Smritian Memories

Meeting the older generation of film people is altogether a different experience.  I have vivid memories of my meetings with Kamini Kaushal, Dev Anand, Waheeda Rehman, Shammi Kapoor, Shyama, Shakila, Tanuja, Kum Kum, VK Murthy, Abrar Alvi, Ravi and others for a project that fellow filmmaking colleagues and close friends Shivendra Singh Dungarpur (Shivi), Arwa Mamaji and I have been researching. Add to the list now, Smriti Biswas.

Smriti Biswas was an actress in the 1940s and 1950s, playing mainly the glamorous vamp or the second lead and sometimes parallel heroine. Some of her famous Hindi films include Shamsheer (1953), Chandni Chowk (1954), Baap Re Baap (1955), Abe-Hayat (1955), Bhagam Bhag (1956), Arab Ka Saudagar(1956), Jagte Raho (1956), Sailaab (1956), Yahoodi Ki Ladki (1957) and Dilli Ka Thug (1958) besides Bengali films like Neel Akasher Neechey (1958). She retired from films in 1958 following her marriage to doctor-turned-actor-turned-producer-director SD Narang in many of whose films she had acted.  Looking at yesteryear Filmfare reviews of her films, she almost always received positive reviews for most of her performances and in films like Shamsheer, was said to be the saving grace of the film.

One had been trying to find Smriti for months, in fact, a good year or so. She was known to be good friends with Nargis, Nirupa Roy, Shyama, Hemant Kumar, Guru and Geeta Dutt among others in the film industry. We were given phone numbers by a couple of those we met but on calling up, found they were disconnected. We had no postal address but vague directions of the area where she lived. We even sent people physically to the leads we were given but…

However, thankfully things have a weird way of working themselves out in this crazy world. Shivi was making an advertising film which had another actress, Anju Mahendru, acting in it. During casual conversation, she told him of a friend she had who owned some old cameras and wanted them appraised. On being asked who it was, she said Smriti Biswas! Shivi could barely conceal his excitement as he called me. Immediately, a meeting was fixed up. Shivi and I met Smriti and her two sons at Anju Mahendru’s residence. Throughout the conversation, Smriti was full of life as she recalled her acting days, the yesteryears and the 1950s in particular. What’s more, she immediately agreed to grant us a proper interview a couple of days later at her residence.

Though Shivi couldn’t be present and with Arwa now staying in London, I would say that Smriti Biswas’ interview with me was one of the best interviews one has had and this is not taking anything away from the other people I have met, all of whom have been extremely gracious and kind by sparing valuable time to talk to us. Once Smriti opened up and the floodgate of memories came pouring out, she answered all questions patiently and honestly. Her eyes sparkled as she recalled the nights spent in shacks at Powai lake for fishing trips or as she described her role as a co-conspirator in helping good friend Geeta Dutt keep a tab on Guru Dutt’s whereabouts once he was out of the house!  She clarified doubts on fellow vamp Kuldip Kaur’s death due to lockjaw, remembered the wild times the film industry had at Raj Kapoor’s legendary Holi bashes and enthusiastically recalled taking part in cricket matches the industry used to organise.  She also made no bones about how much she missed acting post marriage and motherhood but admitted that Narang was very clear when they married that he wanted a housewife and mother to his children and not a working actress.  All this, while she played the perfect hostess ensuring one was properly taken care of with snack after snack. What’s more, at the end of the interview, she graciously thanked one for helping her relive the good old days and generously gifted me some priceless (to me) movie memorabilia – a few of her film stills, a couple of books authored by husband SD Narang, a lobby card of Arab Ka Saudagar and the song booklet of Yahoodi Ki Ladki among other things.  Needless to say, I was extremely touched.

Song booklet cover of Yahoodi Ki Ladki (1957).

There is a flip side, however, to the joyous experience of meeting these great film personalities of yesteryear. The more I meet people from the golden age of Hindi cinema, the more I regret not having been a filmmaker in that glorious era.

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  1. Nice piece … its sad that so many actresses had to leave films for the sake of their marriages … we have lost so many talents due to this typical Indian male chauvinism.

  2. Actually Monish, though one has seen quite a few actresses quitting films after marriage, it’s interesting to note that in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s itself, many actresses like Devika Rani, Durga Khote, Shobana Samarth, Leela Chitnis, Noor Jehan, Naseem Banu, Meena Shorey, Kamini Kaushal, Nirupa Roy, Geeta Bali, Nutan and Meena Kumari continued full steam with their acting career, some of them even after motherhood.

    Yes Batul, Lucky me! 😀

  3. Thanks for the info. It seems that the film industry and the audiences were more liberal during the ’30s to the ’50s. I guess the trend of actresses dropping out after marriage started in the 60s and continued to the ’80s and 90s. Sharmila Tagore being a notable exception. Now we of course we have actresses like Aisharya Rai who are going great guns post-marriage

  4. Hey Surya,
    Thanks for your feedback. Actually we’re working on transcribing not just Smriti’s interview but all all the other ones as well. Yes, there is a lot of very interesting information and a sense of history in the interviews which are very extensive so it is quite a time consuming process. So, till a little later…

    Yes, it does seem that the trend of actresses quitting after marriage gained momentum in the 1970s and 1980s. Babita, Dimple Kapadia, Jaya Bhaduri, Mumtaz, Neetu Singh, Yogeeta Bali being some of the more prominent cases that come to mind in Hindi cinema.

  5. Hey Man….
    Nice read, and being a filmmaker myself i know what joy it must have been to be meeting a senior actor. While i was reading i felt maybe i will get to read some excerpts of the interview. But not having it disappointed me, so i am humbly requesting you to write another post on what your conversation was all about. Thoda descriptive kar ke likh na yaar :):):) Cheers. Hope to find you here soon again.

  6. Nice peice. I want to be in a time machine and travel back. Watch Geeta Dutt fishing at Powai. Actually just watch her….listen to her in the studios….Sigh!

    And yaar…Smritiji should just make a come back you know. Maybe one should write roles for them. A modern day rom-com staring Kamini Kaushal, Smriti Biswas and Shammi Kapoor.
    Mazza will come!


  7. Cubbu,
    Thanks for the feedback. The rom-com idea sounds delicious. And yes, there was no one quite like Geeta Dutt, was there?

  8. Thanks Memsaab.
    Yeah saw your photos with Shammi Kapoor. You must be elated. His interview with us was wonderful as well.

  9. Thanks Anil. But there are tragic cases as well. Meeting Shyama had a tinge of sadness. She is living a very lonely and isolated life today and is not keeping well either. She broke down more than once in the course of the interview which she began with exaggerated bravado. Sad to see the woman who looked so cute in Aar Paar living like this.

  10. She really is still very lovely! I was lucky enough to meet Shammi recently, and the time passed so quickly—not only in looking back, but also in talking about what’s happening these days. It’s just so nice to get that “wiser” perspective along with the great memories. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  11. Women of those times were phenomenal. They were real personalities.They looked good in every sense even in their old age. She is no exception. what is fantastic is their acceptance of life after retirement. Of moving away from glamour. No emptiness, no withdrawal symptoms..none of the modern day maladies to them. They lived with a certain inner strength. I have met some luminaries of that era and I know that feeling .. Thanks for invoking all this positive nostalgia through this piece Karan.. yes, you look cute, but she is ‘cuter’

  12. I guess that generation didn’t live so much for tomorrow and think in terms of providing for their old age. They were not ‘smart’ in today’s sense. Perhaps they thought their lives in films will last as long as they did and may be some of them did not have a world outside films.

  13. It is quite awesome actually, meeting one of those from the golden age. I remember a brief visit to the cottage of the Senior Azmis as a fresher in Mumbai. I think my jaw touched the floor. It is strange how faces disappear from public memory. I recently caught Sridevi shopping at a Westside store and no one was even looking her way.

  14. True Anil. Bharat Bhushan, Chandulal Shah, Bhagwan are prime examples of having lived their last few years in poverty. Across the border too, Ragini, the first heroine in pre-partition Indian cinema to charge a lakh a film and Meena Shorey, the ‘Lara Lappa’ girl, died lonely, forgotten and destitute. But with Shyama, I think it is more the loneliness and now recurring ill-health especially since husband Fali passed away in 1979 and her children too have moved on with their lives.

    Yes Irene, it is indeed awesome meeting all these people. And hearing what they have to say. The 50s was such a great era to be making films in.

  15. Patience Surya. Good things come to those who wait… 🙂

    Aahana, Thanks for your feedback. It’s things like this that make you believe in luck, coincidence, fate, destiny, naseeb, kismet what have you! 🙂 And yes, agree with you totally that if wishes were horses…I’d probably be making a film with Dilip Kumar and Madhubala with songs by Geeta Dutt and you would be directed by filmmakers like Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan, Raj Khosla, Vijay Anand and Guru Dutt! Nice thought ain’t it?

  16. Life is sooooo unpredictable!! You were meant to meet her and you did…i’m happy that the interview went well…And i know how it feels like meeting an actor from the yesteryear…i always wanted to go back into that era and act!! If wishes were horses….
    Love the article!

  17. Hello Sir,

    Can you provide me information on Shakila ji and her personla life? Could you also give me her her present address as I may like to meet her myself.



  18. Ava,
    Thanks for your feedback. I keep reiterating that it is absolutely wonderful meeting these people who were part of Hindi cinema’s golden age.

    BTW, I met Smriti once more recently for another interview session and now have a beautiful B&W photograph of her dressed exotically from Chandni Chowk (1954), autographed to me personally! 🙂

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