THE THREE KUMARS SAIRA’S LIFE! IN
She scorned the First, got involved with the Second, and married the Third!
Like Sharmila Tagore, Saira Banu (actually it’s dangerous to even put their two names so close together – it’s highly inflammable) is great fun to interview. But unlike Rinku, Saira is less diplomatic (“personally I think Aparna Sen is a much better actress than Sharmila – at least, that’s what anyone can judge from their Bengali films”) openly contemptuous (“Just how many real directors do we have around here?”) and delightfully flip (“I don’t know how my husband puts up with a hatter like me”). With her ‘mysterious’ illness behind her, you can imagine how fast she was forced (by our thrifty producers, for whom every minute means money) to resume her double shift shootings schedule. I managed to corner her during a location shooting in Bangalore. She was put up in grand style at the Presidential Suite of the Ashoka. She sat there regally, in a flowing gown looking every inch a ‘begum’ herself (sorry Sharmila, but I can’t help noticing similarities). I’d met her umpteen times before, but it was the first time I was seeing her without the usual two-inch-thick layer of makeup. It struck me then that Saira is one actress photographs don’t do any justice to. Her blow-ups show a heavily over-made-up face with does not go easy on the viewer’s eye. “I’m not a prude,” she said,
interrupting my chain of thoughts. I had been talking about her questionable talent, (which critics place at 0 level) and I informed her (quite kindly) that the general opinion was that the only reason for her popularity with the masses was her partiality towards cleavage-revealing costumes. “Listen,” she interjected, “if the secret of success lay only in open costumes, then why were films like ‘ Junglee’, Shagird’ and ‘ Gopi’ hits? Does that mean if I do a nude scene I’d be the most popular person in the world? Personally I don’t think my costumes are shocking or scandalous – the clothes I wear can be seen on thousands of girls on the street each day. I admit I’m not a prude where dressing up is concerned. If I have a good midriff, what’s there in showing it off?” But why had she, of late, been doing so many altu faltu films (like ‘ InternationalCrook’,‘PocketMaar’ and ‘ ReshamKiDori’)? It wasn’t as if she was in desperate need of the money (remember she’s the honourable Mrs. Yusuf Khan) or that the roles were even remotely “challenging”. She didn’t get offended, but her thin smile showed she was perturbed. “I know. But then how do you explain the fact that some of the biggest filmmakers have produced some of the biggest flops? Anyway. I’m hopeless at discriminating. So a couple of mediocre films here and there, are inevitable. And then the problem of relationships comes in too. Om Prakash is a friend of the family. I had already disappointed him once when I wasn’t able to do ‘ Around TheWorld’. So when he approached me for his brother’s next film ‘ International Crook’ how could I say no? This is one example. There are innumerable others. She spared a word for the heroes – “Poor chaps. They must be finding it even more difficult than us. Dharmendra is (but of course) the best example. He is probably plagued every minute of the day by friends and relations to do films for them.” (Isn’t it peculiar how every heroine’s sympathies go out instantly to Dharam? I could have sworn he is one guy who least needs it!) Her recent illness, Saira went on to say, had proved a blessing in that it gave her the opportunity (and excuse) to back out of the films she didn’t want to, but was being forced to do. Her mother Naseem (who’d been sitting with us, but silently, thus far) spoke up in her soft, modulated, extremely feminine voice, “I don’t understand one thing. When that other girl – Rekha – was ill and in hospital for such a long time, nobody said a word. But what a big thing has been made out of my daughter’s illness! And what absurd tales have been built around it!” She wasn’t exaggerating. Saira’s breakdown in May, and her subsequent disappearance (with hubby Dilip) had the entire industry agog with catty curiosity. Some said they had gone off to Kashmir to ‘make another baby’; others said that because she had been compelled to overwork by her mother, she’d broken down physically, according to yet another report, Saira and Dilip had been spotted in New York ‘enjoying a second (?) honeymoon’; and finally a filmy guy who lives in the vicinity of their home, declared that the couple was in Bombay itself – Dilip distraught with husbandly worry, as Saira was at death’s door. Saira found it all maha amusing – “All I had was a viral infection!” She added in a whisper, “It’s true though, that the only time I get my husband all to myself is when I’m ill. Otherwise, he’s always busy with the worries of the rest of the world. When I’m in bed, he’s always by my side – he tends over me with such care and affection. It’s then that I learn about THE MAN. I know I would never be able to do the same for him if things were ever reversed.” Her mother rushed to her defence. “Of course you would, my dear. Now don’t underestimate yourself. You two are the IDEAL couple. Made for each other, and completely deserving of each other.” Saira sighed ecstatically and I sat up instantly. If I could help it I wasn’t going to let her go off into a wifely reverie on that ‘devastating man’ of hers. Admitted, what she says about him (“he is the one COMPLETE man in the industry”. “He has dedicated his life to his art and go little in return – he is the most misunderstood man” and “his is a simple life – give him an ordinary tee-shirt and white trousers and he wants nothing more”) does make a lot of sense, but I thought of how much more interesting it would be if she talked about other men for a change. It’s not as if she has been free from all involvements all along.
Sanjeev Kumar is a good actor as one can see in ‘Khilona’ and ‘Manoranjan’. But according to me, he is at his best only in ‘character’ roles. He is not my idea of a conventional hero.”
The mini-research I’d done on her revealed that there had been many a guy who’d lined up before the ‘Beauty Queen’. I wanted to know now, how she had reacted to them, how she currently views them, and what her candid assessment of each one is. We had to go right back to the days when she was sensitive, skinny, fifteen year old Swiss-Finishing-Schoolreturned kid, trying to make it in films. Her first hero (and her worst if you can read between the lines) had a tremendous impact on her. The No. 1 star of the time (you’ve guessed it) Monsieur Shammi (of the ‘wildest Kapoor’ fame) who began working for ‘ Junglee’ with total disinterest because of the heroine (“what’s this you’ve got for me?” he grumbled to the director, “A Frigidaire?”). His attitude was a blow to her morale and she remained constantly terrified of his tactics (there were occasions when he’d do things like smash the lights, if undue attention was being given to somebody other than him). And yet, once the film was released, and it became a success, he changed his tune. He approached Saira meekly and taking her hand in his admitted, “You’ve been a lucky mascot for me”. They could have become a raving hit team if they’d wanted – producers from every direction came forth to co-star them. But Saira retreated. “His ‘I am Shammi Kapoor’ attitude was too over powering. Moreover, he had hurt me once too often with his jibes and insults. I was almost mortally wounded.” Unintentionally, Shammi was also responsible for a yet another high (low) light in Saira’s life – Sanjeev Kumar. Those were the days when Hari bhai was a stunt player in Filmistan Studios. Saira was being coached for her ‘ Junglee’ role. Obviously Shammi was not expected to waste his time (every minute was money those days) on rehearsals and training classes. So Sanjeev was brought forth to stand in for Shammi. And that’s how the rigmarole began. Sanjeev (incurable romantic that he’s always been) fell head, heart and heels over in love with the skinny, fragile, delicate beauty. Saira swears she was ignorant of his devotion. “He was very friendly with my brother. And the times he used to confide in me about the ‘rich, beautiful, only daughter’ actress he was in love with, but whose hand he was afraid to ask for in marriage because he was only a struggling actor, I honestly thought he was referring to Asha Parekh. They were working together in ‘ Shikar’ then. And so I advised him to go ahead and take a chance at least.” “You can imagine my surprise when some time later it was I who received a long thesis from him – outpourings of his affection and all that. I never expected it.” She naturally didn’t accept his proposal. Everybody knows what followed. When Sanjeev made headway at last, he started making unkind digs (through the press) at Saira. Things like, “She believed that I would make it one day, and wanted me to wait…. But I wanted her to marry me when I was in that humble position – and not after I’d earned fame and fortune … She ended up marrying a well-established hero… In fact, even to this day she sends out feelers through various producers … But I’ve turned down all offers to co-star with her … more out of respect for her husband who is a great man, a great actor, than for her!” The whole episode has Saira stupefied, and a little sick. “It’s all nonsense! I’ve never sent out feelers to work with him. If Sanjeev Kumar has got this notion that I’m dying to work with him, you can assure him he’s mistaken.” (But then Sanjeev always is, as far as his women are concerned). As far as she knows the only film they were to have co-starred in was ‘ Zid’. “And that was out of respect for Nasir Bhai (Saira’s late brother-in-law, and the producer of the film). How could I say NO to him, even if Sanjeev was to be the hero?” When Sanjeev tried to insist on top billing (which was quite amusing considering he had played ‘bit’ roles in many of Saira’s films), Saira personally didn’t mind (“to me such things are insignificant”). She even went as far as to suggest they take another heroine, if having her was going to create complications. It was Nasir Khan who put his foot down and refused to give in to the whims of “that young upstart”. And so Sanjeev was replaced by Sanjay. It would appear that till today Sanjeev hasn’t forgiven (and doesn’t that mean he hasn’t forgotten either?) Saira. He fights shy of looking at her, though he’s respect personalified to her
Dilip is the one COMPLETE man in the industry. He has dedicated his life to his art and go little in return – he is the most misunderstood man. His is a simple life.”
mother (whom he still calls Appaji) and her ‘greatest actor’ husband. On the occasions when he’s had one too many, he takes up a strategic position behind a pillar, and gives her accusing stares. I asked Saira if it made her feel guilty. “U-huh, all I feel is embarrassed.” Said Saira’s mother, “He’s quiet, unassuming man, he’s always very respectful towards me, He’s a good actor too.” Just to tease Saira I informed her innocently that many people called Sanjeev ‘tomorrow’s Dilip Kumar’. She snorted (which could’ve meant anything. It could even have been a sign of the cold she developed the next day). She said, “He is a good actor (she sounded like it was an effort to admit that), as one can see in ‘ Khilona’ and ‘Manoranjan’ (ah, so she does see his films after all). But according to me, he is at his best only in ‘character’ roles. He is not my idea of a conventional hero.” (I’m sure Sanjeev will be interested to know that.) The maid came in to announce that dinner was ready, but nobody paid any attention. Saira shrugged Sanjeev out of the conversation with. “Now if it had been Rajendra Kumar talking like that, I’d understand. Things didn’t work out between us but we had at least been fond of each other.” Her mother elaborated, “When she says ‘fond of each other’ she doesn’t mean it the way these modern young girls use the phrase. All they did was to spend a lot of time talking to each other. We were all present too. There could never have been anything more than that. I have always been with her at all stages.” Anybody can confirm that. Even Saira’s marriage hasn’t been able to affect the mother-daughter relationship. Saira still spends more time with Mama than with her husband. Anyway, as we spoke about Rajendra, I looked eagerly at Saira to see if any ‘light of love’ had come into her eyes. (For those who haven’t caught on, Saira and Rajendra had a bigger-than-a-big thing going at one time.) It didn’t. Her mother smiled amusedly while Saira said quite prosaically. “He is a fine person, if somewhat shrewd and clever. I think I liked him because he reminded me so much of Dilip! In those days Dilip used to give me nervous breakdowns the way he ignored me! In fact, Mr. K. Asif had warned Rajendra that my liking for him was based on a liking for somebody else! Anyway, whatever it is, I still think quite highly of the man. He could have said all sorts of things, made a huge mountain out of nothing – the way Sanjeev Kumar did. But he didn’t. I’ve never heard or read about him speaking on this subject. That is why in spite of everything (what this ‘everything’ was I never got to know) I can respect him.” And with so profound a statement, the Rajendra-Saira chapter was closed for the night. Enter – the third hero in Saira’s life (somewhere in-between she proposed to Dilip and even married him!), the one with whom she’s been linked through (hmm…) well, through the columns. I’m talking about Dharmendra. Saira declared he was her second favourite (“my first love is my fantabulous husband, naturally”). “He has a nice wholesome kind of personality, and a warm affectionate nature to match it. He is like one of my family.” Her mother seconded that, while I mentally marvelled at Dharam’s ability to make himself a ‘part’ of almost every family in town! The maid came in for the second time to announce that dinner was growing cold. In between spoonfuls, we discussed the rest of her heroes (bad for digestion really). About Amitabh her new co-star, Saira feels, “Like my husband, Amitabh is one of the biggest comedians in this joint. I used to think he was terribly reserved and haughty at the beginning. But now that I know him better, he’s quite lovable.” The actor with whom she’s had no kind of misunderstanding or lafda whatsoever is Dev Anand – “We’ve only worked together in one film. I personally think Dev is one of the most harmless actors the industry has ever had. He does not interfere with anybody, though of course he refuses to get slapped as a rule! He’s very co-operative, very efficient, and very YOUNG!” Of all the Khans, Saira prefers Feroz. “He’s my third favourite co-star. He’s quite the opposite of his brother Sanjay. I enjoy working with him. He’d wanted me for ‘ Apradh’ but somehow it didn’t come through. He’s one of the most courteous men in the industry, and I repeat – he’s great fun to work with.” And Vinod Khanna (they’re working in
Rajendra Kumar is a ne person, if somewhat shrewd and clever. I think I liked him because he reminded me so much of Dilip! In those days Dilip used to give me nervous breakdowns the way he ignored me!”
a number of films together)? “He does not have a very definite personality. Still, he’s okay to work with. Quite nice (how boring) I’d say.” I didn’t forget to ask her about Rajesh Khanna. I was curious to know why there existed such bad ‘vibes’ between the two of them. It’s common knowledge that they’ve been consistently, and in turns, rejecting roles with each other. “I think it started with the misunderstanding over ‘ChhotiBahu’. In spite of my illness I had done fourteen days shooting for that film. And then suddenly I got a trunk call from Mr. Shankar B. C. saying that they wanted instant dates, or else Sharmila would get the role. She got it!” I had omitted the actresses from our conversation because I’d presumed Saira had nothing in common with them. It’s been said that she considers herself ‘superior’ to them because she finds them a dumb bunch. I agree with her on that score, but that’s beside the point. “No, that’s not true,” Saira corrected. “I don’t mind a woman being dumb, so long as she’s sincere, I can’t stand anything artificial.” She found Aparna Sen (her co-star in ‘Sagina’) “a good actress. But she’s like Sharmila and some of the other Bengali heroines – you know the name-dropping and intellectual types! There is one actress I am genuinely fond of – Raakhee. She’s one of the sweetest persons going. I love her eyes.” Her mother contributed, “Yes, yes, I don’t know why but my daughter is very fond of Raakhee.” As she saw me to the lift, we suddenly spoke of the Burtons. I remember at one stage the Dilip Kumars used to be referred to as the Burtons of India. I asked Saira what she felt about their divorce. She replied feelingly, “I think Liz is a fool, a real fool!” And if the Hollywood gossip columns can be granted as much credibility as our desi ones, Liz’s loss just might be Sophia Loren’s gain! No parallels to be drawn, please!
... with Rajendra Kumar
... with Dileep Kumar
... with mother Naseem
Words INGRID ALBUQUERQUE