In the twelve-odd that years I have had the privilege of knowing Sharmila Tagore, of the many aspects of her life and times that never cease to amaze me, one is something she herself puts tellingly: "I have lived life the way I wanted to, on my own terms. Both in films and in my life, I can say, in the words of Frank Sinatra's famous song, 'I did it my way'."
As one reflects on her life – lived for the most part in the public eye – that comes across as no empty boast. After all, how many of her generation have managed what she has: cutting her teeth in cinema with Satyajit Ray, followed by a National-Award-winning ensemble performance in Tapan Sinha's Nirjan Saikate before taking the then "inconceivable" step of matching steps with Shammi Kapoor to 'Deewana hua baadal' (Kashmir Ki Kali) – as she says candidly , more than moving from Manik-da to Mumbai or the problem of mastering the language, what terrified her was matching her feet movement with lip-syncing to the songs.
Then, at the height of her stardom came a very public romance with and marriage to a Muslim nawab, a legend of Indian cricket to boot, making them the first 'it' couple who brought together the twin Indian obsessions of cricket and cinema. As she says, no one gave the relationship more than a year. At the age of twenty-six, and at the zenith of her career as a leading lady, she not only became a mother in real life but also 'played' mother to Rajesh Khanna in Aradhana – moves that many would have thought of as committing professional hara-kiri. But she thrived. And how.
She remains the only Bengali star who made the transition as successfully to Hindi cinema. Uttam Kumar never managed it. Soumitra Chatterjee did not even try. Aparna Sen never looked comfortable in the couple of Hindi film outings she had. This movement between Hindi and Bengali cinema came with its own amusing consequences. In Bombay, whenever she tended to tone down her performance, she would be reminded, "This is not a Satyajit Ray film." In Bengal, it was the very opposite and any exaggerated mannerism on her part would bring forth the reprimand, "This is not Bombay cinema".
This determination to not let go of one in favour of the other was amply demonstrated in an episode Sharmila recalls with great amusement. Even as she had signed on for Ray's Aranyer Din Ratri, she was already committed to shooting for Aradhana. Its director, Shakti Samanta, had introduced her in Hindi cinema with Kashmir Ki Kali, a runaway hit which made her a star. He now wanted Sharmila for 40 days at a stretch to shoot for his new film. Of course, Sharmila wasn't going to pass up an opportunity of working with Manik-da; she had already had to miss being part of Kanchenjunga because of academic commitments at the time. The director understood Sharmila's predicament. In the event, a majority of her sequences in Aradhana was shot indoors later. As the actor says with an impish smile, 'I have a sneaking feeling that if it were America, I would have been sued, but as it happened I ended up with the best of two worlds, being part of both a Satyajit Ray classic and a Hindi film hit, a classic case of having one's cake and eating it too!'
Picking five top films or performances isn't an easy task particularly when an actor has been part of no less than five of Satyajit Ray's films (second only to Soumitra Chatterjee) and one would be tempted to pick all five. But as she herself underlines, "It goes without saying that Hindi films have given me a visibility that no other cinema would have. I remember an interaction with people of Indian origin in South Africa who were targeted during the apartheid regime. They spoke lovingly of some of my popular song-and-dance roles, mentioning these as their only link to India, and how these helped them cope, even if momentarily, with an oppressive regime. What better tribute to the reach and contribution of Hindi cinema!" So, here is my pick of the top five:
"It was my debut film way back in 1959. The simple and innocent romance of Apu and Aparna endeared me to the audience instantly. I couldn't have asked for a better introduction to the world of cinema."
Sharmila was literally picked out of the blue to work with Satyajit Ray. She had to leave school, as the teachers were worried about the "corrupting" influence of cinema, but thank God for her enlightened father, he preferred Ray over the school. In a role that spanned barely 20 minutes or so, Sharmila left an indelible impact as the child bride Aparna. Whether in the shot of Aparna entering her ramshackle marital tenement for the first time, going over to the window and getting overwhelmed, then espying, through a tear in the curtain, the happy interaction between a mother and child, and finding some indefinable solace. Or in the memorable scenes between the newlyweds: Aparna crying copiously, to Apu's great embarrassment, at the mythological film they are watching, her affectionate efforts to discourage his smoking, his earnest attempt to teach her English and the letters that she writes to him when she goes away to her mother's home. As Sharmila says, "Even today, sixty years later, the romance of Apur Sansar has not faded. An entirely new generation thrills to it in exactly the same way as they did at the time."
"Devi was my most challenging role. It earned me international recognition as an actor. It was a privilege to be a part of a film that continues to be relevant even today."
Sharmila regards this as her finest performance and rightly so. One has to watch the scene where the father-in-law comes running to Doyamoyee, muttering 'Ma, ma', after his dream and falls at her feet. Sharmila is brilliant in expressing the revulsion and fear that Doya experiences, her nails scratching the wall, her toes curling away. Even as she is garlanded and decked up as goddess, her face conveys all the doubts, the timidity, the helpless inability to assert her will. As she buys into the myth of being the goddess, Doya becomes a frightening caricature, and few actors have conveyed vulnerability and indecision better than when Sharmila says, "What if I am truly the goddess?"
"This one is special because it's woven with my personal life. At that time Tiger and I saw a lot of each other. During the Paris shoot, on Bastille Day, Tiger proposed to me and after the Canadian stint of the film we shared our news with his mother and just before the cabaret 'Zubi Zubi' we got engaged. These memories enhance the pleasure of watching the film."
Well, I admit. There are at least two films that would probably be on anybody's list of Sharmila's best films over this one: Safar (which is also Sharmila's personal favourite of her Hindi films) and Amar Prem. But given the gravitas of the rest of the films on this list, I choose An Evening in Paris for the sheer joy of escaping to a la-la land that is now forever lost to Hindi cinema. There isn't a story worth the name, just a series of unforgettable songs that string together a non-existent narrative. Neither does the film call for any special histrionic ability on Sharmila's part despite the double role. But how can one not fall in love with the bouquet of songs on offer. Over fifty years later, the heart simply soars to the lilting strains of 'Raat ke humsafar', 'Le ja le ja le ja mera dil' – and of course Sharmila going 'ja, ja, ja' to Shammi Kapoor's angel descending from the sky, imploring her to 'kaho pyaar hai tumse', is the stuff of Hindi film legend.
"Many thought that playing Rajesh Khanna's mother at the age of twenty-six would be a disaster. I am happy Shakti ji took that risk and it paid off. At the height of the anti-Hindi agitation in Chennai, Aradhana ran for over 50 weeks."
There is hardly any Hindi film buff who does not know what Aradhana means to Hindi cinema. This was the film that made a superstar of Rajesh Khanna, and it's by every token his film. The reason I choose this among Sharmila's top five is not only because this remains her biggest box-office hit, but because she dared to do two things in this that any other actress of her generation would hesitate to: one, play a woman who has a child out of wedlock, and two, play mother to Rajesh Khanna. And as Kishore Kumar croons 'Roop tera mastana', Sharmila literally scorches the screen with her sensuousness.
"I am very grateful to Gulzar saab for Mausam. He brought out the best in me. Mausam gave me an opportunity to explore and expand my boundaries as an actor."
Cast in two contrasting roles as mother and daughter, it is as Kajli, the foul-mouthed prostitute, that Sharmila laid to rest, once and for all, any doubt anyone might have had about her ability to deliver a no-holds-barred performance devoid of all artifice. And as Kajli slowly falls in love with the same man her mother had loved and lost, your heart goes out to her thanks to the nuances the actor brings to the character, the emotions that flit across her face to the pathos-soaked words of 'Ruke ruke se kadam'. If Sharmila hasn't delivered another bravura performance as this, it's because Hindi film-makers of the era simply did not have the gumption or the imagination to offer anything of substance to an actor of her calibre.
The one striking aspect about her career in cinema is that in an era that rarely offered a woman a chance to get out of the straitjacket of being just a pretty appendage to the hero, she consistently displayed a willingness to explore roles beyond the stereotypical. So for every Kashmir Ki Kali and An Evening in Paris, you have an Anupama, a Satyakam, an Aavishkar, a Grihapavesh and a Dooriyan, not to mention her forays with Satyajit Ray.
The conversations I have had with her, at her home, at lit-fest panels, stranded on a flight from Lucknow for over a couple of hours, cooped up in the cabin as the plane awaited ground clearance, working on a best-selling book, Pataudi: Nawab of Cricket, that she put together with Suresh Menon after 'sir' passed away, have enriched me in ways I am yet to fathom. As I listen to her talk about almost anything – her views about a new film she has just seen, the state of the nation, how once in junior school, asked to compose a poem as homework, she passed off one by her illustrious ancestor as her own, her fascination for gothic tales and murder mysteries, or even her grumbling about truant maids and house-help missing in action – yes, as I tell my folks at home, even Sharmila Tagore faces these common everyday hassles – I still cannot get over the fact that I am seated opposite the Sharmila Tagore.
Interestingly enough in all these years, I have never known how to address her. Sharmila-di, as many of her close friends call her, seems somewhat inappropriately informal, while 'ma'am sounds equally unsuitably formal. Maashi would probably be proper but how does one call Aparna, Vandana, Pushpa, Kajli and Nimki maashi? So, I have let it be. It is enough that she is all these and more…an inspiring icon of our times.