In conversation with classic beauty Sharmila Tagore…
Other than the flurry of diverse and eclectic Indian cinema on show, another fabulous thing about the Bagri Foundation’s London Indian Film Festival is the star-studded crowd it draws in. This year, the highly anticipated festival brought to London the Bengali beauty of the wonderful retro era of Bollywood, Sharmila Tagore. Men of the sixties were besotted with her beautiful almond shaped eyes, perfectly accentuated with that iconic eyeliner flick of the times and her to-die-for dimples, but what is most impressive about this veteran actress, is the longevity of her career, spanning a magnanimous fifty years – it’s no wonder that she was awarded the prestigious Icon Award for outstanding contribution to Indian and world cinema at the festival itself. In person, she is still a picture of sublime elegance and grace, with an air of supremacy and refinery, inherited from her illustrious Tagore ancestors and perhaps furthered enhanced being the wife of a Nawab for forty four years. Yet, her warm smile with those characteristic dimples, melt away any potential intimidating moments. The vintage starlet shares the highlights of her life, which are not simply limited to the film industry, also revealing some intimate words of wisdom for her children and future grandchildren who will continue her legacy.
You have starred in some of the most memorable classics in indian cinema, and you’ve certainly made your mark in the industry, what has been the highlight of your career?
I’ve never really assessed my career like that, in terms of highlights. But favourite film of mine would be Mausam and probably Safar, as well as some of my Bengali films, especially my second film called Devi - these are the films I really cherish. Otherwise, I really enjoyed my career which has been pretty long - it’s been over 50 years and looking back I really have no regrets and I feel its been great.
How would you describe your journey as an actress?
I’m not very good at summing up, especially when it comes to my own work, I would rather that somebody else summed it up. But I would say I’m a working actress who has worked a lot. I don’t know how successful or good I am, that is for others to say. But I am still around, people still ask me to be part of a jury or come to festivals, or talk to young people, so in a way I have remained relevant. How that happened I don’t know! I guess because I am engaged with life, I haven’t retired and have always been in the public eye in one way or the other. When I became a full time mother I became the PTA chair person, after that I was a part of Eyewitness, which was a television news programme. I’ve done such a variety of things, including lots of humanitarian work, such as working with Unicef, CRY UK, we’ve raised funds for children, I’ve worked with acid survivors, visually impaired people – I have a diversity of interests. The days are full and I keep myself busy.
Indian cinema has of course moved and changed with the times, but what elements of the golden age of Bollywood do you miss that are not present in today’s Bollywood?
The music is disappearing. Nowadays, the music is usually in the background, and nobody bothers so much with the lip sync music - but that was always imposed, because in my time, films had all the genres possible. There was romance, action - we had everything in one film, including many songs. My popular films like An Evening In Paris, Aradhana, Amar Prem had so many great songs and sometimes, people went back to the theatre just for the songs. People used to say Rajesh Khanna became who was because of Kishore Kumar. There are still some interesting lyrics and some great music, for instance in films like Parineeta and Om Kara the music was very good. But yes, people now like feet tapping, catchy music that they can dance to.
What do you think of today’s actresses and is there anyone in particular who’s performance you admire?
Well, other than family! But I do think Kareena is very good, so is Saif – I’m a big fan of Saif, Soha and Kunal. But I like Alia Bhatt, I think in Kapoor And Sons and Udta Punjab she was very good. I like Deepika Padukone too. See, they are all very different, so it’s difficult for me to compare, because what Deepika can do, Alia can’t do and vice versa, and also she’s that much younger. There’s Kangana Ranaut, who brings another kind of element with her acting, Kalki Coechlin is very good, so is Priyanka Chopra and Vidya Balan who has a lovely voice.
Are there any roles where you feel that you would have loved to portray in your time?
Yes all the time! I just feel that these guys are getting the roles that we should have got. But the society was so different then, where women were expected to play very docile, simple and good for the family, goodie goodie stereotypical roles. Nowadays, girls are doing more defiant roles - I mean look at Piku, for instance, a girl looking after her father – earlier they would have said, how can a girl look after her father it has to be a boy. Neerja has done so well too, without a hero, so things are looking up for women in the industry and we never got these kind of roles back then. In my time, I only got Mausam and Safar in which my roles were quite layered, but that’s it.
As Saif and Kareena are expecting their first child – what words of wisdom as a mother will you pass onto Kareena?
I do not give any words of wisdom to anybody, but I’m sure she will ask me and I’ve advised her to stay away from people who smoke, to remain very calm and happy, listen to good music and not get stressed. Then, when the next stage comes, we’ll also plan out what to do then. Because you don’t plan a baby every day! It’s not like buying a dress or buying a car. How many children will you have – maximum two or three maybe, but not more than that and nowadays most people are just having one. So, I think the pregnancy time should be calm and happy, just so that the child remains healthy and she embraces and enjoys those wonderful nine months.
Did you encourage and want your children to follow in your footsteps and work in the industry?
I don’t think anyone can dictate to anybody. What is necessarily my strength, need not be Soha’s or Saif’s strengths. In any case, they know their generation better than I do, so each to their own. I was a product of a certain time and they’ll be a product of theirs, depending on their commitment, how much work they put in, how much they want things to happen to them – I’m sure they’ll figure it out.
What do you think of social media? Do you wish that it existed in your time?
I don’t have any take on social media. Information is accessible everywhere, so you don’t have to be on social media to know everything. These days everyone wants to know everything and do everything! To me, it’s not important - I mean I don’t need to know everything, but I remain curious to know everything. There is a difference. I have a lot of curiosity, but social media doesn’t interest me. In a way it is very good, that now reviews are not important, as we know from social media what film is doing well, or what isn’t doing well. We can see people’s reactions for ourselves, so everything is more instant, but beyond that – it’s not a part of my life. In my time, there were a lot of magazines, but I didn’t read them all, I chose my favourites and read them. Even now I read Indian Express and The Hindu, I don’t read all the newspapers, so I choose how much time I want to spend reading about the world. Otherwise, I have my own opinions and take on things, so I’m not guided by social media.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave behind and how would you like to be remembered in the history of Indian cinema?
Well, I won’t be there so it won’t matter to me. I might value certain things in me, but people may not feel the same. I think they’ll remember me the way they want to – I can’t dictate that, as we can’t control everything. The way I see things, is that I’ve stuck around for a while – I’ve stayed on for a very long time and I’ve had a long career, not just as an actress. I have remained in the public eye, I haven’t withdrawn or retired or left the platform so to speak. One way or the other, I’ve been in public. They’ve seen me grow as a human and actress - as a wife, a mother, as a grandmother, young, middle aged, old. So they know me and I guess that’s what matters most.
Find out more about the annual London Indian Film Festival
Interview by Fariha Sabir