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When Sharmila Tagore learnt some important life lessons – Satyajit Ray centenary special

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The veteran recalls how her entry into cinema as a teenager under the auteur's guidance became a turning point for her in more ways than one.

Shoma A Chatterji

Exquisite elegance personified. That is how one can describe Sharmila Tagore, the beauty of Kashmir Ki Kali (1964) who has mellowed into one of the more dignified women in the country today. Gone is the school-going teenager who made a dream debut in Satyajit Ray's Apur Sansar (1959). Lost somewhere in the past is the gutsy young woman who did not bat an eyelid as she posed in a bikini for a magazine cover at a time when to wear a swimsuit itself was scandalous.

It is pleasant to see the flowering of a woman who broke every rule in the book of middle-class morality. A graceful grandmother of three grandchildren and mother of three successful children wears several hats in addition to the occasional character role in films as distinct as Shubho Mahurat (2003, Bengali) and Viruddh (2005, Hindi).

Talking about her family, Sharmila Tagore, dimples intact, said, “Though our ancestry goes back to the family of Rabindranath Tagore, we were three or four generations removed so we never lived in Santiniketan. Besides, my father was in a transferable service so we moved from place to place sometimes but remained in Kolkata for our schooling.

"The Tagores were a strange blend of tradition and modernity. We were trained to recognize our rich heritage. Mother ruled supreme in the inner quarters of the home. Her life revolved around her children. She decided everything, including how we should take care of our skin with grandmother's recipes drawn from the kitchen. There was no room for manufactured beauty-care products. We were never encouraged to wear jewellery. We learnt that looking after inner beauty is much more important than outward appearances.”

Sharmila Tagore proved this when she portrayed the role of an ugly girl (when to be dark-skinned was akin to being ugly) in the late Partha Pratim Chowdhury’s Chhaya Surya (1963), based on a story by the Jnanpith award-winning author Ashapoorna Devi. It must have been a challenge for the make-up man to make her look dark, what with the peaches-and-cream complexion she had.

Asked about her better Bengali assignments, Tagore said, “I was very happy to be a part of the Bengali film industry once more", referring to her roles in Gautam Ghose's Abar Aranye (2003) and Rituparno Ghose's Shubho Mahurat.

She has been no slouch when it comes to winning awards herself. She won the Filmfare Best Actress award for her wonderful performance in Shakti Samanta's Aradhana (1969), the National award for her brilliant double role of a mother and her prostitute daughter in Gulzar's Mausam (1975), and Lifetime Achievement awards from Filmfare and the Bengal Film Journalists Association (BFJA).

However, Sharmila holds her work in five films of Satyajit Ray very close to her heart. "My first two films with Ray were shot during my holidays," she recalled as she went into nostalgia mode about her early days in front of the camera. "My career in films began as a blend of chance and pressure, with a generous dose of curiosity thrown in.

"Manik-da decided to begin my shooting for Apur Sansar with the scene that shows me stepping into my husband's apology of a flat as his bride," she continued. "I was only 14 at the time. He gave me very specific instructions, like 'one step ahead, two to the right, then three towards the window, stop'.

"I had never faced a movie camera before. I did exactly as I was told and Manik-da seemed to be okay with the shot. Somewhere along the way, there was a kind of blurring of lines between Aparna, the character I was playing, and Sharmila, the real me. Just as Aparna, the newlywed bride, was crossing the threshold of her husband's house; I was stepping in front of the camera for the first time in my life. It was like entering a new world I had never known of before. It was a turning point I was too young to even realize."

Apur Sansar was more than a debut film for Sharmila Tagore. "I had never known the kind of poverty Aparna and Apu lived in," she said. "I came from an affluent, educated, urban Bengali family. So the world Aparna belonged to was both a culture shock and a learning experience for me. I had to learn how to wrap a sari the way Manik-da wanted me to, to carry it well without allowing the drapes to fall as I moved around the sets, and so on. I grew up a bit during the making of the film.

"Devi," she continued, "is perhaps the most complex woman character in Indian cinema. Can you imagine the sheer helplessness, the total vulnerability of a child-woman who has absolutely no control over her life? As I played Dayamoyee, I often felt disturbed by what was happening to the girl even as I portrayed her.

"One scene I will never forget is the one where her nephew by marriage, a small boy she was very close to during her 'normal' phase, is scared even to step into her room when she is relaxing after she has been installed as a goddess by her father-in-law.

"Then there is the classic scene where she is afraid of running away to freedom with her husband because by then she is a bundle of confusion who does not know whether she is really a goddess or a normal woman. She refuses to go with him, and in so doing, unknowingly, takes the first and only decision in her life.

"I would go to sleep often on the giant double bed between shots when the lights were being changed. Surprisingly, no one stopped me. At 14, I hardly understood what was happening around me."

In another interview, the veteran had said, “Manik-da had the rare quality where he could reflect on his work with a certain sense of detachment — at least during the making of a given film. He did not allow style to override content. He taught me how to appreciate cinema, how to be in front of the camera, how to think in character, how to enjoy a language. And he taught me the significance of a given moment. He taught me the value of commitment to one’s work.”

One poignant memory this writer has is when Sharmila Tagore came to Kolkata to receive the Lifetime Achievement award from the BFJA after Ray had died. She gave a short and sweet speech in clear Bangla and, in the end, lifting her trophy skywards and looking up, she said, “This is for you, Manik-da, thank you,” and stepped off the stage quietly, shrugging off the media crowded around her gently in her dignified but firm manner.

By the time she was called up by Ray to do the journalist's role in Nayak (1966), Sharmila was already an established star in Hindi cinema. "I had to strip myself completely of my Hindi film image to do the role of Aditi in Nayak," she said. "I was told I would have to wear glasses to make me look serious and more like a journalist. When I asked Manik-da, 'long-sighted or short-sighted?' he appeared a bit taken aback, but smiled at me with amusement.

"Much though I hate to say this, I must admit that Uttam Kumar was able to realize only about 70% of what Manik-da showed him for that scene where he leans out of the door of the moving train and keeps staring at the tracks, perhaps contemplating suicide. Manik-da was the greatest; he still is. A man like him can never die."

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Satyajit Ray Centenary