As we celebrate 100 years of Indian cinema, Kamini Kaushal, one of the oldest leading ladies of Hindi cinema looks back.

When Kamini Kaushal describes Manna Dey’s voice as “gorgeous” and inane questions as waste of time, one has to shuffle in the tracks to engage the chirpy veteran in a conversation. Laced with wit, the lilt in her voice is intact and so is the flower in the bun. At 86, Kaushal can give many young things a lesson in grace and grammar. When the shutterbugs go clicking, she enquires about the angle, when mikes are protruded towards her; she probes about the pedigree of the channel.

Here is an actress who worked with the best on her own terms much before such phrases were coined. When marriage was a taboo for leading ladies, Kaushal didn’t hide her marital status. From “Neecha Nagar” to “Chennai Express”, Kaushal has worked with top stars and directors without compromising on the family life. “I thought why should I miss out on Shah Rukh. That was the only reason,” she winks.

Kaushal, who was recently awarded with Kalpana Chawla Excellence Award, is hurt that when during the celebration of 100 years of Indian cinema there was no mention of “Neecha Nagar”. . “After all it was the first Indian film which won the top honour at Cannes but even at the festival, where Indian cinema was in focus this year, there was no mention of Chetan Anand’s work of art.”

When one reminds her that the film is still relevant as the metaphor against hegemony of a decadent upper class and Shekhar Kapur’s “Paani” seems to be inspired by the film, Kaushal says the film was a symbol of protest against imperialism and you will be surprised to know that all of us in the film were newcomers.” Daughter of eminent botanist, S.R. Kashyap, Kaushal was Uma Sood before, Anand offered her the film and a new name. “I was into theatre and radio but cinema was not meant for girls of decent families. I used to indulge in swimming and horse riding but somehow there was a stigma attached to films. And it was not that the men folk in the family were against it. In fact it was my brother, who was a friend of Chetan who convinced me to work in the film. He said how can you say no to Chetan?”

Soon she got married to her brother-in-law after the demise of her sister and shifted to Mumbai. By then the word had spread about her performance in “Neecha Nagar”. The phone kept ringing and she kept refusing till the day when Gajanan Jagirdar called up. “I had just watched his “Ram Shastri” with my husband and was touched by his craft. I told my husband that you know today Jagirdar sahib called up and he said if he has called up you must do the film.” Thus she agreed to do “Jail Yatra” opposite Raj Kapoor. “I had my strict dos and don’ts and Jagirdar sahib agreed to.”

Kaushal elaborates, “When my family needed me I was at home. I was always clear that what is destined for me nobody can snatch it away for me. I may have missed out on a few projects but there are no regrets because I am active today because of the love that I have got from my family members,” says Kaushal reminding of the “Godaan” experience where director Trilok Jaitely stalled the project because she was in the family way. “I asked the director why did he wait for such a long time for me and he said he couldn’t find an actress who would look happy and positive in adversity.”

“Biraj Bahu”, she agrees, was her most complex character. It won her Filmfare Award for the best actress. “I always wanted to work with Bimal da but I had this policy that I will never approach the director for a role. Abhi, her co-star in the film told me many times to go and meet Bimal da but I resisted. One day I got a call from the master himself and he offered me the lead role. He asked me to read the novel three-four times. By the time I was on the sets I was so much steeped into the character that we did many scenes without any rehearsal.”

Assessing her contribution, Kaushal says she brought certain naturalness to acting. “Before us cinema was more theatrical and was ruled by the likes of Sohrab Modi, who learnt their craft in Parsi theatre. When we emerged on the scene the actors had a very stylised intonation. We, I mean Nargis, Suraiyya, to an extent, and I tried to speak like we do in real life and it was accepted by the audience,” says Kaushal adding before her times the heroine were expected to be a seductress and the camera movements were also such. “We resisted such portrayal and demanded that the self sacrificial idealism of Indian woman should come forth.”

Talking about her heroes, Kaushal reminisces, unlike his screen image Dev Anand (“Ziddi”) was very shy and focussed on his work. “I used to think how I will work with such a reticent actor. Raj Kapoor (“Jail Yatra”, “Aag”) was an incorrigible prankster and supremely confident. When we worked for the first time, he sold me the dummy that he is a very experienced actor and I remained under the impression for a long time till I discovered that he is just one film old. Dilip Kumar was quiet and sincere.”

Her romantic chemistry with Dilip Kumar stood out and gossip mills were full of stories of their affair with the thespian almost admitting that he had a crush on Kaushal. “It was like I loved all my sisters but with the eldest one I shared a special bond,” says Kaushal. Her eyes light up when one refers to the scene in “Shaheed” where young freedom fighter’s eyes well up at the time of leaving his beloved. “He used to plan his every movement in advance and I was a cheery girl who believed in spontaneous reactions. We used to have disagreements, where I would chide him for not being natural and he would listen patiently but still do his own thing.” The two worked together in four films: “Shaheed”, “Nadiya Ke Paar”, “Shabnam” and “Arzoo” and in each one of them Kaushal’s name came above Dilip Kumar in the credits.

“Those were the days when people were gracious they didn’t talk about it. I want to let it that way. I never insisted that my name should come before him.” Many who think the much publicised Shah Rukh Khan’s gesture towards Dipika Padukone in “Chennai Express” is a novelty should revisit the past.

Long before the trend of glamorous mothers on television took root, Kaushal refused to colour her hair grey. “It was a case of a woman’s vanity. When Manoj asked me to play his mother in “Shaheed”, I refused because I felt that I don’t look like one. I was just 40 then. But when he persisted I put a demand that I will not put a grey wig. Why a mother has to look like a dowdy old lady, particularly when she is the mother of young Bhagat Singh.” She went on to become a resident mother in Manoj Kumar’s projects with “Upkar” as the highlight.

It is not that Kaushal didn’t play with her image. She tried films like “Night Club” and who can forget “Anhonee”, where she turns out to be the villain of the piece. “I had such a reputation of good mother that nobody could guess that I could play a negative role and director Ravi Tandon used it to good effect.”

Later she emerged from the retirement and produced some interesting content for children on Doordarshan. “That was perhaps my fourth innings,” she quips. “I was good at making puppets and by that time my son had come back after studying at Stanford. He helped me in mounting animation shows.”

She says the current generation doesn’t understand the pain of Partition, the sacrifices people made to get us freedom. “I find youngsters are too much into materialistic welfare. I advise them to take out a day for the poor and dedicate a part of their self for the country.”

Trivia

Kamini Kaushal was the first heroine Lata Mangeshkar sang for. The song was “Chanda re ja re ja re, piya se sandesa mora kahiyo jaa” in “Ziddi”. Geeta Dutt announced her arrival with “Mera Sundar Sapna Beet Gaya” which was picturised on Kaushal in “Do Bhai”. “The song was done in one take,” she recalls. Kaushal also introduced costume designer Bhanu Athaiya to the film industry.