July 23 2016
- Iconic star confident about the future of Indian cinema – exciting and different
- And highlights several Bollywood female leads for being responsible
- Roles changed as women became more emancipated in 1960s and 1970s
- Was talent spotted as a 13-year-old by legendary director Satyajit Ray
By Tasha Mathur and Sailesh Ram
HER NAME still stands for a certain type of cinematic glamour and style.
You could well argue that Sharmila Tagore was one of the first real stars to emerge from what we might now call Bollywood.
Her first work was with the legend that remains Satyajit Ray – the only Indian director to have an Oscar to his name – a Lifetime Achievement award in 1992, just days before his death.
Tagore herself is still a powerful and iconic figure – she has just been invited to become a member of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the body that votes for the Oscars. She served on the Cannes Film Festival Jury in 2009 and was chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification in India for many years.
Her fame and popularity have never really dwindled and this couldn’t have been more evident than in the high turnout for the London Indian Film Festival’s (LIFF) – ‘An Evening with Sharmila Tagore’ last Friday (July 15).
In conversation with friend and filmmaker Sangetta Datta, Tagore was presented with an ICON award for outstanding contribution to cinema by LIFF.
She told Datta she could sense a new era emerging and praised the role several leading ladies were playing in that.
“Audiences have changed. They’re seeing much better films and have a healthy appetite for diversity.
“The technology has improved, the content has improved.
“In ‘Piku’ for instance, it was a woman taking care of her father, which was unheard of. Now, Priyanka Chopra is accepted as playing a negative character, Saif (Ali Khan) can do ‘Omkara‘ and ‘Love Aaj Kal’.
“’Neerja’ didn’t have a male star but the film did well at the box office.
“All these women actors that we have, like Deepika (Padukone), Alia Bhatt, Kangana (Ranaut), Vidya Balan, Kalki (Koechlin) – look at this talent!
“There are different films, different genres and we’re now in a good place. I’m very optimistic about right now.”
In the 1970s, Tagore’s move to Bombay (Mumbai) signalled a new direction away from Bengali films and into mainstream Bollywood, where she grappled with the Hindi language and learning to lip-sync.
“Language was a bit of a challenge because I was Bengali and had that kind of an accent.”
However, she went on to say, ‘I think Hindi films unite people. Politics can divide but Hindi films unite.”
“Safar” (1970) and “Mausam” (1975) were two roles, which Tagore gave a special mention.
“In those days, they didn’t make films like that – where women had this kind of self-worth.
“It was a little before the women’s movement, so these were the precursors to other roles. I was one of the first in the generation of working women where even working was frowned upon and now of course everything has changed.”
Her first role in Ray’s “The World of Apu”, almost never came about.
She explained: “He was looking for a very young girl, a child bride…many people that he approached, the families didn’t want their young daughter to work in films because at that time, films were frowned upon.
“Although Ray had won awards and he was a well thought of director…nobody agreed to do that role.”
Related to India’s only Nobel Prize for Literature award winner, Rabindranath Tagore, she confessed she had stumbled upon the association, when asked to compose a poem for school at the age of eight.
“I went straight for my mother’s bookshelf and found a book where I copied one of the poems and I took it to school. It was a very good poem, which I liked. So the teacher said, ‘You’ve written this?’ I said ‘yes’. She paused and looked at me again, ‘Are you sure you’ve written this?’ Guess what it was? It was ‘Purshno’ by Rabindranath Tagore which is so, so well known! After that, my mother made it a point that I knew who Tagore was.”
Part of her family legacy also includes many pioneering women with one of Tagore’s relatives being the first to introduce blouses to sarees.
Tagore’s career spans 57 years from starring as the bride in Ray’s final instalment of his classic Apu Trilogy (‘Apur Sansar’/The World of Apu – 1959) through the 1960s and 1970s when she was a pin-up (she was the first Indian actress to wear a bikini) to “Life Goes On”, a British film about an Asian family struggling to come to terms with the death of its titular head and directed by Datta.
She married Indian cricket captain Tiger Pataudi in 1969 and became officially, Ayesha Sultana, as the wife of a real prince. Pataudi died in 2011 and both her children have followed her into acting – Saif Ali Khan is one of India’s biggest film stars and sister Soha Ali Khan has chosen to appear in more independent productions and starred alongside her mother in “Life Goes on”.