Raakhee Gulzar – Interview (1978)
She lives in a low-lying white house, an ultra-comfortable Shangri La. Inside, it seems much larger, with rooms opening into more rooms, some still under construction. The living room is decorated with ivory knick knacks, cutglass fripperies, ‘sitars’ bundled up in cloth, a Picasso print and a painting of a boy ready to burst into tears. In another room, a blow-up of Gulzar smiles faintly on.
The sofas do not look like they expect visitors. When I reach at eleven a.m., the airconditioner is switched on and I wait in the library-soft silence. Bosky suddenly trucks in, races about, mumbling a broken nursery rhyme, “Falling off…falling off… mountain…mountain…”
Raakhee enters, smelling vaguely of cologne and of butter eaten at breakfast. Her eyes signal a “hello” and she asks Bosky to play outside with Soni-Moni. The friends aren’t around, so Bosky sticks on to recite the alphabet and mime swimming strokes in the air. The phone rings. It’s an anonymous caller, probably getting a turn-on by listening to the actress speak. She has a rinky dink voice, husky, Bengal-accented, but not without impatience. “These calls,” she says, “keep on and on,”. The instrument is shifted. Bosky also disappears.
Watching Raakhee from close up, images flash by. The countless roles she’s done, her face smiling from pink and purple posters, the praises and barbs making her out to be a top angel or a devouring hussy all these years. How does she fit into these images? The face is not very different from the peach-complexioned, occasionally expressive one on the screen. The same light brown eyes, puffy cheeks, smooth straight hair now knotted neatly into a bun. As for her manner, it’s a combination of the casual and formal.
Not friendly, not hostile, she’s difficult to figure out rightaway. Hours move on and I see her laugh, head thrown backwards, one instant, her forehead creased with invisible worry the next instant. She’s very animated for a minute, extremely dull, another minute. Her mood jumps from one end to another. Romantic and harsh, sensitive and passive, ambitious and defeatist, girlish and grown-up — these are some of the contradictions that slowly become visible in Raakhee.
She sends for tea, chats about who’s making which film where, how she hasn’t seen “27 Down” and is hopeful of catching up with it at a private screening soon. We talk of “Trishul”, in which she’s submerged by a crowded star cast and of “Trishna”, in which the focus is entirely on her by contrast. She’s satisfied with whatever she was given to do in “Trishul”. “Trishna” she is proud of and justifies gaping holes in the script I point out. “Without them there would have been no film”. As an actress, it’s her job to deliver. She goes over the lines before giving a shot, “Sometimes it comes out well. I’m always good in the first take, never as good in the second.”
It’s drizzling outside and she’s reminded of her farm in Aptegaon, near Lonavla. “Mother just returned from there. She says it’s raining, everything is lush and green, bhuttas are growing. I should get myself a Maharashtrian saree, wear it and go to the farm.”
The subject moves to her brother who’s been making the rounds of commerce colleges in the city to get admission (she has two brothers, the older one recently turned film producer). “How can I help him get admission? I don’t believe in the ‘backdoor’ system. But I won’t let him sit at home either. He’ll do some work or study somewhere. What am I here for?” A sister tied to her family.
I ask her what she remembers of her own childhood. “I remember the house, the sea, the village (Pabna, now in Bangladesh). We were part of a big joint family. We were strict Brahmins and there were three kitchens and a temple in the house. Widows were permitted only in the kitchen meant for them. The roof was made of grass and during the rainy season, baap re, how it poured; The whole house used to be flooded right to your waist.”
Her father had a business in jute, used to travel a lot and as a child she saw very little of him. “I look like him, people say. I grew up like a boy. We had no servants and I used to do most of the housework myself, went to the bazaar everyday. I suppose it’s the same in every middle class family. Never played much. Never had many friends. I was aloof from the beginning, there wasn’t much time anyway. The only friend I remember from those days committed suicide recently. She was married to a school teacher. They had four children. She committed suicide because of poverty. When I heard about her death, I felt sorry. Nothing more.”
She doesn’t display much emotion, though I can see she’s checking the flow. She says she started writing her autobiography but gave up after a few pages. I ask her if I can see what she has written. She returns with a thin notebook, reads out excerpts. Loosely, translated from the simple Hindi she’s written them in, they read:
I do not know at what age I first became conscious of the things around me. All I remember are broken pieces and incidents. Remember travelling in a train. Remember travelling across the sea in a steamer. Remember going down a bumpy road to visit a relative’s home.
Perhaps mother could tell me the name of my village. Perhaps I shouldn’t ask. Let the memories remain hazy, the way they are.
Mother doesn’t remember when I was born. Sometimes she says the date was 15 August 1948. Sometimes she says I was born in the month of shravan, on raksha bandhan day. That’s why I was named Raakhee. Confusion surrounded my birth and the confusion persists to this day.
She reads out portions dealing with a Muslim milkman with a snow white beard. The little girl wasn’t allowed to take milk directly from his hands by the Brahmin family. She writes of the strict discipline at home.
I developed the bad habit of doing whatever I was forbidden to do ever since I was a child. Perhaps all children like to change ‘yes’ to ‘no’. But in our house the word ‘no’ was used a bit too frequently…
Why did she give up writing in the notebook? “I didn’t have the patience. That’s probably why I never learnt to play the sitar. I can’t do things like cleaning rice either. Maybe one day I’ll get the patience and learn to play the piano. Bosky and I will learn the piano together.”
What did she mean by confusion has persisted? “I can’t explain this. Can confusion be explained?” she asks. Growing up came fast — “in the sixth standard, we were given white sarees with green borders to wear.” An unsettled childhood, two broken marriages, the whirl of a film career, obviously contributed to the confusion. She thinks she’s happy the way she is, running a house, taking the decisions, minding her career without the help of a secretary. However, the effort shows. She claims all she’s interested in is to “give, give, give till it hurts.” Hasn’t it started hurting by now? “That day will never come.” The line’s said with a hint of weariness, uncertainty. And somewhere in the conversation, the word “nightmare” comes in. I ask her if she gets them often.
“I have never been able to sleep in a room alone. Ever since I was a child. I always feel there is someone standing behind me. In my nightmares, I see eyes full of blood. Always eyes, never the complete face. I feel someone calling out to me. My mother is to blame for this. When I was small, she used to frighten me to sleep with ghost stories. That’s why I never tell Bosky any stories.”
Are they always nightmares, never dreams? “Dreams too. Though I never remember what they are on waking up in the morning. Mostly they are connected with what’s been happening during the day. A shooting I have participated in, an incident that has occurred . . God knows, but I get dreams also.”
Has she changed, grown over the years? (I mean to say temperamental and cynical, but keep the words back). “Physically, yes,” she kids. “Mentally, also a little bit. I am a strong person. I don’t cry, not in front of others, anyway. Only in front of close friends or alone sometimes. I don’t need anyone’s shoulder or what do they call it, pity? For the screen, I can’t cry without glycerine. Even when I see a sad movie, I can’t cry. I feel choked up, my blood circulation goes faster, but I never break into sobs. They tell me when Dara Singh saw ‘Tapasya’ he cried so much.”
“Yes, I am highly emotional and it shows on my face. I can control myself though. Whatever people may say, I love the way I am. It’s because I am like this that I have survived. I do tend to get angry easily and there is a lot of plate-throwing and shouting at home every second or third day. Father also used to throw thaalis around when he was angry. Worries, sorrow, happiness, I’ve seen everything …”
More questions, more such answers. Raakhee sums herself up at several stages. One of the summations is, “I am not ambitious. Everyone wants more popularity — to come up in life. What I have is enough for a girl from a remote village.”
It’s past two. Lunch is served in a room downstairs. Raakhee speaks in fast paced Bengali to her brothers and an aunt downstairs. For a second it sounds as if plates are going to fly. Girls with their heads covered and in awe of their mistress, bustle in and out of a kitchen making a frizzing sound. The window sill anchors silver jubilee trophies — “There’s no room for them elsewhere.” Sweetwater fish, curds, daal, papad, heaps of rice followed by a dessert of papaya slices are served. She’s lighthearted, relates an incident of how a huge, burly man tried to pinch her in the dark in a movie house and how she gave him a tight slap on the face. She chuckles, delightedly.
We return upstairs. Bosky’s reading a storybook, firmly pronouncing “Once upon a time…” There’s a fairy tale room being done up on the second floor. Raakhee walks round, breaks a dead branch from a palm tree leaning over the balcony and hopes, “next year I will be able to watch the rains from this room.”
Back in the living room she talks of the sex goddesses of Hollywood. She’s been reading a paperback and gets the impression from the book that actresses are all quite eccentric. “Elizabeth Taylor, Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, all seem to have had some quirk or the other. And why is Liz Taylor badnaam for marrying so often? Rita Hayworth married seven times. Marilyn’s life was so tragic. When she committed suicide, before dying, the book says her hands were reaching out for the phone.”
A noticeable gesture of Raakhee’s is to bite her lips whenever she talks of “tragic,” or “serious matters.”
It’s past three now. Time to set off for a dubbing session at a recording studio. She says ‘bye’ to Bosky. Two dogs a Tibetan Lhasa called Toy and a poodle, Madame Julie, yelp and bark as Raakhee leaves.
Accompanying her is her hairdresser-cum-friend Khatija. The actress hums a song audibly during the drive. The dubbing is delayed and we spend over two hours in a carpetted foyer. A director comes along and launches an instant conversation with her. They talk of the hazards of location shooting, he brags a little (in astonished tones) of how he has become a very influential man lately. The talk turns to a hero who wears a wig and Raakhee laughs some more. Her interest, however, is flagging. I can see her knotting up slowly.
She’s annoyed with the delay. Would like to get away and see a film. Her turn comes at five-thirty. At six, she’s dubbing what Khatija calls a “comedy scene”. The dialogue is about a doctor in love and Raakhee’s pleading “ladke ladki ki shaadi jaldi ho jani chahiye” in rapid- fire speech. The scene and the dialogue are played and replayed, incessantly.
As I leave, I see her standing, small and vulnerable before the gadgetry in the vast dubbing studio. She asks someone to get her a higher table, the one she regularly uses and continues with the lines. The nightmares forgotten for the moment (As told to Khalid Mohamed in 1978).