‘My children — Saif, Saba and Soha — have been located in Mumbai for a while now.’
‘In our case, it’s the house more than me that keeps the family close.’
‘All three of my children love Pataudi; they come to Delhi and head straight there.’
At 78, Sharmila Tagore is the epitome of grace.
Her hair has more salt than pepper now, but it only adds to her evergreen charm.
She sits straight and talks straight.
Nothing fazes her.
Those famous dimples flash occasionally.
Memories come flooding as Satyajit Ray’s Aparna remembers her first shot from Apur Sansar and Gulmohar‘s Kusum Batra talks about returning to the screen after 13 years on March 3.
“I love Sara’s (granddaughter Sara Ali Khan) posts because of her limericks. Soha can be very dangerous because she will click pictures with you in which she might look very good and you might not, but she will post them anyway,” the movie legend tells Rediff.com Senior Contributor Roshmila Bhattacharya.
The first of a multi-part, must-read, interview:
Gulmohar, revolves around home and family. But during the months of lockdown brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, you were cut off from your family. How difficult was it living alone?
My three children — Saif, Saba and Soha — have been located in Mumbai for a while now.
But I don’t feel like leaving Tiger (her late husband Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, the cricket legend) and the rest behind, so I stay there (in Delhi).
Pataudi is quite close and I visit Mumbai occasionally, but I always go back.
I’ve been living away from family for quite some time so COVID did not impact my life in that sense.
But because of my age and co-morbidities, the doctor strictly advised me against taking a commercial flight at the time and when you can’t travel, it instantly makes you feel restricted.
Hopefully, that’s behind us. Now, we frequently see pictures of you with members of your family on Instagram.
I’m not on Instagram so I see these posts only occasionally when I scroll through them.
I love Sara’s (granddaughter Sara Ali Khan) posts because of her limericks.
Soha can be very dangerous because she will click pictures with you in which she might look very good and you might not, but she will post them anyway.
(Smiles) I try to act like a professional then and remind her that I also have my image.
Soha recently posted a picture with Saif, Kareena, your grandchildren and you from a family get-together. Such posts are very heartwarming at a time when relationships are breaking up. How do you keep the bonds so strong?
Saying families are breaking up is a rather sweeping statement.
Yes, a lot of people from small towns are migrating to big cities like Mumbai, but there could be a geographical reason for this.
Many move in search of jobs.
In the West, children leave home by the age of 18 and that’s not a bad thing because you can’t expect children to continue living at home all their lives.
They have to leave the nest to make their lives and that doesn’t necessarily lead to bonds breaking.
The Austrians, Germans, Italians and Japanese, they all have very close-knit families.
Relationships are not about living under the same roof as much as how you feel about each other.
In our case, it’s the house more than me that keeps the family close.
All three of my children love Pataudi; they come to Delhi and head straight there.
The house has a history, there are vibrant memories there.
Like Suraj Sharma’s character Aditya in Gulmohar, my children also go through the albums there and remember.
When they see their children playing around, they are reminded of their own childhood.
It’s these memories that forges a connection between generations.
Talking of memories, I remember that scene in Apur Sansar when Soumitra Chatterjee and you are riding home in a carriage and you strike a match for him to light his cigarette. In its flame, he looks at your illuminated face and kohl-streaked eyes and asks…
Achcha tomar chokhe ki achche bolo to? (Tell me, what is there in your eyes?)
And you say simply, ‘Kajal’ and blow the match out. What memories does your first film bring back today in the year that celebrates Satyajit Ray’s birth centenary?
Well, I wasn’t a professional actress then. I was a young girl still studying in school.
Those days, films were frowned upon and acting was not seen as a respectable profession.
The general perception was that only bad people made them and worked in them.
But Satyajit Ray was seen to be different from the other directors.
His films, Pather Panchali and Aparajito, were not like the other films. They had won awards abroad.
So he was respected by, for want of a better word, the gentry or the middle-class.
They saw him as a good man.
We had seen his films and the family was full of praise for his work.
So when he approached my father, I was allowed to act in his Apur Sansar simply because you did not turn Satyajit Ray down.
A lot of people have asked me since if I was nervous when I faced the camera for the first time.
No. I was still a student and students don’t feel nervous because they are used to following the instructions of their teachers.
I grew up in a joint family and went to a Bengali medium school.
I was a precocious child.
I had read a lot of grown-up books by then… (Rabindranath) Tagore to Bankim (Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay) and Sarat Chandra (Chattopadhyay).
Boys had not happened but I understood family dynamics and the concept of romance, having read a lot of it.
So I wasn’t unnerved playing a young bride in my first film.
In fact, when Soumitra — it was his first film too — asked me just before our first shot if I was nervous, I replied, ‘No, why should I be nervous?’
What was the first shot?
It’s the one where soon after his unplanned marriage in the village, Apu brings his bride, Aparna, home to the city and his terrace flat.
The first shot was of me in my bridal wear, standing in front of the closed door of my new home.
Satyajit Ray and his cinematographer Subrata Mitra were just behind that door.
As the clapper boy shouted, ‘Lights, camera, action!’ — the words were familiar because I had been told me this is what they said before a shot — Soumitra unlocks the door, enters, puts the suitcase and fan he’s carrying on the floor, turns and invites me in, saying, ‘This is my room.’
As I crossed the threshold, Satyajit Ray rattled off instructions, ‘Look up… Move forward… Stop… Look right… Shake your head… Move a few steps… Look left…Excellent… Cut… Next shot.’
It was as simple as that!
The scene continues with Soumitra stepping out of the room and you moving towards the window, breaking down as you are suddenly overcome by emotion.
Yes and Satyajit Ray’s instructions continued, ‘Sigh… Heave shoulders…’ and I complied.
And on hearing laughter, you look through a tear in the curtain, watching a child in the courtyard below lurch towards his grandmother, the camera zooming in on one eye, a tear trickling down. It’s an iconic shot.
Yes, that too was filmed on the first day of shooting. But back then, I had no idea that it would become an iconic shot.
Satyajit Ray was very good with child actors and while I was not a child, I was child-like and he was able to extract work out of me.
I was given a handwritten script like everyone else, with his illustrations next to the dialogues which he did not want us to memorise.
He would explain the shot to me and expect me to follow his instructions, which was easy.
- What Satyajit Ray gifted Sharmila for her wedding
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