Nirupa Roy – Memories
I was born in Bulsar in 1933. Soon after, my father who was a railway fitter was posted to Dahod. We stayed there till he retired. I did all my schooling, up to the fourth standard (Gujarati) at Dahod. My parents were very orthodox and didn’t believe in educating girls. At times the urge did take me to go back to school, but they stood their ground. If I studied more, it would be difficult to find me a bridegroom, was their belief.
The urge has always been in me to stand on my own feet. I’ve been earning money since childhood. We were well-off, it wasn’t as if I had to help support the family. I just wanted to show my parents I could do something. In those days buttonholes on garments were done by hand. That’s how I earned my first money. We were paid four annas for 25 buttonholes. I amassed Rs. 15 in this manner. Somehow I managed to keep everything secret. I hid the money in the loft.
One day I went to look for it but there was nothing there. I practically cried my eyes out. My parents kept asking me what the matter was but since nobody knew about my venture I couldn’t tell them. The next day I remembered where I’d hidden the money and located it. I had been looking in the wrong place all the while. I think I bought a ghagra-choli-odhni set with that money. We didn’t wear full saris then.
My father had great trust in me. He was confident I’d never squander money, so every month he placed his earnings in my hands. Whenever my mother needed money she’d ask me for it. I must have been only around eight at that time but could easily handle the money. If my sister, who’s four years younger than me, asked me for money there would follow a long argument. If I felt she was wasting money I’d refuse to give her any. Some arguments even ended with my beating her up. But then I’d quickly repent, I would myself burst into tears and give her what she wanted. Eventually she’d get what she wanted but my initial answer was always ‘no’
Water for daily use had to be carried home from the reservoirs. One day as I descended the bank, I slipped into the water. I panicked and yelled. Somebody ran home and told my father that I’d drowned. He collapsed with the shock. He couldn’t even manage to come and see what had happened. Eventually those nearby came to my aid and dragged me out. When I reached home, father couldn’t believe his eyes. He kept saying a miracle had taken place. This happened in 1943.
I was married off in 1945. It was an arranged marriage. Although my husband had settled in Bombay, he’s originally from Bulsar. Our parents arranged the match. He did come to see me, I was made to stand in the doorway, talking to each other was out of the question.
We got engaged. after that he used to visit us often. Once he tried to hold my hand and I fled. That did it. He wanted to break the engagement. He said I was too orthodox, a ganwar. Living in Bombay, he was modern. A friend of his reasoned with him, saying it was this type of girl who often turned out capable and intelligent. The argument must have jelled because we did get married. Today that same friend asks whether he was right or not.
Then I came to Bombay. My husband wanted a wife who would move about with him. He bought me a sari and told me to wear it. He wanted to take me to his office. I rushed to my neighbour. Till that day I’d never worn a six-yard sari. Wearing an odhni, Gujarati style, is easy, you tuck in one corner and it stays in place. Now I had to wear the pallu on the other shoulder. Not being used to this I had to constantly keep pushing it in place. I even asked the neighbour what blouse I should wear and how to comb my hair, I was that nervous of doing something wrong.
After that my husband took over. He told me that once we got to the office I should just smile, do a namaste and not open my mouth. Even if he’d asked me to say ‘hello’ there might have been problems if somebody prolonged the conversation. Then the cat would have been out of the bag. So it was better to play safe and keep quiet. That’s how I became “modern”.
Just after marriage we lived at Kalbadevi, in a single room. Eventually my husband’s parents and sisters also came to live with us. There was no privacy, the only time we could talk to each other was when they went out or we did. Later we shifted to Shivaji Park, then to Marine Drive—next to Nataraj hotel—and finally here, to Embassy Apartments, about twenty years back.
I hadn’t seen a film till I got married. My parents believed films were a corrupting influence. So only after coming to Bombay did I get to know what films were.
In 1946 Vishnu Kumar Vyas advertised for new artistes for his Gujarati film, Ranak Devi. My husband applied for a role, and I went along with him for the interview. He didn’t get a role but I was told they’d take me on as the heroine of the film. My husband agreed on the spot. I had to comply to his wishes. The role I had been offered eventually went to another actress, Anjana. I don’t know what happened. I just , ended up in a small role with one good scene. It was a bitter first experience. Mr. Vyas gave me my screen name—Nirupa Roy.
Meanwhile my photographs started appearing in the papers. They reached Bulsar and somebody showed the photographs to my parents. They weren’t the only ones mad at me, the whole community was up in arms against me. My parents were punished for my entry into films. The elders excommunicated them. The father who’d doted on me till then said I wasn’t ever to cross his threshold again, that he never wanted to see me again. He was really stubborn and stuck to his word. We never met for the next twenty years, till he died. I couldn’t even have a last glimpse of him as the message of his death didn’t reach me in time. Perhaps he caught a glimpse of me when I went to Bulsar to meet my mother. We used to fix rendezvous in other people’s homes. She passed away five years after him.
At that particular time I was really in a fix. I had angry parents on the one hand and the sorry experience of my first film on the other. If I had decided to quit films, it would have irked my husband. If I had insisted on doing no more films, my husband might have reacted by sending me back to my parents. That would have led to more scandal. I decided to stick by my husband’s wish and continue in films. I was determined to make good. My husband himself had wanted to be an actor but since he couldn’t make it, he was ambitious for me.
My big break came when Sharda who was to play the lead role in Gunsundari fell ill. Rati Punater of Ranjit Studios suggested my name to the film-makers. I was selected as heroine. I kept my fingers crossed, hoping nothing would go- wrong this time. Having opposed our community I had to make good.
In the early days people used to come all the way from Bulsar to threaten me. Luckily we lived on the first floor. They’d stand on the road and yell that if I stepped down they would kill me. Every time my husband had to go out, he’d lock me in. We went through this routine for quite a few days since I was otherwise alone at home, my in-laws were still in Bulsar at that time.
Gunsundari was a hit. I was extremely nervous during the making of my first film. I had no stage experience, nothing. I was just put in front of the camera. But since I was new everybody was very co-operative. They gave me courage. Manhar Desai, my co-star, was also great to work with. He didn’t hesitate about retakes.
After that I signed three more Gujarati films—Mangal Phera, Nanand Bhojai and Gada No Bel. I was a permanent artiste at Ranjit, that’s how it was then, we were on three-year contracts. I was paid Rs. 150 a month and had to report every day, just as in any regular job. I used to travel by train. Madhubala and Geeta Bali were also with Ranjit at that time and came every day.
With my success people’s attitude towards me changed. Those who had threatened me earlier came to Bombay to meet me. I refused to meet them. I wanted no links with the community that had disowned me. But my husband, who’s more practical, reasoned that since they were sorry for their behaviour I should stop sulking. This was just after the release of my Gujarati films.
To a certain extent I owe what I am today to their earlier attitude. Because of their opposition, I was spurred on to make it big. If I had allowed myself to be cowed down by them, had refused to comply by my husband’s wish to work in films and had returned to my father, I’d have been nowhere today. It may have seemed rebellious at that time but in retrospect I feel did take the right step.
Har Har Mahadev was my first Hindi film and it was a big hit. It was the first of 40 mythologicals that I acted in. The wave began in 1950.I must have played all the devis known. I was Parvati in four films and Sita in three. Snakes were my main co-stars in the mythologicals, I worked with them every day. In fact there came a point when I even dreamt snakes. I had a permanent feeling that one was lurking just above my head.
The characters one plays definitely have an impact on the audience. When I acted in three stunt films during this era, public response was almost violent. They objected to a devi doing stunts. I did Sindbad the Sailor, Chaalbaaz and Baazigar. At that time the audience’s attitude to me was reverential: people used to come fully equipped to perform puja at the theatre and even at my doorstep.
I’m quite adventurous, I refuse to use ‘doubles’ for my shots. It was either in Baazigar or Chaalbaaz that I first rode a horse. I’d never got on one before but was more than willing, to give it a try. The horse’s trainer warned that if I didn’t know how to ride, I shouldn’t try it. I kept mum. Warily he told me which rein to pull to make the horse trot and how to stop him. I got on and predictably did the opposite of what I’d been told. The horse bolted. Terrified, I clutched his neck. The trainer yelled for me to pull his mane but who could hear him. They followed in a jeep: closing in, they asked me to get hold of a tree branch. I finally managed to get off the horse.
Do Bigha Zameen, released in 1953, was the most important of my social films. It was featured at the Moscow festival along with Awara and Baiju Bawra. Nargis and I were both in the delegation. From then on socials dominated, mythologicals took a back seat.
Balraj Sahni was my co-star in Do Bigha Zameen. We did fifteen films together. I did the same number of films with Ashok Kumar. Once Balraj Sahni got really wild with me. We were shooting for Heera Moti. For a shot he had to hold my arm and I think he then had to push me out or something. Anyway he had to say a lengthy piece of dialogue while the camera focuses on the two of us. The scene began, he held my arm and the glass bangles I had on broke and cut a vein. I could see the blood oozing out. But he was giving such a wonderful shot that I didn’t utter a word.
When the director shouted ‘cut’ and the actor saw what he’d done he was really upset and scolded me, saying I should have told him to stop. I still have the scar.
From 1960 the phase of films with a historical background started. There was Amarsingh Rathod, Rani Roopmati, Maharana Pratap, Kavi Kalidas.
Throughout my career I’ve worked a lot with animals—snakes, cheetah, tiger, elephant. For Samrat Chandragupta an elephant had to pick me up and place me some distance away. I was game. Some people thought I was crazy. Ulhas, a villain of those days, even told my husband who was present on the set that he was sending me into the jaws of death. But since I was confident, my husband let me go ahead. It wasn’t a thrilling experience though. When the elephant picked me in his trunk and swung me up, everything I saw was in shades of green. His grip was so hard. It’s only through the grace of God that I’ve survived some of my scenes. Today’s heroines would run a mile from such shots.
Another daring scene I did for Mard. This time I had a tiger as my co-artiste. It was all going to be okay because it was a trained tiger and all that, I was supposed to be grateful, even though the man in charge of the tiger kept a distance of half a mile between him and his charge. We did the shooting on the beach, the sea was behind me, the tiger in front, there was no escape.
It took us three days to finish the scene and believe me, I didn’t sleep for those three nights. The tiger was supposed to just tug my pallu, he made off with the whole sari. In the end Manmohan Desai said, “Well done.” All very well for him but he couldn’t have ever imagined my haalat. I was so relieved at coming out of this alive, I broke a coconut.
The switch to character roles happened by a quirk of fate. In a way history repeated itself. As in my first film, I was signed to play the heroine in Filmistan’s Munimji. It was to be a pivotal role. The story was later changed, a young heroine was taken on, with the result that the portions in which I was young mostly got deleted, some of it came as a flashback, and those where I was old remained.
I was very upset and as usual cried. The saving grace was that I won the Filmfare trophy for Best Supporting Actress for my role in Munimji. This was in 1955.
After that nobody approached me to play the singing heroine. I was forced to play mature heroine roles. I still steered clear of mother roles.
The role I missed out on in Munimji, came to me in Deewaar (1975). The mother roles began with this film. The story was about a mother and her two sons, the young heroines had very little to do in the film. For the climax in Deewar, Amitabh’s death scene, the director insisted on the whole scene being done in one shot. Two cameras were switched on, in case one conked out I guess. That was one of the most emotional scenes I have done. You get so involved that the line between acting and reality momentarily disappears.
It was of course wholly Amitabh’s scene, I just had to hold him but even then just one mistake on my part could have spoiled it all. I really lived that scene, I was crying. And I didn’t stop till five minutes after the director had called a halt. Somebody put a hand on my shoulder and said that the shot was over.
The Deewaar role was a character role with a difference. All the characters were totally justified, no compromises were made whatsoever. For once I was happy with the role and it brought me appreciation.
I must have worked in about 300 films so far. And I’ve played mother to practically all the present day heroes. not just Amitabh. There are no explanations for it but till today I’ve been a mother to only two heroines, one of them Asha Parekh. I usually get to meet the heroine only in the last shot, when the wedding takes place and the bride and groom come to seek blessings.
The coincidence is uncanny, in real life too I have only sons. Two of them, born in 1960 and 1965. The elder one is involved in fashion designing and the younger one is into computers (As told to Meera Pandya in 1987).