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The romance lingers on...

After nearly 50 films and a lifetime achievement award, Sharmila Tagore's fascination for cinema continues, discovers KAUSALYA SANTHANAM in a chat with the star.

Pataudi and Sharmila ... the couple with an unmatched aura.

SHE IS an icon who spells class and ageless charm. Perfectly groomed, Sharmila Tagore is the gracious begum, the actress who has made a success of her life and career. The magic of the Tagore name and the Pataudi charisma make for an unbeatable combination. The cricket star and the enduring player on celluloid have an aura unmatched perhaps by any other couple in the country today.

She makes an impression on you much before the interview. You ring her up at Kolkata where she has gone to attend a wedding and you are charmed by the easy way she fits you into her schedule, though she has a number of interviews lined up.

The slim figure in a red Bandhini sari who emerges from the Pataudi bungalow at Delhi, is still very much like the dimpled, bouffant beauty who floored fans in the 1960s and 1970s. Time seems to have waved a magic wand for the Tagore.

As she takes a chair on the emerald manicured lawns, a succession of images comes before your eyes. Through three decades, the star has appeared in a stunning variety of roles, emotional, glamorous and moving: the gentle young "Devi" who is literally worshipped as a Goddess, the shikara-rowing flower girl of "Kashmir Ki Kali," the innocent Anupama spurned by her father as his beloved wife dies on giving birth to her, the cabaret dancer in a bikini who made audiences swoon in "An Evening in Paris," the unwed mother in "Aradhana," the eloquent-eyed courtesan in "Amar Prem," the swearing, smoking prostitute of "Mausam," the anguished heroine of "Safar"...

Fifty films, a lifetime achievement award and Sharmila's romance with the camera continues. On a cool spring morning, she talks at length about her life as an actress, her roles as wife and mother, the Hindi film industry and of her beloved Bengal.

She has just finished two films `back to back.' One of these is by Rituparno Ghosh, who has created quite a sensation by casting Sharmila and Raakhee together in his latest film, "Shubho Muhurat," based on an Agatha Christie novel. Sharmila plays a retired actress while Rakhee is a detective. The two veterans have been cast in the same movie after 30 years.

The other Bengali film by Goutam Ghosh, "Abar Aranye" is a sequel to Satyajit Ray's "Aranyer Din Ratri." Ray's masterpiece narrated the story of four young men from Kolkata who spend time in an empty bungalow in the forest and gain hugely by their experience and interaction with the villagers.

Has the director kept up the continuity of vision?

``Absolutely,'' she tells you. ``Thirty years later, the couples return to the forest with their grown up children and the film is woven around what happens then.'' Tabu plays the role of Sharmila's daughter.

``Bengal has so much talent," she enthuses. ``Apart from the Ghoshs, there is Mrinal Sen, Buddhadeb Das Gupta, Aparna Sen. I am a great fan of Aparna. Bengali audiences still like to watch serious films while the viewers of Hindi movies mainly want to see stars and good locations. The mindset in Hindi films is neither Western nor Eastern, it is of a heroine in a mini skirt who does puja. The movies endorse a glitzy lifestyle. In the past, there were sensitive romances in Hindi cinema. Indian films have always borrowed from folk tales. But now the simplicities are disappearing, for instance, a little birdcall. Everything is so stated. There is no life for actresses past 30 in commercial films. When you have gained a certain maturity and have something to say, people don't want to see you anymore. In parallel films, however, your longevity increases. There is no longer any place for beauty which is not the model kind of beauty in the mainstream Hindi cinema.''

Does she find the heroines stereotypical then?

``No, not at all. Preity Zinta is different from Aishwarya Rai and so are the others. They too want to do good films, which is why Aishwarya has gone to Bengal and Tabu likes to act in serious films. But they have to keep up the glamour image and money is important too.'' Aishwarya is shooting for Rituparno Ghosh's "Choker Bali."

There was magic in the pairing of Sharmila Tagore and Rajesh Khanna. "Aradhana" was such a spectacular success and audiences never tired of seeing them together in film after film.

``We clicked together,'' she smiles. ``Those were the days of star pairs. Many others were also very popular, Nargis-Raj Kapoor, Hema Malini-Dharmendra to name just a couple of them. Producers loved to cast them together. You can't explain why a particular pair captured the imagination of the audience. Now the audience has become canny. They are not so impressed because they know it is not real. Producers, too don't encourage it any more,'' she laughs.

`` `Aradhana' was a turning point. It was a conscious decision to do `Aradhana' and the film was a great success.'' But she considers "Amar Prem" her best film. Other favourites are "Safar," "Devar" and "Mausam" while favourite directors apart from Ray are Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Gulzar and Tapan Sinha.

She must be feeling very fulfilled as an actress as she was offered such good roles. And she is much admired for moving on with grace and looking so youthful and trim. Are workouts a must?

``As an actress, one is never satisfied. After each film, I felt, I could have done much better. When people complimented me, I would think they were just being kind. I can't play `Kashmir ki Kali' any more. You have to accept with grace the fact that you were the youngest on the sets (Sharmila made her debut in "Apur Sansar" when she was just 15) and then suddenly you are not. You should know when to flip over, have a sense of time. As for keeping trim, there is nothing like workouts and exercise, nothing like the gym. Swimming is fine but then you tend to socialise instead of swimming.''

How did she manage to balance her home and career so successfully?

``There were a lot of sacrifices to be made. Everything is not a bed of roses. Being an actress meant long absences from the family and there were no mobile phones those days, so it was quite tough. I would never go to film premieres, just do my work and come away. Colleagues would joke that I always returned home at six in the evening and never attended parties. But now they realise it was worth it and there is respect. My husband was very cooperative and because of him, it was possible to balance both worlds. Our children are pretty normal which is quite an achievement considering the constant media attention they were subjected to.

``You can't go out like others and people will encroach. But there are perks too,'' she adds. ``Like, not having to stand in a queue. And there is so much goodwill that it makes one happy.''

What attracted her to the ace cricketer, Mansur Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi?

``His sense of humour," she replies instantly. ``Also his gentleness for he is so polite and soft spoken."

When not just the marriages of stars but those of ordinary people too are breaking up with such frequency and rapidity, theirs has endured...

``When you fall in love with a person, you shouldn't try to change him. You should be able to accept those you love with their differences. We do have our arguments. I'm very neat but if he is happy to throw things around, one has to accept it.''

But there is a lot of freedom?

``Absolutely. He has a very liberal mind and the basic faith that you are not going to let him down. He allows one space but can be very firm and so you can't take advantage. He withdraws if he is upset and one is careful not to upset him.''

Was it difficult to make the change from Bombay to Delhi?

``It was not a surprise coming here. This is home. Amma (her mother-in-law) was holding the fort and the two of us — Tiger and I — were bunking. We were living in a flat in Bombay. Friends gave me a lot of advice on how to cope in a joint family. I thought I didn't need it. I was wrong. But my mother-in-law and I had mutual respect and admiration.''

Were the three children overwhelmed by the combined aura of such celebrity parents?

``When they were very young, they wouldn't want me to come to their school. My older daughter never liked me to visit her Arts college. Son Saif would be upset if anybody said he resembled me. Now the children are grown-up and the aura helps them in a positive way. My older daughter who is a jewellery designer feels `when other people are using my mother to promote what they make, why not I?' ''

Is she happy with the way Saif's film career is shaping and does she regret that her daughters did not enter films?

``Saif is getting good roles and he also looks after his family well. I am proud of him. As for the girls, if I had felt that they had the inclination and talent I would have sent them to an acting school. But they were not interested. My younger daughter is a banker; she was very academically inclined. Both the girls are doing well and I am happy with what they have chosen to be — to each his own.''

Has she considered acting in theatre?

``I would love to do Bengali theatre, not Hindi or English.'' She states that her source of creativity and energy comes from India and essentially from Bengal. ``I love going back there. Even the shops have aesthetics and the women wear beautiful Tangail saris still. Life is not flashy as it is here.''

Her daily schedule may vary but is a busy one. ``When I have to work, I make myself unavailable in order to concentrate on the films.''

Does she still love to act?

``I find it fascinating to make films. After `Aradhana', I wanted to leave cinema. Deven Verma used to say that three artistes — Ashok Kumar, Sharmila Tagore and Hrishikesh Mukherjee — keep constantly declaring they will leave films and they never will! I am still in love with the camera.'' Her famous dimples flashing out.

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