To hell and back. She's had the most amazing life. But Sarika’s back on her feet, back in Bombay and may have just won the National Award for Best Actress. Vir Sanghvi tells more.
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Brunchfor 5th Anniversary Special
Here are some things you may not know about Sarika. She started acting when she was four years old. That, in the early films – before the equipment arrived – she played a boy. That when she ran away from her mother’s house, she slept in her car for six nights because she was too proud to tell her friends that she was homeless. That, after she had her first child out of wedlock, she refused to marry the father (the actor Kamal Haasan) until she had a second child because she did not want it said that, of her kids, one child was born to married parents while the other was not. That she nearly married Kapil Dev. That she’s single, footloose and looking for work again. And that, within a year of coming back to Bombay, she signed up for the film that won her the National Award as Best Actress.
Sarika’s life. It’s been an astonishing and striking 46 years; a story full of so many twists and turns that it sounds unbelievable. Or it sounds like a Hindi film
Our story begins in 1960 when Sarika is born, the only child of a squabbling couple who live in the suburbs of Bombay.
Her mother, a Rajput, is the strong, tough one. Her father, a photographer, is of a more genial disposition. But neither is happy in the marriage. Her father sends a photograph of his daughter to The Times of India group to enter her in a competition. She is too young; her father intends it as a joke; the entry is duly rejected; but a journalist sees the picture of the little girl and is struck by her face. He phones BR Chopra, one of Bombay’s biggest film producers, and tells him that he may have found a girl for his new film.
Sarika is four years old. In 1964, Sarika and her parents make the trek to BR Films where she is signed up pretty much on the spot. Within weeks, she is in front of the camera, the latest child star in the Bombay film industry. Even as the film nears completion, her parents decide to end the squabbles and part. Her father moves out. She does not see him again for another 30 years or so. Nor does she hear from him. (Perhaps her mother kept them apart; it was a long time ago and everybody has their own version of events.)
Sarika is left with her mother who, denied an income by her husband’s departure, decides that the daughter will be the bread-winner in the family. When the first film is a hit, the mother decides to take her daughter from production office to studio, looking for new roles for the child actress. This is not as easy as it sounds. Many films do not have roles for small children. Even when such roles exist, there is no shortage of kids willing to sign up for them: how much acting talent do you need to play the child in your average Hindi movie?
Plus, there’s no real money in child-acting. Your Dilip Kumars, Dharmendras and Meena Kumaris may rake in the rupees but child stars are fobbed off with peanuts. Till the work becomes regular – and that takes a couple of years – mother and daughter survive on crumbs. They walk from Seven Bungalows (where they live) to offices and train stations because they are too poor to afford transport. They survive on brun-maska (bread and butter) at Irani restaurants. Sometimes even the few paise required for BEST bus fares seems too high a price to pay. Fortunately, the camera loves Sarika. After the first two films are released, the work becomes more or less regular. Producers know that not only does she fit the ‘cute kid’ slot perfectly but that, even at that early age, she is something of a pro, able to laugh, cry or dance on demand.Very quickly, the film industry becomes her home; the studio is her playground. BR Chopra becomes ‘Uncle,’ Meena Kumari is ‘Aunty,’ Sanjeev Kumar puts her on his shoulders and carries her around the studio. The roles come more easily now because she is part of the film family. She plays happy girls, sad girls and even well-behaved boys and abandoned children. She celebrates birthdays on the set. She wakes up in the morning and expects to go straight to ‘Make Up’; she learns how to smile prettily when they shout ‘Action’; and how to return to normal at the call of ‘Cut’. And through it all, there is her mother, a silent, glowering figure on the sidelines, keeping a careful watch on her daughter, taking her home in the evenings – and collecting all the cheques.
Sarika has no education. She has never been to school, let alone college. She did not even know how to read or write till she was eleven. She remembers: “My mother believed that because it was impossible for me to go to school because I was shooting, she should get me a tutor.” A tutor was duly hired, a nice Parsi lady called, Sarika thinks, Gulshan Aunty. But because actresses did not need to know how to read – well, with a child star, it may even be a good thing if she was kept in the dark – the tutorials were never taken too seriously.
“When I was about ten or eleven,” says Sarika, “I suddenly realised that this was not working. She kept giving me the same lessons to do again and again. But I would never learn anything. I would have difficulty in reading even the simplest things.” So, she resolved to teach herself to read. Resolutely, she made an effort to get hold of books, forced herself to read them, asked co-stars to tell her things and finally, she had some confidence in her own ability to read and write.
Isn’t that odd? And did it work? “Yes, it was unusual,” she concedes. “But I think I wanted to read so desperately that I had the motivation. Even now, reading is one of my great joys. I am the sort of person who, if she finds something she likes in a paper, will cut it out and keep it. I treasure the written word.” Childstars come with a sell-by date. Their voices break, the first shoots of stubble appear and – if they are girls – their bodies suddenly begin to curve and expand.
Sarika is no exception. In at least one film where she plays a boy, the producer throws up his hands half way through filming (in those days, the average film took a year or so to get made) complaining that no boy could possibly be expected to suddenly develop this kind of chest. There is only one thing to do: get her to graduate to the big league, as a heroine.
But can a girl whose chief claim to fame so far has been her androgyny – she plays boys and girls – suddenly transform herself into the object of front benchers’ desires? Two producers are willing to take that chance. When she is only thirteen, Sarika starts preparing to take the lead roles. Nobody has any sense of how she should look on the screen so each make-up person offers his own take on the grown-up Sarika. The Barjatyas of Rajshri cast her in Geet Gaata Chal opposite Sachin (another former child star) and decide that to make her look desirable and sexy in that well-scrubbed antiseptic Rajshri way, they must shave off the front of her head and give her a new hairline so far back that even an orangutan would complain. They take her already slender eyebrows and file away at them till they resemble narrow arrows. Her face is plastered with pancake. Her lips are smeared with lipstick.
Against the odds, it works. The film is a super-hit. Sarika, now all curves and jhatak-matak, is hailed as a teenage sex symbol. Sachin and she are signed for many more films, becoming a sort of pubescent Amitabh and Rekha pair for younger viewers in the 1970s. Producers vie to read scripts to her mother. The money starts rolling in. So, was she happy in those days? Did she enjoy her success? These days, Sarika is going through a life-isbeautiful-and-where’s-the-time-forbitterness phase, so her answers sometimes seem artificially sunny and mindlessly cheery.
She will not talk about the breakdown of her parents’ marriage. She will not discuss her complicated relationship with a possessive and abusive mother. She will dismiss all questions about her big love affair with Sachin in the 1970s with a “it was all so long ago” and will say things like “wherever my mother is now, I do not want to hurt her by remembering things that are in the past.”
This is all very laudable and worthy of first prize at an Art of Living competition. But it does make it difficult to establish what really went on during those years. Judging by the things she will say though, it seems clear that she had no life outside of films. Equally it seems clear that she did not really mind this either; the film industry was the only home (or school) that she had even known.
“I suppose that initially, at least, I enjoyed all the fame that came after Geet Gaata Chal. Child stars are never recognised in the streets and rarely asked for autographs, so it was a new feeling for me even though I had been in the industry for nearly a decade,” she allows. Did she miss never having had any friends of her own age? “I grew up in the industry and there was a family-like atmosphere on most sets,” she argues, “so it is not as though I was lonely or alone. But yes, when I was younger I used to wish I knew other children. When I became a heroine though, I made many friends on the sets.” And when did she begin to resent her mother? Sarika falls silent.
Most child stars have pushy mothers who live vicariously through them. But Sarika’s mother seems different from other star-mothers. She has many friends of her age. She takes no great joy in her child’s success. But yes, she likes the money. Sarika, who has grown used to doing as her mother says, rarely raises any objections or makes any moves of her own. If she does something wrong, her mother will fly into a rage. If the rage does not subside then Sarika will get hit; slapped, walloped and thrashed.
In the 1960s, it is not unusual for parents to hit their children so people don’t think this is odd. But as Sarika grows older, as her career as a heroine takes off, the violence provokes more comment.
She is slapped on the sets. She is thrashed at home. She is shouted at in public. She is abused on the streets. And yet, she acts as though this is normal.
After an incident at Shanmukhanda Hall, the film industry talks of nothing else except the stranglehold the mother has on the daughter.
Sarika’s mother is one of the organisers of a charity function. She has declared that her daughter, a big star, will be the compere. Sarika arrives late for the function. Her mother is livid. She is angrier still as the
fans crowd around Sarika asking for autographs. She walks up to her daughter and abuses her. Then she slaps her on the face. As her fans watch horrified, Sarika excuses herself, goes to the loo and washes her face. Then, she goes on to the stage and comperes the function as though nothing has happened.
Producers and directors begin to wonder about the relationship too. Basu Bhattacharya with whom Sarika later makes such 1970s classics as Grihapravesh, arrives at her house to narrate a story. Tell me, says the mother. I won’t, says Bhattacharya. You are not the one I want to cast. I need to talk to the actress. No, says the mother. You deal only with me.
It’s the same with the money. Sarika never knows how much money she is making. She does not even know her asking rate. She has heard that her mother has a shrewd head for business but she has no idea of all the property – the flat, the plot near Film City etc. – that has been bought with her money (but not in her name).
One day, her mother is not on the set. The producer, who is due to pay an installment of her remuneration, gives her an envelope with cash. Sarika is thrilled. She goes to a bookshop. She spends Rs 1,500 or so. When she comes home and tells her mother what she has done, there is hell to pay. She is yelled at. And she is thrashed.
Never, ever, touch any money until I allow you to, her mother says. Sarika apologises. She will never do it again, she says. One day, Sarika takes everybody by surprise. She walks out of home. It happens this way. She is telling her mother something when her mother flies into a rage. Suddenly she starts hitting Sarika.
Her daughter is 21 years old and a top star. Sarika decides she has to go. Now. She leaves everything behind. Her clothes. Her make-up. Her jewellery. Her books.
She gets into her car and drives. She wonders where she should go till it hits her: there is nowhere. She spends the first night sleeping in her car. The next day she drops in on a friend. She has a bath at her house, eats lunch, borrows some clothes. And then she leaves with a cheery goodbye.
She tells nobody she has left home. For six days, she keeps up this routine. Sudden visits to friends. Baths in other people’s houses. Borrowed clothes. And no explanations. Finally, her friends twig that something is wrong. One by one they cross-question her till slowly the whole story comes tumbling out. Naturally, they are appalled. They offer her shelter. They tell her that she is lucky that she is between films but soon she will have to shoot. She will need a home, then.
Sarika concedes the point. But she is happy. She has proved to herself – for the first time since she was four years old – that she can live on her own; that she needs nobody. She starts looking for a flat to rent. But madam, says the estate agent, you own six flats in this area. I do? She is surprised. She phones her mother. The response is pragmatic. There are no tears, no recriminations. It is significant that, for the ten days since she walked out, her mother has made no attempt to try and trace her. Fine, says her mother. You want to go, you can go. But transfer the gas connection to my name. And there are other papers you need to sign. There is not one word about Sarika’s money. About the flats that were bought with her earnings. Not one word of love.
Sarika signs. And she is free. Looking back, I asked Sarika, why did it take so long to walk out on an abusive mother who clearly saw you as no more than the goose that laid the golden eggs?
Sarika’s response is that she did not know any better: “When you have been brought up one way with just one parent and no family, that becomes your sense of roots.” Fortunately for her, she walked out when she still had a career. She found a flat, signed more films and resolved to make enough money to buy a place of her own. (Which she did, eventually – in Seven Bungalows – where she had grown up.)
The hits kept coming. She did mainstream films. She made movies with Hrishikesh Mukherjee, with Basu Chatterjee, with Jalal Agha (his much publicised but rarely seen Nirvana) as well as the out-and-out commercial masala flicks that paid the bills. Her mother had made her feel that she would never be able to handle her own affairs – but she was soon to learn that it wasn’t so difficult. In a matter of months, she had a flat, a booming career and new life. Now, she needed to fall in love. Sarika’s love life is a bit of an open book. With Stardust and Cine Blitz and Movie around, no star can fall in love without millions of readers breathlessly waiting for the wedding – or break-up.
The great love affair with Sachin is incessantly chronicled and when they part (because of both sets of parents, perhaps) he is quite happy to refer to it in interviews. (Asked by Stardust what he is sentimental about, he answers “green eyes”. The readers know what he is talking about.) Then, there’s the sort-of-affair with Kapil Dev. It is Mrs Manoj Kumar’s idea. Kapil is the star of the Indian cricket team, the sort of simple Punjabi boy who Mr and Mrs Manoj Kumar feel would be just right for young Sarika.
The couple meet. They sort of like each other. Sarika is taken to Chandigarh. Kapil’s family dotes on her pale-eyed beauty. Everything seems to be in place.
Then, Mrs Manoj Kumar calls Sarika. Disaster! Kapil has gone back to Romi! Apparently he had a girlfriend all along. He only agreed to see Sarika because he had fought with Romi. What a cad! No question of marriage etc. etc.
Sarika is amused. She moves on. Who’s next? The film press can’t wait to find out. When she begins an affair with Karan Kapoor on the sets of Nirvana, the magazines get dizzy at the prospects. What could they have in common? Will she follow him to London where he is taking the stills for Merchant-Ivory’s A Room With A View?
No, she won’t. They break up. All this, it turns out, is merely the stuff before the main feature. Kamal Haasan.
Sarika will not talk about her marriage or its very public and frequently bitter culmination. She says that, of the two, she is the one spouse who has refused to go to the press even though Tamil magazines turned the couple’s estrangement into a flourishing industry.
But the story itself is not difficult to piece together because so much of it was told in the gossip columns. As far as I can tell, it began in Bombay around the time Kamal Haasan was being hailed as the Next Big Thing for Hindi movies (in the mid-1980s, just before Sagar; he was already big in Madras).
The relationship remained under wraps for a couple of years largely because of Kamal Haasan’s own complicated love life: he was married to one woman and involved in a serious (and fairly public) relationship with a second. Though she and Kamal Haasan had their ups and downs (they once did not speak for eight months), Sarika will concede that the love story was strong and intense. (“It was magic,” she says.) Somewhere along the way, she got pregnant. He was ambivalent but she insisted on keeping the baby. As she was ready to fly off to London for the delivery, he asked her to come to Madras. He was ready, he said, to now come clean about the relationship. As the film press went into overdrive (she was called a marriagewrecker etc.), she went to his side and became a proud unwed mother (an even bigger deal in the 1980s). He offered to marry her. She refused. She wanted another child, she said. And she would not tolerate any difference in status between the two. It was only after the second child was born that they got married.
Sarika gave up acting. She learnt Tamil, became close to Kamal Haasan’s extended family, did the costumes for his films and built a new life in Madras.
It was this perfect love story that the couple broadcast, most notably on Rendezvous With Simi Garewal where their attachment to each other seemed almost too good to be true. Which, of course, it was.
Who can tell – from the outside – why a marriage breaks up? It is hard enough to tell from the inside which partner has the genuine grievance; which partner was the philanderer; and which partner was uncaring.
The Tamil press, which sold millions of extra copies because of the Kamal Haasan-Sarika break-up, has it own version which goes like this: shortly after Sarika got pregnant, Kamal Haasan embarked on another affair, with the actress Gautami. Sarika did not know about it and even went on to become great friends with Gautami.
Then, Gautami got tired of playing second fiddle and wandered off to get married. Kamal Haasan was devastated and tried to woo her back. And perhaps Gautami relented but by then, Kamal Haasan was seeing someone else anyway. Eventually he made it clear to Sarika that she was no longer required. (About the breakup of his first marriage, Kamal Haasan had told an interviewer: “It is like bad food. If your body rejects it then it will be passed out of your system.” Presumably, the same biology applied to his marriage to Sarika.) Sarika moved out. Kamal Haasan told the press that he had been treated badly at home. (The food was never ready on time!) Journalists “sympathetic to him” (as good a euphemism as any) wrote that Sarika was demanding huge amounts of alimony. And soon his girlfriend moved in with him.
It was at that stage that Sarika, at 43, moved back to Bombay, rented an apartment in Bandra, and tried to start life all over again, going back to where she had begun in 1964: as an actress looking for work. Sarika’s rented flat in Bombay, 2006. It is late in the night. A screening of Parzania has just ended at the nearby Dimple preview theatre. Some members of the audience and the director, Rahul Dholakia, have ended up at Sarika’s home for coffee and to discuss the film and her performance in it.
It is a difficult role for Sarika to essay. She plays the mother of a Parsi boy who goes missing during the Ahmedabad riots. But despite acting opposite Naseeruddin Shah, possibly the greatest film actor in India today, she more than holds her own. She’s done Parzania for very little money. When she signed it, the BJP was in power and it was assumed that the film would never be released in India. So it is an English language film directed at an English-speaking audience.
But Sarika doesn’t seem to care about the money. If she’s actually made crores from Kamal Haasan (her friends say she took nothing from him) then she’s hidden the wealth well. The flat is well-located and comfortable but it is hardly ostentatious and luxurious. There is a certain warm bareness to it that suggests the kinds of homes that Deepti Naval and Farooque Sheikh used to live in when the likes of Basu Chatterjee showed us what urban living was like in their 1980s movies. Sarika is talking about the Gujarat riots, about the need to make people realise the predicament of ordinary Indians caught up in conflicts they have nothing to do with. She wears no make-up, her cotton kurta is loose and flowing, her chappals have been tossed aside and she is squatting on the floor.
It is hard to think: this girl was once a huge, huge star. In early January I catch up with Sarika at a suburban hotel in Bombay. She starts off on cappuccino (three cups) and then switches to masala chai (two more cups). Oh look, she says, there’s some hazelnut cake! She has just returned from Rajasthan (“they make these amazing desserts with til…”) where she is shooting for a commercial film and is awaiting the Republic Day release of Parzania.
Did she ever find her father? Yes, she did. About a decade ago, she decided that she had to rediscover him. It took months of searching but she finally located him. He had remarried and had other children but he had proudly followed his daughter’s career from afar.
And her mother? We are not in touch, she says stiffly. She is surprised by the buzz around Parzania just as she was surprised to discover that she’d won the National Award for Best Actress for the film.
But like everything else in Sarika’s life, even the award has not been simple. Because of a court case, the I&B Ministry can’t officially announce the names of the winners. So, the minister has now said that this year they will announce the awards for two years together. If that happens, then Sarika will finally get her award.
Not that she seems to care. At 46, she’s lost the slightly harsh sexiness that characterised her career as a heroine. And despite the trials and tribulations of her life, her face is unlined and open.
What next, I ask. “I need to make some money,” she laughs. “There’s rent to be paid.” And after that? “Who knows?” she smiles. “As though anything in my life has ever gone as I intended it to...” Which, I guess, is as true as it gets.
From Archives of Brunch for 5th Anniversary Special