Interview Hindi

Beena Banerjee on father Pradeep Kumar: Many could not believe he was Bengali

On the 94th birth anniversary of actor Pradeep Kumar (4 January), actress Beena Banerjee spoke about her father, his films and her own journey in Hindi cinema.

Sonal Pandya

Actor Pradeep Kumar, known for his roles in films like Anarkali (1953), Nagin (1954), Aarti (1962), Taj Mahal (1963) and Bheegi Raat (1965), was more often than not remembered for the historical films in which he played a Mughal ruler or prince.

Born Sital Batabyal, his name was changed to Pradeep Kumar when he joined films.

His daughter, actress Beena Banerjee, said many are not aware of Pradeep Kumar's origins. “There are many people who still do not believe my father was a Bengali," she laughed. "They know him as a Muslim because of the kind of roles he has done and the way he spoke.” 

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We met Banerjee last week at a coffee shop in Lokhandwala Colony, Mumbai, as she talked about her late father, his films and her own career in cinema. While their household did not discuss cinema or work at home much, Banerjee remembered a few key moments growing up in the 1950s.

According to Banerjee, Pradeep Kumar was involved on stage and was also working as a receptionist in Kolkata before he joined films. His theatre career led to his first film role. 

“He was very much connected with stage," she said. "That’s how he got the first offer [in Bengali for] Bhuli Naai (1948). [Producer] S Mukherjee liked the film and wanted to remake it into Hindi. He brought the director [Hemen Gupta] and said I want the same hero. When [my father] came here [in Mumbai], there were some problems because of the riots and other things, and the producer said, ‘Okay, fine, you can do Nagin (1954). That's how his career started.”

Banerjee said Pradeep Kumar's screen name was chosen by Gupta and Mukherjee, largely because, at the time, many changed their names. The fan following of the time was completely different.

“We still have people who come up to us at any given hour and talk to us and expect us to be friendly with them. But at that time, there was no friendliness. They [the stars] were like gods,” she stated. 

Growing up, Beena and her siblings were not exposed to her father’s films and they rarely visited him on the sets.  

“[Once] we went for a holiday together to Ooty and he happened to be shooting there. He clubbed it both, means my mother forced him and said the children are also on holiday [from school]. Except that, my father was very strict about having the children come to the sets. It was only when we grew up a little that my father said, okay, let them come. Otherwise, we were very aloof from the film industry.”

Over the course of his career, Pradeep Kumar played everything from a king to a pauper, but his family did not get a chance to see much of his work. Later, as his children grew up, they went off to study at boarding schools.

“By the time we grew up, I think [we saw] Taj Mahal (1963) and Bheegi Raat (1965). Most of the other films that he has done, we never went for trials or premieres. We only went for the Taj Mahal premiere because it was a very big film. That’s the only premiere I remember going with him.” 

However, despite not having had any exposure to her father, the actor, when it came time, Banerjee took up the same profession.

“When I joined [films], both my parents threw a fit,” she recalled. “My father said, getting in the film industry, no, no, no, that’s it. So I said, no, I have to do it. I want to do it. Bas ho gaya! It just happened. I’ve never really gone in for a course or done anything to enhance my career. It just fell into place,” she said.

Banerjee started out as a model and didn’t attempt theatre like her father, due to stage fright. Her first film was Shikshaa (1978) with Rajshri Productions and later Rachna (1983) with actor Anil Kapoor as the hero. 

But even when she became an actress, Pradeep Kumar didn’t see her work “for a good five to six years”. He had seen her in commercials previously. 

“The only thing was once he said, 'Whatever you do, try to do your best. And improve on your language. Always see to it that your language is right.' When he came here, many people had told S Mukherjee that you have brought a Bengali, he will have that accent. So my father worked very hard to learn Urdu and Hindi, and he was very dedicated to that.” 

Pradeep Kumar: The king who could never quite rule Hindi cinema

In the 1950s, when he began acting, Pradeep Kumar was given proper training on the kind of dialect to use and what kind of posture to have.

“Even at the time of Anarkali (1953), he was given a course to walk like a prince, the posture and behaviour and everything. Now things have changed. But language is something that if you are not clear with your language and your diction, then it shows. Many people tell me that you being a Bengali, you don’t have that accent.”

Banerjee herself has worked in over 200 films with roles in Meri Jung (1985), Karma (1986), Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988), Lekin... (1990), Khuda Gawah (1992), Raja Babu (1994), ...Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya (1997), Koi... Mil Gaya (2003), and Baabul (2006). In 2018, she was seen in Hope Aur Hum and Karwaan.

But despite a fruitful career in films, she feels her role in the early 1990s television series Parivartan was closest to her heart. 

“Honestly speaking, besides Parivartan, I don’t identify myself with any other role. Parivartan was my lifetime achievement. I felt I gave my 100% there. It’s not that I didn’t give my best everywhere else, but that had everything for me to give much more than the rest,” she said.

Though she still gets approached for roles in television, she chooses few projects and recently acted in a tele-drama. 

“After a certain age, you have to accept that there is a backseat for everybody,” she explained. “People like Dharmendra and Dilip Kumar have also taken a backseat. That’s life. Even if you work in any field, after a certain time, you have to say okay, fine, let the younger generation come forward.”

Looking back, too, she doesn’t have any regrets. She believes it’s pointless to think otherwise.

“I think I take my life very straight, I don’t get into those kinds of things. I’ve been a very strong believer of being a survivor, not a dreamer. I don’t get into those kinds of dreams. I have done a few good roles as well in films, but I think an artiste can never be fully satisfied, that yes, I have done it all. I can’t say that. I would still love to jump for something that comes for me,” she said.