Seema Pahwa was five years old when she stood in front of musician and author PL Deshpande for an audition. “My mother, Saroj Bhargava, an AIR and Doordarshan artiste, was very nervous. But I must have done something right at the audition to bag the role of a child dealing with her parents’ divorce in a show titled Samjhouta,” says Pahwa. It was 1968, the days of live telecast when actors could not afford to make any mistakes. But the young girl knew that dramatics would become her life.
Those familiar with Pahwa, 53, as the nagging but soft-hearted Amma of Ankhon Dekhi (2013) may find it difficult to imagine her as a popular child artiste. In the late 1960s and ’70s, the Delhi-born actor used to regularly move in and out of recording rooms and studios to act in plays and children’s shows for Akashvani and Doordarshan. And whenever the script demanded, she had to switch from playing a girl to a boy. “On many occasions, Sai Paranjpye cast me as a boy for TV shows and made me cut my tresses,” she recounts with a laugh.
Her early start gave Pahwa — who has performed in nearly 150 radio plays and 70 television programmes — the opportunity to master acting across mediums and gave her a chance to witness the technological evolution in the entertainment industry. Before 1970s, television shows were telecast live; later, when the shows were recorded, it made little difference to the actors as there was no editing facility. “So even if an actor made a mistake in the seventh scene, we had to shoot from the very beginning. Today, technology can remove any glitch during the shot and dubbing can be done over phone. This has done away with the scope for rehearsals and perfecting the act,” says Pahwa.
In the years to come, she would gain acclaim by playing Badki, the girl next door in the immensely popular show Hum Log (1984-1986). “Playing Badki made me a household name across India. Since she was a social worker, often people would approach me for help,” she says. The actor, who had joined the Shri Ram Centre in Delhi before Hum Log was launched, went back to theatre after the 156-episode show wrapped up in 1986.
She performed in many plays of the Sambhav group and National School of Drama’s Repertory Company. At Sambhav, she was often cast opposite Manoj Pahwa, her Hum Log co-actor, in plays. They fell in love and got married in 1988. After relocating to Mumbai in 1994, Pahwa acted in the Naseeruddin Shah-directed Katha Collage I and Kambakht Bilkul Aurat for Motley theatre group.
Today, Pahwa is devoting all her energy to acting in films as well as directing plays for Kopal Theatre, set up by her daughter Manukriti who recently graduated from MS University, Baroda, with a degree in Performing Arts. The first major production of the year-old group is Bhishmotsav that presents five stories by Bhisham Sahni — Oob, Dholak, Sir Ka Sadka, Yaadein and Samadhi Bhai Ramsingh — opened in Mumbai on August 7 to mark his birth centenary. “The beauty of Bhishamji’s writing is its simplicity. He can make the most profound statement without much drama,” says Pahwa.
She was introduced to the writing of Sahni and several other Hindi authors during her stint as a child artiste. In the ’70s, Pahwa lent her voice to Sahni’s Apne Apne Bachhe for a weekly radio play. Decades later, when she was conceptualising a solo stage show, she decided upon his Saag Meat. In this self-directed play, Pahwa narrates the story of class prejudice as a gravy of mutton and palak simmer on a stove, to be served to the audience in the end. “Performing Saag Meat hardly feels like multi-tasking as cooking is something I enjoy immensely. For one show in Delhi, I cooked for an audience of 250,” she says.
With its big cast and set, the task of directing and acting in Bhishmotsav was far more daunting. The play is a casting coup of sorts — she is the first to direct both Ratna Pathak Shah and Naseeruddin Shah together in a play after the late Satyadev Dubey in his Antigone. The cast also features actors Heeba Shah, Yashpal Sharma and her husband, Manoj Pahwa. “Having worked with Seema in my play, I knew her to be a fine actress. But she really surprised me with her directorial skills,” says Naseeruddin, who performs in Samadhi Bhai Ramsingh, a tale of blind faith and mob fury.
While theatre remains a priority, especially now with Kopal Theatre, Pahwa is reaching out to many more admirers thanks to tailor-made roles in Hindi films. After working in Shyam Benegal’s films such as Hari Bhari, Zubeidaa, she had taken a break as her children were in school. She made her comeback in film in 2012 as Babboo didi, a suit-clad nifty wedding planner in Rajesh Mapuskar-produced Ferrari Ki Sawaari. Initially, the character of a wedding planner was a man and Mapuskar was in two-minds about changing the gender. He quickly made his decision when Pahwa walked into his office in trousers and with a macho demeanour asked him: “Why would you not cast me in that role?” The film failed and though her performance was appreciated, it is Rajat Kapoor’s Ankhon Dekhi that propelled her into the cinema-goer’s radar. “She brought an authenticity to that character that nobody else could have. I cannot tell you how many people I have met since Ankhon Dekhi who have told me that they have an aunt or a mother exactly like Amma,” says Kapoor.
So, when she was offered YRF’s Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Pahwa’s main concern was how to play the role differently than Amma. “While Amma was more wordly-wise, the mother I play in Dum Laga Ke Haisha is harrowed and naïve,” she says. Pahwa has two more films this year — Umesh Shukla’s All Is Well, where she plays a comic role with grey shades which released last Friday; and in the Bejoy Nambiar-directed Wazir she will be seen as Amitabh Bachchan’s caretaker. It releases next month.