Interview Hindi

When I joined the industry, I had crossed the age to do lead roles: Himani Shivpuri birthday special

Devki Bhaujai of the TV serial Humrahi and Kammo of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, who celebrates her 57th birthday today (24 October), speaks about her life and experiences.

Anita Paikat

Hindi film actress Himani Shivpuri says she had 'an unusual childhood'. She studied in an all-boys school, rejected a scholarship to study abroad to join theatre, and lit the TV screen with unique characters, before making us giggle through her appearances on the big screen.

As the Devki Bhaujai of the television serial Humrahi or Kammo of the superhit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) celebrates her 57th birthday today (24 October), we caught up with the veteran to share her life experiences and more. Excerpts:

Tell us about your background.

I was born in Dehradun, which was earlier in Uttar Pradesh but now is a part of Uttarakhand. It’s a small town with many schools. In fact, Dehradun’s speciality is schools and greenery. My father was a teacher. He taught Hindi and Sanskrit at The Doon School, which is one of the prime institutes of India.

It was a boys' school, but being the teacher’s daughter, I got to study there. So right from the beginning it was a different childhood. There were only two girls in our class. We were surrounded by boys.

My father was also a writer. We had a very literary atmosphere in our house, we had writers coming to our house. My father encouraged me to learn Bharatanatyam, painting and music. I used to participate in school plays and win all the prizes. But at that time, I never thought I would take up acting as a profession, because, you know, I was good at studies — one of the top students in my class.

That time it was a given that an intelligent student would take up science, and the dull one would go for arts. This was the education system. I completed BSc and MSc. Meanwhile, I continued doing theatre.

So how did you get into acting full time?

When I was doing my MSc, some people from the NSD [National School of Drama] came down and did a workshop. We did a play with them called Three Penny Opera [by Bertolt Brecht]. It was then that I realized that there was an institution which teaches you to do theatre.

During this time, I got a scholarship to study science abroad. So I went to give my visa interview and also gave an interview at the NSD for admission. I didn’t inform anyone about the latter, though. When I got selected, I told my family that I am going to the NSD. Everybody was shocked, because I had already secured a scholarship to study abroad.

In small towns, everybody knows everybody. So I was famous in my town. I was good at studies, looked decently good, won all the debates and all that. So, I was considered a very diligent child by the townspeople. The whole town was proud of me. But then they suddenly heard that she is quitting everything and joining NSD and people wondered what was wrong with me. They couldn’t believe I was picking theatre over the opportunity to go abroad to study.

My father tried to reason with me. He asked me to go abroad and study, and take up acting after I returned. I persuaded him saying that when I get into my forties maybe I will have the money, but I don’t want to feel any regret that I didn’t pursue my dreams. So he agreed, and he was the only one who sort of supported me. Even my mom was very annoyed with me.

How did you get the role of Devki Bhaujai in the TV serial Humrahi?

I joined the NSD and we would get a stipend of Rs250. I stopped taking any money from home because I had made the choice of picking this career. We would survive on Rs250. After three years I wanted to continue doing theatre. I couldn’t survive in UP doing only theatre, so the only alternative I had was to either go to Mumbai or join the NSD Repertory Company.

I joined the repertory company and became an apprentice. I got Rs800 a month. Gradually, from apprentice I became C grade, then B grade, then A grade actress, then I started doing all the lead roles.

In the meantime, Humlog, the first TV show, was in the making. They approached me to do Chutki’s role that time. But I couldn’t imagine giving up theatre. I was playing Desdemona in Othello with a German director. I was like ‘no no, I won’t leave theatre’. So, I continued doing theatre for about 10 years.

Then Manohar Shyam Joshi wrote another serial, Humrahi, which had a very interesting character called Devki Bhaujai. Kunwar Sinha, a producer and director in Mumbai, was looking for an actress to cast for Bhaujai. He asked Manohar Shyam Joshi if he knew someone. He suggested my name but also told him that ‘this woman is a bit crazy, she refused to work in our show. You can ask if you want.’

By this time I was working in 5-7 plays and mostly doing leads. You know, when you have done so much in one medium, you want to explore something else. So, I agreed to do this serial. More than me my husband [the actor Gyan Shivpuri] was keen, because he was also doing a role. He wanted to come to Mumbai.

Those days there was only Doordarshan, so people were forced to watch us and my character became very popular. Suddenly, people started knowing me. Initially, while I was doing theatre, I had to explain to people what I was doing. They would ask, ‘You travel everyday, leave in the morning and return at night. What do you do?’ I would say I do theatre and they would be like, ‘that’s all right, but what do you do?’ They couldn’t believe that theatre could be a profession. But after Humrahi, I didn’t have to explain to anybody what I do.

And from there you went on to films...

We had left the secure NSD Repertory Company of Delhi where we earned Rs3,000 a month. After the serial was completed we didn’t have any work at hand. Fortunately, Sooraj Barjatia, whom I knew because my husband had worked with him, was writing Hum Aapke Hai Koun..! (1994). He saw my play called Azhar Ka Khwab in which I was playing a Muslim girl, Hajjo. This was an adaptation of Pygmalion [by George Bernard Shaw]. He called me and narrated the story. I needed work so I said yes.

The cast of Hum Aapke Hai Koun..!

Then a guy from the production house called and offered an amount. I didn’t know actors could bargain and the production houses quoted a lower sum. I said yes. Then he himself offered a higher sum saying that was the right amount. Hum Aapke Hai Koun..! became one of the biggest hits. After this I got an offer from Adi [Aditya Chopra] to work in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995).

This was also a great success. I remember Shah Rukh [Khan] telling me that I should go and watch the film in a theatre just to see the audience’s responses to my scenes. Then Karan [Johar] who was assisting in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge was making Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). He approached me and narrated the story and I agreed. Then films happened.

Did you ever think of doing lead roles?

Well, in my years at the NSD, when I was in my 20s, I could have done lead roles. I looked down upon films. I used to think that films are stupid, I was like that ‘pseudo-intellectual’. For me Bollywood [as Hindi cinema is also called] was people running around trees, doing nothing else. I was like, ‘If I do films, I will only work with Shyam Benegal and directors like him.’

When I joined the industry, I was in my late 20s. Obviously, I had crossed the age and I had no illusions that I wanted to do a heroine’s role. For me, the roles needed to be interesting.

And what happened was that while I was shooting Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, my husband passed away and I was left alone to fend for my son, although I didn’t go begging for work. God was very kind, work happened. But, you know, I had to support myself. So, I was taking the best from what was offered to me. It was a matter of survival. A lone woman making ends meet and managing a son. So this was also a factor.

Kajol and Himani Shivpuri in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai

You have done all kinds of roles — intense, comic, villainous. But somehow you are remembered as the happy-go-lucky aunt.

Yes, yes. Because those are the roles that did very well at the box office, right from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge to Pardes (1997). I have done serious roles also like in Anjaam (1994). I had a fabulous role in Prem Granth (1996). If the film had done well, I could have become famous for the intense role. During those days, you know, once you became famous for a role, you kept getting typecast. I tried to avoid being typecast and did all kinds of roles — serious, intense, comic, villainous and vamp.

I find the mother roles very boring, she would just cry or suddenly appear with a pair of bangles out of nowhere saying, ‘Give this to my daughter-in-law.’ There was nothing to do. I did a few of these roles in films like Mujhe Kucch Kehna Hai (2001). I used to get so bored standing in a corner while Amrish Puri and some guys are talking. I am just quietly supporting. I used to find that kind of mother very boring.

You have been in the industry for close to three decades. How do you see the change in the subject matter of films over the years?

Very good. Am so happy. Not that good films were not being made. You know, I was in Dehradun this September and I went and saw Newton (2017) in a multiplex. The hall was 80% full and people were enjoying [the film]. So it is a very welcome change. Audiences are also appreciating good cinema which is subject-driven. Am very happy to see a film like Newton doing well. Even Masaan (2015) was a very beautiful film.

I really admire Aamir Khan for doing the role of a father [in Dangal (2016)]. Good films are coming in, which is a very healthy trend.

Other films are also good, am not downplaying the films that do commercially well. I think things are improving. It’s a slow change. After all, films require a lot of money, so you have to have certain kinds of films. I won’t mention any names, you know about them.

Today, character roles are also changing. They are given more importance.

Yes, yes. [Hindi cinema] initially was, and still is, a totally hero-dominated industry.

I got a lot of respect for whatever kinds of films I have worked in. But, you know, it is still very humiliating to play a mother who doesn’t even have a name! They say ‘uski ma’ or ‘hero ki mother’. It is so weird. I mean, I always fight with the directors asking why doesn’t she have a name? She will be just a mother or a bua, or the chachi, or the mami. Why the hell does she not have a name? This is still there.

Even the heroines. What [roles] do they have? I really admire Kangana Ranaut. They are all trying to run her down because she is a very bold woman. But she could carry Queen (2014) on her shoulders. Tanu Weds Manu (2011) was also very good. All these young actresses are very talented. So, it is a very healthy sign and let’s hope for the best.

After stage, television and films, would you like to explore the web medium?

Yes. I find TV very exhausting now and not so interesting. Every time I do a daily soap I make up my mind that this will be my last one.

I took a two-and-a-half-year break. Last year and the year before I stopped doing any daily shows. I thought I will just do films and theatre. I was very happy. And in 2016 I also won the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for my work in theatre from former president Pranab Mukherjee. That was the crowning moment of my life. I went to receive it with my son, mother and brother.

My last TV show finished in September [this year] and I really heaved a sigh of relief. People are not interested in quality. They are more interested in quantity. Actually, I don’t blame them. It’s a race against time and everybody wants to make money also.

I didn’t come here as an artiste just to make money or for fame. Of course, money is important and fame is also good. But the main thing is work satisfaction. Serials get very boring.

But now I am hearing very good web series are coming up. It’s the future, they are here to stay. So if any interesting offer comes up, I’ll definitely take it up. Basically, the hungry actor is still there in me.

Have you tried your hand at production?

I don’t have the temperament for production. I get very hyper and excited. I am not a cool person and I start yelling. I have directed plays. My father passed away four years ago. On his first death anniversary, I wondered how can I express my love and gratitude to my father. My dad was a writer. So I took a workshop for a month and produced and directed a play — Sunehre Sapne — on his stories. Every year on 19 September I go to Dehradun and do his stories. I read his stories or perform solos. This is how I keep in touch with my town and it’s a homage to my father. 

Direction, yes, I have been directing plays. Perhaps I might direct a film once. I have got numerous ideas in my mind. So many things to do. I want to write, direct. But I am also very lazy.

How would you like to spend your birthday?

For the present, I would really start writing. I have written a children’s novel, but it's still a draft. When I was in Delhi, some of my poems were published in magazines like Tarika and The Illustrated Weekly of India. I have massive plans. I thought I’ll go for a holiday or to a spa. This time my birthday gift [to myself] would be that I’ll start writing.

Any new films you are working on?

I have just finished shooting for a comedy horror film with Abhay Deol called Nanu Ki Jaanu. It’s a very interesting and unusual story. I have done another film based in Old Delhi. I don’t know when they will be released, hopefully next year.