SHARMILA TAGORE talks about LIFE GOES ON (Interview)

Sharmila Tagore -Life Goes On
Sharmila Tagore -Life Goes On

November 13, 2010 (Calcutta Tube) Sharmila Tagore’s name evokes a sense of dignity, poise and elegance perhaps with little parallel in the world of glamour and chutzpah she belongs to. In nostalgic mode, she brings back fond memories of the beautiful child-bride in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar. She has made the smooth transition from leading lady to character actress in Bengali and Hindi films after a hiatus for some years committed to being wife and mother. In her graying years, she has made a mark in Rituparno Ghosh’s Shubha Muhurt, Aniruddha Roy Choudhury’s Antaheen, Mahesh Manjrekar’s Viruddh and so on. Her latest film,  to be premiered in UK and USA is Life Goes On in English directed by UK-based filmmaker-singer-curator Sangeeta Datta. Tagore opens out in a forthright interview about her career, about contemporary Indian cinema, and about the experience of having worked in Life Goes On.

You were invited to attend a 24-day long retrospective of the films of Satyajit Ray in Singapore recently. What was the experience like?
Brilliant. They screened all his films. Shyam Benegal and Dhritiman Chatterjee were present for the inauguration. They screened restored prints which made the technical side flawless. The retrospective was organised by the High Commissioner of India in Singapore, Directorate of Film Festivals and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, India. The theatre was packed for the opening but not that packed for the closing ceremony. I enjoyed the enthusiasm the audience revealed, continuously flooding us, special Shyam with questions. Pather Panchali was the inaugural film and as I watched it, I felt it had not aged at all. The cinematography is brilliant and has not been outdated either by time or by technology. The romance of Apur Sansar is still moving and unforgettable. I do not know whether my nostalgic fondness for these films is because I am a Bengali and my love for my language or something else. I can connect very well with these films even now.

[ReviewAZON asin=”B0044FDPA4″ display=”inlinepost”]What memories do you associate with being born into a Tagore family?
The Tagores were a blend of tradition and modernity. As children, we learnt to recognise our rich heritage. Our mother was supreme in the inner quarters of the house. She made the decisions about how we should be brought up. Her entire life revolved around us. She taught us how to take care of our skin with grandmother’s recipes from the kitchen rather than from marketed cosmetics that were rare in those days. We were not permitted to use manufactured items of beauty care. Jewellery was not a priority. We learnt quite early in life that inner beauty was more important than outward appearance. My upbringing taught me to be proud of my Bengali identity. I am proud to be a Bengali. I love to come to Calcutta from time to time. It is wonderful to come home. I studied in a Bengali medium school till I was 13 so my Bengali is quite strong. I am very happy to be a part of the Bengali film industry once more.

How do you look at your recent films in Hindi and Bengali cinema?
I loved my character in Antaheen. I play the single aunt of the hero Rahul Bose. It was a brief role. Aniruddha Roy Choudhury, the director, gave me a definite character to portray and he narrated it from his point of view. I wore the sari for all my scenes, wore glasses and even did some petit point embroidery. I said I will do it. We do not get such roles easily in Hindi films. The ideology of the old as obstructers of the young is how we are being sold now. When I was playing the lead as a young woman, Indian cinema was massaging the male ego. Today, it is massaging the youth. Viruddh directed by Mahesh Manjrekar could have been a better role for me than it turned out but on the whole, I enjoyed working in it. Bengali films allow me to mull over the character, to visualize the character as it would it appear to the audience. Hindi films tell us not to think at all.

But you do Hindi films all the same don’t you?
Of course I love to be a part of the industry. Hindi films pay well and look after our comforts. For location shoots, we are put up in luxury hotels in exotic places like Mauritius and Bangkok. Bengali filmmakers do not have such lush budgets and sometimes, such as for Gautam Ghose’s Abar Aranye, we had to undergo tremendous hardship on location in North Bengal. Sometimes, even minimum facilities are not available. But the filmmakers are focussed so far as their work is concerned. Rituparno Ghosh for instance comes fully prepared – script, dialogue, shot division – everything is ready. He understands the language very well. Viruddha had a lot of scope for my character to grow over the film. But it did not.

[ReviewAZON asin=”B003M5P9GK” display=”inlinepost”]But you do like Hindi films a lot, don’t you?
Yes, I do. Vishal Bharadwaj is my favourite. He has a completely new way of looking at things. He opens a world unknown to most of us. He uses violence also but makes it meaningful. Among some contemporary films that I loved very much are – Khosla ka Ghosla, Ishquiya and Tere Bin Laden. I did not like 3 Idiots too much because I found it to be too preachy.

You play the central character in Life Goes On. Tell us something about this character.
I play Manju Banerjee. She is a middle-aged lady settled in London for many years. She works as a librarian and a singer and trains young children in music during her spare time. She is married to Dr. Sanjay Banerjee, a prominent member of the Indian community in London. We have three daughters of which, the eldest is married to a Briton, the second lives separately and the youngest, Dia, a student of theatre, lives with us. Manju is a matriarch. She is the buffer who holds the family together. Her husband hardly knows the children. Manju dies of a sudden stroke soon after the film begins. But she is present throughout, in flashbacks where the three girls, the husband and the family friend Alok Mathur revive their individual and collective memories of time spent with her. She is present in spirit because the film is soaked with her closest ones feeling a vacuum in her absence. I liked my character and I also liked the film very much. It is a simple story narrated in a simple manner. The music is mind-blowing and the quality of the acoustics is very good indeed. It is a woman’s story narrated by a woman from a woman’s point of view.

We would like you to share with us some precious moments from the film.
There are quite a few. I specially liked the dialogue delivered in soft tones. There is a scene where I am in the kitchen cooking a fish curry and Om Puri is looking on. We talk so softly that it appears that only we will be able to hear ourselves speaking. There was an outdoor scene with Dia portrayed by Soha who, as you all know, is my younger daughter and the youngest of my three children. It was a scene where she is telling me something that will shock me as I am tending to a plant in the spacious garden. It came across very naturally. The film was shot entirely in London and that perhaps helped as Soha has spent quite some time in England. It turned out to be very good. I love that last scene where I move across the garden and disappear behind a tree, like a spirit of myself, content that the family has got over the tragedy and has learnt to let life go on.

Was it difficult playing screen mother to your real daughter?
No. It wasn’t difficult at all. I am a very professional person who can compartmentalize things very well. I can get within myself quite easily and remain there, not allowing others to enter. I never had the urge to direct Soha in any way from the performance point of view. First of all, there was a director present to tell her what she was expected to do. Secondly, Soha is a grown-up person who has already done some films herself and is now a part of the industry. Sangeeta as director was very sweet and very calm right through. At the most, I could suggest what colour Soha could wear for a given scene or what her hair should look like for example, but not more than that.

Some memories of having worked with Ray and about Ray himself?
I owe everything I am today to Manik-da. My first two films, Apur Sansar and Devi,  began with Ray as director.  They 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. My very first shot needed Aparna to cross the threshold of her husband’s house. With this shot, I too stepped in front of the movie 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. Ray understood that art is meant to transcend reality. His films are filled with optimism. You will not find any bad characters in his films. They portray the struggles and the heroism of ordinary men and women. You just cannot forget them. The face of the mother Sarbajaya in Pather Panchali and Aparajito keeps haunting you. You cannot forget that scene in Apur Sansar where Apu is talking to his friend along the railway tracks about the novel he is writing, not about the struggles he is facing. How can you not react to that?

You have broken every rule in the book in Bollywood when you were young. What is your response?
I was different from other actresses. My behavior was misinterpreted. I felt I was making mistakes all the time. Everybody would be wearing a sari and I’d turn up in jeans. I was accused of being snooty and arrogant, which I was not. I didn’t know that one was expected to lead a certain lifestyle. It changed when I stepped into another phase of my career with Aradhana. I am currently in the third and final phase of my career. I am enjoying myself. If you are referring to that bikini-clad scene in An Evening in Paris, then let me tell you that when I saw this film recently, it brought a smile to my lips. I found it so innocent. It did not seem vulgar at all.

Shoma A. Chatterji

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