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Review English (India)

Starring Sharmila Tagore review: Uneven exploration of a luminous, unconventional life

Release Date: 13 Jul 2020 / 55min

Cinestaan Rating

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Umang Sabharwal's documentary on the yesteryear star actress just skims the surface of Sharmila Tagore's unusual life and choices.

In Umang Sabharwal‘s documentary Starring Sharmila Tagore, the actress recounts the first moment when as a 13-year-old she stepped into the world of cinema with Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar (1959). The first scene shot was one where she crosses the threshold and symbolically marks the moment when she crossed over into the world of moving images to begin one of the most illustrious and enthralling careers in Indian cinema.

The 55 minute documentary traces the heady journey of the young girl — from her early encounters with Children’s Little Theatre to being cast in Ray’s films to her debut in Hindi cinema with Kashmir Ki Kali (1964) and a steady rise in stardom that was consolidated with An Evening In Paris (1967).

The film maps pivotal moments in a career spanning four decades tracing the shift from an uber-glamourized image to films like Aradhana (1969) where she played a rather deglamourized role and subsequently opted for roles with more substance, even going on to win the National award for her role in Mausam (1975).

But behind the charmed life on screen, Tagore recalls that she was regarded as a bad influence on girls in school and, faced with opposition in college, decided to drop her studies and continue with films. As an actress too she was quite unlike her counterparts, who were chaperoned for film shoots while she went on to decide things for herself, an attitude that would sometimes land her in trouble, like the photoshoot in a bikini that became a cause célèbre; but most importantly, it allowed her to live on her own terms. In her words, this made her a ‘social suspect’ but also enabled her to live an independent life, something that was quite rare for the time. 

Through old photographs, film excerpts and the insights of scholars, friends and film critics, the documentary offers insights into Tagore’s career as an actress and the niche that she carved for herself. Interspersed with her personal journey are precious insights into the workings of the film industry at a time when women did not many avenues to contribute to outside of the roles they played on screen. As a viewer, one wishes for a more engaged exploration of the times and the milieu that would enable one to contemplate the uniqueness of someone like Tagore within what was undoubtedly a conservative, patriarchal set-up.

Sure, there are interesting anecdotes that offer glimpses of the kind of life she was leading or the thoughts racing through her head when she took certain pivotal decisions, but the film does not quite do justice to its own framing of the star as standing apart from the crowd in her bold choices, making decisions with grace and aplomb. We would certainly like to see more of that in a documentary on Sharmila Tagore.

Starring Sharmila Tagore was screened as part of the Open Frame Film Festival at the India International Centre in New Delhi.

Related topics

Open Frame Film Festival