To hell and back
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.