A rebel storms the screen again: Anupama Chopra on Gulmohar
Sharmila Tagore plays Kusum, an elegant, wise, defiant matriarch, in the new film. It’s the ideal role for an actress who has always, inspiringly, done things her way.
Last week, after a 12-year hiatus, Sharmila Tagore returned to the screen with Gulmohar. In the film (now streaming on Disney+ Hotstar), she plays Kusum, the matriarch of an affluent Delhi family. Gulmohar is the name of their two-storey home, which is now being sold.
What is being dismantled is not just a house but a way of life. At the last family gathering before the packers arrive, Kusum announces that she has bought a house in Puducherry and intends to live there by herself. Amid these announcements, friction and old wounds between three generations of Batras resurface. But after much upheaval and strain, they come to understand that family is bigger than bricks and mortar.
As Kusum, Sharmila is contained. She is elegant and beauteous, with a defiance built into her dignity. At one point, she speaks of a secret past no one in the family is aware of; in the end, her Puducherry decision makes startling and delightful sense.
Kusum might be a senior citizen but she’s still very much a rebel. Which makes her the perfect fit for Sharmila. This is an actor who made her debut at 14. When she started shooting for that film, Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar, at 13, her fledgling acting career incensed her principal so much that the teenager was forced to move to another school.
At 17, she was pursuing her chosen career while living alone in a hotel. At 22, she became the first Indian actress to pose for a magazine cover (Filmfare) in a bikini. The image caused such a sensation that there were questions raised about it in Parliament.
Two years after that, she married the cricketer and nawab Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi. Then caused jaws to drop yet again a few years later, when she returned to the screen after her first child, Saif Ali Khan, was born in 1970.
In 1976, she won a National Award for Mausam, in which she played two roles, one that of a sex worker. “What I am now, I was then,” she said, in an interview with Mojo Story last week.
Sharmila was and continues to be a disruptor (watch Gulmohar to understand the full extent of her risk-taking). At 78, she brings beauty and wisdom to every scene she’s in.
Contemporary artists could learn from her incredible range. She did some of her best work with Ray (they did five films together), but Sharmila was also a star of the mainstream. Watch her in Shakti Samanta’s 1969 Aradhana – the film with the iconic songs Mere Sapnon ki Rani and the single-take Roop Tera Mastana, where she and Rajesh Khanna, barely dressed, circle a fire sensuously. She was a fashion maven too, setting trends with her bouffant hair-do and winged eyeliner.
Two years ago, in an interview with Film Companion, Sharmila said that old age was like autumn. “It’s beautiful, but you are nearing the end.” I’ve never forgotten that line. After 65 years of making movies, she continues to be an inspiration.