In the opening frame of “Starring Sharmila Tagore”, we find ourselves in the narrow bylane and the dingy little room that is the world of Apu (“Apur Sansar”, 1959). Through a hole in the curtain, we see a young girl’s tearful eye, in one of the most iconic scenes in the history of Indian, nay, world cinema.
Yet, this image of Sharmila Tagore lies forgotten in our film archives. Most of us will remember Tagore in films like “Kashmir Ki Kali” (1964), “Aradhana” (1969), “Amar Prem” (1972), starring opposite icons such as Shammi Kapoor and Rajesh Khanna. With her heavily made-up eyes, dimples and thick, plaited hair, we might even try to fit her into the typical damsel-in-distress trope.
This is where the documentary plays a crucial role; it opens our eyes to a woman who shattered stereotypes. At a time when women from so-called “cultured” backgrounds did not dare to join the film industry, when popular Hindi cinema was basically considered trash, when the way the female protagonist dressed and danced determined her worthiness, Sharmila Tagore broke barriers left, right and center.
The actor began her career in films under the tutelage of Satyajit Ray. But soon, she had migrated from Bengali to Hindi cinema (although she did answer to Ray’s calls in several other films afterwards), which in itself was a bold step at the time. Then, in a decision that landed her in knee-deep controversy, Tagore played the vamp (read: the seductive, “bad’ girl”) in “An Evening In Paris” (1967), and donned a two-piece bikini in a landmark photoshoot, creating waves that even hit the Parliament. She also went on to play path-breaking characters like Kajli, a sex worker, in Gulzar’s “Mausam” (1975).
Umang Sabarwal, an alumnus of Jamia Millia Islamia, expertly recreates the romance and glamour of the film industry from a bygone era, although she does not confine herself to the “filmy” experiences of the actor alone. Running parallel to the dazzle of her professional life is the glamour of her personal one. In Tagore’s own words, she was a “headstrong and stubborn” girl who “lived her life the way she wanted to”. Scandalous as that might sound today (!), one can only imagine the intrigues that would have surrounded a woman who had a mind of her own almost 5–6 decades ago. Sharmila’s whirlwind romance and subsequent marriage with Tiger Pataudi, her devotion to family and children, all add to her film persona—leading to the emergence of an extraordinary woman of uncommon elegance.
The film, deftly edited, makes good use of archival material, with snippets from some of her most well-known films, and posters and magazines of the time featuring the actor. We also hear from academician Shohini Ghosh, celebrated filmmaker Gulzar, and actor Soha Ali Khan (Tagore’s daughter), among others, as they transport us to the magical 1960s and 70s, the golden years of Indian cinema.
One small oversight that might have added another layer to the actor’s already fascinating life is that Sharmila Tagore is related to the legendary Tagore family (read: Rabindranath Tagore). The implications of a girl from possibly the most respected family in Bengal landing up in the glitzy Bombay filmdom would have—one can only imagine—made an interesting narrative in itself.
Catch Umang Sabarwal’s film “Starring Sharmila Tagore” from 6:30 pm onwards on September 21 at the India International Centre. To see the full Open Frames Festival programme, click here.