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Interview Hindi

Certain films are just evergreen, says Rati Agnihotri on Ek Duuje Ke Liye's enduring appeal

In an exclusive interview on the 40th anniversary of the film's release, Agnihotri reminisces about her debut in Hindi cinema with Kamal Haasan.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Watching the credits of Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981) roll is like seeing a list of the who’s who of cinema. Produced by the legendary LV Prasad, directed by K Balachander, with music by Laxmikant-Pyarelal and lyrics by Anand Bakshi, the film introduced Kamal Haasan, Rati Agnihotri, Madhavi and singer SP Balasubrahmanyam to Hindi cinema.

SP Balasubrahmanyam (4 June 1946–25 September 2020): The singer who could act with his voice

With such a powerhouse of talent and a skilfully crafted love story, it was no surprise when the film went on to become a blockbuster.

A remake of Balachander’s Telugu hit Maro Charitra (1978), which also featured Kamal Haasan as the male lead, the tragic story is a cross-cultural romance between star-crossed lovers from different cultures. Facing intense opposition from their families, they decide to take a drastic step to immortalize their love.

The film became an instant hit, receiving an astounding 13 Filmfare award nominations and winning three, for Best Editing, Best Lyricist and Best Screenplay.

Reminiscing about the film 40 years after its release on 5 June 1981, the female lead, Agnihotri, contemplated its enduring appeal.

“Certain films are just evergreen and I was fortunate to have that film as my first Hindi film," she told Cinestaan.com in a telephone conversation. "To have such a great set-up, great script, great co-star, great music... what wasn’t great with the film?... great director, producer... I was lucky!”

Hailing from a Punjabi family with no film connections, Agnihotri was spotted in a school play by director P Bharathiraja, who was looking for the female lead for his film Puthiya Varpugal (1978). He persuaded her father to let her shoot for the film without missing her studies and that became the defining moment for the girl who had till then dreamt of becoming a doctor. Making her mark in Tamil and Telugu films, Rati Agnihotri quickly rose to stardom.

For Ek Duuje Ke Liye, LV Prasad approached her father and only he was allowed to watch Maro Charitra as they did not want Rati to get influenced by the way the female lead was played in the Telugu original.

“My approach to films was very schoolgirlish," the actress remembered. "I used to copy the director, Mr K Balachander. He would explain the scene and he had very expressive eyes and he would just say ‘make big eyes’ or ‘cry’ and I would do the scene.

"He would roll the camera and not cut. Sometimes the scene would take so long because I was young and would keep expressing, but he got what he wanted from those shots. I did not know then that you have to express short, I used to just listen and I was a good student, I took instructions well.

"I was also bubbly by nature, so that gelled well [with the character in the film]. There was no acting, I was just [being] myself. I was so young, I did not know so many expressions and emotions. I did not know what it was to fall in love and all those emotions,” she said.

The film was shot extensively in Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh and the heat, sandy beaches and rocks, though they all looked romantic on the screen, were not a very appealing proposition for a film shoot.

“We did not have the luxuries that actors have these days," Agnihotri said. "We had to walk to get to the location and it was rocky terrain. The chappals used to slip on the rocks, so I had to hold them in my hand and walk, and by the time I would reach the location, I had blisters under my feet, but I had to dance, sing, perform and do everything without any fuss.

“My parents always taught us to excel," she continued, "so when the director told us to do something, I would try my best to do it in the first take. That was my aim, so I would concentrate on the instructions given to me and on doing it to the best of my abilities for that shot.”

A memorable moment from the film is when Kamal Haasan's Vasu spins the top on Agnihotri’s Sapna's belly, tickling her and making her burst into peals of laughter.

“That [scene] looked great on screen, but it was torture shooting it," the actress recalled. "There is red sand in Visakhapatnam and we were in some 40-plus degrees heat. I was lying on that [sand] and it was not very comfortable with the top spinning on your tummy and you have to have the expression of laughing and giggling without your belly moving because then the top would fall off!

"That was done in one shot, it pans from the top to the face and back," she continued, adding, "I think you have to be very young to do all these things.”

But being a schoolgirl on the set also had its advantages as the people around would pamper her. “We had a fantastic producer, Mr LV Prasad, and he was so sweet," she said. "There were times when I would be really exhausted and he would ask someone to get coconut water for me and indulge me and tell me about his earlier productions.”

LV Prasad: The filmmaker with an ear for music

One sequence that was fun to perform was the shooting of the song 'Mere Jeevan Saathi' at the Taj Coromandel in Madras. “They got the lift for eight hours and that was a lot of fun because it was extempore," Agnihotri said. "There was no choreography. The camera would be put on in the lift and we had to sing and laugh in that space. Kamal would do something and I would do something, we would pick up on each other’s things and the song was completed.”

The film became a blockbuster hit and a rage among young lovers, some of whom, unfortunately, decided to take their cue from its climax and end their lives.

This spurred the authorities to urge the director and producer to change the ending. Though they experimented with a different ending, it did not work and they went back to the original one.

“The director was of the view that it’s a film and this is my story and this is my film, I don’t want to change it," Agnihotri recounted. "A film can’t have that impact on a person. A person should have his or her own sensibilities. So there was a big issue about [the ending]. But it was sorted out and we went back to the original ending.

"I think my Dad had to represent me because I was underage. It’s very sad that such incidents happened,” she said.

In an interview, A Ramesh Prasad, son of LV Prasad, too had recalled how Raj Kapoor, after seeing the film at a preview, had pestered the producer to change the ending. The veteran simply responded, “The greatest love stories are all tragedies.” And that was that.

While Agnihotri took a break from cinema when her son Tanuj was born, she never quit the industry and hasn't done so even now, as she enjoys the craft immensely.

“I woke up every morning excited to go to work," she said. "I used to work 18 hours a day. I didn’t have to work. I came from an affluent family. I did it because I wanted to. I feel that when there is a fire in you, you should do it.

"There were times when I was completely pooped, but not a day went by when I was not where I was supposed to be on time. I was known for my punctuality. Along with enjoying my work, I respected my work. I think that’s most important, the joy of doing what you are doing.”

A multi-faceted creative personality, Agnihotri has honed her passion for food into a successful business. She runs five restaurants in Poland with her sister, pouring all her enthusiasm into each and every aspect of the business, doling out lip-smacking dishes like chicken makhani, Goa mango prawn curry and beef roganjosh.

Not only do the restaurants, aptly named Bollywood, serve her recipes, the chefs and staff members have also been trained by her. “We serve food with love. Even on set, I enjoyed feeding people and they used to call me Annapurna, so this comes naturally to me," she said, laughing. "I’m doing the Annapurna act.”

But acting is home in many ways and with a never-say-never attitude, Agnihotri remarked, “I haven’t hung up my boots. Acting is my first love and the industry people have been so nice to me. Even when I came back after a break, they welcomed me nicely, and the audiences welcomed me, so I have no reason to not work in films.”

Time permitting, the veteran would be happy to be on screen or even in a web-series in the near future.