When you adore someone onscreen from the age of 10 and later get to direct her in your own film, the narrative seems a bit stranger than fiction.
But that’s how it has been with my adulation turned admiration for one of our greatest screen icons – Sharmila Tagore. Hailing from the legendary Tagore family – her great-grandfather Gaganendranath Tagore, the visual artist, was a nephew of Rabindranath Tagore – Sharmila grew up with a keen sense of aesthetics and discipline.
At the age of 13, on her way back from school, she was scouted by one of Satyajit Ray’s casting agents and made her debut in the final part of Ray’s trilogy Apur Sansar (The World of Apu). Apu and his young bride Aparna became the symbol of love and romance to the Bengali youth. A year later Ray cast Sharmila as the young bride in a feudal household who is worshipped as a goddess. A dark psychological film, Devi (The Goddess) examined gender oppression in a patriarchal system. While struggling with her convent school’s disapproval about film work, she was summoned to Bombay by Shakti Samanta to act in Kashmir Ki Kali and soon after in Evening In Paris. Her bikini-clad image splashed across Indian media, raising many conservative eyebrows. But by then Sharmila was in love with the captain of the Indian cricket team Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, and soon married into the Muslim Pataudi royal family. In the 1970s they were indisputably the most glamorous pair in the public sphere. In retrospect, they also represented the secular, modern India we were growing up in.
While most Indian actresses retired after marriage, Sharmila showed far more professionalism and dedication to her career. About this time, a film with a newcomer Rajesh Khanna, took the country by storm. Aradhana was a thundering hit with its story of an unwed mother and her sacrifice for her son. Rajesh-Sharmila became the hit pair in Bombay and they delivered several classics of the time – Amar Prem, Safar, Daag, Raja Rani and many literary adaptations, all embellished with beautiful music. Ruling as a lead actress involved great discipline and organisation to juggle family and films. Moreover, whenever there was a call from Satyajit Ray in Calcutta, Sharmila would prioritise his projects and go back to work with him, on classics including Seemabaddha (Company Limited), Nayak (with Uttam Kumar) and Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest). Marking the transition from stereotyped female roles, Sharmila chose her projects wisely, thus building a filmography with a wide range. Nurtured by the Bengali writers/directors Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shakti Samanta and Asit Sen, she essayed serious roles as well as glamorous. She was a single mother in Aradhana and Aa Galey Lag Jaa, the golden-hearted prostitute in Amar Prem, a doctor in Safar, a mischievous housewife in Chupke Chupke. Under Gulzar’s direction, she took bolder steps and won the National Award for her portrayal of a sex worker in Mausam, followed by mature marital dramas such as Basu Bhattacharya’s Aavishkaar and Grihapravesh. In Bengal, Sharmila’s bilingual films with Uttam Kumar were massive hits (Amanush and Ananda Ashram). Even now, she remains solidly entrenched in the cultural scene with stage readings and recitations. We have toured the UK, Europe and India with the stage production Gitanjali 100 to mark Tagore’s 150th anniversary. More recently, Sharmila has held the controversial position of chair of the Indian Censor Board, where she introduced the concept of classification rather than censorship. Awarded the Padmabhushan, one of India’s highest civilian honours, she has served on the Cannes jury and has recently been invited as an Academy member as the Hollywood institution pushed for a more diverse profile.
Mira Nair cast her as Indian diaspora in Mississippi Masala. When I wrote Life Goes On about a British-Asian family dealing with their mother’s absence, that nurturing, liberal, artistic mother had to be Sharmila. And that was when my screen idol became my cast member, showing amazing grace and generosity to the young cast and crew. With children Saif and Soha as well as daughter-in-law Kareena in Bollywood, Sharmila remains clued into that world. “It’s good there with so much talent now. Priyanka [Chopra], Kareena, Deepika [Padukone], Alia [Bhatt] – they just have to be themselves and act natural. In our days, we had to dress up and cry and be sad. The vamps had more fun with costumes and dancing,” she explains. Did she ever question the director about dialogues or costumes? Sharmila smiles and says,“My male colleagues would say, why waste your time and delay the shoot? Don’t you want to finish work and go home early?” The Bengal tigress, as she was called, was known for her intelligence, grace and formidable temper. Life continues to be hectic for Sharmila as matriarch of the Pataudi family and patron of various charities, having just returned from a fundraising drive in the US for children’s education and a hectic shoot in Mumbai with all the Lux leading ladies. Sharmila is in London and will do a rare talk at London Indian Film Festival, where she will receive the Screen Icon award. I am looking forward to hosting the talk with her on Friday (July 15).