Actor Interview: Sharmila Tagore Talks of the Value of Story-Telling and Passes Along Some Excellent Book Recommendations!

If you don’t already know, then yes, we did have the sublime pleasure of meeting a fiercely well-read, fearfully punctual and delightfully warm Sharmila Tagore who, beyond being a critical presence in Bengali Cinema, is a brilliant veteran actor, reverential feminist icon as well as a Padma Bhushan recipient, with films such as Aradhana, Chupke-Chupke and Devi attached to her name.

What was proposed to be ‘just a few questions’ turned out to be a shameless sofa-sprawling conversation that betrayed the greedy intent of a malevolent (yet grateful) interviewer. Discussions moved from Gulmohar and Jora Shako to a shared admiration for Zadie Smith as well as a shared suspicion of book-less-ne’er-do-wells.

Sashrika: You’ve returned to film after nearly 13 years, and you’ve returned through Gulmohar. What is the importance of a story like Gulmohar

Sharmila: Well, it encompasses many generations. Three generations. Gulmohar speaks to young people as well as people my age. The narrative understands family dynamics and the importance of a senior person living within the family. An elder who is approachable to young people, someone they can go to and vent with. Like my character Kusum. She leaves the door open for them, so they can come and talk to her. And she doesn’t judge them. She allows them to speak. She lends them an ear. So it’s about the importance of living together. 

I grew up in a joint family, so I really value the influence of three generations. Like my grandmother, mother, and great-grandmother, as well as various other people in the family. It prepares you for a lot of things. Because the world is about sharing and tolerance, and you can’t really live in a joint family without that. 

Sashrika: Talking of homes and families in stories like Gulmohar, I am reminded of the Pataudi Palace/Ibrahim Kothi, the Tagore home/Jora Shako, and now your own home in Bombay. These are historic homes and important homes that have been part of your life. What has been your experience in being attached to homes and families that are part of culture and history? 

Sharmila: It’s like– you’re asking me a question and creating a kind of space, but when you’re in that space, you don’t really see it like that. It’s organic, you know? Like I’m talking to you one-on-one. When it goes out, if you edit this and it goes out to other people, it will become a public interview. But when I’m talking to you, I’m talking to you as a person. 

And at the front of our house… well, it’s not like at Shah Rukh Khan’s house, where there is a queue of people waiting outside. Like I suppose, for Shah Rukh to come out to the balcony, he would have to wave like the Queen, or the King now. But I don’t think our houses are like that. 

I mean, of course, Jora Shako is, but I never really grew up there. My grandfather did. And then, in his lifetime, the place was auctioned— the one where painters Gaganendranath and Abanindranath Tagore lived. So the brothers moved out, both going their different ways. My grandfather separated from the rest and stayed at another house.

And I don’t distinguish…because it’s very organic. I can go to the stage and I can talk to them, but I don’t create a distance between myself and the audience. Like I recently came back on a Vistara flight and they didn’t have that aerobridge, so we had to take a bus. So? It’s okay. To me, it doesn’t matter.

Sashrika: Your character was crucial to queer representation in Gulmohar. What is the value of representation that isn’t tokenistic, and what do you think makes certain types of representation feel tokenistic? 

Sharmila: Oh god, I’ve not really thought about it! I mean, I haven’t seriously thought about what tokenism is or isn’t. So I can’t really answer that question. But obviously, any kind of tokenism is not really acceptable and people see through it. So if you’re mentioning something, then you have to be honest about it. At least your effort and thinking, or whatever it is that you’re putting out there, has to be honest. You can’t call yourself an activist because compared to many others, your contribution is not enough for you to call yourself that. But at least you’re thinking the right thing and saying the right thing. And it is most certainly not tokenism because you’ll stand by what you’re saying. 

And the queer thing, of course, I don’t even think of it as… I mean now there’s there’s so many terminologies there, so I don’t know. But if anybody is different from you, then you just have to accept it and go on. And younger people today don’t even notice. They’re far less judgmental. Once upon a time, and perhaps even now, some areas of society were very judgemental. But less so now. It’s becoming increasingly accepted and I think OTT has normalized a lot. 

So people are more accepting. And as they should be! Because there’s nothing more terrible than judging somebody for something that they cannot help. They are born like that, and it’s cruel to expect them to adapt to your ways.

Sashrika: Talking of narratives and stories, what would you say is the value of literature? What books and/or authors have had a formative impact on your life? And what type of stories do you gravitate towards?  

Sharmila: I’m a very eclectic reader. But if the writing is good, if it’s written well… like I would have said English authors, but then there are American authors I love, you know, like Eugene O’Neill. So it’s just that the language has to grab you within the very first page. Like White Teeth.

Sashrika: Oh that’s cool, you like Zadie Smith.

Sharmila: Oh I love Zadie Smith!

Sashrika: What is the role of books in your family?

Sharmila: Well all of us read books. I mean, Soha loves to read and now she’s become an author, so she gets free books. I’ve read all my life and Saif is a very avid reader. Inaaya is now being taught to read. I mean, she is reading, but she’s reading slowly.

I think that if you love books, then you never really feel lonely because there are always books to fall back upon. And some of us have to read at least a little bit before we go to sleep. There’s always a little book on the bedside. Even if you read only a couple of pages, then you read that and then go to sleep. So yeah, I think books play a very important part in my life. I mean, a lot of people say that if you walk into somebody’s house and there’s no bookshelf, then you have to be wary of that person. 

Sashrika: What kind of books have you been enjoying lately? 

Sharmila: Like I said, I’m a very eclectic reader. I read all kinds of books. I like reading thrillers, and I’ve just discovered somebody called ‘Nicci-French’. It’s a couple that’s writing—so it’s Nicci Something and Something French. They’re husband and wife who are writing a book together, which is quite a novelty. It’s very interesting. I read that, and I also read proper fiction. I was reading Ian McEwan and he was really playing with my mind! It’s the way he delves into and fleshes out characters. Have you read Amsterdam? You must! So yes, I read everything, even comics.

Sashrika: Do you think that books should be as much a part of our lives as movies are?

Sharmila: Oh well, I can’t say, ‘Why should they be’, but like I said, I’ve always loved books. When you’re watching a film, then it’s all spelt out for you. Whereas books give you the scope to imagine. You can think about the space, think about the characters, you go back and forth. Books give you that luxury of time and the ability to understand the characters. That imagination is there.

I mean, even as an audience, the way you’re watching a film or the way I’m watching a film— when we discuss we’d have a difference of opinion. But with books … well, it’s a private thing. It’s not a collective viewing. I mean sure, now with OTT you’re also watching film/TV content solo. So that doesn’t really apply. But I think books give you space and let your imagination grow.

And then even for your vocabulary … I think P.G. Woodhouse is a must for young people who are growing up and want to learn English. Through books, you discover different ways of expressing yourself— your vocabulary grows. 

Sashrika: Do you read books in other languages or just English? 

Sharmila: I read books in Bengali because that’s my language, I read and write in Bengali. And of course, reading Tagore in Bengali… reading his poems in Bengali… or for that matter, reading Sankha Ghosh’s poems in Bengali… Somehow the translations are really underwhelming. I can also read Hindi. Do you know of Phanishwar Nath Renu? There is a book of short stories, Thumri, and they’re divine! Because Bihari-Hindi is somewhat close to Bengali. A lot of words like badi and things like that are common. And it’s written so beautifully. Oh, you must read Thumri. So yes, I can read some Hindi, like Premchand. I find that it’s easier to read short stories in Hindi rather than a Hindi novel. 

2 thoughts on “Actor Interview: Sharmila Tagore Talks of the Value of Story-Telling and Passes Along Some Excellent Book Recommendations!”

  1. Amazing! The interviewer provided so much space that Sharmila Ji opened up and spoke her heart on the value of storytelling and reading. Congratulations!!! I loved this.


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