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October 29, 1999


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'At this age, I'm priceless'

Lata Khubchandani

Nutan and Shobhana Samarth "I am willing to put on the greasepaint even today," she laughs. "I love acting, I haven't retired."

That's Shobhana Samarth for you: legendary beauty, actress of yesteryear, mother of Nutan and Tanuja, grandmother of Kajol and Mohnish Behl. She is at the head of a family that has produced filmstars for three generations. "Actually, it's the fourth generation," clarifies Shobhana, "because my mother too had acted a bit. I think I got my creative genes from her just as I inherited my father's business acumen."

In her heyday, Shobhana was often referred to as a beauty par excellence. This, along with the fact that she came from an elite family of bankers, gave her a unique status in the film industry.

"There wasn't much competition in those days and we were really pampered. I just had to cry and my producers would give me what I wanted," she reminisces. "Durgabai Khote came from a lawyer's family and my father was the owner of Shilotri Bank. So the two of us led a charmed life in the industry."

But her entry into films was not simple. In those days, acting was looked down upon and no one from illustrious families got into films. But young Saroj (that was her name before marriage) loved to act and had decided that was what she would to do.

But when her father passed away, Shobhana and her mother had to depend on her maternal uncle. He vehemently opposed the idea of Shobhana becoming an actress. She loved to rehearse with theatre people, but "I knew that if I actually went up on stage, there would be another dramas as my uncle would have dragged me off the stage. So I kept my peace," she says.

Her uncle -- whose daughter Nalini Jaywant later went on to became a well-known actress -- justified his stand by saying that nobody would marry Shobhana if she became an actress. Then one day, her mother brought a proposal for her to marry one of their distant relatives, Kumarsen Samarth, who had just returned from Germany having studied cinematography there.

Shobhana was contemptuous. She was much too self-willed to get into an arranged marriage and spoke her mind. "Then one day, I returned home to find this devastating looking man sitting in my house," she recalls. "He was extremely handsome and I fell for him immediately," she smiles now, confessing her weakness for good-looking men.

"When I found that this was the man mummy had chosen for me, I didn't object," she adds. "He was good-looking and had a wonderful sense of humour. Fate was presenting me with an opportunity to act. When I asked him if he would object to my acting, he said, 'not at all.' He was all set to do cinematography himself."

So the two got married and thus began Shobhana's film career. Her first film, Nigahen Nafrat released in 1935, a few months after she was married. Her first daughter Nutan was born in June, 1936.

"I came in after the era of silent films. My first film was in 1935 while the talkies had come to India in 1931. Those were the days of Vanmala, Shanta Apte, Durga Khote, Leela Chitnis, Akhtari Bai, Husn Bano," says Shobhana.

She narrates her experiences from those days. "My first film was made in Urdu and Marathi. I did not know any Urdu. When I was given my dialogues, I was so naive that I used to learn the whole sentence and deliver it proudly," she smiles. "The rest of the unit used to be in splits. I worked hard and learnt some Urdu later."

After Nigahen Nafrat in which she starred with Master Vinayak and B Pendharker, she acted in about 50 films, including Do Deewane (with Motilal and Yakub), Kokila (with Motilal and Sabita Devi), Pati Patni (with Wasti and Yakub), Sadhana (with Premadeeb), Apni Nagariya (with Nazir), Mata (with Chandrakant Kardar), Nayi Duniya (with Jairaj), Savera (with Aroon who is actor Govinda's father), Shobha (with Shahu Modak). The last was directed by her husband Kumarsen.

But Shobhana is best known for her portrayal of Sita in Ram Rajya. So evocative was this performance that she became the eternal Sita in the audience's minds. This was ironical because Shobhana was one of the most unconventional actresses of her time. She was noted for her lifestyle and disregard for convention. Her relationship with famous actor Motilal became the talk of the entire country.

With engaging candour she says, "I wasn't going out of my way to do mythological films, it was what the producers offered me. I must admit that my favourite co-star was Motilal, but that was because he was also my friend."

Shobhana Samarth, daughter Chatura and granddaughter Shilpa Despite her acting career, she decided to have a family. "After Nutan's birth in 1936, we couldn't afford another child. So I had Tanuja after seven-and-a-half years. We wanted a son, but we had a third daughter Chatura. Finally we had a son Jaideep. Today, I have seven grandchildren and one great grandchild, Mohnish's daughter," she declares proudly.

Shobhana and her husband Kumarsen parted ways amicably. Their relationship became strained possibly because he couldn't take her success, even though he played a pivotal role in her joining films. He made some films for her too. His biggest success was a Marathi film titled Saibaba. He was a good and professionally capable person. He visited his children and kept in touch with them till he passed away in the mid '70s.

'It was one of the most tempestuous relationships ever. We were forever fighting -- out of 365 days, we would fight 360 days. He reacted by drinking -- he had to drink because we had had a fight and he had to drink because we were happy. When I decided to quit Bombay and live in Lonavala, he objected. I went anyway. He had a flying licence and he hired a plane and flew over my cottage, throwing stones with letters tied to them saying 'I love you.'

It was a wonderful relationship. He resembled my father in many ways -- the way he walked, the way he talked, the way he held his hat, his generosity, his principles. If we had a party, he would order things in bulk. Everything about him resembled my father so much that I couldn't stop loving him," adds Shobhana.

'We had our differences, but towards the end of her life we came very close and for the last few years had a great rapport. She knew she was dying and she was preparing me for it. She gave me a copy of the Gita and asked me to read the chapter on death first.

We had developed such mental telepathy that I just had to think of her and the doorbell would ring and she would be standing in front of me. She sang beautifully and wrote beautiful bhajans during the last years of her life. I grieve for her and remember her often, but I tell myself that perhaps she is happier.

It is strange but in death, she has made me a better human being. I was a fiery and intolerant person -- after Nutan's death, I am able to bear most things. I feel no loss will be as great as losing her, and that has made me more tolerant.'

'She is an extremely unpredictable girl, but with a golden heart. Even with me, she can be very rude at times and I never know what to expect from her. But she's never fake -- she is what she seems, just like her daughter Kajol is.

Tanuja Tanuja is a natural actress while Nutan had groomed herself as a performer. Chatura, my third daughter, is very artistic. My only son Jaideep though, is a different kettle of fish altogether. I find I have a better rapport with his wife than with him, but he's a caring son in his own way.'

'Fate has strange ways. Kajol was a very naughty child, quite uncontrollable. When she used accompany me in a car, she would jump up and down so much that I had to insist that either she got off or I did.

She was born after a long time, so she was quite a pet in the family. She has grown up to be a fine human being. She had accompanied her cousins to photographer Gautam Rajyadhaksha, but Kajol is the one who was picked up by the industry. Look, where she has reached today.

I find myself fulfilled through my children and grandchildren. When I was acting, I was given a lot of support by my mother and my husband and I did well too. But in those days, the films were black and white. Technically, we couldn't do a lot and there was no conception of awards, so I missed out on those things.

But then through my daughters and now through Kajol and Mohnish, I feel completed when they get awards and recognition. If my family were not in the film industry, I probably would have felt a sense of deprivation -- that we missed out on all these things. I thank God that He has given me such talented children. Tanuja might not have been able to play Nutan's role in Bandini, but it doesn't mean she's not a good actress.'

Today, even though Shobhana chooses to live alone in her cottage in Lonavala -- with her three dogs and a domestic help -- she is in touch with the film industry through her grandchildren. Thanks to her shrewd business sense, she was able to present each of her children with a flat in Bombay and a bungalow in Lonavla. In their absence, she keeps their houses in good order.

Shobhana lives on her own earnings, with the money she had invested wisely. "I like to feel free," she says. "My children would give me whatever I asked for, in fact I needn't even ask. But I like to live within my means."

Kajol Laughingly, she relates an anecdote. "I recently wanted to buy a remote control for my TV and wanted some money from Tanuja. I rang her up to take permission. Kajol happened to pick up the phone and when she heard my request, she laughed, saying, "Of course you can buy it. If I had a granddaughter like yours, I'd buy anything." And I retorted, "But not if you had a grandmother like me!"

Shobhana is thankful to God that she can still drive herself around. A few years back, the late Gulshan Kumar offered her a film role and asked her to name her price. "But," she says with a touch of humour, "At this age, I'm either priceless or valueless."

You stare at this 83-year-old great grandmother in amazement. She still has gorgeous, dark hair and sharp senses. She attributes this to a clean mind. "I've taught all my children that it is important to sleep with a light heart, a guiltless mind. All my children are good human beings and that's of primary importance according to me," insists Shobhana.

Her independent spirit is what sets her apart. One of the highest paid actresses of her time, she later started her own production called Shobhana Pictures and produced four films in which she launched both Nutan and Tanuja. Today she can look back at her life and say with justifiable pride that she's done it all.

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