and Dooriyaan. I guess things just worked out for me. I wasn’t really concerned with whether my films were successful or not. I just wanted to work. I don’t think I was a victim of stardom. I never  aspired to be only a star. I wasn’t averse to taking  risks in my career. If I read a subject and liked it, I’d do it for a token fee. Basu Bhattacharya or Tapan Sinha hardly paid us. But I loved working with him. One hardly worked with Satyajit Ray for money.”

Her favourite roles and films? “I like Asit Sen’s Safar and Bhimsain’s Dooriyaan because I played proper professionals. This was so different from the conventional roles for heroines during those days. I like Anupama, Amar Prem, Talaash, Aradhana... Apur Sansar  was a milestone, and so was Devi. I got to work with Satyajit Ray in both. I started a film each with Bimal Roy and Ramesh Saigal. But they were shelved. Even that brief stint with them stayed. Shakti Samanta, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Gulzar, OP Ralhan... they were all important directors. Ralhan had a true passion for filmmaking, and he was fearless.

Her favourite co-stars? “All of them. Sanjeev (Kumar), Shashi (Kapoor), Kaka, Dharmendra. Even with Sunil Dutt, Dilip saab, Rajendra Kumar, Dev Anand... all so wonderful. Some films didn’t work. But they paid me well. But the ones I chose for the story have done well.”

In one film, for a sequence, Tagore had to cry, and she ended up laughing on screen. “That was such a ridiculous scene in Dulal Guha’s Milan Ki Raat. I had to fall at the bedside, and weep. I shouldn’t have spoken about it. Sanjeev Kumar taught me to be convincing in whatever I did. He’d say, ‘Don’t argue. Just say your lines. I’ve to go home.’ I haven’t seen Milan Ki Raat on television or anywhere. So many of our films have not been kept properly.”

Looking back at her films, what would she  like to change? “My hair. I remember all my directors discouraging me from doing the elaborate bouffant. But I wouldn’t listen. I never did.”

She was also the first actress to wear a bikini. “That was so frowned upon during my time. Now, it has become a cult thing. It’s still considered a big deal. The Indian mindset has not changed at all."

"I am quite happy with my gardening, music, reading, and  UNICEF work. We have a trust at Pataudi, where we are currently working in restructuring the face of an acid survivor. I get lots of help from people who have proper connections. Once we started helping this girl, lots  of people have come forward.," says Tagore, signing off.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based journalist. He has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out.

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