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April 4, 1997


"Hindi cinema still has a place for the Bimal Roy kind of films"
V Gangadhar

She sat alone, musing - how was she to fit the day's work into the 24 hours that were available to her?

It was not that Kamini Kaushal was doing three shifts a day. She never did that - not even during her heydays as an actress. What occupied her mind these days was her liaison with television - for Kamini had turned producer and was busy producing clean, entertaining films for children. Besides, she was also an expert in making toys and producing puppet shows. "Children are very special to me," she smiled.

As a college student doing her B A (honours) in English literature, Kamini wrote stories and poems for children. Several of her stories appeared in Parag, a popular children's magazine. And she devoured books - A A Milne was a particular childhood favourite. "I loved his Winnie The Pooh," she laughed at the memory.

Poet-writer-producer-director Gulzar, who knew of Kamini's creativity, suggested she produce television serials for children. Her experience (she has brought up five children - both her sister's and her own) lent itself very well to television adaptation. She began her career as producer with the extremely successful Chand Sitare.

Kamini found the switchover to children's serials stimulating and productive. And Doordarshan was cooperative. "They appreciated my professional approach and gave me a free hand," she recalled. "Unlike so many other producers, I did not take on four or five serials at a time and delegate the actual work to others."

Her serials, which were based on her own writing, bore her stamp. Kamini used novel camera techniques and even made use of Doordarshan equipment that had been lying idle for years. And, as early as 1986, she made an animation film. "Meri Pari," she claims proudly, "was a forerunner to Roger Rabbit."

Though it is generally believed that child actors are little imps who behave in a highly artificial manner, Kamini never had any problems. "Don't," she warned, "slot 'my' children in that bracket. Children, after all, only do what they are told. And 'my' children are spontaneous actors. I recruit them from schools, make them undergo tests and only select those who have potential."

Her love for children springs from her own happy childhood. Kamini came from a large, close-knit family where she spent her time swimming, climbing trees, riding, learning to dance and staging plays with her two brothers, three sisters and numerous cousins.

Studies, though, were not to be neglected. For Kamini belonged to a scholarly household. Her father - a famous botanist and professor at Lahore University - presided over science congress sessions and seminars. The house was full of medals recognising his academic achievements.

It was family friend Chetan Anand who persuaded her to try her hand at acting. Since her family knew the Anands, they did not raise any objection. Kamini herself had viewed only five Hindi movies before she made her debut in Neecha Nagar.

Released in 1945, the film flopped but, in later years, went on to win several international honours. Chetan had used several newcomers in the film, including Ravi Shankar and Mohan Seghal. "It was wonderful working with them," recalled Kamini. "But, after Neecha Nagar, I was back in Lahore."

Kamini KaushalMarriage followed and she settled down in Bombay. And producers flocked to her door. Her first film after marriage was Jail Yatra with Raj Kapoor; she also starred in his first home production, Aag. This was followed by Ziddi, where she co-starred with Dev Anand. "My schedule was always relaxed," said Kamini. "I seldom worked in more than one film at a time and did not exceed two films a year."

But her work was noticed and stardom was not far away. Nadiya Ke Paar, directed by Kishore Sahu, was a hit. Then followed a spate of films with Dilip Kumar, including Arzoo, Shabnam and Shaheed. Working with Dilip Kumar was a learning experience for Kamini. "He was such a perfectionist. He pondered over his role, discussed it repeatedly with the director and was prepared for endless takes. He was so highly sensitive and disciplined that he made me feel guilty about my casual approach." But their films were big box-office hits and the Hindi screen sizzled with the Dilip-Kamini romantic pair.

Dev Anand, her other hero, was very shy in those days. And Raj Kapoor was a flamboyant show-off, cracking jokes and bluffing about the number of films he was doing. "He used to make fun of my inexperience," laughed Kamini. "But it was good fun; he made us laugh so much." Ashok Kumar, though a bit serious, was another fine actor.

Kamini's gentle demeanor was ideally suited for soft, romantic roles where the eyes did most of the talking. And though she was at home doing sensitive, emotional roles, she also liked comedy and particularly enjoyed Jhanjar and Chhalis Baba Ek Chor. Chor and Poonam, where she starred opposite Ashok Kumar, were both home productions with outstanding music scores.

"I was always particular about song picturisation," said Kamini. "Which is why Ziddi was so memorable; it was the first time Lata Mangeshkar sang for me. Her voice suited my personality perfectly. I can't say the same of Shamshad Begum, who sang for me in Shaheed."

The studio system, in those days, was more powerful than the star system. Films were judged on the basis of the banners under which they were produced - Ranjit, Prabhat, Filmistan and so on. Work was easy-paced and casual; friendships, sincere and long-lasting. The director's word was law. Actors did not have PR men and seldom angled for roles.

There was the odd exception, though. As Kamini found out when she was offered the female lead in Bimal Roy's Biraj Bahu. As usual, she was rather casual about it. Until co-star Abhi Bhattacharya called to urge her to accept the role immediately since several actresses were after it. "It was an exceptional role," agreed Kamini. "I read the book 20 times to understand the character thoroughly." The film brought Kamini both the National Award and the Filmfare Award.

Kamini took long breaks from shooting and lost out on many major roles because she thought her family was more important. Yet, there were directors who waited for her. Like Jaitley, who told her he could not think of anyone else to play the female lead in his version of Munshi Premchand's Godaan.

Similarly, Manoj Kumar waited patiently while Kamini pondered on whether she should play his mother in Shaheed, the story of martyr Bhagat Singh. "I did not have any lines on my face and did not look like Manoj's mother," laughed Kamini. "But the role was challenging and I accepted it." So impressed was Kamini with Manoj's direction that she agreed to work in his next film, Upkaar.

Kamini KaushalBut times were changing; the industry was being taken over by people who knew nothing about making films. Senior artists were made to wait endlessly on the sets while heroes or heroines took their own time to arrive for work. Kamini was disillusioned and, slowly but firmly, she began cutting down on her assignments. Besides, the new cinema rarely offered good, thinking roles.

"We have to move according to the times," she agreed. "But Hindi cinema has a place for the Bimal Roy or Rajshri kind of films. Family entertainers still have an audience and I hope producers take up the challenge."

Today, Kamini has very little time to think of the past. Immersed in her work, she spends long hours editing her television serials. Her sons, both at home and abroad, are well settled and often drop in to help out. "I am fortunate that I can go on doing creative work," she sounded as happy as a child. "That, too, with children who are my treasured love."