At first glance, one assumes the lady with grey hair to be the elder one and the one with black hair to be the younger of the two. But of course, looks can be deceptive. Actor sisters Neena Tiwana and Balinder Johal inform laughingly that the grey-haired Neena is actually four years younger to Balinder.
We spot them catching up when Balinder, a TV and film actor based in Canada, was in India recently to meet relatives. Engulfed in a conversation with Neena about the good old theatre days, their love for the big screen and future projects, they gave us insight into their deep bond.
Born in Raikot, Punjab, Neena and Balinder recalled their enthusiasm to study, more so in relatively conservative times. “We moved to various places, including Khanna, Patiala, Nabha and Jagraon to study and later work.
Our mother, who was not much educated, remained our biggest source of motivation who would wake early with us whenever we had to prepare for debate contests or exams,” they reminisce. It was, in fact, their interest in extra-curricular activities that gave impetus to Neena and Balinder’s passion for theatre.
The stage also marked the start of an endearing love story in Neena’s life, for it is where she met her future husband, theatre artiste Harpal Tiwana. “Harpal ji saw me perform in a play once and we got along well. Soon, we started doing plays together, of which Balinder also became a part,” says Neena.
Since Harpal had only just started out, Neena says they encouraged him to enroll himself at the National School of Drama (NSD), New Delhi. “He loved to perform the bhangra, but I wanted him to do a course from NSD. We got married in 1962 and 13 days later, I got admitted to NSD as Harpal ji’s junior,” she laughs.
A year later, Balinder got married, moved to Canada and was cut off from the world of acting for sometime. Though she had armed herself with a master’s degree in education from the University of British Columbia, it was 13 years later that Balinder got back to theatre, when Harpal and Neena went to Canada to introduce plays there. “In 1981, I started teaching bhangra to school students, which I had learnt from Harpal ji in India. We even helped choreograph bhangra items for multicultural functions,” she adds.
The rekindled interest in theatre prompted Balinder to learn the basics in acting from Vancouver Film School, where she continues to be trained. Her talent got spotted when she was roped in for Deepa Mehta’s 2008 film, Heaven on Earth, in which she played mother-in-law to actor Preity Zinta.
Balinder, who also dabbles as a dialect coach and voice-over-artiste in Canada, has done films including The Birthday (for which she won the Leo Award for Best Performance in 2008), In the Name of Honour and the latest, Jatt and Juliet. Neena, meanwhile, has not only been active on stage, having done plays such as Sirhind Di Deewar and Long Da Lashkara, but also acted in films including Diva Bale Sari Raat (Punjabi) and Murder Unveiled (Indo-Canadian).
The Sangeet Natak Akademi Award winner’s upcoming play, Ammi, is ready to be staged in Patiala later this month.
On an emotional note, we ask the sisters what they love about each other. “Balinder is quite patient,” says Neena, adding, “She has waited her whole life to realise her passion and fulfill her dreams, which she did after retiring as a teacher.” Meanwhile, Balinder says she plays the caretaker, being elder.
“Being older, I have always protected her and tried to attend all family functions in India. I love Neena as a package,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.