Sharmila Tagore is a star and an actress who blends the rare quality of dignity and glamour, style and attitude, making her presence felt over five decades in Indian cinema. She has run the tightrope of Satyajit Ray and Shakti Samanta, Soumitra Chatterjee and Shammi Kapoorwith equal elan and she continues in her third phase in films, doing an occasional film now and then if she finds the assignment suitable, flying from home-base Delhi to Mumbai or Kolkata or London to fulfill her professional commitments. Her work reaches out far beyond the peripheries of appearing on screen in films after film. She has also served as the Chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification and was chosen to be UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador and has been actively involved in work against HIV and also with children.
The story of Sharmila Tagore began when she was born, the eldest of three daughters to Gitindranath Tagore (a descendant of Rabindranath Tagore’s family), on 8th December, 1944 . Born away from Bengal, her home state, she later moved with the family to Asansol and Kolkata studying in missionary schools. She grew up in a cultural environment and was an active participant in Children’s Little Theatre, a theatre group for children quite famous at that time. Going back to her childhood, she recalls, “The Tagores were a strange blend of tradition and modernity. We were trained to recognize our rich heritage. Mother ruled supreme in the inner quarters of the Tagore home. Her life revolved around her children. She decided everything including how we should take care of our skin with grandmother’s recipes drawn from the kitchen. There was no room for manufactured beauty care products. We were never encouraged to wear jewellery. We learnt that looking after the inner beauty is much more important than outward appearances.”
Her debut in films began when Satyajit Ray picked her to play the pivotal role of Aparna, Apu’s young bride in Apur Sansar (1959). She was only 14 and still in school. The film brought her international acclaim and Ray’s Devi (1960) followed with Sharmila playing the title role of Doyamoyee in a very complex portrayal of a young bride, victim of blind superstition in a tradition-bound family dominated by her autocratic, superstitious beliefs. “My first two films with Ray were shot during my holidays. It was a blend of chance and pressure, with a generous dose of curiosity. I was only 14 years old. He gave specific instructions. I had never faced a movie camera before. I did exactly as told. Somewhere along the way, there was a blurring of lines between Aparna, the character I was playing, and Sharmila Tagore. Just as Aparna crossed the threshold of her husband’s house, I stepped in front of the camera for the first time in my life. It was like entering a completely new world. It was a turning point. But I was too young to realize it at the time,” she reminisces. She finished school, joined college and continued in films, acting in Tapan Sinha’s Nirjan Saikate (1963), Haridas Bhattacharya’s Shesh Anka (1963) opposite Uttam Kumar, Ajoy Kar’s Barnali (1963) and the same director’s Prabhater Rang (1964).
Shakti Samanta’s call to her to feature in Kashmir Ki Kali (1964) in Hindi changed the direction of Sharmila’s career for many years to come. The film led to other Hindi producers lining up at the door of the new star who vindicated their choice by giving them a flop-free record for four long years. The films were BR Chopra’s Waqt (1965), Mohan Segal’s Devar (1966), Brij’s Yeh Raat Phir Na Aayegi (1966), Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anupama (1966), Suraj Prakash’s Aame Samne (1967) and Shakti Samanta’s Sawan ki Ghata (1966) and An Evening in Paris (1967). Sadly, it was her dimpled beauty and her brashness to wear swimsuits on screen for An Evening in Paris and for Aamne Samne followed by a daring two-piece bikini she wore for the cover of a famous film fortnightly that drew attention to her than her acting skills. Her acting skills were not much in demand in these films except perhaps, Anupama where her character was defined more by her silences than by her dialogue. She became synonymous with her glamorous screen image of chutzpah. She draped the sari in a particular way, had a stylized, waist-wriggling gait, wore a bouffant hairdo and delivered her lines in a coquettish way and focussing on her dimples with a sweet smile. Within this brief span, she had worked with most of the top actors in the industry – Shammi Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor, Biswajeet and Dharmendra. She continued to pair with Dharmendra and also, Rajesh Khanna for many films for some years. Over the years, she has been paired opposite Uttam Kumar, Soumitra Chatterjee, Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar, Sanjeev Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, practically everyone except Raj Kapoor.
The third milestone of her career that determined her positioning as a talented actress came with Shakti Samanta’s Aradhana (1969) that began the string of awards she won for her performance rather than for her glamour. Paired opposite Rajesh Khanna who played a double role in the film, Sharmila was stripped of her glamour after the initial scenes and had a span that showed her from a bubbly teenager growing to a grey-haired widow looking from behind the bars of a prison cell. Other films followed that went on to prove her caliber as an actress to reckon with. Among these are Safar (1970), Amar Prem (1971) and Daag (1973) – each one underscoring what a versatile director’s actress she could be under a good director with a powerful script. There were other notable films like Aa Gale Lag Ja (1973), Avishkaar (1973), Chupke Chupke (1975), Anand Ashram (1977) and New Delhi Times (1985). Among her international projects are Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (1991) and Sangeeta Datta’s Life Goes On.
A brief cameo in Gulzar’s Khushboo preceded Mausam (1975) where, in a double role, she played a patient lover who loses her mind waiting for her man who never comes back. Juxtaposed against this, she played Kajri, a foul-mouthed, bidi-smoking, brazen prostitute who has no clue about a man-woman relationship that transcends an exchange of money for sex. The portrayal fetched her National Award for Best Actress the following year. There have been other major awards. In 1997, she received the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award followed by the Star-Screen Lifetime Award in 2003 and the National Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Goutam Ghose’s Abar Aranye in 2004. The same year, she won the Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters of France.
Her career in Bengali films dwindled by choice and she came back only for Satyajit Ray, who she remains grateful to for having showed her the way and for whatever she has achieved till today. The films that grace this part of her career are – Nayak (1966), Aranyer Din Ratri (1969) and Seemabaddha (1971). In the fourth phase of her career when she smoothly transcended to character roles, she has appeared in films like Goutam Ghose’s Abar Aranye (2003), Rituparno Ghosh’s Shubha Muhurat (2003) and Aniruddha Roy Choudhury’s Antaheen.
Sharmila has made a smooth transition to older character roles with Mann starring Aamir Khanand Manisha Koirala. However, most of the films she has featured in have failed to explore her potential as an actress and have taken her only for her name in the credits. Some examples are Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Eklavya (2007), Mahesh Manjrekar’s Viruddh (2005), Arup Dutta’s Morning Walk (2009) and her first Marathi film, Amol Palekar’s Samaantar (2009).
Indian High Commission in UK engineered by its Cultural Secretary, Monika Kapil Mohta, was responsible for putting together a retrospective of films featuring Tagore that will travel across Cardiff, Birmingham, Leicester and SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies). Seven important films starring Sharmila Tagore in the lead featured in the retro where she personally participated in interactions with the audience at the end of some of these screenings. Of the seven films, three were from Ray’s films, three were very popular Hindi films and one was the English language film, Life Goes On. The Ray films were Apur Sansar, Devi and Aranyer Din Ratri. The Hindi films were Aradhana and Amar Prem, both directed by Shakti Samanta and Mausam directed by Gulzar, an interesting mix of films representative of the oeuvre of Sharmila Tagore as an actress.
On the personal front, her marriage to Mansur Ali Khan of Pataudi who had been the captain of the Indian cricket team for several years in 1968 raised a storm and she converted to Islam. But the marriage has stood the test of time and the royal couple has celebrated four decades of togetherness in marriage. The three Khan children, Saif Ali Khan, Saba and Soha are independent and successful in careers of their choice. Saba is a jewellery designer while Saif and Soha are following in their mother’s footsteps as actors.
Summing up her present life, Tagore says, “I like to take one day at a time. My life is not confined only to studios and shoots. I like to have my cake and eat it too. I go to Pataudi very often and take great joy out of gardening. I am very happy working in a film and helping UNICEF because I love interacting with children. Being the chairperson of CBFC is an administrative responsibility. And I love travelling too. I do not see why it should be any different five years from now.”