I am quite keen to act again: ‘Sardari Begum’ actress Smriti Mishra
In a relatively short career, actor Smriti Mishra featured films such as ‘Jaya Ganga’, ‘Is Raat Ki Subah Nahi’, ‘Sardari Begum’, ‘Train to Pakistan’, ‘One Dollar Curry’, ‘Kal: Yesterday and Tomorrow’, ‘Dil Dosti Etc’, and the American film ‘Mitsein’
The recent launch of the Hindi translation of Vijay Singh’s critically acclaimed book Jaya Ganga sent me on a nostalgic trip. While attending the event at the French Ambassador's residence in New Delhi, I was suddenly reminded of watching the film adaptation of Jaya Ganga (directed by Singh himself) on television as a college student.
The actress playing the part of Zehra had struck me with her elegance, grace, impeccable Urdu diction, and breathtaking classical dancing abilities. Seeing Zehra's face again on the book cover of the Hindi translation of Jaya Ganga immediately made me think of Smriti Mishra, the actress who essayed the character in the film. Also, I was a little surprised by her conspicuous absence at the launch.
I recalled last seeing her in Dil Dosti Etc, which also starred Imaad Shah and Shreyas Talpade. The film came out about 14 years ago. A little research on my part confirmed that Mishra hadn’t done a feature film in over a decade. That's when my search for her began.
A skillful dancer and a powerful performer endowed with a rare gift to transfix the viewer with her ability to emote in front of a motion picture camera, Mishra seemed to possess everything that one has come to associate with great Indian actresses across ages.
In a relatively short career that features films such as Jaya Ganga, Is Raat Ki Subah Nahi, Sardari Begum, Train to Pakistan, One Dollar Curry, Kal: Yesterday and Tomorrow, Dil Dosti Etc, and the American film Mitsein, Mishra had proven without doubt her versatility as an actress who wasn’t afraid to push boundaries. Many critics even compared her to the likes of Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil. But then she disappeared from the scene.
I wondered why in today's age of OTT, wherein a versatile performer like her would be a handful, she hasn’t yet made her much-awaited comeback, especially when many of her contemporaries have successfully done so in the recent years. So, with this thought in mind, I kept searching for her. Some speculated that she had left Mumbai for good. Others said she was still living in Mumbai.
When I was finally able to establish contact with her, I learnt that she would soon be coming to the Capital for some event. A few weeks later, I finally met her as we began our freewheeling conversation about what’s been keeping her away from professional acting for over a decade, her early days as a young Kathak dancer and her acting journey that started with Jaya Ganga.
Mishra said she had no plans to retire. At first, it was because of some health issues in her family that she had to take intermittent breaks. Then, the offers that came her way didn’t interest her much as an actor.
“I am very much based in Mumbai but I keep trotting the globe. And, as they say, once an actor, always an actor, but the work should appeal to me. I like to see myself as a working actor and the thought of retirement is not on my mind. So, yes, I am quite keen to act again if something good comes my way, whether a movie or a web series,” told Mishra.
Growing up in Benares, Mishra trained as a Kathak dancer under the tutelage of Pandit Durga Lal right from a very young age.
“The death of my first guru Durga Lal-ji had a profound effect on me. Even though my training continued under the great Birju Maharaj-ji there was a part of me that had been deeply disturbed. I even went to London and performed there for a couple of months but I didn’t feel like staying there for a longer duration and so I came back. It was during one of my performances at the Kathak Kendra at Mandi House that I was spotted by Ram Gopal Bajaj-ji, who was the director of the National School of Drama. He encouraged me to do theatre and soon I did a play called Hastinapur which got me great recognition,” revealed Mishra who soon got her big movie break in Jaya Ganga after Bajaj recommended her to Vijay Singh for the part of the female lead.
Even before Jaya Ganga released, the editor of the film, Renu Saluja, suggested Mishra’s name for a leading part in Sudhir Mishra’s Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin wherein Mishra starred opposite Nirmal Pandey. The song from the film ‘Chup Tum Raho’ remains one of the most watched songs from the 1990s on YouTube.
“A lot of the times when young girls meet me and recognise me from the film, they sing the song in front of me as a gesture of love and appreciation. It’s really a special feeling that a 25-year-old song is still able to strike chords with the youth,” told Mishra.
The actress next starred in Shyam Benegal’s Sardari Begum in the titular role. She was in Mandi House when a phone rang asking for her. The voice on the other side informed her that she has been cast in Shyam Benegal’s next film.
“I was as excited as I was nervous to learn that I will be playing the titular part in a Shyam Benegal film. The film was a great success and my performance was widely noticed. In fact, there was a time I got synonymous with the character. Wherever I would go people would address me as ‘Sardari’. I think it will always remain a very special film in my body of work,” Mishra reca;;ed.
Mishra subsequently starred in Pamela Rooks’ Train to Pakistan, once again starring opposite Nirmal Pandey. “Working with Nirmal on both the films was really something special. We, of course, shared a great chemistry, both onscreen and off screen. He was such a great soul and so was Pamela. And both of them left so early and I dearly miss them both,” sighed Mishra who subsequently starred as the lead in an IMAX film titled Kingdom of the Tiger, directed by Bruce Neibaur and starring Christopher Heyerdahi opposite Mishra.
“It was a great experience working on the film. I was the first Indian actress to star in an IMAX film. It's about the life of Jim Corbett and how an Indian girl encourages him to kill a man-eating tiger,” revealed Mishra.
While talking about how she was approached by Manish Tiwary to play the part of a prostitute in Dil Dosti Etc, Mishra was quick to highlight that there’s a difference between a tawaif and a prostitute.
“The character Zehra that I played in Jaya Ganga was a tawaif and in Dil Dosti Etc, I play a prostitute. So as an actor you are always walking a thin line. I feel I succeeded in making Vaishali look different from Zehra as that was very important. It's certainly written differently and also I played it differently,” asserted Mishra who subsequently starred in Mitsein, directed by Aparna Malladi, a scientist living in San Francisco for the last 15 years.
Over the years, Mishra has consciously stayed away from commercial escapist entertainers that became a mainstay in Hindi cinema around the turn of the millennium. Her formidable body of work bears testament to her commitment to stay true to her art.
“I have always put quality over quantity. Each and every film that I have done I have tried to put in my best work. Even today if I would say ‘yes’ to something then it has to make me feel excited as an actor,” said Mishra who admires actresses such as Tabu, Kajol, and Vidya Balan for the quality and consistency of their work over such a long period.
Murtaza Ali Khan is an Indian critic and journalist who has been covering art and culture for over 10 years. Views expressed are personal.
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