“In the evening of my life I will recall the many faces Sandhya wore… Characters, like birds, must first be caged in one’s imagination.”
Singing and dancing have been a way of life for me from childhood. In my childhood— I remember vividly—there was always something or other to celebrate. There were so many birthdays, including mine. Then there were innumerable jayantis, and when the neighborhood seemed to prefer a quiet life for a while our family packed up and went on our round of the countryside fairs. Far or near, any fair would attract us. And once we arrived at a fair, I sang and danced –that’s what I did.
My father, Shridhar Deshmukh, was a stage actor. To him the stage was his whole world. Our house—small and cluttered up with furniture, cooking utensils, odds and ends, and the walls covered with portraits of Shivaji—was only a part of that stage. He dominated it completely. He had been in the acting profession so long that he did not realise there was a world outside the stage. Ours was a small world but it was a good world —and satisfying. A word of praise here, a spot of applause there seemed to be all we could get out of life, but we were happy.
My father took immense delight in telling people that I was an accomplished singer, which I was not, and that I was a consummate dancer, which I was hopelessly struggling to be. I was fast on my feet and could strain my vocal chords fairly well. Looking back on those days, I feel I was really good in what I was actually doing—aping! When the exertion proved too strenuous, I just relaxed and dreamed.
Photo Caption – Shantaram (in felt hat) has interesting moments explaining the difference between the psychology of a boy and a girl.
My dreams normally began with wisps of colorful vapor—incandescent, fluorescent and very cool—evoking in me a strange rapture. I saw fairies with swishing dresses dancing around me in excited frenzy, beckoning me and saying strange things in a strange language. I always woke up in our small house a little frightened.
“Vijaya,” my father would tell me, “one day you will become a great artiste.”
“But I am one already,” I used to reply with extravagant confidence. I was eight years old then. He must have been fifty. He used to laugh heartily over my reply and then relapse into silence.
Heritage Of Art
“Come here, my child,” he would lovingly call me. “Put your head in my lap.” He would gently stroke my head and cheeks, murmuring as I closed my eyes, “Remember, my child, no ornament is more decorative than art. No dress is as gorgeous as art. In art lies your salvation —your happiness. You are doomed if you desert it.” These words were my heritage. I did not understand their meaning. But I was soon to learn.
At the age of 12, I suffered my first disappointment. My elder sister was doing very well on the Gujarati stage. I too had small parts, but it was felt by everyone that I would never make the grade and get a leading role for a very good reason. My Gujarati was extremely poor.
Photo Caption – In ‘Sehra’, I was brought up like a boy. I slowly discovered what it is to be a woman.
Anything my sister can do I can do better, was my motto then. I learnt Gujarati with such single-minded fervor that I began to falter in my own mother tongue—Marathi. At the age of 16, when candy floss began to taste less sweet and the occasional excitement over the novel male attention became infinitely more delicious, I was cast in a leading role. I realized for the first time that we lived in a changing world. I was being slowly emancipated from the clutches of my shortcomings, physical as well as spiritual. Strangely enough, the drama in which I was to play my first heroine’s role was entitled “Bandhan Mukti”—freedom from bondage.
It was during this period that I paid serious attention to what was being said about V. Shantaram. I had heard his name before. To me, it had only meant three hours of exciting entertainment. Now I began to understand the meaning of art—gradually but with certainty. Even films ceased to be mere entertainment.
Would I ever become a screen heroine? This question was debated among my friends and relatives. The answers ranged from an emphatic “no” to a hopeful “oh yes, she will.” Many film producers who were interested in Gujarati drama saw me on the stage and in their opinion I would never be a screen heroine—I was not to the manner born. But some of my colleagues, including veteran artistes Ashraf Khan, Prabhula Trivedi and Chhagan Romeo, encouraged me. They saw a screen leading lady in me. “Try Shantaram,” said Ashraf. “He is the one who gives a break to new artistes.”
But I could not get anywhere near Shantaram. Rejected by Gujarati film producers and frustrated by the sight of the perpetually closed gates of the Rajkamal Studios, I decided to give up and forget all about art.
The world lost its brightness. Nothing could make me happy. In my dejection I visited the Mandir of the Goddess Bahuchrajee. I had gone there to achieve mental peace through prayer. Instead, I made a vow—if I ever got a break in Shantaram’s films I would give up rice, my favourite food.
In this sacred precinct, in my moment of despair, I uttered my first invocation to the goddess of art. I made my first sacrifice for art. It was here that I realized how powerful was the urge in me to become an artiste. I also understood that art demanded renunciation.
Prayer Was Answered
My prayers were heard. I was able to meet Mr. Shantaram—after three unfruitful attempts. I still remember the long hours of waiting and that fateful moment when I walked into his office. Tossed between hope and fear, and dreading the meeting, I walked up slowly to him and stood mutely and completely unnerved and then sat on a chair before him.
Mr. Shantaram was intently looking at a snap. It was mine. My presence disturbed his concentration. Turning his eyes towards me, he said, “I don’t know why this girl didn’t get a chance.” These words were meant for his secretary who, however, wasn’t there.
I looked into the depths of his dark eyes for only a second. To look into the eyes of a creative artist who is a legend in his own lifetime is like staring at the mid-day sun.
“Will you please stand up?” said Mr. Shantaram. I couldn’t —I felt weak in the knees. I must have looked very frightened and confused, for when he spoke again his voice was infinitely tender. “I wanted to have an idea of your height,” he explained.
Photo Caption – ‘Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje’ gave me an opportunity to discover for myself the intricacies of classical dancing.
When I walked out of the room I was still in a daze.
That was my first role—knocking at the door of the temple of art. Nobody has seen me doing it. I was my sole spectator. But for me it was a most important role. My other roles are only the luminous moments borrowed from it.
My first assignment in films was in Shantaram’s “Amar Bhoopali”. I had to perform a number of folk-dance items. Folk dances were very simple; there were no complicated steps or movements. I started with confidence, but half way through I realized I knew little about them. In folk dances it is not the steps and the rhythm that are important, it is the spirit, the throb of life, that animates them. Shantaram is a difficult man to please. Had he not relaxed his zeal for perfection and revealed, unsuspected at that time, a sympathetic attitude towards a beginner, I would have been broken in spirit.
It was a very important role from the artistic point of view and it made me “famous” —people started recognizing me in the street. Talking of being famous reminds me of an amusing incident. I had been made up as a dark-complexioned girl for “Teen Batti Char Rasta” on location. A ten-year-old girl, who came to watch the shooting, told Mr. Shantaram she would like very much to meet Sandhya. She wanted my autograph. So Mr. Shantaram sent for me and I went in my make-up. My fan took one look at me and changed her mind about the autograph!
For my role in “Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje” I learnt classical dancing. My own ambition and Mr. Shantaram’s sense of perfection landed me in hospital. I had damaged my spine during the shooting of a dance sequence and had to undergo an operation. When Mr. Shantaram came to tell me the happy news that the picture was a great success I was not in a fit state even to talk to him. Will I be able to dance again? I asked when I recovered. The doctors seemed doubtful.
The prototype of the part I played in “Do Ankhen Baara Haath” was discovered on a pavement. Mr. Shantaram who spotted the girl brought her straight to me.
“Vijaya, this is what I want in my new film,” he said. I looked at the toy-seller. (She still adorns my house in the shape of a doll.)
“But the girl in the story is supposed to be a milk-maid,” I protested. But Mr. Shantaram had made up his mind. He was completely fascinated by his “discovery.”
“Do Ankhen Baara Haath” was greatly appreciated in America. I went there with Mr. Shantaram to receive an award. I was able to move about freely in the hotel corridors until they put me on television. Then men, women and children whispered. “That is the toy-seller —the Indian actress…”
I was quite amused when Gary_Cooper, asked me, “Tell me, do you go to bed with all those beautiful bangles?”
I also met Loretta Young and Ed Sullivan who interviewed Mr. Shantaram and me on television. I was deeply moved by the reception given to Mr. Shantaram. The discovery of the girl in “Do Ankhen Baara Haath” was entirely his. But, or a while, I felt she was mine, too— I lived her life!
My role in “Stree” was most challenging. Challenging for various reasons. Firstly, the character created by Kalidasa belonged to a world that existed no more. It couldn’t say to me, “Here I am. Portray me.” The character had to be first re-created in my own imagination—as a girl who was a beloved, a wife, a forsaken woman, a brave mother. The process of maturity of the character was rapid and had great difficulty in keeping pace.
Trying to portray the brave mother who taught her son chivalry, I entered the cage of a lion in the studio. If I cannot feel what Shakuntala felt, I argued, how can I live the role? In a moment everyone in the studio gathered round the cage. Mr. Shantaram was very upset. My attempt to go closer to the lion was foiled by him, and the first thing he said when I came out of the cage was, “That was very childish of you”.
But the experience came in handy when I had to sit with lions in the next sequence. One of the lions left a scar on my elbow.
Thus one by one my dreams came true. The pain I suffered in order to realise them and the pleasure I reaped are themselves like a dream now. I have lived a variety of roles and my ambition today is to live even greater roles. But I still dream, for one never knows when one may have to live them in real life (This interview was conducted in 1963).