‘THE PAST IS REDUNDANT’
Sarika says that the National Award has made her very happy, but it’s already yesterday’s news.
OCT 14, 2007 – CONSIDERATIONS OF POLITENESS NOTWITHSTANDING, I’m finding it difficult to stop staring at Sarika. Almost everything about her this evening – the evening before her anointment as Best Actress by the President of India – is a magnet for my vision. The flannel shirt and jeans that, in their stark casualness, dispel all notions of actressy vanity. The National Award-winning glow that, in my imagination at least, appears to have imparted a translucence to those curious freckles. The eyes that she herself struggles to ascribe a proper colour to. (“Sometimes they’re gray, sometimes they’re green.”) And the tattoo of a crucifix that ripples across the base of the throat, the part that Michael Ondaatje described so eccentrically in The English Patient as the vascular sizood.
This tattoo is two days old. It will, in all probability, disappear over the next couple of days. “I love tattoos,” Sarika says. “But I can’t… I shouldn’t… As an actor, you shouldn’t have a tattoo.” This isn’t just idle chatter, this admission of the need to erase all evidence after making a mark. It’s the way Sarika looks at life. “Once this National Award business is over, I would like to stop talking about Parzania. It’s in the cans. It’s finished. What I have done in the past is redundant.” The film industry, she shrugs, cares only about the present. “And if I don’t do good work today, how far can Parzania take me?”
In other words, Sarika’s story may sound like something dreamed up by a screenwriter of the Syd Field school – Act One/Setup: successful child actor segues into a successful grown-up career in films; Act Two/Confrontation: gives it all up for marriage and family, only to have her life blow up in her face; Act Three/Resolution: makes an award-winning comeback as one of the most visible faces of New Bollywood – but one cinematic trope she has no use for is the flashback. “Three days ago, I was interviewed on TV, and they asked me about Vidhaata. And I said, ‘Vidhaata is one of the worst films I made. I don’t know why you keep talking about it.’ It’s a waste of time.”
But despite her reluctance, Sarika knows it will never stop – these questions about her long-ago professional life, about her not-so-long-ago personal life. “It doesn’t bother me, because I understand where they are coming from. I grew up in front of the whole country. All you have to do is dig up back issues and you know everything Sarika has done in her life – things that even I have forgotten. Is it fair, then, for me to expect you not to be interested in my personal life?” But what she can do – and what she firmly does – is refuse to answer those questions.
AND YET, THERE ARE ASPECTS of Sarika’s life that crawl out from under the formidable, self-erected barbed-wire fence with the “No personal questions” sign. “I’m a night person,” is one such unexpected confession. “I work at night. I do everything at night.” One of those things, she reveals, could be gathering up some friends, driving out someplace and sitting on the road when the streets are empty. Sometimes, the itinerary is a little more involved, as when she goes backpacking through the interiors of India. “Last year, I started from Maharashtra, went to Konkan and ended up in Coonoor. It’s so strange. I’m from Maharashtra, and yet I’ve never seen the places that I’ve seen now.”
Perhaps it’s some kind of reverse aspirational ideal. Mere mortals like us dream of skiing in Aspen; she prefers sweating it out in Amravati. Sarika admits that part of the appeal of these trips is that they just let her be. “When you are recognised all the time, there is this need not to be recognised, the need to take on a new name. I know it sounds very dramatic, but that’s the truth.” And that’s why she couldn’t stop laughing when she moved to Madras with The Actor Who Must Not Be Named. “I used to go to the market at Panagal Park and buy vegetables, and that used to make me so happy. I had not done anything like this in Bombay.”
Now she’s back in Bombay, back in a profession she never thought she’d find herself in again. “I guess I’ve reached an age – I’m 46 – where I’ve figured out what it is that I need to do and what it is that I like to do.” What she needs to do is work. “There is lots of work left in me, which means I have to stay in the city.” And hence the like-to-do part, which consists of running off to places which are nothing like the city, “You know, like these tours where you travel overnight in a boat and wake up in a village – on the deck, where there is nothing but a heap of prawns.” It’s fabulous, she declares. “I love seafood.”
AFTER THAT DETOUR, IT DOESNT TAKE much armchair analysis to see that this could be why Sarika enjoys acting, because it lets her go places – not just locations, but places – she hasn’t been before, and because it lets her be people that she doesn’t always recognise. Shernaz – the devastated mother of two that she played in Parzania – is one such place, one such person, and when I ask if her real-life experience as a mother contributed, in any shape or form, to this portrayal, she shakes her head. “The most beautiful part about being an actor is that you get to be everybody else but you. If someone attributes my good performance in Parzania to my being a mother, then you’re insulting the actor in me.”
“Having said that, there is a physical experience that I carry with me, of being a mother. That cannot go away. But is the performance because of that? No.” For that matter, she confesses to being the worst vocaliser of notes in the world, and yet, “I think I got away looking like a singer in Bheja Fry.” And though you’ll never see her at parties, excepting the stray premieres, “I played a Page 3 socialite in Kal. It’s just observation. I sat at the Sheraton and watched these women come and go. I had coffee quietly when they were talking behind me.” It’s the performer as paparazzo.
It’s also the training she got from Basu Bhattacharya. “The first time I met Basu-da, I was fifteen. It was for Anand Mahal.” The association continued through Grihapravesh, “a film I’ll always be proud of. Basu-da was way ahead of his time. We had no money for lights. So we would have two Ambassador cars with the headlights on, so we could shoot.” And yet, “he was so chilled out. Even today, when I have to do a tough scene, I don’t go and lock myself in a room, or refuse to speak to others on the set.” Sarika likes to think of herself as a director’s actress. “I like the obedience of the concept.”
Grihapravesh and Anpadh (“What a nice movie!”), however, were exceptions to the unwritten rule of the time, that if you wanted someone to wear a bikini and radiate a western-ness that would make Manoj Kumar break out in a cold sweat, you went to Sarika. “But what’s wrong with that? My only problem was that I’d have liked to do more films like the ones Basu-da made, because they helped me grow as an actor.” Talking about the movies of the time makes me recall a Ramsay shocker (in intent, if not in execution), that had a prone Sarika stampeded over by a horde of rats. She doesn’t remember the name of the film, but she compensates with this nugget. “They were white rats which were painted black, because the black ones kept running away.”
BUT THE FILM INDUSTRY IS DIFFERENT TODAY. The audience is different today. Heck, India is different today. “Teenagers are no more like the teenagers in Geet Gaata Chal,” says Sarika, without a trace of wistfulness. This isn’t rose-tinted nostalgia; just reality. “Today, a 13-year-old knows so much more than what he or she needs to know. There is a beauty in being unaware, even in being dumb at that age. You don’t have to know everything. Because once you live life and once you know that this is the truth, there is no going back.” But Sarika isn’t complaining. “That is why all these other kinds of films are now working.”
What Sarika means by “these other kinds of films” is the ones in which she can get away without any makeup, “or if it’s a glamorous role, some eye makeup and lipstick. Otherwise nothing. I’ve always hated makeup.” Then she reveals, with conspiratorial glee, this little trick she employed so that her freckles did not end up smothered under foundation. “Whenever the cameraman used to complain that I didn’t have enough makeup on, I used to go back to my room, sit down, have a cup of tea, come out and ask him if the pancake was too patchy.” Very clever.
Also, very far removed from the life Sarika once wanted for herself. “I wanted to go to school. I wanted to become a lawyer. But I knew that couldn’t happen because I didn’t even know how to read and write.” Half of Sarika’s first day at school was spent in the bathroom because she was so scared. “After that one day, I never went back, because I started working.” That was at the age of four, in Humraaz, a film whose impact lingers till today. When I ask Sarika why, in the middle of all these wonderfully offbeat characters in all these wonderfully offbeat films, she played that thankless widow-in-white in Baabul, she says it’s because of the producers, BR Films, who gave her that break with Humraaz.
Sarika educated herself by reading the newspapers, with a dictionary in hand. The school of hard knocks taught her the rest. And the unavoidable question, of course, is this: Does the National Award, finally, feel like vindication? Is this that moment in Sarika’s life, the screen version of which would be scored to Gloria Gaynor belting out I will survive? “I don’t believe in vindication,” Sarika says, in a voice that has, understandably, dropped a few decibels. “Because if you do, you can never be honest with what you are doing, because you’ve got an ulterior motive for doing a film, or anything else in life.”
“It has come. It has made me very happy. But had I not got it, would I have felt miserable? No, because you can’t improve my performance by giving me a National Award. You can’t take away anything from it by not giving me the award.” Apparently, then, the only fallout of this honour is the nominal prefix of “National Award-winner.” The last time Sarika had a tag before her name, it was either “Master” or “Baby.” Everywhere else in between, it’s been just that mononym. “I don’t like tagging along,” she says. “At various stages in my life, I got the option to take my name anywhere. But I like it just as Sarika. And it’s good, isn’t it?”
Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express