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Sharmila: Ageing gracefully

Sharmila Tagore is an icon of charm, grace and glamour. Wish her | In pics

india Updated: Dec 09, 2005 20:03 IST

Kohl lined eyes that speak volumes, a typically Indian radiant face, sharp nose and dimpled cheeks! For cine goers the last description would help them easily identify with a household name from the world of films, without so much as a one second mull over! It's unmistakably a female actor's demeanor that rings a bell - that of one of India's first stars who ruledon her own terms. She also drinks gallons of water to maintain her porcelain skin and youthful magic. Also, she is perhaps the first successful star who heralded the perfect switch over to the arty brigade, commonly known then as the 'parallel cinema'. It is indeed Sharmila Tagore, the epitome of elegance and beauty.

Calling her as one of India's stars from the bygone era and mentioning her name in the past tense is both factually correct but unjust, for Tagore is, still today, as much part of the film industry as she has always been for over 40 years. It's not only because she happens to be Saif Ali Khan and the up and coming Soha Ali Khan's mother. Having just given us a heart wrenching performance in Mahesh Manjrekar's take on an aged couple's agony on losing a young strapping son and the loneliness thereafter in the critically acclaimed Viruddh, she continues to warm the hearts of millions of her fans. And there are many surprise in store in the near future, one of them being her playing reel life mom to real life son – the hottest sensation challenging the Khan triumvirate - Saif Ali Khan in Vidhu Vinod Chopra's BIG B starrer EkLavya. But for this discovery of one of India's pride Satyajit Ray, whose assistant followed her all the way to her residence in Kolkata afterschool to sign her for Apur Sansar when she was barely 13, life has

been a roller coaster ride with Ray "teaching me all the subtle nuances of acting as I looked wide eyed and wide mouthed to his instructions," recalls the National Award winner whose status as Begum Ayesha became a talk of nation's party circles when she married the handsome Nawab of Pataudi, the former skipper of the Indian Cricket team and one of country's most eligible bachelors.

While the post-marriage furore died a natural death, rumours of returning to the arc lights seemed remote as she straddled between royalty and her middle class Bengali status of her parents in the West Bengal Capital.

"I wasn't serious about acting initially but leant the ropes along the way by working with top notch directors," admits Tagore candidly.

It was her convent school background that dubbed her the 'anglicised Hindi film heroine" who could identify with only the Swiss school trained Nutan, Saira Banu and Tanuja for company as also with two convent school bred Simi and Aparna Sen. Tabloids never got tired writing of her affected British School induced Finishing school manners and her imperfect Hindi. "I think in Bengali still," proclaims Tagore, " and could never master the language well though I think I managed very well." She was often called La Tagore by the press as she insisted on following certain styles and public behaviour which often clashed with the then boorish ways of the Mumbai tinselville. Aparna Sen recollects how "Sharmila taught me how to cut into a cake." She made few friends other than the aforementioned but "was great pals with my heroes, namely, Shashi Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh too."

That was her biggest problem – she was either 'too sophisticated' or 'too Bengali' for the typical Mumbaiyya taste. Even Zeenat Aman, snubbed by the desi producers as "too firang" found this Bengali beauty as "someone I could relate too – like spend a great evening together with or chatting about life, discussing books and not wasting time on frivolities." She was also the first mainstream Indian actress, after Nutan and Sadhana wore a bathing costume, to don a two-piece bikini in Shakti Samanta's An Evening in Paris opposite the 60's box office king Shammi Kapoor. Her 'perfect 10' figure could give the Mallika Sherawats and Lara Duttas a run for their moolah. "I was greatly influenced by Hollywood and European cinema and could carry off any costume with panache and confidence, " she says with a sense of pride. And sure enough, no one till today, could fault her French bouffants or the stringed bikini that she lent grace to.

Her repertoire may include the money-spinning Sawan Ki Ghata and Kashmir Ki Kali, the controversial Daag, the quiet dignity personified in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anupama, the first of multistarrers Waqt, the musical Humsaya or the taut suspense thriller Talaash, the Uttam Kumar hits Amaanush and Anand Ashram to name a few, but it was also her return to her by now "passion to acting" with Shakti Samant's Aradhana just after she had delivered her first child but was "fit enough to take on any French actress in fitness and slender grace," remembers her favorite director Samanta. "We often had arguments on the sets as she would insist on doing things her way and would not live in till she got convinced of my view." Years later she had also said a firm 'No' to none other than Yash Chopra when he wanted to cast her in Kabhie Kabhie, in the lead, paving the way for another Bengali actress to restart her career, Rakhee.

"My priorities are home and managing children first and I wouldn't compromise on them even if the most luring offer comes my way," her stand is clear even now. Her best performance was however in Gulzar's Mausam which fetched her the National Award. 'It was the most challenging role of my career, "she recalls, "where I played a prostitute." The complex role had the traumatized ambivalence of a victim of lust. It's not as if it's been bouquets throughout. Apart from her not-so-great dancing abilities - a must for Hindi film stars – her dialogue delivery did come in for criticism at times but if there is one star who could win hands down as "a gorgeous looking splendid charmer who even today looks incredibly younger than her age," it would be undoubtedly her.

There was a slew of films that fulfilled her ambition as an actress – Amar Prem, Aavishkar, Safar, Satyakam, Grih Pravesh, Namkeen "or which allowed me to grow as an actress with immense scope to develop my characters," reminisces Tagore. Earlier in some of Ray's gems – Apur Sansar, Devi, Nayak Seemabadha, Aranyar Din Ratri she won both box office success and critical acclaim, some of it coming her way internationally too. A year ago, she even won the National Best Supporting Actress Award for her role in Gautam Ghosh sequel to Aranyar Din Ratri, Abar Aranye, a rare feat among 60 plus actresses in India.

As she celebrates her 59th birthday on the 8th of December this year, she is again inundated with calls to do films for the younger lot of promising directors. "I am doing my friend Aparna Sen's new film which also has Soha in its along with Konkona and I am looking forward to doing it," beams the double-image actor as both in her de glamorized and urbane and chic screen images, and whose magnetism never seems to fade away.

Is it merely 20 glasses of water that do the trick? One look at her library of books and an array of English and classic Hindi DVDs could also be the reason. Or is it her incomparable acting talent? Or is it just her being 'her'? Find out for yourself!

First Published: Dec 09, 2005 20:03 IST