Sharmila Tagore offers revealing look at Bollywood history as part of Indian Summer festival

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The Surrey campus of Simon Fraser University may have just hosted its most famous visitor in its 10-year history as part of the Indian Summer festival.

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Indian actor Sharmila Tagore—known to hundreds of millions of people across the subcontinent—delivered a poised, informative, and often entertaining analysis of Indian cinema over the past 50 years.

At one point, she conceded to interviewer Sanjoy Roy that it has been a losing battle to retain this term.

"We kept saying 'Indian cinema, Indian cinema'," Tagore commented. "Even I say 'Bollywood' because it's become a brand, sadly."

Tagore, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, has lived a remarkable life. A member of the illustrious Bengali family that included Nobel Prize–winning poet Rabindranath Tagore, she made her first film at 13 in legendary director Satyajit Ray's1959 classic Apu Sansar. She went on to work with some of the greatest Indian directors and actors, earning awards and becoming a sex symbol.

In her presentation at the SFU Surrey campus, Tagore cited numerous changes over her five decades in Indian films.

"What has happened is there are more investors today," she said. "Before, we didn't have that kind of money, and a film took three years to make, sometimes."


Sharmila Tagore talks about some of the changes in Indian cinema over the past five decades.

Even with an established producer such as Yash Chopra, she said it might take a year back in the old days. That's no longer the case.

"The marketing and distribution of a film is much more professional," she declared.

Another change has been the near disappearance of lip synching to music. She suggested that this makes it more easy for producers to sell their films abroad.

"I don't know if that will be for the best or not," she said. "Let us see. People are trying to change."

In addition, Tagore said that in the old days, there was a tendency to typecast actors. "If you played a hero's role, you couldn't do a negative role," she commented. "And now, that has changed."

As an example of how Bollywood has dispensed with typecasting, she mentioned that her son Saif Ali Khan, one of Bollywood's most successful actors, could star in Omkara, in which he was a villain, and then go on to do the romantic comedy Love Aaj Kal.

One of her two daughters, Soha Ali Khan, is also an actor. Tagore said she didn't encourage her children to enter the film industry, nor did she advise them not to do this.

Tagore noted that Soha graduated from Oxford, then obtained a master's degree from the London School of Economics, and worked for the Ford Foundation before becoming an actor.


Sharmila Tagore discusses how two of her children ended up becoming actors.

Tagore seemed a bit troubled by the dilution of the language in modern Indian films. In the past, there was much greater use of Urdu and Hindi in the language known as Hindustani.

"All the Urdu words are being replaced by English," she noted. "It's a kind of Hinglish. I remember once upon a time I was the only woman who was speaking English on the sets, being a Bengali. Now, everybody speaks English and the script is given in Roman."

She pointed out that English is widely used in India, creating a link for people who speak different regional languages.

A great deal of attention has been made of the fact that she was the first Indian actress to wear a bikini on-screen. She laughed about this, saying she was 17 or 18 at the time, and didn't give it much thought.

Tagore also spoke about how the history of Indian cinema has mirrored, in some respects, the history of the country.

In the 1950s, the star system emerged and there was an "ideological mooring". The country was in an optimistic mood, resulting in many relevant films being made.

Following the war with China in 1962 came a period of disillusionment and high unemployment. "And the films took the escape route," Tagore said.


Sharmila Tagore explains how Indian movies sometimes reflect the country's history.

She suggested that the only thing that saved Indian movies in the 1960s was songwriting. "If you take the music from those films, there would be very little left, except there was lots of innocence and charm."

The 1970s was a much brighter period, she said, coinciding with the rise of actor Amitabh Bachchan's performances as "the angry young man".

She then characterized the 1980s as a "terrible" decade in films, but as the economy opened up in the 1990s, movie-making also improved. At the same time, Tagore stated that during this period, working women were not portrayed in a flattering light because they were seen to be "detrimental to marriage".

Tagore is seen as a trailblazer. Coming from a prominent Hindu family, she married the former captain of the Indian cricket team, Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, who was a Muslim prince.

She said that her family was always supportive of her decision to enter the movie industry, even though it was not seen in a very positive light in the old days. However, she noted that her principal at school was appalled by her going off to work.

Throughout her presentation, Tagore came across as exceptionally intelligent and down to earth, which charmed and entranced her audience for more than an hour. "I've never been a victim of the trappings of stardom," she confessed at one point.


Sharmila Tagore emphasizes the importance of music in Bollywood movies.

The Indian Summer festival continues until July 15, with most events taking place at SFU Woodward's. For more information, see the festival's website.

Tagore's appearance in Surrey attracted some well-known local residents of South Asian descent, including MLA Dave Hayer and Surrey city councillor Barinder Rasode.


Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.

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Govind Singh
The beauty Sharmila Tagore
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