<%-- Page Title--%> A Roman Column <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 135 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

December 26, 2003

<%-- Navigation Bar--%>
<%-- Navigation Bar--%>
<%-- 5% Text Table--%>


Meeting La Tagore

Neeman A Sobhan

The first time I met her I was a teenager in Dhaka: it was a stormy night and she was draped in a red blanket in front of a blazing fire, playing coy with Rajesh Khanna who was as rapt on screen as I was in my seat in the auditorium, heart thumping to the catchy tune of Roop Tera Mastana. Yes, I first saw Sharmila Tagore in 1972 at a screening of 'Aradhana'. We were newly liberated former East Pakistanis; this was my first Hindi film; and the dimpled actress we had glimpsed in back issues of Filmfare and Stardust had arrived for us on a chugging train to the beat of Merey sapnon ki rani kab ayegi tu. Now to cut from the flashback to the present, here I was in Rome, almost tees saal baad, dropping by at the home of a friend of mine, when the Sapnon ki Rani walked casually into the living room.

While being introduced, I shamelessly stared. I don't know what I had expected--the actress who started out as Debi in the Ray film and stayed to become the diva of Hindi movies? The coquette who dared to wear a bikini in An Evening in Paris, married the Nawab of Patuadi and continued with her hallmark extravagant eye make-up and stilted dialogue-delivery to be the glamorous Film Star? I saw the same dimples, the same face, but a totally different persona. Oh! I was utterly delighted to be disappointed! In fact, this is may be the right moment to confess, sotto voce, that I had never been her fan, but as soon as she speaks in her unaffected Bangla and English I am totally floored by the unpretentious lady I meet at my friend's home, where she is a houseguest, on her way back from the Venice Film Festival.

This deglamourised but elegant person in a simple grey pantsuit, with no conspicuous make-up or jewellery, is more attractive than her screen version, and surprisingly young looking, too. I blurt out: “You are so much prettier in real life without …” I'm thinking screen make-up, and she laughingly completes my thought, “I know, without the gunk. I am so tired of dressing up every since I came to Italy. It's lovely to just relax.” Her instant warmth is enchanting. She describes the delights of Italy. “The food is so good. I have been over-indulging and don't dare weigh myself.” I look at her slim frame and remark that she has no cause for anxiety. “Well, I have never cut back on food, but I do need my regular work-out to stay in shape, and you know, Neeman, how travelling disrupts that?” I notice her spontaneous use of my name and feel I'm talking to an old friend.

Though we do have mutual friends in Delhi who know her simply as Rinku, and I did grow up with her screen persona, that is not the reason why I feel this sense of having known her all my life. She has that gift of disarming strangers and making instant friends. “I am a people person,” she says, and I note how she makes eye contact, uses your name frequently, and listens intently to you as if you were the star! Her classy grace is not because she is a Begum, but because she is comfortable with herself to make others feel at ease. She mentions Pataudi only once to remark to my friend that Tiger is away shooting. “For a film?” she is asked. She laughs, “No the other kind, game-hunting.”

Conversation flows, and we chat on issues Indian, sub-continental and international. She is deeply aware and articulate about the important socio-political issues of the day and has many socially committed involvements. She works with NGO's and welfare groups, as well as a literary magazine called Katha to which she invites me to contribute. Her recent return to the world of films marks only a detour from her non-filmi life. Gautam Ghoshe's recent film Aabar Orronney, a sequel to Ray's Orroner Din Ratri, was presented at the Venice Film festival, thus her trip. She has enjoyed being a part of the film, loved being with the old stars, her old friends, who have made their different journeys just like the characters in the film.

She is conscious of her Muslim (Ayesha) side, and I am pleasantly surprised at her sense of identification with issues affecting Muslims both internationally as well as in India. About the negative perception of Islam in the U.S she said, “This time while there, whenever I heard anyone say anything incorrect or critical about Islam, I made it a point to speak up and correct them.”

A shy young girl walks into the room and perches herself on the arm of the sofa on which Sharmila is sitting. “My daughter Saba,” Sharmila's face lights up as she introduces her. Though not pretty as her mother, Saba impressed me as an unaffected, well brought up girl, who has studied jewellery designing. It's hard to imagine her as sister of the flashy Saif Ali Khan. Sharmila mentions that her other daughter Soha, is entering films. Sharmila is very close to son Saif and laughs, “As a kid he would get embarrassed and protest if I kissed him. It never stopped me then nor now!” Amrita Singh sneaks into the conversation when I ask Sharmila if she has ever been to Dhaka. She hasn't and would love to go, in fact, “Once I planned a trip, but my daughter-in-law's mother died just then, so I cancelled it.”

By now dinner was served. Since, my friends, the hosts, were Bangali's too (from West Bengal) and this was an impromptu dinner, we sat around the table eating with our fingers and chatting in Bangla. Only Saba, eating with a fork, spoke no Bangla, though she said she followed. In between passing the bhaji to Sharmila and she passing the daal to me we talked in an unstructured way, and while the food dried on our fingers, we indulged in a post-dinner adda. (I reproduce here some of Sharmila's comments on people.) Taslima Nasrin (“I met her once at a writer friend's place, and at first she ignored me and acted very prima-donna-ish. I realized that this was probably her defensive reaction to me, so I tried my best to warm her up. But she didn't have much to say. It was better when she read out from her work.”); Suchitra Sen (“She is reclusive, and when you meet her she can seem cold, but it is not a pose. If she likes you, she will talk to you all evening and ignore the rest. The next time she may not remember you at all. That's the way she is, an honest eccentricity.”); Moon-Moon Sen (“That girl actually has a lot of talent and draws very well. I once saw her doing one of those sketches where you don't lift the pen at all… I feel that she has a lot of untapped depth and is being unjust to herself, and not taking herself seriously.”); Aparna Sen (“She's going from strength to strength…”). Even as we chat, I can't help noting the youthful, ageless quality about her. When she asks for a cup of hot water to sip after her dinner, I feel certain that this might be the secret to her lovely skin, but that her inner beauty is nourished by the fact that she is a person without any malice, with a generous and genuine heart, and who is not self-centred but interested in others.

It's time to say goodbye. “You must come and see me in Delhi,” she says sincerely and wants us to meet the next day so I can show her my Rome. The next day, I am unable to, and the loss is mine. Later, I hear from my friend that in the two days she stayed she read bits from my book on Rome and had requested a personalized copy of her own. That's so like her, I smile at the exquisite irony as I autograph her copy: “For Sharmila-di, in friendship and admiration. It was a privilege to have met the beautiful person behind the Diva.”

Note: No part of this article, especially the quotes of Sharmila Tagore, should be reproduced without the writer’s permission.


(C) Copyright The Daily Star. The Daily Star Internet Edition, is published by The Daily Star.