There's a mystique about Sharmila Tagore that's difficult to explain. Even 50 years after she mesmerised with her debut in Satyajit Ray's Apur Sansar, four decades after her stunning appearance as a bikini-clad charmer in An Evening in Paris, and her transition to motherhood in the late 60s with Aradhana. Equally at ease with meaningful or commercial cinema, she is also regarded as a perfect homemaker with celebrity husband the Nawab of Pataudi. Mother of endearing actor Saif and upcoming actress Soha, Sharmila is back in the news as India's new Censor Board chief. Excerpts from a candid conversation:
Did your appointment as Censor Board chief come as a surprise?
Yes, quite a bit. I was in London at the time, blissfully unaware of what was happening back home. I remember I was out shopping in London; in fact, I was buying kitchenware at a store on Oxford Street when the phone rang. It was an official from Delhi asking me for my CV. I told him I was abroad and would have it sent across in a few days.
But he was in a tearing hurry and so I just dictated a few things on the phone itself. When I returned to the hotel, I told Tiger (the Nawab of Pataudi) about it. He wanted to know why they wanted my CV and I had to tell him I hadn't even asked. He was amused. Then I felt I had done something silly.
Since I had saved the number on my phone, I called up two days later and asked for clarifications. That's when I was told what it was about! Later I spoke to I&B Secretary Navin Chawla, a friend for many years. I told him I wouldn't be able to move to Mumbai at least till February 2005 as I had committed dates to Viruddh. He said I could work out of Delhi.
I am still thinking about this, and also discussing the matter with the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. There are pros and cons of being based either in Delhi or Mumbai. Of the 800-plus films made in India every year, about 200 are in Hindi. Although Mumbai is the most important centre, I would like to engage regional filmmakers as well. Many Mumbai producers have the habit of sitting on your head insisting their film be cleared the same day. I want to discourage that tendency.
How do you feel about the controversy around your appointment? Have you spoken to Anupam Kher yet?
No, I haven't got around to speaking to Anupam so far. I suppose I've been amiss on that. But I didn't want to complicate things. It's the Government's decision; I had nothing to do with it. At the same time I know his hurt is genuine. We are both part of the same film world. Besides, he is a friend and also a very good actor who is dedicated to the industry.
I will speak to him at some stage because I don't want a rift between us. I have fond memories of working with him. But I believe people do understand if it wasn't me, it would be someone else. I have no illusions that I will not meet the same fate if the Government changes before my term is up. That's the reality whether we like it or not.
Now that you are Censor Board chief, how do you propose to approach the job? Do you think we need such a body in the first place?
Do we need censorship? Well, many respected people in the industry like Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, Aruna Vasudev and others think we do not. They say it's undemocratic, irrelevant in the information age. It is argued that censorship is an outdated concept when India is at the front line of the IT boom and that control does more harm than good.
Some countries have opted for a rating system in which nothing is cut out but viewers are informed of the nature of the film so they can themselves judge. Others have a self-regulatory mechanism where the industry itself decides how a film is to be classified and modified wherever necessary. But India has no such cohesive film industry body. As of now we have only the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), so it's our job to try and make it work.
India is a democracy but it cannot be as liberal as, say Britain, although sometimes I feel we go overboard. For example, our TV channels have no qualms about showing dead bodies whereas TV in the West is very restrained in such matters.
Also, in India there is a wide gulf between urban and rural sensibilities as well as a huge diversity of cultural values between linguistic and religious groups. The urban-rural divide is, in fact, growing. We have to act responsibly keeping these things in mind or else we will face many protests.
So I believe there must be some form of censorship although it must be intelligent. Now, if there is a smoking sequence in a film that glorifies the habit, it must be deleted for glorification of any addiction is not okay.
If you want to show a woman as being "cool" or "modern", don't try to establish that by depicting her with a cigarette between her fingers. That's why I feel we need to have a comprehensive dialogue with producers and directors and impress upon them public perceptions that ought to be kept in mind. I know they regard the Censor Board as an impediment, they think of us as spoilsports. But that's not the way we should be perceived; we must evolve guidelines collectively.
You just made a comment on TV channels. Do you think we need some control on TV as well?
Honestly, I think TV is of bigger concern today than films. But we don't have any regulations; we have no way of controlling TV. All that someone can do is call up the cable guy and ask him to take off an offensive channel. But that's not practical at the larger level and it offers only a temporary and individual recourse.
Still, I don't think we should be confrontational in such matters. We need to talk across the table with everybody. Look, eventually censorship will have to go. But that can happen only once our society becomes more homogeneous, not just yet.
Coming from a distinguished family, how come you got inducted into the world of films, which wasn't considered the right career for women when you made your entry?
That was all due to Manikda (Satyajit Ray). Actually, we were holidaying in Asansol during the summer when he contacted us frantically, asking for my father's permission to cast me in Apur Sansar. Actually, he had chosen leading Bengali actor Basanta Choudhury's wife - or was it wife-to-be then I don't exactly remember - Aloka for the role.
The film was already on the floors but Basantada was very upset and pulled her out of it. I was only 13 at the time, with no idea whatsoever of films. Ray was such a perfectionist, he would stand outside various Kolkata schools waiting for girls to come out to spot just the right one to fit the character in his film.
He had seen me outside St John's Diocesan School where I studied. Once my father agreed, my grooming began. The shooting was done over the summer break. But when I got back to school, the authorities refused to have an actress among the students. So, I had to leave Diocesan and join Loreto.
Acting in Satyajit Ray's films is understandable. But what made you move into the world of Hindi commercial cinema?
Again, it was not something I aspired to. After school, I enrolled to study History (Honours) at Loreto College. I had already worked for Satyajit Ray and was quite well known in Bengal.
In fact, he also asked me to act in his first colour film, Kanchanjungha, but I declined as the dates clashed with my school leaving examinations.
That must have been some time around 1961-62. Meanwhile, the atmosphere in college was not very happy. They made it difficult for me to continue. In the world of cinema, I was constantly in the company of people much older than I. I wanted to be part of my peer group in college. But that was not to be. Eventually, I stopped trying.
Around that time I started getting a steady stream of offers from top-notch Bollywood directors like Shakti Samanta. Storywriter Sachin Bhowmick was a family friend. I was persuaded by him to give it a shot in Kashmir ki Kali. Even after the film became a big hit, I was reluctant to continue.
I remember Deven Varma would joke, "Sharmila always says her latest film is her last." Biswajit and Hrishida (Hrishikesh Mukherjee) would pull my leg because after every film, I insisted I would quit!
In my very first film, I was most upset when I saw the rushes of the song sequence ‘Ishaaron ishaaron mein dil lene wale’. I thought it was terrible. But there were tender people like Shashi Kapoor who consoled me. And the song went on to become a big hit.
Are you suggesting that you were never drawn to the adulation you got after you became a popular heroine?
Actually, never. You see, I am not a trained actress, so I was never enamoured of the profession. I thought it was more important to stay in touch with myself, which I think I have done. By nature, I don't get excited. For example, I remember I was sitting with Basu Bhattacharya when a telegram arrived informing me I had got the National Award for Best Actress for Aradhana.
I read it and tossed it aside. Basuda asked me what the telegram was about. When I told him, he was shocked, not by my selection but my casual reaction to it!
Aradhana came much later in your career. But how did you and your family cope with the sex symbol status you attained after An Evening in Paris in which you became the first Hindi film heroine to wear a bikini?
Family was not the problem. For my father, I could do no wrong - that's the kind of trust he had in us three sisters. Personally, I thought the bikini sequence in An Evening in Paris was perfectly fine; it was aesthetically done, there was no vulgarity. But I was disturbed by the public reaction to it. Kolkata was alright because it is a very democratic city.
People there have fewer double standards than in many other places. I had imbibed that culture and was quite a muh-phat (outspoken) person who found it difficult to adjust to Bollywood culture like wearing a white sari a la Nargis all the time or being chaperoned to the sets by one's mother. Once I danced with choreographer Robert Master at a party at an outdoor location. Shaktida gave me hell for that.
After An Evening in Paris, I became conscious about my image for the first time. I realised I had to change and make an attempt to conform to public perception. I was determined not to become a glamour girl.
Watching the film in a hall, I was upset by the catcalls and lewd remarks made by a section of the audience. I decided I had to understand the country and its values because certain things were not expected of me. So, with Aradhana, I made the transition from catcalls to motherhood. I discovered if you work with Indian sensibilities in mind, people go out of their way to be respectful and even protective.
But values seem to have changed drastically since then. Young actresses appear to think showing their bodies and making statements that shock is the easiest route to success. How do you react to this trend?
Yes, young people think they need to shock. Basically, something has gone missing in the urban youth's creative soul. Perhaps too many influences have come flooding in as a result of which the meaning of being Indian is getting lost.
There is too much competition and they think they need to be really aggressive. See the loudness of today's music, for example, or the cacophony of traffic sounds. Today's youth may seem very bold and confident, but internally they are fragile.
It's not what you say but how forcefully you say it that has become important. We need to give more time to them; we need to be tolerant of the testing process they are going through. Nowadays they resent authority. With us, if parents said yes, it meant "yes", no meant "no". But now we are ourselves confused. I believe the next generation wants to interact, they are prepared to listen if we talk rationally. We have to give them time.
Talking about understanding one another, were you able to understand Bollywood society and, in turn, was it able to understand you? I mean, did you find yourself a misfit in the Mumbai film world and could you make friends there?
Misfit? No, not quite. I may not have had too many friends and did not socialise a great deal with film folk, but I got along well with people who shared my tastes. Thakur Lulla, the son of Anupama's producer, for instance, was one such person. We got along well because he could finish a crossword faster than I and it was always a challenge to try and beat him.
Then there were wonderful people like Ashok Kumar, Basu Bhattacharya, Kamini Kaushal, Gulzar - all of who were close associates. Working with Hrishikesh Mukherjee meant you had to learn to play chess. He would get so obsessed with it even on the sets that often he was loath to let go of an actor even after the shot was ready!
It was great fun though. So, I did have my circle of friends. As for the rest, I accepted that if you were working in a particular environment, you had to accept its demands too. As a result, I never felt lonely.
I was an admirer of three leading actresses of the time, Nutan, Meena Kumari and Waheeda. They were very kind and caring about me. I was so much in awe of Meenaji that once she offered me a paan with tambaku and I didn't have the heart to refuse. I would rather not tell you what happened after I chewed it!
Agreed, one couldn't be as natural as one might have liked in a multi-cultural ambience like Mumbai's. I couldn't be as free with co-stars as we all were while shooting for Gautam Ghose's Abar Aranye (a sequel to Satyajit Ray's Aranyer Din Ratri which also starred Sharmila Tagore). It was wonderful being cast with almost the same set of people with whom I had worked more than 25 years ago. A mono-cultural environment is easier to adjust to but honestly, I didn't ever mind being in Mumbai.
On the subject of co-stars, Rajesh Khanna and you were paired almost routinely. How come?
I think people like to see somebody with a particular somebody. This was not only with Rajesh and I. Once we became a hit pair with Aradhana, producers wanted to repeat us together. Our films clicked and the audience got used to seeing us together. Similarly, there were many other pairs who appealed to the audience when they appeared together, Dharmendra and Hema Malini, for example.
With your vast experience and having worked with classic directors like Ray on the one hand and commercial filmmakers on the other, have you thought of getting behind the camera at some stage?
It's because I have worked with such top directors that I don't want to try it now. Directing requires total commitment. An actor doesn't have to be as committed as a director must.
In the kind of film I would have liked to make, there would have to be me in it. That's taking on too much. I have to balance my various roles and commitments. Now, past 50, I don't think I need to prove anything to anybody. All these years, I thought I could try my hand at directing, but I don't anymore. Maybe, I left it too late to give it a shot.
Your marriage to Nawab Pataudi has been one of the most successful celebrity marriages in recent history. What's the formula?
Balancing was never an easy job; it's a 24-hour thing. I was the first choice for at least three films that became big hits -- Khilona, Haathi Mere Saathi and Tere Mere Sapne. I had to turn down each, telling producers I was pregnant. After marriage, I drastically reduced film assignments.
But adjusting to married life was made easier because our families were very similar in many ways despite the religious difference. They were old, established families with shared value systems and cultural foundations. We were both joint families in which the concept of total privacy and own bedrooms did not exist.
I grew up knowing how to share, something that came in very handy in my husband's home. Most importantly, the Bhopal people on Tiger's side were a very happy-go-lucky lot, which helped my adjustment process.
Of course, tact and politeness also went a long way. As I was saying earlier, the alienation of today's youth is often a result of the eclipse of the joint family system. I firmly believe children should learn their values from their grandmothers, not maids or TV.
You must be a phenomenally cool-headed person...
Me? Cool-headed? Definitely not. There was a time I would throw things around simply if I was hungry. But I did work on my anger; I realised I had to communicate my anger, I had to protest rather than get belligerent.
It's Tiger who's cool-headed. Nothing seems to upset him. I respect that and have never thrown anything at him. I dare not! Over the years I have learnt one has to detach oneself from one's emotions. But, in fairness, I am also a rational person and I know relationships need rationality to blossom. One has to be cerebral, reason things out in one's mind without being unfair to oneself.
How is the Nawab of Pataudi in his approach to you and the marriage?
He is an angrez; he looks one too especially if he wears a polo neck. That's what I thought when I first met him. He still believes in observing right of way rules while driving. He is nice, gentle, has a great sense of humour. I like people who take life and themselves lightly and don't get uptight or ponderous.
He is just such a man. He is also very mature and handled me beautifully because I got to know him so young. Just imagine, I met him when I was 21, got engaged at 22, married at 24 and had Saif at 27. All through, he was wonderful. People who are in touch with themselves have peace of mind.
He didn't object to your film career?
He left it to me and I did the balancing act. I still remember the making of ,I>Mere Humdum Mere Dost. He was playing a Test match in Kolkata the next day. I thought I would surprise him by landing up there. I asked the director to let me finish shooting early and leave.
He had a problem because the sets for picturising that lovely number, Chhalkayen jaam, were ready. I went and explained the problem to Dharmendra. Always a sport, he readily agreed to shoot through the night so that I could catch the early morning flight to Kolkata.
That's exactly what we did. The shot was okayed only after four in the morning and I rushed to the airport. So that's the kind of balancing I did and Tiger appreciated it. He never asked me to cut down on this or that. I did everything on my own.
Do you watch Saif's movies with him? Have you ever tried to groom him as an actor? Or, rather, does he consult you about his roles?
Yes, we did watch Parampara together. He acted well and I think he was remarkably mature to accept its rejection. One often underestimates a child's ability to deal with disappointment. No he doesn't consult me, I suppose he believes he's better at acting than I! That's fine. His goals are very clear: He wants to be a commercial success and Bollywood's No 1 some day. No Aparna Sens and Satyajit Rays for him.
What's your assessment, why doesn't he consult you on acting? Isn't that a bit strange?
Look, I must admit there is an element of formality in his relationship with both of us. It's different between me and the daughters. We have reasoned that sending him to boarding school at a tender age was, perhaps, a mistake. He is a bit aloof, but very respectful and caring at the same time. I realise that, and think both of us are more protective of him than the two girls.
Finally, returning to the subject of your role as Censor Board chairperson, what do you make of the craze for item numbers?
We need to take a holistic view that includes item numbers in films, suggestive music videos, the growing tide of both obscenity on one side and glorification of religious ritualism on the other. I would also like to question films that promote hate for they result in encouraging jingoism. Only, I would like to take an overview democratically, without being ad hoc or arbitrary.