By Siraj Khan
Sharmila Tagore calls herself “an actress by accident” and that is not a bad self-assessment at all.
Few couples in India have been loved and admired as fondly as Tiger Pataudi and Sharmila Tagore. Rarely have two altogether different careers of a married couple have run parallel as beautifully as theirs, welded as one. Tiger retired in 1975 but Sharmila continued on for many more years and film analysts are unanimous in their view that no other actress has tasted commercial success more after her marriage, as Sharmila did.
Sharmila's acting career started with Satyajit Ray’s 1959 Bengali film Apur Sansar as the ill-fated bride of the title character, when she was barely 15 and still attending school. Shakti Samanta’s Kashmir Ki Kali (1964) was her maiden Hindi film, followed by Anupama (1966). Samanta cast her in many more films, including Sawan ki Ghata (1966) and An Evening in Paris (1967), in which she became the first Indian actress bold enough to appear in a bikini, and which established Sharmila as somewhat of a sex symbol in Hindi films. The song Aasman se aaya farishta had brought the proverbial angel from the skies to the water, clad in a swimsuit. Sharmila’s daring act of donning a two-piece bikini became a trendsetter and made her the hottest Bollywood actress. She also later posed in a bikini for the glossy Filmfare magazine in 1968. Samanta later teamed up Sharmila with Rajesh Khanna for movies such as Aradhana (1969), Amar Prem (1972), and Amanush (1977), generating amazing on-screen chemistry. Other directors paired them together in Safar (1970), Daagh (1973), and Maalik (1972). The pair of Khanna-Sharmila gave six box office hits – Aradhana, Safar, Amar Prem, Chhoti Bahu, Daagh and Avishkaar.
Sharmila Tagore won accolades for her performance in Gulzar’s 1975 film, Mausam, for which she received the coveted National Film Award for Best Actress. She also played a character role in Mira Nair’s 1991 film Mississippi Masala. From 1970-76, along with Mumtaz, she was the most sought after and the highest paid Bollywood actress.
In Bengali films, Sharmila is still considered the best actress after Suchitra Sen. After Satyajit Ray’s film opposite Soumitra Chatterjee, which was a great commercial and critical success, she also acted in Ray’s another five great films, before she straddled her career comfortably with Hindi cinema.
She also appeared in a Marathi film Samaantar by Amol Palekar. Her earlier release was Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Eklavya: The Royal Guard, which also starred her son Saif Ali Khan. They had appeared together earlier in Aashiq Awara (1993).
When Tiger Pataudi and Sharmila Tagore decided to tie the knot in December 1969, after four years of courtship, it was not only a marriage of cricket and cinema, but also of two faiths and cultures. Not to mention that it broke many stereotypes as well. He was a Nawab from a prominent Urdu-speaking Muslim family, she was a Hindu from a Bengali family no less than Tagore. Sharmila converted to Islam and became Begum Ayesha Sultana. Aradhana with Rajesh Khanna was released just before their marriage but her best movies were to follow after marriage, especially following motherhood. She could have hardly expected a more liberal life partner than Tiger Pataudi.
Another interesting aspect of her life has been the overlap of serving as the Chairperson of the Indian Film Censor Board (CBFC) and acting at the same time. She took over from Anupam Kher in 2004 and her tenure at the Board lasted until 2011, well after her Break kay Baad release in 2010. One of the paradoxical situations that she had to deal with as the Chairperson of CBFC, was her concern about the excessive use of bikini in the present Indian films, something which she had pioneered herself.
Flashback at “the actress by accident”: Satyajit Ray first cast her in the last film of The Apu Trilogy as the child bride of Apu, the character he had first introduced as a little boy in Pather Panchali (1955), his debut feature. It was not an easy introduction to cinema by any means. Sharmila was at still at school and a lot has been written about Ray spotting her at school, following her, and then contacting her father.
A couple of Ray’s films had already been released, so her father did not object to her working with Ray, but her school didn’t see it that way. Her school principal said it would be a very bad influence on her as a girl. So, she was asked to leave her Bengali medium school for a Convent, a rather dramatic change in her life. The rest, as they say, is history.
There are some fond memories of life which may become hazy, but don’t ever fade away. As Tiger’s wife, Sharmila has even been held responsible for Pataudi’s non-performance in some Test matches. There were many who felt that the actress – cricketer combination from a privileged background brought too much media attention and distraction. But then, Tiger would play a dashing innings and the criticism would turn into the sound of silence. There were some even more touching moments. In one of her more recent interviews, Sharmila disclosed that having found out about her favorite song, Tiger used to play “Chaudvin ka chand ho” on his flute in his attempt to woo her. It did work, eventually.
Sweet dreams are made of these.
(Siraj Khan is a world citizen who lives a life without boundaries. He is a connoisseur of South Asian film music and has been the creative director of some of the most engaging and entertaining musical concerts in New England, using music, poetry and the performing arts effectively for outreach and connecting people of all ages, faiths and nationalities. He is passionate about propagating knowledge awareness and education and is currently involved with the Malala Fund and also in a project of Educational TV channel in Canada)