My Work and I – By Mridula
Today, more than ever before, girls and boys from all walks of life seem to have but one ambition: to join the films.
Drawing upon my own experience in the film industry, I would like to tell these young people that, unless they have a natural talent for acting, or have some responsible person to guide and protect them, they should not hanker after a film career.
Yes, the glamour and tinsel of the film industry will always attract newcomers. But it is best to know beforehand that there will be financial setbacks and other disappointments which they may never surmount.
Luckily enough, my entry into filmdom was facile–rather, it was thrust upon me, because, although I had always enjoyed seeing films, I never once thought of stepping in front of the cameras!
Born at Almora, I went through school and college in Delhi and I always regarded Delhi as my home town. Taught English at the convent which I attended, and Urdu and Hindi at home, I was quite proficient in languages.
While I was in college, I received a great many offers from Bombay’s film producers inviting me to join the industry. I managed to decline all of them— even the first two deputations, from Bombay Talkies Ltd., led by cameramen Parenja and Mathur, On the third occasion, however, the lovely Devika Rani deputed Director Amiya Chakravarty, a friend of the family, to persuade me. He must have had tremendous powers of persuasion, because, determined as I was never to become an actress, I succumbed to the offer.
That was in 1944. I joined the films one year before I was due to graduate from the Delhi University. I signed a five-year contract with Bombay Talkies to play leading roles. As soon as I joined, Devika Rani, like a benign fairy godmother, took me under her wing. She gave me a princely salary of Rs. 2,500 a month and fully furnished living quarters. No new recruit to films had been given such a high salary before. It was Devika Rani who gave me the screen name of “Mridula”. She, however, always preferred to call me by my real name, Kanta.
My first film was “Jwar Bhata” and cast opposite me, in the male lead, was a tousle- haired young man with keen, intense eyes who started his film career simultaneously with me — and, perhaps, as apprehensively. The young man was Dilip Kumar.
Devika Rani was my inspiration and guiding light. She was always at hand, on the sets and on location, spurring me on with encouraging words. “Jwar Bhata” made me, what is called in movie parlance, “famous overnight”. My fan mail grew to tremendous proportions, the newspapers featured me incessantly, and I was besieged by tempting offers from other producers.
But I knew that whatever I had achieved was due to the encouragement of Devika Rani and Himansu Rai. The success was not entirely mine–a very large measure of it belonged to Bombay Talkies. To me this studio was like an “Alma Mater”, the institution which taught me much and which was like a home to me.
I shed copious tears when recently the company went into liquidation. It was like being told that a dear friend had passed away. How much better it would be for our industry if we were to have more institutions like Bombay Talkies and more producers like Devika Rani and Himansu Rai.
Even when I knew that Devika Rani was severing her connections with Bombay Talkies, I did not think of getting out of my contract with the company. However, under the new management, my contract was not renewed in time. This immediately left me free to accept other film assignments. One of them was an important role in Prakash Pictures’ “Dhruv Bhagat”. Nineteen years old at the time, I had the unique experience of playing mother to a young man of sixteen!
The picture celebrated the coveted Silver Jubilee at the box office, but for me it turned out to be a severe setback. I soon realised that I should never have accepted that role, because I began to be “typed” and everyone forgot the Mridula of “Jwar Bhata”.
After that I never did get the opportunity to play roles of my choice. Fortunately, none my pictures flopped at the box office. Most of them were “jubilee hits”, and although I did not earn money in lakhs, I never lost confidence in myself.
I then accepted a role in Munshi Productions’ “Baap Beti”, mainly because I wanted to learn something new from Director Bimal Roy. I did not have a big role, but I was told that whatever little I did was done well.
Now, for the first time, I shall have the opportunity to act with popular artists like Usha Kiron and Mukesh in “Anurag”. I hope I shall not disappoint my fans. Commercial success, of course, is an impetus to an artist. But, if like me one steps into the background for a while, I have one advice to offer: patience and perseverance will overcome mountains.
Among the Indian film stars, I admire Motilal, Raj Kapoor, Geeta Bali, Nalini Jaywant and Durga Khote. My favourites among the foreign stars are Laurence Olivier, Tyrone Power, Vivien Leigh, Joan Fontaine and Greta Garbo.
My hobbies are few. I love the outdoor life, and, in the house, I enjoy reading, cooking and needlework. I am not very musical-minded, but I am equally at ease with both Indian dancing and the ballroom variety.
Being married has its advantages and recompenses, even for a film star. My little girl Roma keeps me fully occupied at home. Indeed, I do not know what else I would do during my periods of inactivity.
It is said that the film industry is not too enthusiastic about married girls. It was my friend and well-wisher, Devika Rani, who advised me to marry. And, as always, I followed her advice! (This interview was conducted in 1954).