Sharmila Tagore has a disarming way of happily confessing to her teenage obsessions, “I was completely cricket-mad much before I met Tiger, actually.” Curiously, she was not starstruck by celluloid men, world film premieres, festivals and glitzy parties. The sport and scene of cricket, the clubs, pavilions, stadia seemed more her home ground. Calcuttawallahs were crazed by cricket after all – whether urchin, butler or burra sahib or his mother-in-law.
Some players clearly caught the imagination, outshone the rest. Jaisimha, Jai to friends, had been around wowing every teenager who fancied cricket. With him as friend, Sharmila’s running into the elusive champ called Pat was inevitable. He was friends with Jaisimha, but his aura was different. He hardly spoke, yet you could not miss the man. There was something irkingly interesting about this cool, slightly aloof character. With no airs at all actually, but yes, enigma.
Tiger Pataudi had returned to play for India. They had met cursorily a couple of times in Bombay and Calcutta. The third time they spent time talking almost over the entire evening at a restaurant in Kolkata, then Calcutta. And there that evening, Rinku (Sharmila) and Tiger exchanged telephone numbers.
“I was heading then for a song sequence in Nainital with Shashi Kapoor and Raj Kumar. You had to stop over in Delhi on the way. And staying over at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi, I called Tiger. Not finding him home, I left a message of congratulations for the double century he had scored that week against England in Delhi. Just like that!” she recalls. That, for a while, was that.
A couple of months later, Dheera, Sharmila’s Bombay host, announced that Pataudi had called to note down her address fully and accurately, announcing that he had bought Sharmila five refrigerators, and the Bombay dealer was now impatient for the local address to start deliveries. “What! I was in a panic – how was I to handle this?” Sharmila called him in a flurry. Tiger Pataudi knew that returning the refrigerators was hardly a problem...he had disarmed her quite. The rest you may say is history.
The attraction grew and perhaps the fact that both had fan followings, admirers close and distant, gave them common ground. They were both under pressure to keep work dates, abide by schedules, perform at peak – and then on their own time, attempt getting away from it all. Sharmila had friends among cricketers and greatly enjoyed meeting his university friends...this helped. Because Pataudi felt no rapport with the filmy world and it was amply obvious that he was not about to start now. And that did remain that.
The game would take Pataudi away to different parts of the world – over dates and venues he could not control. Sharmila herself could not fob off shooting dates tying her down and away from him. One film hit followed by another grander success did matter to her, as much as to her co-star, even more to her producer, her director, whether it was Yash Chopra or Hrishikesh Mukherjee or later, Gulzar. She knew the nature of the game she was playing.
The courtship ensued – amusingly stormy if not tempestuous. She once travelled with him to Britain, during his country match series in Sussex – getting away with being introduced everywhere as his sister! They just could not afford to be discovered. And in Bombay, she slipped out quietly from her friend Dheera’s house to stay at the Taj so that he, staying at the Cricket Club of India, could see her without friends cackling, spoiling the specialness of it all. “I did slip out bag and baggage to the Taj without even telling Dheera. There was a prankster in me too, I think. Or was I learning from him?” she laughs. Getaways often demanded some deception which they both quite enjoyed.
As is often said, the root and short form of the word fanatic, is “fan”, and both of them had more than their fair share. The stories of the fans for Tiger Pataudi were legion, cricket being a serious preoccupation in quite a few countries. Perhaps Sharmila remained cool about his many admirers because he too had to contend with that. Their confidence had to be mutual. The hoo-haa that a sweeping stroke created on the spot, on the field, in the stadium, was abetted at the parties, exaggerated by the news, the sports journals, and the books!
The world of cinema was equally abuzz. The fan club was various, ebullient, everywhere. The gargantuan appetite of the country’s cinemagoers for gossip, an asset the promoters hoped for and encouraged, was something to contend with in the world of celluloid. And it all started in the early days when they began meaning a lot to one another.
After Saavan ki Ghata, Shakti Samantha had ambitious plans. The location would be European and Sharmila would be making a splash. She would surprise with oomph and sophistication in An Evening in Paris, a title that announced the film’s location and cashed in on the name of a French perfume – one that managed to trickle into India at a time when few things foreign got past Indian shores. The title, the star line-up, the location – nothing short of a coup.
As it happened, Sharmila sported a bikini during the swimming pool sequences in Beirut, in keeping with depicting a with-it Indian girl abroad, not daring so much as distinguished in showing leg and a perfectly elegant figure, minus all self-consciousness. And yes, with a distinct, if understated oomph. Daring it did turn out to be. Sharmila’s picture sporting this slinky bikini appeared large as life on the Filmfare cover. This, in 1967, took India aback – an unexpected blow-up in more senses than one.
Headlines soon blared shock and disapproval, right across India’s film media. Since it guaranteed eyeballs and footfalls, hype and gossip, the upside was obvious. But anxieties rode high: banning, censorship, anything could happen. Promoters, financiers, director, producer, bit their nails while they welcomed the full houses in the movie halls. An Evening in Paris could very well be withdrawn. This was India of the 1960s – not Hollywood post the shock of Hedy Lamarr’s Extasie. Movies at that time were not given the PG or parental guidance tag, there were hardly any declared “For Adults Only”. India disapproved.
“Sharmila shocks India in scantiest bikini”, “First Indian Film Star Dares to Bare”, “Cover Girl or Uncover Girl”, publications were cashing in on the sensation. No one dared to appreciate. As news reached Sharmila she was startled, puzzled. While shooting in Europe, this came to her unexpectedly. “I was furious – so upsetting, this unnecessary fuss, unforgivable!” It seemed unfair, and it rattled her.
Tiger was not around. Yet he, playing tournaments for Sussex at Hove, had only to send off an eight word telegram, setting the whole matter to rest for her. It said. “Relax! You could only be looking very nice.” Sharmila relaxed and kept her peace. She let the moment pass.
The young actress noticed with relief that Pataudi’s cool was not easily undone. This sureness was typical of him, of his outright confidence in her and in himself. Unfamiliar with this response in herself, Sharmila particularly welcomed it in him and from him – time after time. In fact, she began to expect it from him, feeling inwardly very secure on its account. “He felt so okay about himself – and me – and us – in all circumstances! I’d never had this chance before to be myself...impetuous, even adventurous.”
Excerpted with permission from Stars Collide, Coincide in Like Fine Wine: Nine Real, Rare Love Stories, Syeda Imam, Roli Books.