She created a kerfuffle when she wore a bikini in the 60s, and again in ’69 for marrying into Nawabi royalty. From courting controversy to award-winning actress, Sharmila Tagore’s career has spanned critically acclaimed art house cinema, mainstream Bollywood, and international films, with a stop as the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in between.

Sharmila Tagore was born into a family rich with artists and painters, including the internationally renowned writer, Rabindranath Tagore – but it’s her onscreen talent, as well as her choice of daring roles and outfits, that made Sharmila standout in the 60s. In 1969, she entertained controversy when she married Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, a former captain of the Indian cricket team and member of Indian royalty, because of their different faiths (he was Muslim, she was Hindu). We were fortunate to speak with the actress on her career, the roles for women in Indian cinema, and what it meant to wear a bikini on screen in the 60s.

 

Jugni Style: You started your career with Satyajit Rai‘s arthouse film, The World of Apu, when you were only 13 years old. Did you find that coming from the legacy of art and literature that comes with the Tagore name, that there were certain expectations for you working in cinema? 

Sharmila Tagore: Satyajit Ray took me on as I matched the character and that was it. I followed my instincts in everything I did. I arrived at the set not really knowing what to do, and in a sense the innocence of the moment is what was captured on screen.

“Playing the character with honesty and intensity is the only approach for film, regardless of the genre.” – Sharmila Tagore

 

Jugni Style: There was a lot of fuss over your bikini photo shoot in Filmfare magazine in 1966, and your appearing on screen in a one-piece bathing suit too. Do you think that your wearing a swimsuit caused a fundamental shift in women’s role in Indian cinema?

Sharmila Tagore: It was unusual for a leading actor be seen in a bikini/one-piece bathing suit on screen or elsewhere. The song sequence in the film required the protagonist to wear the costume. A lot was written about it. Role changing? I think directors did wake up to the fact of women actors wanting more defining roles. And it did happen!

Jugni Style: Your sense of fashion is iconic. Is it something that is conscious, or do you have a genuine love of fashion and jewelry? Who are some of your favourite designers?

Sharmila Tagore: I dress as I choose to. I have always followed my instinct in choosing my colours or my wardrobe. I am fortunate to be able to wear jewelry pieces which have been handed down through generations. Classical designs always endure the test of time in itself, and will always be fashionable. I have never been a fashion victim, I dress for comfort, my own sense of aesthetics. I don’t like anyone else dressing me, hence no designers.

Jugni Style: In your work with the Indian Film Censor Board, what do you think is your legacy after being the longest continuous board chair? What differences have you noticed in the changes of themes during your 7-year term?

Sharmila Tagore: The legacy is to have ensured a more liberal thinking in the board’s approach to rating films. Censorship in its self is not the aim – we need to determine if a film is for universal viewing or some other. In India, we have to be extra cautious about not offending a religious minority, nor allowing inflammatory statements to take root which may lead to an unwanted incident. Young filmmakers today have been pushing the boundaries and looking at issues that would otherwise have been taboo. This is an exciting phase in the film industry and in the evolution of Indian cinema and needs support and sensitivity from every sphere.

Jugni Style: Your roles from the past few decades have been primarily of mothers. Do you ever feel limited by the roles made available to you or do you relate to them?

Sharmila Tagore: Of course. Indian films have not provided defining roles for older woman. It’s the occasional rare director (and more so in the last 4/5 years ) that comes up with a Virudh or even a Baghban, where an older woman is the lead in a film. Market economics and perceptions are the cause for this. Independant films can work on word-of-mouth, but commercial projects tend to be extra cautious, and try and ensure their success with the perception that the film has to have superstar male lead. The older woman in this context is mostly cast as long suffering or as the evil mother/mother-in-law. International directors have gone beyond this and have been making films which include excellent roles for women. My latest film, Life Goes On, is one such example.

Interview By: Manjot Bains with help from Naveen Girn  |  Photography: Indian Summer Festival and Jugni Style