When Omar Sharif was chosen for the lead role in David Lean’s film Dr Zhivago, the actor was stunned. He told the director that he could ride a camel in the desert (Lawrence of Arabia) but did not know how to act the role of a Russian poet. Lean told him not to act but simply be himself. The film was a runaway success winning 33 international awards, including 10 Oscars. This remarkable director knew that the secret of great acting lay in its spontaneity.
India can boast of several such actors in its long motion picture saga. When I read about the veteran Hollywood actress Jane Fonda being honoured for her acting and activism, I was reminded of our own Indian film stars of yesteryears who made cinematic history. They were great in their chosen profession not only for their superb histrionic skills but for working with minimal stage trappings. The Priyanka Chopras and Deepika Padukones who grab headlines today owe their place in the sun to a long line of committed artists whose main forte was acting — with the barest of cosmetics.
The earliest of these was the gorgeous Devika Rani, with her spectacular acting added to her arresting personality. Known as the first lady of Indian cinema, she made the 1940s famous for her uninhibited style of acting. Again, who can forget the incomparable Sharmila Tagore, whose “powerhouse acting” was discovered by a Satyajit Ray; or a Sridevi who lent colour and innocent allure to whichever role she donned. Was there a parallel to the Telugu stars Bhanumathi or Suryakumari, who charmed audiences off their feet; to the irrepressible Vyjayanthimala, or her even more gifted mother, Vasundhara Devi? Nor is it easy to replicate the superb acting skills of an LV Sharadha whose few films did the Kannada film world proudly.
These gifted artists were the forerunners of the present generation of stars. They were not just talented. Their films are timeless. Sharadha could portray a young, disturbed widow with the same panache as she did the role of Adi Sankara’s serene mother in GV Iyer’s timeless classic. She could also do art cinema with the same ease as a blockbuster. All these stars of yesteryears were versatile actors whose mind-blowing activism in other realms won them national awards. They were artists who straddled many fields, like the actor-turned-politician Jayalalitha.
Perhaps the best example of a multifaceted artist is MS Subbulakshmi, who transformed cinema halls into music sabhas with her exquisite music woven into epic films that ushered in a new era in Indian cinema, such as Shakuntalai, with which she made her screen debut, paired with the equally talented GN Balasubramaniam.
Subbulakshmi’s film career has been linked to a unique sort of activism. Here is the fascinating story of her next film, Savitri, which was a media sensation concerning the popular Tamil journal Ananda Vikatan where her husband Sadasivam worked as an advertising manager. A patriotic rebel, he got embroiled in the freedom struggle of the forties, with his colleague Kalki Krishnamurthy. When they were both fired for this professional “misconduct”, they decided to launch their own newsmagazine, for which they needed money. A 23-year-old MS agreed to don the male role of Narada in this film, which raked in the necessary funds. Even as people queued up to buy tickets for the opening night, the press began churning out the first edition of Kalki, which recently completed its 80th year of publication. Her next film Meera saw the beginning of her “singing for a cause.” Subbulakshmi’s art has supported innumerable initiatives, such as hospitals and charity homes, schools for disabled children and orphaned girls. The revenue from every public performance has gone to support mindboggling charities. She would have done the Cecil B. de Mille award proud with her art and activism.
Indian cinema can boast of several such women actors who have used their popular public image to promote different public services, such as helping women in distress, children with serious afflictions, families which need to be rehabilitated. Their involvement with deadly diseases like AIDS or cancer, and their efforts to fight these scourges or to rehabilitate those who are already afflicted has been remarkable despite the pressures they face in their careers. Many have ploughed in their own earnings to support these causes.
The present generation of actors such as Deepika Padukone have done something more daring. She shed her inhibitions and laid bare her life with its traumas before the public in order to create a greater understanding of an ailment such as depression. If there was an award for activist female actors, the judges would have found it hard to select one out of the deserving hundreds of Indian theatre personalities. Acting is a demanding profession, and especially so for women in Indian cinema. It requires talent, discipline and guts to face an array of insurmountable challenges — starting from the casting couch. They are not as lucky as Omar Sharif, who could simply be himself and win awards.