Rohini Hattangadi became a grand old lady of cinema at the ripe age of 27. After playing Kasturba opposite Ben Kingsley’s Mohandas in Richard Attenborough’s multiple Oscar-winning Gandhi in 1982, Hattangadi was almost immediately slotted as a silver-haired matriarch even as she was entering her prime.
In Kshadyantra (Conspiracy), Hattangadi is a completely different Gujarati matron. The recently released Gujarati web series on ShemarooMe sees Hattangadi as Vasanti, a wheelchair-bound media baron and the sister of Gujarat’s autocratic chief minister Panna (Apara Mehta). When Panna is grievously wounded in an assassination attempt, Vasanti wheels in to make her own play for the throne.
Hattangadi agreed to act in Urviksh Parikh’s potboiler because its writer, Babul Bhavsar, is an old friend. “He gave me good lines and a good character,” she told Scroll.in. “Since Gujarati is not my mother tongue, he gave me smaller sentences so that I could get it right.”
Apart from watching her enunciation, Hattangadi had to make sure that Vasanti’s expressions retained the show’s suspense factor. “She is scheming all the time, so I had to be careful to keep the suspense to myself and make sure my reactions didn’t give the secret away,” Hattangadi said.
Hattangadi is no stranger to Gujarati, of course: she has acted in plays in the language as part of her illustrious run on the stage. A graduate of the National School of Drama, Hattangadi is among the theatre veterans who have elevated cinema and television with their attention to characterisation and performance.
Kshadyantra was filmed near Jaipur in March, smack in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. Hattangadi is now preparing for Jagdamba, a play that she hopes will be staged in Delhi in mid-August. A one-character play, Jagdamba reunites Hattangadi with a woman with whom she been closely identified since the Gandhi biopic: Kasturba.
Jagdamba revolves around Kasturba’s thoughts on her life with one of the most famous men on the planet, her involvement with the freedom struggle, and her struggles with motherhood.
“I have always felt that being the wife of a great person is very hard on the person who isn’t great,” Hattangadi observed. “Kasturba wasn’t very literate, but she always tried to understand what Gandhi wanted to do, what his thoughts were.”
Respected in her own right, Kasturba Gandhi walked alongside her husband rather than behind him, Hattangadi added.
The play, written by Ramdas Bhatkal, also touches upon the numerous adjustments made by Kasturba to keep pace with her evolving spouse. “There were so many changes in her life – behavioural changes, value changes,” Hattangadi said. “In South Africa, she had to use a fork and knife and wear sandals and Parsi saris with Elizabethan blouses. After they came back to India, she had to wear khadi and learn spinning.”
More than cinema, it’s theatre that has been able to treat important historical figures with the complexity they deserve, Hattangadi said. “We tend to deify people and forget that they were humans once they have been put on a pedestal,” she said. “I feel that theatre people are more ready to experiment, especially when the play is a success.”
For anyone who has watched Gandhi, Hattangadi is inextricably identified with Kasturba. Attenborough writes in his memoir In Search of Gandhi that among the suggested actors by casting director Dolly Thakore were Smita Patil and Bhakti Barve. Patil was deemed “very beautiful, perhaps too beautiful”.
Thakore lined up a few more actors, including Hattangadi. “As she came through the door, I think my heart skipped a beat,” Attenborough writes. He watched her in a play as two different characters – a “young, feline, sensual seductress” and a “senile, eighty-year-old matriarch”. He chose Hattangadi because her “talent was undoubted” and she had a “remarkable affinity” to Kasturba, he writes.
The role of Kasturba, Hattangadi’s first major one after her movie debut in Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan in 1978, led to another of her most celebrated performances. Cinematographer and director Govind Nihalani, who was part of Gandhi’s camera crew, cast Hattangadi as the repressed wife of a respected playwright in his 1984 film Party.
Based on the play of the same name by Mahesh Elkunchwar, the trenchant critique of hypocrisy, elitism and shallow political commitment features a boatload of brilliant actors. Hattangadi is among the stand-out performers as Mohini, who, deeply upset over her husband’s emotional distance and infidelity, debases herself at a party thrown in his honour.
Mirrors provide glimpses into Mohini’s anguish. In the first instance, she worries about her fading youth. Later, Mohini smears her mouth with lipstick, its crimsonness spilling over the edges of her lips and rendering her into a grotesque version of herself.
“She is scared by what she sees,” Hattangadi observed. “I wouldn’t call the role an image breaker, but it was difficult for me to do. By the time I did Party, I had already been slotted as a mother.”
The Hindi film industry is quick to shove actors into boxes and they could spend a lifetime trying to crawl out of them. The legacy of Gandhi meant that Hattangadi, despite her pleasant voice, dimpled cheeks and obvious youth, was frequently called upon to play vastly older characters.
One of the offers she received was too good to pass up. Having appeared in Mahesh Bhatt’s marital drama Arth (1982), Hattangadi heard out the director when he approached her for Saaransh (1984).
The moving story of an elderly couple who, while grieving their dead son, get involved in a pregnant tenant’s problems, Saaransh starred Hattangadi alongside Anupam Kher (himself only 28 at the time).
“When Mahesh called me for Saaransh, I said, why are you too making me into an old woman,” Hattangadi recalled. “He said, listen to my story and then decide. When I did, I told him I wanted to do the film.”
A drastic image change – and an indication of her wide-ranging talent – was first seen in Pankaj Parashar’s Jalwa (1987). Modelled on Eddie Murphy’s breakout hit Beverly Hills Cop, Jalwa is a comedy-laced actioner starring Naseeruddin Shah and Archana Puran Singh. Hattangadi plays Sribaby, a hilarious send-up of the cigarette-smoking gangster’s moll.
Parashar had previously directed Hattangadi in an episode of his hugely successful television show Karamchand. After Jalwa, Parashar cast Hattangadi once again as the vividly dressed and coiffured Amba in his Sridevi-starrer Chaalbaaz (1989). “Pankaj was fun and so was Chaalbaaz,” Hattangadi said. In a cock-eyed tribute to the Party mirror scenes, Sridevi’s character Manju forces the cruel Amba to put on garish make-up.
“Pankaj told me, Rohini, do whatever you want to with your make-up, I want you to go punk,” Hattangadi said. “I was ready to break out of my image, but how far would the audience go?”
Hattangadi took her comedic role very seriously, researching on make-up and hair-styles. “I put my hair like Naarad Muni, with a top knot. Pankaj said, can you streak it pink? I said, hold on, this is enough.”
When Hattangadi’s very young nephew watched the film, he was shocked by her transformation. “He asked me, do you really need the money? I told him, this is the hunger of the artist.”
Hattangadi’s search for the imaginative filmmaker who can pull her out of her pre-assigned box hasn’t been too successful. “If you are put into a slot, nobody wants you to come out of it,” she said. “For every ten offers, one film will be good, and we wait in that hope.”
That said, Hattangadi has never stopped working, toggling between the movies, television shows and plays. “My passion was supported at home,” she said. Before she married her drama school classmate, the stage actor and director Jaidev Hattangadi, Rohini Oak was encouraged by her father, Anant Oak, to act in plays. After her marriage, her in-laws backed her career, she said.
Hattangadi has been in both mainstream and arthouse projects, balancing her needs with her desire to push the boundaries of performance. Among her recent roles was in the Marathi comedy Once More (2019), in which she played a queen as well as an elderly male character.
“I haven’t yet mastered comedy, I don’t think I can do the timing and punches,” she said. At 66, with a long list of achievements, Hattangadi suggests that she is still emerging – the mark of an open-minded and unbounded talent.