My parents christened me Alda Sinha. Everybody in school called me Dalda Sinha. How I hated my name. Dad and mum never called me Alda though. To them, I was always their little ‘Baby’. Soon, the entire school was calling me ‘Baby Sinha’ too. I was born in Calcutta, on November 11 and spent my entire childhood there. Being an only child, my parents doted on me, more so my father. I was sent to a very good school and was ensured the best of education.
Dad gave me the best of everything in life actually. When he discovered that I was blessed with a very good voice, he encouraged me to become a singer. Baby Sinha’s fame spread overnight. From school performances, I graduated to stage shows. I never had any official training but I could sing like a nightingale. Everybody said I sounded like Lata Mangeshkar. Nothing pleased me more as I was a very big Lata fan. Every evening, Baba (my father) got home from work and put on our huge, hand-operated gramophone. The latest records of all the big singers from K.L. Saigal to Pankaj Malik, Lata Mangeshkar and Geeta Dutt, were available at our place. Baba encouraged me to sing while the record played. That’s how I perfected the art. In school, I entertained the teachers during lunch break and in the evenings the neighbors were my audience. Then a day came, when Baby Sinha was called to sing from the same dais as Pankaj Malik, Hemant Kumar and other renowned singers. I got my first taste of fame at the age of 10 and I loved it.
Raj Kapoor and Nargis were my favorite star-team. Mom and Baba took me to see a lot of movies, most of them Raj-Nargis starrers. As I watched Nargis on screen, I secretly wished I could grow up to become another Nargis. At home, I often day-dreamed that it was me in Raj Kapoor’s arms and not Nargis. I wore my hair in two plaits with large bows, exactly the way Nargis did and sang her songs. My dad watched me amusedly but never discouraged me. In fact, the entire neighborhood said, ‘Baby you’ll be famous someday’. I was determined not to let them down.
The first film offer was a Bengali one, where I played a sister’s role. Being barely 12, I hadn’t blossomed, and was best suited to be someone’s little sister! Amiya Chakravarty came to Calcutta for the premiere of his film Patita starring Usha Kiran. He had seen my photograph in the Filmfare magazine. While in Calcutta, he called up my father saying, ‘I’d like to give your daughter a break in Hindi films’. So Hindi films it was.
I remember acting opposite Kishore Sahu in Hamlet at 13. He must have been close to 30. Mrs. Kishore Sahu made special pads for me to increase my bust-line, emphasize my hip-line and what not. I was almost flat, front and back! I had to also use very heavy make-up to look mature.
Amiya Chakravarty made Badshah with me in 1954, but the film flopped. So did Hamlet and Rangeein Raaten, directed by Kidar Sharma. Four flops for a newcomer spelt doom for my career. In fact, there was no career to speak of. I just sat at home and prayed. In those days, there was no custom of knocking on producers’ doors asking for work. Believe me, no one was willing to touch me with a barge pole.
My mornings began with prayer, my evenings ended with prayer. I am a Christian by faith. I clutched the Bible in my hand, went to my terrace and beseeched the Lord to be kind to me. All around, there was total darkness. Failure frightened me. Baba had given up his export-import business. He had closed down his dry cleaner’s shop in Calcutta and moved in with me. And now there were no movies. I was completelyshattered. Then one day, I saw a ray of hope. I actually saw Lord Jesus in my dream. I begged him not to ever desert me. At that moment, I didn’t want a bank balance or a movie. I just wanted his blessings.
In desperation, I did a costume film called Riyasat with Mahipal and even starred in a mythological titled Ekadasi made by P.N. Arora, opposite Trilok Kapoor. Thank God Ekadasi wasn’t a super duper hit like Jai Santoshi Maa or Har Har Mahadev. Or else, I’d have been stamped a ‘devil’ all my life.
Pyaasa with Guru Dutt, was one of my most memorable films. I was thrilled to be acting opposite him. He was already a very big name by the time Pyaasa was made. He was a great director but an extremely moody person. I’ve never known Guru Dutt to knock on the door of my make-up room even once. Unlike today’s directors who, at the drop of a hat, barge into their leading lady’s room. The only conversation we had was, ‘Mala are you ready with make-up?’ My answer being a ‘Yes Sir’. They knew how to respect a lady in those days. Many a director today, has a look on his face which says, ‘Kaash yeh ladki mere god mein hoti’. Times have changed, so have values.
B.R. Chopra cast me as a leading lady in his film Dhool Ka Phool, in 1957, opposite Ashok Kumar and Rajendra Kumar. The film was a superhit and I was a star once again.
Dev Anand was another gentleman co-star like Guru Dutt. I did four films with him and have never known Dev to even come as far as the door of my make-up room. All communication was on the sets. In recent years, Dev offered me the role Raakhee did in his home production Des Pardes. Since I was very busy during that period, I had to refuse the film. I think he was upset with my refusal. He probably felt as an old co-star, the least I could have done is adjusted dates for him. I wish I had.
One of my favorite co-stars was Raj Kapoor. Actually, I idolized him all through my childhood. When I was signed opposite him for Parvarish, my joy knew no bounds. My flesh turned to jelly on the very first day of the film’s shooting! What’s worse, I had a long scene to do, all at one go. The director was too busy fussing around Raj Kapoor. The scene was entirely mine, but he had the camera facing Raj ji. So there I was with my back to the camera, doing one of the most important scenes of my life. When Raj ji realized what was happening, he was furious with the director. He ticked off Sonu Banerjee saying, ‘Film making is a medium of action, reaction. If you only have my face on screen, how are you going to show Mala’s action?’ The director was ashamed of himself and quickly changed the camera placement. My respect for Rajji soared. Any other actor would hate to have the focus taken away from him. He would have probably taken Sonu to his home that night and given him a peg saying, ‘Thanks for letting me hog the limelight’. But that was Raj Kapoor. A great co-star, A great film maker.
Dilip Kumar is one of the greats I never had an opportunity to work with. Dilip saabs did very few movies and he had his favourite among heroines. My turn didn’t come. Finally, Ram Aur Shyam was offered to me, but they wanted me to do Mumtaz’s role. I wanted to do Waheeda Rehman’s role because I was told Dilip loves Waheeda in the movie. Of course when I saw Ram Aur Shyam, I regretted turning down the offer. Mumtaz had an equally good role as Waheeda.
Heroines of our time, looked sexy draped from head to toe in a saree. These days, the girls drop their clothes without reason. All of a sudden, you find the heroine in a swimming pool, singing a song. Swimming costumes were worn by vamps in our time. Nutan did wear a costume in one film, but she had such an innocent face that she carried it off. I refused point blank to wear bikinis. In Do Kaliyan, they wanted a shot of me under water. I said ‘Well, shoot me under water in a sari’. Finally, I compromised and settled for a skin-colored salwar-kurta. But even then, I refused to step out of the water in that dress. They had to make do with just my face above water level.
On February 15, 1968, I was married. My husband Chitamber Prasad Lohani comes from a Nepali Brahmin family. They are a very respected lot in Kathmandu. My father was keen that I marry a Nepali and I have always abided by Baba’s wishes. Of course my husband had laid down a pre-condition that I quit films after marriage. I had even agreed. But good offers continued to pour in, even after the wedding. I became ‘lalchi’ (avaricious) and continued to accept the offers. Initially, my husband was a bit upset. Fortunately he wasn’t a nag. So he let me pursue my career. There were no fights on account of the fact that I continued to act.
I missed out on my child’s growing years because of my career. My daughter was born when I was a busy star. And I regret the fact that I never got to see her grow. When I returned from shooting in the evening, I was too busy preparing for my next day’s work. So I barely spent a couple of hours with her. She was brought up by nurses and nurse-maids. I never saw her crawl, I never gave my baby a bath and didn’t hear her utter ‘mama and papa’ for the first time. Suddenly one day, I realized my baby had left her cradle for a bed. And I had missed out on her growing process completely. Anyway, I intend to get my daughter Dinky married. I will probably play nurse-maid to her children.
The transition from heroine roles to mother roles came gradually. I was already a mother in real life, so it didn’t matter being one in real life too. Currently, there is just Waqt Ka Sikander, a film which is lying incomplete, I play Rajendra Kumar’s wife and Dharmendra’s bhabhi. I haven’t drawn the curtains on my career. The options are open. The day I am offered an exciting role, I’ll accept.
One of my all time favorites is Raaj Kumar. He is a darling. In his younger days, he was always up to pranks just to keep me in splits. He’d do a fabulous take-off on Sohrab Modi. Actually, Raaj is a good mimic. Of course, even in those days he had his mannerisms. That’s why he has such a distinct style. Had he listened to Sohrab Modi, Naresh Saigal or B.R. Chopra, he would never have been able to establish his screen personality.
Amitabh Bachchan was very awkward doing love scenes with me in Sanjog. After all, I was a senior artiste. But he is such a good actor, he covered up his awkwardness very deftly. Even those days, you could adjust your watch with Amitabh’s entry — he was that punctual. He also knew how to respect a lady. I bumped into him recently at Jaideep’s (Nanda’s brother) wedding and he promptly folded his hands in a greeting. That speaks of class. Unlike heroes like Jeetendra and several others, who wait for me to say the first ‘hello’. If Amitabh is on the top, it is because he in a class apart from others.
Our films today are technically far advanced. We’ve been largely successful in imitating the West. However, there is no thematic value and our story sense has deteriorated. To make up for the lack of content, our heroines are now reduced to semi-nude dolls on screen. Ours being a sex-starved country, nudity is the surest way to get the audiences into the theatres.
Gossip and rumor-mongers existed in our times too. After all, we women worked in a totally male dominated area. The only other woman besides me on my sets, would be the hair-dresser. So even if I sat and chatted with my co-star, I read a news item saying, ‘Mala and so-and-so are having an affair’. I remember there were rumors linking me with Biswajeet. I liked Biswajeet. I couldn’t turn my face and not talk to him on the sets! However, there wasn’t any affair brewing. My father, my cousin sisters or someone, was always present when we met. We never even held hands, forget doing anything more. Gossip those days wasn’t malicious. It was mostly green-room gossip not bedroom gossip…
Relationships in filmland are mainly farcical. B.R. Chopra used to call me his daughter at one stage. I was singled out for their home-made parathas and what not. However, when my father died, Chopra didn’t even pay me a condolence visit. Strange, isn’t it? (As told to Meena Iyer in 1989)