Hindi cinema has seen some graceful, effortless actors Meena Kumari, Nargis, Waheeda Rehman but it can be safely said that the versatility of Sharmila Tagore is unmatched to this day. When you think of Sharmila Tagore, you think of the big, upstanding hair, the decorated eyes, and those carefully draped saris. The hesitation in her eyes as she played a woman in love Aradhanathe naughtiness in her attitude Tsjoepke Tsjoepke, the desire on her face in Amar Prem or the ease in her body language as she donned a bikini for An Evening in Paris – none of these avatars looked like facades. Tagore had the rare ability to play any role with the utmost ease, but there was one thing that remained consistent across all of her roles, and that was her graceful demeanour.
Sharmila Tagore started her career with Satyajit Ray, but when she moved to Hindi cinema with Shakti Samantha’s Kashmir Ki Kali, Sharmila was discovered by a whole new audience. This was the beginning of her journey with Shakti Samantha who eventually featured her in some of her most popular films – An Evening in Paris, Aradhana, Amar Prem. In her words, she “wanted to enjoy every aspect of being a woman” both on screen and in real life.
When An Evening in Paris came out in 1967, Sharmila made waves for wearing a bathing suit on screen. The following year, she posed for the cover of a movie magazine wearing a bikini for it. And while the world saw it as if she was trying to grab eyeballs, she just did it without giving it much thought. The photos, shot aesthetically, still look quite elegant. In a candid conversation decades after the shoot, Tagore wondered if it was the “exhibitionist” in her as she had “no trouble” doing the shoot and was completely surprised when readers reacted strongly to that cover.
She told Filmfare: “Oh God, how conservative our society was back then. I have no idea why I did that shoot. It was right before I got married. I remember when I showed the two-piece bikini to the photographer, he asked me, “Are you sure about this?” In some shots he even asked me to cover my body. He was more concerned than I was, but I had no qualms about doing that shoot. It wasn’t until people started reacting violently to the cover that I was shocked. I was puzzled why they didn’t like the picture. I thought I looked nice. Some called it a deliberate move to grab eyeballs; others called me “sharply creepy.” I hated that. Maybe there was an exhibitionist in me because I was young and excited to do something different.
Another attempt by Tagore to do something really sexy and daring was the song Roop Tera Mastana in the movie Aradhana. The situation of the number is such that Sharmila and Rajesh Khanna‘s characters are stuck in the middle of nowhere. Deeply in love, they know that this was the moment when they would finally give in to their desires. In the 4-minute sequence, Sharmila and Rajesh look deep into each other’s eyes as they take turns making moves on each other until the song ends with a thunderous sound and it is hinted that they have consummated their love. Since this was the 1960s, premarital sex on screen wasn’t treated with the utmost care. There was a certain sense of filth associated with the act of sex, but here Tagore and Khanna walked that line in such a fine way that the erotic nature of the video doesn’t come across as sleazy in any way.
Perhaps this confidence of Sharmila Tagore came from the fact that she was very casual about being a career woman at a time when women were expected to become house bodies once they got married. She once shared with Firstpost, “We have always had very strong women in my family. I also had confidence. I was not career oriented. I liked the job, and I enjoyed it. But I had other interests.” Her claim that she was not career oriented, working through all of her pregnancies only suggests that it was never one or the other situation for her. Work was meant to be done and she thoroughly enjoyed it, which showed on screen. “I wanted to start a family because I grew up in a large family. I didn’t just want to be a career woman. Although I come from a middle class family where we all had to share everything, I never felt any insecurity about my career. I am not a high maintenance person. I don’t need three air conditioners and five imported cars,” she said in the same interview.
Sharmila Tagore was a major movie star in the 1960s and 1970s and women were generally divided into two categories at that time: the saree who wore ‘good girl’, or the woman who wore western clothes and made bad choices. Sharmila walked easily between the two without being stereotyped. In the 1970s, when Hindi cinema became acquainted with the likes of Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi, it redefined the idea of a ‘modern woman’. But Sharmila was never put in this category because her beauty and appeal was seen as timeless.
Sharmila Tagore reached great heights in her career and although she doesn’t appear in so many movies these days, her elegance has stood the test of time.