It’s almost easy to forget how achingly young Sharmila Tagore was when she began her acting career. When she was cast in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar in 1957, she was just 13. Ray had put out a call for actresses between the ages of 15 and 22 for the part of Aparna in the concluding film in the Apu trilogy. Tagore was younger than the requirement, but Ray saw something in her eyes, as he later wrote in his book My Years with Apu.

Besides, Tagore was “precocious”, as she tells the director of a new documentary on her. She had read Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s book on which the film was based. She went on to star in some of Ray’s greatest movies, including Devi, Nayak and Aranyer Din Ratri.

Tagore’s adventurous youth, which served her perfectly in Apur Sansar (1959) and Devi (1960) and in her Hindi debut, Kashmir Ki Kali (1964), is one of the few things that stands out in the documentary Starring Sharmila Tagore. The Public Service Broadcasting Trust production has been directed by Umang Sabarwal, and will be shown at PSBT’s annual Open Frame festival in Delhi between September 20 and 24.

Starring Sharmila Tagore (2019).

By the time she was 21, Tagore had notched up hits in Bengali and Hindi and was engaged to be married to cricket icon Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi. The most fascinating phase of her career actually begins as she entered adulthood. Despite being married and later the mother of three children, Tagore continued to headline productions and play romantic roles unlike some of her peers, who had to postpone matrimony until their careers had peaked and plateaued.

The 51-minute documentary displays no curiosity about the twin paradoxes that characterise Tagore’s career: her straddling of arthouse and populist films, and the fine balance she achieved between her professional and personal lives. Among the crumbs of insight on display are Tagore’s admission that she was “slightly wild” after she moved to Mumbai following Kashmir Ki Kali and pursued a career in the Hindi film industry. Not quite an adult, Tagore lived in a five-star hotel and went out for parties (she met Pataudi at one of them).

Tagore notoriously posed in a bikini on the cover of a film magazine to promote Shakti Samanta’s An Evening in Paris (1967). While scandal erupted at home, Pataudi’s response was nonchalance itself: I’m sure you are looking very nice, Tagore recalls him saying.

Sharmila Tagore in Kashmir Ki Kali (1964). Courtesy Shakti Films.

Tagore was as “modern” off the screen as on it, says film scholar Shohini Ghosh in the documentary. Ghosh, who has also served as a mentor on the film, frequently pops up to provide a context for Tagore’s achievements. But the documentary provides no meaningful analysis of Tagore’s screen image or a sense of how wide-ranging her roles were beyond her collaborations with Ray and Samanta.

There are other voices too in the film, including Tagore’s daughter, Soha Ali Khan, and her childhood friend, Uma Prakash. Unsurprisingly, Tagore ends up contributing the best bits. The telephone operators who aided her cross-continental romance with the touring Pataudi were invited to the wedding in 1969, she recalls.

Wanting to be taken as seriously as the older movie stars Meena Kumari and Nutan, Tagore persuaded Samanta to cast her in Aradhana (1969). More meaningful roles followed, including in Gulzar’s Mausam (1975), in which she played a double role as a single mother and her prostitute daughter. However, other key movies, such as Ray’s Nayak (1966), Samanta’s Amar Prem (1972) and Basu Bhattacharya’s Aavishkar (1974), are not explored in the documentary. Nor is Tagore’s latter-day work, which includes Rituparno Ghosh’s Shubho Muhurat (2003) and Mahesh Manjrekar’s Viruddh (2005).

I take everything that happens in my stride, Tagore disarmingly says in the film. Starring Sharmila Tagore is too cautious and unimaginative to unearth the life less ordinary hiding behind this off-the-cuff remark.

Starring Sharmila Tagore (2019). Courtesy Public Service Broadcasting Trust.

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