Picture this. A 14-year-old Bangalore girl won the National Award for her first film (Mahakavi Kalidas, 1956). Its director, Honappa Bhagavathar, had spotted her singing at 13. Sent to school but allowed by her indulgent cop father to act, Bhairappa Saroja Devi had neither a film lineage nor a godfather. Instead, she had a strict dress code: no swimsuits — not even sleeveless blouses — and a lively mind fond of studying.
Saroja Devi won Kannada hearts first playing the brave Rani Chennamma of Kittur who had fought the British. She went on to act in more than 200 films in Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi, won encomiums like Chaturbhaashe Taare (Star of Four Languages; she learnt them) and Kannada Paingili (Tamil for Sweet Bird of Kannada) and absolutely ruled the Southern screen between the 50s and 70s like no other actress.
The top heroes of the South — MG Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, NT Ramarao, Akkineni Nageshwara Rao, Raj Kumar, Kalyan Kumar, Gemini Ganesan and Hindi heroes like Rajendra Kumar, Sunil Dutt and Shammi Kapoor were her co-stars. Bengali superstar Uttam Kumar reportedly said he wanted to work with her, a wish conveyed by Sivaji Ganesan. Cinema veteran V. Shantaram complimented her highly as a “real actress, expressing real emotion”. Meanwhile Saroja Devi took care to soothingly remark on her sizzling contemporaries Vyjayanthimala and Padmini, “I am no competition. I have come to do only a handful of Hindi films.”
Enroute, she had an arranged marriage in 1967 with a man of her own Gounder caste, Shri Harsha, an engineer with an MNC (“MS Subbulakshmi sang at my wedding!” she says, still sparkling at the thought). Like Madhuri Dixit’s Dr Nene, Saroja Devi’s husband had no problems with his bride’s movie persona and was described by Sivaji Ganesan as a “perfect gentleman”.
They had a son, Gautam, and a daughter, Indira — named after Indira Gandhi whom Saroja Devi says she greatly admired. Her husband passed away in 1986. Life went on with business interests, social work, yoga, walks, a one-chapatti lunch. “But my favourite is rice with sambar, any day,” and prayers to her personal deity, Anjaneya. B. Saroja Devi considered herself retired, secure in the knowledge that the population of three huge South Indian states had loved her to bits and that her country had bestowed a Padma Shri and a Padma Bhushan on her besides sundry other awards.
Then, after all these blameless decades and the lustre of being hailed as Abhinaya Saraswati (the public can always tell a lady and nuances its appreciation with shattering accuracy), scandal or just the law of averages — struck this January. Did the handsome former Chief Minister of Karnataka, S.M. Krishna, have an affair with her in her youth, as alleged in a book by another minister? The press was full of it. Says Saroja Devi, with surpassing charm, “I’ll have to go to heaven and ask my mother. All I remember is that I used to work 18-20 hours a day making films.” It is as sweetly firm a brush-off as any she ever gave her heroes onscreen. But India clearly didn’t want to know. On Tuesday, September 2, B Saroja Devi received the Lifetime Achievement award from the government at the 54th National Film Awards, along with Dilip Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar and Tapan Sinha.
If you’d like a peek at what the fuss was all about, rent these Hindi films: Paigham (with Dilip Kumar, 1959), Sasural (with Rajendra Kumar, 1960); Beti Bete (with Sunil Dutt, 1964), Preet Na Jaane Reet (with Shammi Kapoor, 1966).