The discreet charm of Sharmila Tagore

Critics have done little justice to her versatility and it’s a pity she didn’t extend her formidable talent to live theatre

The discreet charm of Sharmila Tagore
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Khalid Mohamed

She turned 75 years old on December 8. And it was 50 years ago, in 1972, when she was seen in two diametrically different films – the sensitively crafted Amar Prem in the company of her regular co-star Rajesh Khanna, and in B.R. Chopra’s Dastaan, in which she was paired for the first time with Dilip Kumar.

I write on Sharmila Tagore today because apart from her two National Awards for Gulzar’s Mausam and Goutam Ghose’s Abar Aranye, she has largely been undervalued. It has been only scantily acknowledged that she was equally at home in both arthouse (notably, the masterpieces of Satyajit Ray) and the glitziest of the mainstream Bollywood romances, thrillers and family sagas. She could have extended her metier to theatre, it’s a pity that she didn’t.

Mostly settled in Lutyens’ Delhi for nearly five decades, in fact at one point, at the cusp of the 2000s, she was mulling over the possibility of doing a stageplay – a solo act. Unfortunately, that play didn’t frucitfy. To see Sharmila Tagore ‘live’ would have been an experience, a worth-monitoring extension of her artistry.

Although she had ushered in the era of the contemporary, the so-called westernised persona in the cloistered Bombay cinema during the mid-1960s, that description or credit has been largely attributed to Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi. What they did, Tagore had done years before. Be it in black-and-white or in colour, she could be the upright, sari clad housewife or the beskirted, footloose and fancy free young woman.

At a time when heroines were strait-jacketed and subservient to the heroes, Sharmila Tagore had already created that independentwilled heroine, perhaps best exemplified by films, which were essentially glossy and hypercommercial, and I quote them at random here-- Evening in Paris, Saawan ki Ghata, Suhana Safar, Aamne Saamne.

To enhance a mundane part depends on the actor, and it was obvious she had taken the most stock in trade roles assigned to her by the script to another level. Indeed, her bikini-clad cover (Filmfare, Aug 1966), had set off shock waves throughout the nation. With Shakti Samanta, Kashmir ki Kali and Evening in Paris were to be followed by the steel-strong women she portrayed in Aradhana and Amar Prem, diametrically different roles those two -- in Aradhana in the dual role of a woman in love and the other as a mother who picked up a scissor to do away with the stock-in-trade tormentor; and in Amar Prem as a wellmeaning Babu moshai’s Calcutta mistress whose presence and power dominated even Rajesh Khanna, at the peak of his superstardom then.

Incidentally, the one-take song picturisation 'Roop tera mastana...' of Aradhana called for an uninhibited, and yet far from prurient chemistry between Sharmila Tagore and Rajesh Khanna. Although imitated, it has never been matched. Besides Samanta, she appeared to be inspired with Gulzar, be it as his crass, foul-mouthed daughter in Mausam or as the ageing woman in Namkeen, living in abject poverty with a brood of younger women, and overshadowing the then-flavour of the season, Shabana Azmi.

With Hrishikesh Mukherjee, her most significant work was to be evidenced in Anupama, as a repressed daughter of a father who unreasonably held her guilty for her mother’s death at child-birth.


Just one tight close-up of her eyes – her most formidable asset as an actor – moving over a page while reading, has been a stayer. With Mukherjee, she was also given one of her rare chances to display her flair for restrained comedy in Chupke Chupke.Vis-a-vis, Satyakam, the finale cutting between her and her dying husband (Dharmendra)—a decision had to be taken, whether he will go against his conscience and accept a bribe or not. The intercuts between the two actors were done in the quintessential Hrishida style – with unsparing emotions and therefore, extremely moving.

The demands on a mainstream heroine, especially in the 1960s, were rigid. She had to look gorgeous, take care of her costumes and hair-arrangements (bouffants were the order of the day) besides the ability to lip-sync perfectly with the playbacked songs (check out Talaash), and deliver the dialogue mostly without pauses so as not to slacken the tempo.

Sharmila Tagore could fulfil these demands – expertly—but was never given her deserved due by the critics of the time, who were ideologically committed to promote the parallel cinema movement. Perhaps, the problem was that critics expected her to be as ‘untheatrical’ and ‘normal’ as she was in her mentor Satyajit Ray’s films.

To date we can applaud her for being close to everyday life and yet on call, exude glamour in the typical, fantasy-laced big-budget movies of Hindi cinema.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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