Starring Sharmila Tagore begins with the actor’s journey — a scene from Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar in 1959. “I remember going to the set the very first day. I just sat there. We were given a script. Somebody did my hair, somebody did my make-up, somebody put a sari on me. I didn’t choose the sari, I didn’t say how to do my hair, I just accepted what was being done to me,” she narrates in the film. It would be one of the few times that Sharmila Tagore was not in charge of herself. The first documentary on her life reveals and celebrates the professional and personal choices the actor made, which would be progressive today but were radical in the 1960s and 1970s.
Starring Sharmila Tagore, by first-time filmmaker Umang Sabarwal, is a new release from Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) and was screened at Open Frame, an annual festival of documentary films, in Delhi, last month. The film tracks Tagore’s journey in her own words and of others such as filmmaker and author Nasreen Munni Kabeer, film scholar Sohini Ghosh as well as Tagore’s actor daughter Soha Ali Khan and her childhood friend Uma Prakash.
The narrative is a fairytale of a glamorous girl, a rebel since childhood, who achieved great success in films — from Bengali to Hindi, mainstream to arthouse — lived wildly, partied a lot, married the handsome captain of the Indian cricket team, who was also a nawab, had children and continued to prosper in her career. Only briefly, does the film lift the veil on the resistance experienced by a woman who moves against the tide.
At one time, Tagore recalls that she had moved into a B&B to stay with Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi during the making of An Evening in Paris (1967). “All hell broke loose. The entire unit took a very moral stand that ‘our girl’ is going out with somebody who is not a member of the unit. I was ostracised, nobody talked to me,” says Tagore. She took a plane and went to London, met Pataudi’s mother and came back with an engagement ring in her finger. “Every member of the team, who had been giving me a hard time, became completely different,” she says.
Professionally, too, Tagore made path-breaking decisions in films, such as playing an old woman in Aradhana (1969) and a vamp in An Evening in Paris at a time when public perception was that “the heroine was the good girl and the vamp was the bad girl”. The film revisits the controversy surrounding the famous bikini photo shoot for a magazine and Tagore candidly says, “It was my idea, really.”
On the other hand, there is little about the challenges of a young mother with a busy career, nothing about her changing her name to marry Pataudi or of her evolution in films, such as Rituparno Ghosh’s Shubho Muhurat (2003), which co-starred Rakhi. As a result, the 51-minute film seems only half-way to its destination.
Before making Starring Sharmila Tagore, Sabarwal had made news for organising the Slutwalk or Besharmi Morcha, a walk in Delhi to protest molestation and harassment of women in 2011. She was 19 at the time and hadn’t yet firmed her ideas of activism. “Being a feminist, I wanted to tell the story of a woman who was also a feminist. While making Starring Sharmila Tagore, I was corrected a lot in my course in the understanding that being progressive or feminist need not mean one thing, which in this case was a lack of deliberation. Sharmila ma’am had a sense of casual rebellion. She had a strong sense of self and asserted herself. The life, itself, is feminist,” says Sabarwal.