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Sharmila Tagore, the original oomph girl who challenged India’s conservative bent: ‘When I showed 2-piece bikini to the photographer…’

Sharmila Tagore, who turns 78 on Thursday, could easily walk the line between being the oomph girl and the girl next door, and she did them both with equal finesse.

sharmila tagoreSharmila Tagore turns 78 on Thursday. (Photo: Express Archives)

Hindi cinema has seen some graceful, effortless actors in Meena Kumari, Nargis, Waheeda Rehman but it can be safely said the versatility of Sharmila Tagore remains unmatched to this day. When thinking of Sharmila Tagore, one’s mind goes toward the big bouffant hair, the decorated eyes and those carefully draped sarees. The hesitation in her eyes when she played a woman in love in Aradhana, the naughtiness in her demeanour in Chupke Chupke, the longing on her face in Amar Prem or the ease in her body language when she donned a bikini for An Evening in Paris – none of these avatars looked like they were facades. Tagore had the rare ability to play any role with complete ease but there was one thing that remained consistent across all her roles, and that was her graceful attitude.

Sharmila Tagore started her career with Satyajit Ray but when she moved to Hindi cinema with Shakti Samantha’s Kashmir Ki Kali, Sharmila was discovered by a whole new audience. This was the beginning of her journey with Shakti Samantha who eventually presented her in some of her most popular films – An Evening in Paris, Aradhana, Amar Prem. In her words, she “wanted to enjoy every aspect of being a woman,” both on screen and in real life.

At the time when An Evening in Paris released in 1967, Sharmila made waves for wearing a swimsuit on screen. The following year, she posed for a film magazine cover and wore a bikini for the same. And while the world saw it like she was trying grab eyeballs, she just did it without giving it much thought. The photographs, shot aesthetically, still look quite elegant. In a candid conversation decades after the shoot, Tagore wondered if it was the ‘exhibitionist’ in her as she had ‘no qualms’ doing the shoot and she was left completely puzzled when the readers reacted strongly to that cover.

She told Filmfare, “Oh God, how conservative our society was back then. I’ve no idea why I did that shoot. It was just before I got married. I remember when I showed the two-piece bikini to the photographer, he asked me, ‘Are you sure about this?’ In some of the shots, he even asked me to cover my body. He was more worried than I was but I had no qualms doing that shoot. Only when people started reacting strongly to the cover, was I taken aback. I was puzzled as to why they didn’t like the picture. I thought I looked nice. Some called it a deliberate move to grab eyeballs; others termed me as ‘astutely uncanny’. I hated that. Maybe, there was an exhibitionist in me, as I was young and excited to do something different.”

Another attempt by Tagore do something really sexy and bold was the song Roop Tera Mastana in the film Aradhana. The situation of the song is such that Sharmila and Rajesh Khanna’s characters are stuck in the middle of nowhere. Deeply in love, they know that this was the moment that they would finally give into their desires. The 4-minute sequence has Sharmila and Rajesh looking deep into each other’s eyes as they take turns in making moves on each other until the song ends with a thunder sound and it is suggested that they have consummated their love. Since this was the 1960s, pre-marital sex wasn’t treated with utmost care on screen. There was a certain sense of dirtiness associated with the act of sex but here, Tagore and Khanna walked that line in such a fine fashion that the erotic nature of the video still doesn’t come across as sleazy in any way.

A still from Aradhana’s Roop Tera Mastana.

Perhaps, this confidence of Sharmila Tagore came from the fact that she was very casual about being a career woman at a time when women were expected to become home bodies as soon as they got married. She once shared with Firstpost, “We’ve always had very strong women in my family. Also, I had the self-confidence. I wasn’t career-oriented. I liked the work, and I enjoyed it. But I had other interests.” Her saying the she wasn’t career oriented, while she continued to work through all her pregnancies just suggests that it was never and either/or situation for her. Work was meant to be done and she enjoyed it whole-heartedly, which showed on screen. “I wanted to have a family because I had grown up in a large family. I didn’t want to be only a career woman. Though I come from a middle-class family, where all of us had to share everything, I never felt any insecurity about my career. I am not a high-maintenance person. I don’t need to have three air-conditioners and five imported cars,” she said in the same interview.

Sharmila Tagore was a major movie star throughout the 1960s and 1970s and women were generally slotted into two categories at the time – the saree wearing ‘good girl’, or the woman who wore western clothes and made bad choices. Sharmila easily walked between the two without being stereotyped. In the 1970s, when Hindi cinema got introduced to the likes of Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi, the idea of a ‘modern woman’ redefined. But Sharmila never got classified into this category as her beauty and appeal was seen as timeless.

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Sharmila Tagore went on to scale great heights in her career and even though she doesn’t appear in as many movies today, her elegance has stood the test of time.

First published on: 08-12-2022 at 08:18 IST
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