She scorned the First, got in­volved with the Se­cond, and mar­ried the Third!

Stardust (English) - - BLAST FROM THE PAST -

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


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