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'Whatever I am today, it is because of Sir Richard Attenborough'

By Patcy N/
August 26, 2014 16:57 IST
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Ben Kingsley and Rohini Hattangady in GandhiMany film personalities owe their careers to Sir Richard Attenborough, who recently passed away on August 24.

Rohini Hattangady, who played Kasturba in Attenborough's iconic film Gandhi, is one of them.

She looks back at the fine director.

I met Sir Richard for the first time in Centaur Hotel. Dolly Thakore was the casting director, and had asked me to meet him.

I was touring with one of my plays, and was supposed to reach Mumbai by afternoon and meet him in the evening.

Sir Richard had come back from Delhi and was in Mumbai for only three hours, after which he had to catch a flight back to England. I had to meet him in that time.

(Husband) Jayadev had escorted me. We had tea together and chatted about theatre, as all of us are theatre people. We spent 45 minutes with him.

I had no hope that I would be selected, as there were many other actors who had also met Sir Richard.

I was not nervous during my first meeting with him, as I did not know much about him.  

Jayadev had asked me whether I had watched The Great Escape (which starred Attenborough). I had, and recalled who he was.

Jayadev knew more about him and kept informing me.

Sir Richard was a very warm person, very humane. I did not see him angry with anybody. He made such a big film and there were many opportunities to get angry but he was cool throughout the shoot.

He was very professional and never took anything for granted. He was very punctual, disciplined.

He was very soft-spoken with the actors and crew members.

Once we were shooting at Badarpur, South Delhi, where a set of the Sabarmati Ashram was built. We were required to shoot from 9am to 5pm on most days, but one day, Sir Richard came and whispered to me, ‘Rohini, we are going to extend the shift, do you mind?’

I said, ‘Why should I mind?'

I was so junior -- that was only my third film -- and still, he came and asked my permission.

Nobody usually informs you that the shift has been extended. There is no value of time nowadays.

On the sets, there would be two vans -- one with Indian food and the other with British food. There was one tent, where everybody would eat together.

Nobody ate in vanity vans.

Sir Richard would stand in queue with the rest of us during mealtimes.

During Gandhi, I learnt how to use the charka and made lots of thread. During Christmas, I gave 10 bundles of thread to the Khadi Gram Udyog and in return, got a handkerchief. I gave that to Sir Richard as a Christmas gift.

Even after Gandhi was over, I would get a Christmas and New Year card from him and his wife Sheila every year. It would be a handwritten card to me and my husband. After my son Aseem was born, his name was included in the card.

He never forgot, he would send it without fail.

Three years ago, his cards stopped. Old age had caught up, and he got sick. He had a fall and a stroke. He was shifted to hospice, and his health started deteriorating. His wife Sheila has Alzheimer's.

His last few cards were not written properly -- his handwriting was shaky.

I spoke to him last in 2007, when Gandhi completed 25 years. He wanted to have a big celebration, and wanted a few of us to come to the US. It was a day function, and we would have to travel for two days. It didn’t seem practical, and the whole thing got cancelled.

Whatever I am today, it is because of Sir Richard. There are four people in my life -- my father, my husband, my drama guru Ebrahim Alkazi and Sir Richard, who have had a huge role to play in my career. I got recognition early in life because of Sir Richard.

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Patcy N/ in Mumbai