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Shoma A. Chatterjee interviews Sharmila Tagore. One from the archives

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

Interview “I LIKE TO HAVE MY CAKE AND EAT IT TOO” - SHARMILA TAGORE Shoma A. Chatterji Sharmila Tagore is a legend unto herself. She has grown gracefully along with films and has kept pace with the pervasive flux in the milieu of filmmaking both in Hindi and Bengali cinema. Her transition from pure glamour to dramatic and challenging roles has been so seamless and natural that the Indian audience hardly noticed it. The Indian High Commission in UK mainly engineered by its Cultural Secretary Monika Kapil Mohta has been responsible for putting together a retrospective of films featuring Tagore that will travel across Cardiff, Birmingham, Leicester and SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies). It has been curated by London-based filmmaker Sangeeta Datta, the brain behind choosing the seven films to open the retro on October 31 and close on November 19. The package includes Datta’s yet-to-be-released English language film Life Goes On shot entirely in London. This will also be the closing film at the New Jersey Film Festival in UK which this year, features the works of women directors. Ms. Tagore goes back in time when she began her career and flashes forward till the present time. Excerpts from an interview Let us hear about the UK retro and your response to the choice of films to be screened. I think Sangeeta knows the audience in UK much better than I do. She chose films she knows the Indian and non-Indian audience in UK will respond to positively. I had nothing to do with it. Of the seven films, three are directed by Satyajit Ray, three are Hindi films that were very popular the time they were made in and one English film that is yet to be released. The Ray films are Apur Sansar, Devi and Aranyer Din Ratri. The Hindi films are Aradhana and Amar Prem directed by Shakti Samanta and Mausam directed by Gulzar. Do you like the combination of Ray, Samanta and Gulzar? I think it is an interesting mix of films representative of the oeuvre of Sharmila Tagore as an actress. Popular cinema is extremely important. You cannot rubbish it. It speaks a different language that is allegorical, taking a rather roundabout route to get its point across. Their ways of storytelling are different. Take the example of My Name Is Khan. It works very well though Americans are

2 not bothered because it concerns an Indian. Indians are not bothered because it is happening in the USA and yet it works. 3 Idiots on the other hand, offers multiple points of view – on education, on parents’ attitude towards career choices of their children, on the teaching faculty, on discipline within the education system and so on. So, what differences do you find between Ray’s approach and the approach of mainstream filmmakers? Art is meant to transcend reality. But the problem with popular cinema is that it does not know how to end the story it began while transcending reality. They are like Abhimanyu in the Mahabharat who knew how to enter the Chakravyuha but did not know how to get out of it. So the end often gets stereotypical. Ray was very optimistic. You will not find any bad characters in his films. His films dealt with the ordinary person and his struggles that brought out the heroism in an ordinary man or woman. You just cannot forget them. The face of Aparna in Apur Sansar keeps haunting once you have seen the film. The conversation Apu has with his friend as they walk down the railways tracks, talking about his novel, not about his struggle with poverty, is beautiful. How can you not react to that? What are the bright spots in Hindi cinema as you have seen along your journey? Popular cinema is mainly a star-led industry and not a director-led one. For example, you had the Dilip Kumar or the Raj Kapoor package of films and yet within that, we have experienced some unforgettable moments in films like Bandini, Mother India, Griha Pravesh, Aavishkar that we just cannot forget. I saw a screening of An Evening in Paris recently and it did not seem vulgar to me at all. In fact, it brought a happy smile to my face. The innocence in the character of the girl is something one does not get to see these days. Reminiscences of your first two films with Ray? My first two films with Ray were shot during my holidays. It was a blend of chance and pressure, with a generous dose of curiosity. I was only 14 years old. He gave specific instructions. I had never faced a movie camera before. I did exactly as told. Somewhere along the way, there was a blurring of lines between Aparna, the character I was playing, and Sharmila Tagore. Just as Aparna crossed the threshold of her husband's house, I stepped in front of the camera for the first

3 time in my life. It was like entering a completely new world. It was a turning point. But I was too young to realize it at the time. Among the Ray films you have worked in, which one is your personal favourite? Devi of course though at that time, I was too little to actually understand the implications of the role. What helped was that I was very well-read even at that tender age. We were brought up within a culture of reading. There was no television, no computers or internet, and even movie-going was doctored and censored by the elders in the family. Devi is based on a story by Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay set in rural Bengal in 1860. Dayamoyee, the character I played in the film, was around the same age as I was when I shot for it. I still remember that when the lights were being changed on the sets, I would often fall fast asleep on the huge four-poster bed. The crew would wake me up when the shot was ready. It ended very tragically for that young girl. The fact that the character and the one who played it – me – were the same age helped I think because I did not have to pretend I was older than what I was. What do you recall of your childhood? The Tagores were a strange blend of tradition and modernity. We were trained to recognize our rich heritage. Mother ruled supreme in the inner quarters of the Tagore home. Her life revolved around her children. She decided everything including how we should take care of our skin with grandmother's recipes drawn from the kitchen. There was no room for manufactured beauty care products. We were never encouraged to wear jewellery. We learnt that looking after the inner beauty is much more important than outward appearances. You have played Soha’s mother for the first time in Life Goes On. What was the experience like? I am very professional. I can compartmentalize things easily. I can get within myself and not think about who is doing what on the sets, even if it is my daughter. We had an important scene we shot outdoors in the garden while I am tending to the plants and she is confiding in me. It was a very natural scene and Sangeeta being the cool person she is, made it work very well. At the most, I would comment on the colour of her dress for a given scene for example, nothing more. I did not interfere at all from the performance point of view. She is a grown-up person and an actress in her own right. I do not like directing anyone where there is a director around. How do you see yourself five years from now? I like to take one day at a time. My life is not confined only to studios and shoots. I like to have my cake and eat it too. I go to Pataudi very often and take great joy out of gardening. I am very happy working in a film and helping UNICEF because I love interacting with children. Being the chairperson of CBFC is an administrative responsibility. And I love travelling too. I do not see why it should be any different five years from now. ********************************************* Thursday, October 21, 2010

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