Away from the list of “super stars”, Lalita Pawar was a rare actor who gave meanness, comedy and pathos a rare conviction on screen
Stage, television and cinema owe an immense gratitude to people who live a character rather than those who enact a role. Much before psychologists discovered the significance of body language in the personality of a person, seasoned performers knew how to highlight the defects or assets of a character through miniscule nuances and gestures. They understood how just a twitch, a shuffle, a smirk or a glare on stage or screen could give audiences more insight into the impenetrable depths of a personality than a thousand-word dialogue. Such brilliant performers, though few, have always been a boon to directors with their subtle yet immense contribution in making a writer’s tale come alive under the arc lights. Lalita Pawar, one of Hindi cinema’s all-time greats, belonged to this first but rare breed of actors who ‘lived on screen’ and whose earthy and realistic portrayals gave meaning to many a cinematic projection.
In a career spanning over 70 years, from the beginning of the silent era till her death, Lalita Pawar was one of the few actors who drew admiration for her effortless ability to become a real-life personality on screen, a quality that made her an all-time favourite with the audiences. She may have gone unsung on her lonely death in Pune in 1998 but Lalita Pawar lives in the hearts of cine goers, primarily because she personified excellence even in the most absurd and poorly sketched roles. A powerhouse of talent, she managed to provide a delectable fare of comedy, tragedy, pathos, joy and meanness in all the varied roles that came her way in 700-odd films.
Though Lalita ji’s best films certainly came about in middle age in various depictions of an elderly woman, it is said that she was one of the most glamorous heroines of Hindi cinema in the pre-Independence era with a large male fan following. Given Lalita Pawar’s virtuoso performances in later years, it is not hard to believe veterans when they say she ignited the screen with her come-hither looks and would have been a favourite leading lady if only she hadn’t suffered a partial facial paralysis and eye injury at a young age. But even this handicap — born out of a hard onscreen slap by Bhagwan Dada — was turned into an asset by the versatile actor when she resumed her innings after a three-year hiatus. Not one to cry over misfortunes, Lalita ji came back with gusto, and even a failed marriage did not deter her from making an impression on the masses with her ‘physical drawbacks’.
Lalita ji carved a niche for herself through sinister and devious characters and, like Pran, sent shivers down people’s spine with newer forms of vindictive postures and acidic dialogues. A pleasant and cheerful lady in real life (a fact confirmed by many of her illustrious Juhu neighbours), Lalita’s onscreen gestures certainly made an icon of a traditional, uncompromising and unyielding Indian mother-in-law.
Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, too, remembers her as a magnanimous lady with a wonderful heart. Describing her as a skilled artiste who “loved playing a vamp and that is why she still flickers in our hearts”, Bhatt confides Lalita was an actress of high calibre who could match step with any giant actor. Signifying the meanness of a scheming woman in several films like “Sasural”, “Sujaata”, “Sau Din Saas Ke” and “Gharana”, to name a few, she exemplified versatility in varied roles.
Like her countless fans, Bhatt too remembers her best for her immaculate performances as Mrs. D’Sa in “Anari”, the banana seller in “Shree 420”, Sita Devi in “Professor”, and Dilip Kumar’s mother in “Daag”. These four performances, as well as her depiction of the wily, hunchbacked Manthra in TV series “Ramayan”, are enough to tell you that she belongs to the pantheons of the eternal greats of Hindi cinema. “If she tears your heart with her tenderness in ‘Anari’, she absolutely floors you in ‘Professor’ with her comic but tactless acts of a lovesick adult,” says Bhatt in absolute admiration. Bhatt is bang on target, since Lalita ji poured her soul into the depiction of an affectionate yet stern landlady who starts treating her paying guest as her own son. Her scene admonishing Raj Kapoor for putting a price tag on a mother’s affection is one of the most outstanding scenes of Indian cinematic history. Similarly, it’s her delectable gestures, inflections and comic timing which provided a backbone to “Professor” and a perfect foil to Shammi Kapoor, thus catapulting the film to a roaring success.
Alas, the powerful performer met a sad and lonesome end. This year as we commemorate the centenary of Indian cinema and every second programme is devoted to adulation of the super stars, it is perhaps time for Indian filmmakers to introspect on the enormous contribution of the unsung actors and actresses in making cinema a household hobby. Irrespective of the cinematic devices, gimmicks and commerce employed, it’ll always be the actors who will be the propellers of a film story and you need to nurture them with care and affection. Especially in an age when they don’t make many like Lalita Pawar anymore!