Interview Hindi

Shahu Modak through the eyes of his spiritual partner and wife Pratibha Modak

On the yesteryear star's 24th death anniversary (he died 11 May 1993), his wife got talking about his career and not-so-ordinary personal life in a no-holds-barred chat. 

Keyur Seta

Actors like Manoj Kumar, Sunny Deol and Akshay Kumar are known for playing patriotic characters at different stages in their career and Hindi film history. But when it comes to playing mythological characters, there is only actor who acquired mastery over it. Shahu Modak was Hindi and Marathi cinema’s go-to man to play mythological characters. In fact, he played Krishna 29 times in his career in films like Shyam Sundar (1932), Nand Ke Lala (1934), Shri Krishnarjun Yuddha (1945), Bhagwan Shri Krishna (1950) and Krishna-Krishna (1986).

On his 24th death anniversary today (11 May), his wife, Pratibha Shahu Modak, speaks exclusively to about Shahu Modak's reel and real lives in a light-hearted, funny and no-holds-barred discussion.

How did Shahu Modak enter films?

It was in 1932. You might take time to imagine when that was. Bhalji Pendharkar wanted to make a film on the childhood of Krishna. In those times, there were no playback singers. Only those actors who could sing were cast. They wanted a boy who looked good, could sing and fell in the age group of 12-13 years. Bhaurao Datare, who was known for playing Shivaji Maharaj on stage, told the makers that Modak’s child looks exactly like Krishna but they are Christians by faith. Datare wasn’t sure that Modak’s family would allow him to play a Hindu god, but he felt there is no harm in asking. So, one day Nanasaheb Sarpotdar, Bhalji Pendharkar and Dadasaheb Torne went to Ahmednagar (to meet the Modak family).

My in-laws were well-educated and open-minded. The three of them were having a general discussion on the table. My husband was then studying in the fourth standard. When he returned from school during the break, he was surprised to see strangers at his place. As he was about to leave, his father asked him to wait. Sarpotdar, Pendharkar and Torne asked him to sing. He did a musical performance of Deenanath Mangeshkar. They loved it and asked if he would act in a film. He didn’t understand this then, so he instantly agreed. But a huge conflict erupted in the house. During those times, people thought a person gets spoilt if he works in films.

People think the same even today.

Yes, it’s still the same. So, women of the house started opposing it. But his father pointed out that these are respectable people, not just any chaps. He also assured that Shahu’s studies won’t be affected. Finally, all agreed. The film was Shyam Sundar (1932) and it became the first talkie to complete silver jubilee.

In those days they used to make films in two languages (Marathi and Hindi). The film had eight songs and all were sung by him. The songs became so popular. Years later when we had gone for a show in Solapur, a person working at the venue urged us to come to his office right away. We wondered what he was up to. He made us listen to two songs from Shyam Sundar — ‘Bhave Varit Go Sevela’ and ‘Bhava Mani Nana Kadhi Na Tyaga Swabhimana.’ We were overwhelmed.

After the film completed its silver jubilee, there was a long queue of producers. His second film was Autghatkecha Raja (1933), which was Awaaara Shaahzaada (1932) in Hindi in which he became the first Indian actor (in a talkie) to do a double role, after being the first actor to deliver a silver jubilee hit.

He is also the first actor to play a police officer. Such things are hardly mentioned anywhere. This is the reason I am making a 40-minute documentary on him, so that the coming generations will know about him. It will be directed by Sudhir Gadgil, who has translated his biography that I have written.

How and where did you meet him?

My story is altogether different. It’s more interesting than his. I was a Jain Sadhvi (nun) for nine years. I studied Jainism for five years. I did not agree with a few things being taught. But once you get into such things, it is very difficult to come out.

Once we had a lecture by Modak. Although people knew him as an actor, he considered Swami Vivekananda as his guru. He gave many lectures on Vivekananda. My head too is always at his feet. I was told that he is a renowned astrologer too. It was very difficult for sadhvis to go out, but somehow we met him. He saw my hand from some distance and immediately predicted, ‘Bohat hi jald aap yeh asharam chhod degi (You will quit the asharam soon).’

This is how we came to know each other. Later I realised that he is a worthy individual. So we decided to get married and form a spiritual relationship. We didn’t get married for sex, children or to increase the family. He was 20-and-a-half years older than me, but he didn’t look even 20 days older than me as he was involved in Yoga and spirituality.

Your spiritual relationship reminds me of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Sarada Devi.

Yes, it does. In fact, he always used to call me Sarada Devi.

Pratibha Modak with pictures of Shahu Modak.

He was a Christian, yet he played roles of Hindu gods. He played Krishna 29 times.

Well, Modaks are Kokanastha Brahmins. His great great grandfather had changed their religion. People mix religion, caste and culture, but that shouldn’t be the case. His great great grandfather was thinking about converting to a religion that has no differentiation and people behaved like humans. He felt Christianity was such a religion. So, originally they were Brahmins. Tomorrow if I convert to Zoroastrianism, I will continue to be a Marwadi.

Did he become a follower of Krishna after playing Krishna these many times?

No, he wasn’t a follower of anyone. Anyone who considers Vivekananda as their guru doesn’t become a follower of anyone. He used to consider himself as the citizen of the world. Just like I am right now. I am Marwadi by birth, Jain by religion and I married a Christian. Is this any combination?

But the only label I have on myself is that I am human and humanity is my religion. I don’t want any other label. That’s why people of Pune have showered me with such love. When I came to Pune, I couldn’t even speak 10 sentences in Marathi. Now I can give an hour-long lecture in the language. People here kept saying that they find my Marathi sweet. So, I kept going ahead. This is my 25th year in Pune. Now, I am pakki Puneri (laughs).

Amidst many mythological and devotional films, he also did a film with a social subject like Manoos (1939). It is amazing how a bold subject like a cop falling in love with a prostitute was tried almost 80 years ago.

Even Charlie Chaplin had seen that film. He considered it as one of his 10 evergreen films. It is amazing how such a bold topic was tried then. Before this film, Devdas (1936) had released. The film showed that when the protagonist becomes unsuccessful in love, he gets frustrated and decides to end his life. So, to give an answer to that film, V Shantaram made Manoos.

When the protagonist’s love story ends in tragedy and he goes drunk at a river bank, his well-wisher tells him, ‘You are a human. Your mother kept you in the womb for nine months. You have no consideration for her and you are ending your life for a one-year old love story? You are a human after all.’ He then gets up and says, ‘Mee manoos aahe (I am a human).’

Shahu Modak

Didn’t the audience find the subject too bold for that time?

People did feel that. But they also widely appreciated it. His film Pahili Mangalagaur (1942) was bolder. It also had a kissing scene. The film also saw Lata Mangeshkar play Modak’s sister-in-law. Sneh Prabha Pradhan was his heroine. Their pair had become famous then.

Years later after our marriage when we were going for a screening of the film, Sneh Prabha Pradhan told me that the kissing scene was a trick scene, it wasn’t real. I told her that was past, that’s okay (laughs). Before that film, he had played Sant Dnyaneshwar, which was appreciated all over Maharashtra. Once we were travelling on a train along with playwright Mama Varerkar. He came and told Modak, ‘You just killed.’ He was shocked because he doesn’t even kill an ant. Varerkar added, ‘You killed Dnyaneshwar.’ He elaborated that by doing a role like Pahili Mangalagaur (due to the kissing scene), he has killed Dnyaneshwar. Modak tried explaining that he was just an actor (laughs).

Can you recall any other such incident?

Once we were going to Kolhapur in a small plane. The door was shaking. A police inspector and his wife were also travelling. The wife got tense and had high blood pressure. The cop told her, ‘Look, who is sitting here. He is Sant Dnyaneshwar and an astrologer. If the plane was all set to crash, would he have boarded it? So don’t worry (laughs).’ After landing, the lady bowed down to him. Later on, a girl from Delhi had considered him as his husband. She was mad. She just came home and told him, ‘Mere brij bihari, mere Krishna, mere shyam murari.’ I told her he doesn’t even look at another lady, but she said she has married him in her dream.

As an audience, which of his roles did you find the best?

I loved his role in Rangalya Ratri Asha (1962). He played a lot of playwrights in it. His co-actor was Arun Sarnaik. It was a beautiful film. There was also Mee Tulas Tuzjhya Aangani (1955). Another interesting bit about him is that he played all the important characters of Ramayana except Ravan. He played, Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, Vibhishan, Meghdoot and even Valmiki and Tulsidas.

His personality was such that he would never suit Ravana's character. But he did a film called Sati Ahalya, where his character rapes a woman. They had to stop the film after three reels as my head started spinning seeing him play such a role. I told him, people might beat us. I couldn’t accept him do such things on screens. In real life, he thinks four times before even touching his wife (laughs). And the film was never released.

You must be glad that it didn’t get released.

Yes, I was really glad that it didn’t get released.

How did Shahu Modak acquire such great knowledge on astrology?

When he was 10 years old, he read his first book on astrology called ‘Yeh Haath Ki Rekhaen Kya Kehti Hai.’ He later met a person named Kulkarni in Mumbai from whom he learnt astrology by paying fees. Then he used to study it himself. There were times when he used to study astrology for around 18 hours a day.

He had told Nargis that she won’t be alive to see her son Sanjay Dutt’s debut, Rocky (1981). She passed away just four days before the premiere. Before that in 1979, he had told Indira Gandhi that she would get re-elected. She won and called us more than once to thank. A lot of people told Modak to be friendly with Gandhi in order to win the Dadasaheb Phalke Award but he didn’t.

He had also predicted his own death. When he turned 75 on 25 April 1993, he had said that he will leave the world within 18 days. And he passed away after 15 days on 11 May. He had told Tina Munim that she will be married to one of the biggest personalities in India (she got married to Anil Ambani).

Bhagwan Shri Krishna

How was Shahu Modak in real life?

He was very calm and peaceful. He used to talk softly and never got irritated. He was organised and believed in cleanliness. In fact, you can write a book on how much he believed in cleanliness. Despite working in studios for so many years, he never used their toilet. After leaving home at 8 am, he used to go to the toilet directly at 8 pm after returning home. He said while wearing the dhoti used for playing a god like Krishna, he found it improper to sit on the dirty commode. He only used to take small sips of water throughout the day.

Did he discuss films with you at home?

No, he never used to discuss movies. Even those who visited us didn’t speak about films. He only used to chat about spirituality. He was way too deep into it. He was also never into drinks, non-vegetarian food or smoking. In fact, he didn’t even dare shake hands with a woman.

The Manoos Award is given in his name each year.

When we announced the award in 1994, the media pointed out that despite playing such terrific characters, he never got any award; so why are we giving an award in his name? I told them there are two types of people in the world — those who feel that since I haven’t got anything, why should I give others? And the second type are those who feel even if they haven’t got anything, they should give something to see the joy in the eyes of those who win.

Tell us about the book you have written about him.

I wrote whatever I saw in him in real life. I wrote it in Hindi and it was translated by Sudhir Gadgil. There is a story behind the book. I had written a poem on him and presented it to him on the first night of our marriage. He was so overwhelmed that he had tears. He wondered what he could give to me since he didn't know how to write poems. So, I asked him to narrate his life story daily bit by bit. He was surprised, but I said I would like it. I have also written a book of poems on him.  

Do you watch new films?

I used to watch regularly once. Now, I am not so interested. I feel, what is the need to waste three hours? Just recently somebody had invited me to watch Baahubali, but I didn’t go. The last film I saw was Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015). I was a member of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) in 1993-1994. Although I couldn’t speak Marathi, I was a censor member for Marathi films (laughs). This helped me in knowing people more. But I regularly watch plays.

Don’t you think CBFC is a big problem these days?

Yes, it is a big problem. It is all politics. I was member of Balgandharva Puraskar Samiti for 20 years. They bring people from outside who have no idea about our culture and they take decisions for us. I was also a member of Patthe Bapurao Samiti. I resigned from both committees.