Remembering the powerful Lalita Pawar on her birth anniversary

Her interpretation of evil matriarchal parts brought her the kind of strong negative image in the public mind which she found hard to obliterate

Lalita Pawar (Source: Twitter)
Lalita Pawar (Source: Twitter)

Subhash K Jha

Hrishikesh Mukherjee could be quite a prankster. He would often turn actresses with mean evil images into good human beings: Shashikala in Anupama and Khubsoorat, Bindu in Abhimaan and Arjun Pandit, Lalita Pawar in Anari and Anand.

Lalita Pawar was a powerhouse of performances. Her interpretation of evil matriarchal parts brought her the kind of strong negative image in the public mind which she found hard to obliterate. Not that she wanted to. The image of the evil mother-in-law stuck in the later part of her career. And Lalita Pawar enjoyed every bit of it.

She was heinous in roles that required a disruptive mother-in-law. But she made wicked look so despicable, it almost became a fashion statement.  I remember how much Lalitaji was hated as the domestic trouble maker in  films in the 1960s like Sujata, Patthar Ke Sanam, Gharana, Junglee, Sasural, Kohra (the  desi remake of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca where Lalita Pawar played the eerie and stern housekeeper), Apne Huey Paraye and Khandaan.

In the 1960s and earlier 70s, Lalita Pawar’s wickedness was as much a box office formula as Helen’s cabaret. Lalita Pawar was almost an “item” in commercial cinema.

“Audiences loved Lalitaji’s wicked mother-in-law roles,” recalls the screen queen of the 1990s Asha Parekh. “She was often the driving force in the films of that era. In my film, Raj Khosla's Chirag Lalitaji played my mother-in-law, and she drove me and my co-star (Sunil Dutt) apart. So many films  of the 1960s wouldn’t have worked without her wicked act.”

Films like Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi , Sau Din Saas Ke and Mem Didi featured  Lalita Pawar in the title role. It was Hrishikesh Mukherjee who cast her in a positive role in  Anari (1958) while the rest of the film industry was enjoying her vile act. She played Raj Kapoor’s ‘coconut’  landlady: tough outside soft underneath. Hrishida followed this up with positive roles for Lalita Pawar  in Mem Didi and Anand. She was also remarkable in Asit Sen’s Khamoshi where she played the matron in a mental hospital and Ramanand Sagar’s Aankhen where she was a spy.

Veteran Dharmendra who worked with Lalitaji in Phool Aur Patthar, Mann Ki Aankhen and Aankhen remembers her as kind and gentle. “She played wicked women on screen. But she was such a gentle soul in real life. People didn’t know that. They hated her because they saw her as the way  she was on screen.”

Speaking of Aankhen, it was a damaged eye (which she got when the dancer-actor Bhagwan slapped her too hard) that set Lalit Pawar on the path of wickedness. Prior to that, she was aspiring to the leading ladies' roles. She was also an actress in the silent era. In fact, Lalita Pawar appeared in India’s first talkies film Raja Harishchandra. In a career spanning more than 70 years, she played them all, the good bad, and the  ugly.

But she is remembered largely for her scheming mother-in-law parts and as evil Manthara in Ramanand Sagar’s serial Ramayan. Lalita Pawar died alone in Pune in 1997. Her decomposed corpse was discovered days after her death. 

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