Sharmila Tagore, who regaled us for 55 years – she made her debut in 1959 as a child-bride in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar – looks back with much pleasure and no regret at a life well lived on her 72nd birthday today.
What are your thoughts as you complete 7 2?
It’s really about taking one day at a time. I try to enjoy every moment of the time I have. I’m not a great one for retrospection. But now when I see my life I am very appreciative of all the goodwill and the opportunities. Even before my birthday the calls and messages started coming. It feels good to be… loved.
Not everyone gets this kind of attention ?
I feel to a large extent the way we are treated in life depends on the way we conduct ourselves. I feel it’s very important to adjust and adapt to growing circumstances. It’s nice to be where I am.
What do enjoy doing the most these days?
I am growing more and more fond of gardening, listening to music and reading. These are the three things I enjoy the most. Earlier I enjoyed the material things. Today I’d rather gaze at a beautiful painting or a carpet than go shopping.
Do you enjoy your own company now more than you did earlier?
Oh, absolutely. Human relationships can get awfully demanding and unpredictable. One day you feel one way. The next day you feel something else. That affects relationships. It’s better to spend time with yourself doing the things that you enjoy. When I walk into Pataudi (her husband’s ancestral home town) I can’t describe my pleasure and contentment. Otherwise traveling is such an effort, not really worth it any more.
Are you spending more time in Pataudi now?
Not as much as I’d like to. Now our home in Pataudi is no longer partially a hotel. It’s come to us. So it’s quiet and we have more privacy. But I am sure it will change. That’s another thing I’ve learnt in life. Everything is transient. Pataudi is not what it was when I got married. There was very little electricity there. So progress and change are inevitable. The only thing is progress is often haphazard. So things tend to seem chaotic before they finally settle down. Soon Pataudi may become like a suburb of Delhi, like Gurgaon.
Do you enjoy living in Delhi?
I can’t sit out in the garden any more. When I sit out now I can smell the fumes. My eyes burn. The pollution is really bad. Even the Delhi winters used to be so lovely. But as we travel out of Delhi the air gets purer.
It’s been more than more than three years since your husband (Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi) passed away. Have you come to terms with the loss?
I read this amazing book The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. It talks of how she dealt with her husband’s death. What she says is so true. Tiger wasn’t there for Saif and Kareena’s wedding. I do wish that he hadn’t gone away. That’s my one regret. Other than that there is no regret.
His legacy lives on in Pataudi?
That is why I like going there. Tiger is buried there. Earlier I felt odd when strangers pottered around. I was once sitting at his grave – this was just six months after his death – when a man and two kids came to me for an autograph. I said, not now. They want away. Later they returned and I chatted happily with them. Then the kids gave me a note written by their mother. It said I should show more humility towards the people who were responsible for making me what I was.
That’s so insensitive!
I was so hurt . I couldn’t comprehend their insensitivity. Knowing that I was sitting at my husband’s grave… to not show any sensitivity for my private moment of grief. People judge actors looking from the outside. They don’t really know what is going on in my life. There are hundreds of perspectives out there. I cannot live up to all the expectations. It’s very difficult to constantly be conscious of my public image. They do it out of a genuine love but sometimes they expect too much. I like going abroad because there are few people who recognize me there.
But there are Indians everywhere, and who doesn’t know you, Saif or Kareena?
That’s also true. So you have to find the right balance between the public and private persona. In the long run I’ve managed a good balance. In any case this is the profession of my choice. So I am not complaining. The perks are far larger than the pinpricks.
Kareena has adjusted wonderfully into your family?
She is such a beautiful girl with a pure heart. We all adore her. Yes, she has blended beautifully into the family. You know when Pataudi was critically ill she was there with the family so quietly and naturally.
We don’t see you in any recent films?
Acting is not the be-all and end-all of my life. There is so much more. In any case, unlike Jaya or Shabana who went to acting school I was an accidental actress. I remember seeing Jaya at 13 with her father, the distinguished journalist Taroon Kumar Bhaduri. Even at that age she was decked up, a rose in her hair and so on. She was very enamored of the camera. She was destined to be an actress. I had no such aspirations. I actually wanted to go to Santiniketan. I wanted to be a dancer.
Dancer is one thing you are not!
Yes, I agree. My life changed when I was introduced to Satyajit Ray. It was acting for me thereafter. But I kept telling myself I’d quit after every film. I saw myself in my first Hindi film Kashmir Ki Kali and I didn’t like myself. I said, one more film then I am done. So it continued. But I left so many like Khilona, Tere Mere Sapne, Roti Kapda Aur Makaan, Aadmi Aur Insaan. When I was offered the last by Yash Chopra I told him I was quitting.
I wanted to accompany Tiger on his world tours. There was always that conflict between home and career. But ultimately it all balanced out. There was a lot of sacrifice involved. There were no mobile phones and I constantly remained anxious about the children while working.
How did you make your children understand that you had to leave them every day to go to work?
I made my daughters appreciate my work. Every day we’d rate my work. They’d ask if I got 10 out of 10 for my shots. They took my work as seriously as they took their studies.
That’s an unique way of getting the children to participate in your work.
During those days working women had to constantly apologize. Society didn’t approve of women who went out to work leaving their children. Neither of my girls resented my work. I had to go out of India for a long time to shoot Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala. We had to keep in touch through letters. Tiger was there and my mother-in-law also took very good care of children. But I missed them when I was away.
You led a charmed life?
Looking back I am grateful everything went smoothly. Anything could have gone wrong. My children grew up to be self-sufficient. All three are successful in their work. When Saif came into films he had no family backing. He was thrown out of Rahul Rawail’s film. I rang up Rahul. But it didn’t happen. Eventually Yash Chopra launched him in Parampara. He survived and became successful on his own. Soha too pays her own rent. Saba is also working. All my children live within their means.
You are the only actress who became more successful after your marriage. How did that happen?
Right choice of films and director. Ultimately it’s the films that work. I think it is believed that a certain section of the audience doesn’t like to see an actress when she’s married. But I feel if you give them a good story and a good film they cannot ignore you. I did very powerful films like Aradhana, Amar Prem, Mausam, Grihapravesh and Dooriyaan. I guess things just worked out for me. I wasn’t really concerned with whether my films were successful or not. I just wanted to work. I don’t think I was a victim of stardom. I never aspired to be only a star. I wasn’t averse to taking risks in my career. If I read a subject and liked it, I’d do it for a token fee. Basu Bhattacharya and Tapan Sinha hardly paid us. But I loved working with them. One hardly worked with Satyajit Ray for money.
Your favourite roles and films?
I like Asit Sen’s Safar and Bhimsain’s Dooriyaan because I played proper professionals. This was so different from the conventional roles for heroines during those days. I like Anupama, Safar, Amar Prem, Talaash, Aradhana. Apur Sansar was a milestone and so was Devi. I got to work with Satyajit Ray in both. I started a film each with Bimal Roy and Ramesh Saigal. But they were shelved. Even that brief stint with them stayed. Shakti Samanta, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Gulzar, O. P. Ralhan, they were all important directors.
Your favourite co-stars?
All of them. Sanjeev, Shashi, Kaka (Rajesh Khanna), Dharmendra. Even Sunil Dutt, Dilip Saab, Rajendra Kumar, Dev Anand….all so wonderful. Some films didn’t work. But they paid me well. But the ones I chose for the story have done well.
You were the first actress to wear a bikini!
That was so frowned upon during my time. Now it has become a cult thing. It’s still considered a big deal .The Indian mindset has not changed at all.
Any temptation to return?
Not really. I am quite happy with my gardening, music, reading and UNICEF work.