Walk on the wild side: on 'Starring Sharmila' and 'Kings of Horror'

Two documentary films that tell us what it means to go against the grain

September 19, 2019 03:39 pm | Updated September 20, 2019 02:06 pm IST

Irresistible charm: A still from “Starring Sharmila”

Irresistible charm: A still from “Starring Sharmila”

It was her eyes that impressed the irrepressible Satyajit Ray. The eyes that asked a lot of why s and often indulged in daydreaming went on to enchant a generation of cineastes with a variety of roles that veered from the traditional to the glamorous. Much before the phrase beauty with brains became a marketing gimmick, Sharmila Tagore epitomised it in the real sense of the term. Now Umang Sabharwal has come up with “Starring Sharmila”, a documentary on the actor who nudged many a stereotype in a patriarchal set up, without making a noise about it. Umang describes her as “casually rebellious” and “extremely intuitive”.

Very much like the child-bride she played in “Apur Sansar”, Tagore didn’t know what was in store for her behind the closed door. But once she entered, Tagore created a niche for herself in the vast space, bit by bit. In “Kashmir Ki Kali”, she was a bit wide-eyed in front of a rakish Shammi Kapoor but by the time the two joined hands for “An Evening in Paris”, Tagore had a double role, one of which was that of a girl whose moral centre was ambivalent. If Suzy filled the vamp space, Deepa was introduced as a girl who was going to Paris after three-four affairs. Well, it is an eye-opener for many who believe that the Hindi film heroine was liberated only after “Queen”.

Ahead of the film, her appearance in a two-piece bikini on the Filmfare, an act that was questioned in the Zero Hour of the Parliament, is part of the industry folklore. Always candid, Tagore admits it was an act of exhibitionism but adds that there was no agenda behind it.

As filmmaker and scholar Sohini Ghosh points out in the documentary, unlike her contemporaries, Tagore lived by modern values outside the film set as well. For a long time, the Taj hotel was her second home in Mumbai where she worked from a suite that cost Rs 275 in those days. Coming from a progressive family, with books as her constant companions, Tagore practised liberal values, without making a show of it. “I was a bit wild,” she confesses in the film. Perhaps, she was more like the elegant and enigmatic Aparna of “Aranyer Din Ratri”. One wonders how she would have reacted to a self-conscious Asim in real life!

Roaring romance

The film also brings out the roaring romance between Tiger (Pataudi) and Tagore with its social implications – how it led to Tagore being almost ostracised on a film set to the role of telephone operators in their love life.

As she started at 13, Tagore had time to engage with the medium and experiment. When she dyed her hair grey in “Aradhana”, she was still in her 20s. Though, by that time, she had Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s “Anupama” in her resume, director Shakti Samanta initially didn’t see her in the role because of her box office image. It was writer Sachin Bhowmick who pushed her case and Tagore turned a new tide in her career. The box office responded and a Filmfare Award followed.

It spurred interest of new wave directors like Basu Bhattacharya ( “Avishkar”) and Gulzar in her. The latter first cast her in “Khushboo” where she agreed to do a small role.

The association helped Tagore fine tune her Hindi diction. The two worked again in “Mausam”, perhaps her most challenging role. As Chanda and Kajli, she delineated two completely different women, a combination of class and crass. Her effort won her a National Award.

Based on interviews, Umang has turned it into an engaging narrative with sharp editing and telling visuals that take you back in time when an actress was asking for an equal world with a dimpled smile.

In a new light

There is something surreal about the Ramsay universe. The cinema of the supernatural might have been buried at the box office, but there is a league of filmmakers who swear by the Ramsay brothers’ brand of subversion. If Shriram Raghavan finds them inspirational, Ashim Ahulwalia draws from the atmospherics of Ramsay films. When many critics feel that there is not much to read in “Purana Mandir” and “Veerana”, directors Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas have come up with a documentary “Kings of Horror” that tries to look beyond the monster with a moll binary of the three dozen B-grade films that F.U. Ramsay and his seven sons produced.

A still from “Kings of Horror”

A still from “Kings of Horror”

Shyam Ramsay, who directed most of them, passed away this Wednesday. The film is a befitting tribute to his craft. Interestingly, it is scheduled as the opening film of the festival.

Anurag Kashyap who grew up watching back to back shows of “Bandh Darwaza” says everything that is forbidden was there in a Ramsay film. Ashim delves into the atmosphere that such films provided when the so-called mainstream films were focussing only on the plot. Here the hero would walk for three minutes in a graveyard in red colour light. “The red light takes away the contrast, creating a dream-like experience where the difference between day and night diminishes,” says the director of “Miss Lovely”.

The film talks of the agency that the female characters in such films had. Male characters were often emaciated and the gender equations were not always rigid. “They had different laws which subverted Bollywood norms,” says Ashim. According to him, the Ramsays gave a fillip to the independent film movement.

There are interesting anecdotes as how Ajay Agarwal, the scary face of many a Ramsay films, doesn’t like to watch his films because there is not much to carry home. Arti Surendranath, whose Bollywood career never took off after her association with the horror genre, shares rhe experience of shooting under the blood like water coming out of the shower during the shoot of “Purana Mandir”. The best comes from an actor who remembers the kings of horror for giving Hindi cinema its most beautiful heroine – Jasmine from “Veerana”! Well, a search for her could spawn another film.

(“Starring Sharmila” and “Kings of Horror” will be showcased at the PSBT’s Open Frame Festival, 20-24 September, Auditorium, India International Centre, New Delhi.)

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