Sharmila’s supreme achievement lies in her being that rare heroine who triumphantly criss-crossed image boundaries. From being Bengal’s most ogled export who stirred up both the hormones of a generation as well as a hornet’s nest when she dropped her clothes, she next shocked us with what she ‘was’ wearing — floor-grazing sarees!
Being Satyajit Ray’s discovery in Apur Sansar gave Sharmila distinction from the onset. In their second film together, Devi (’60), her portrayal of a teenage wife whose father-in-law believes her to be the reincarnation of Kali, moved America’s most respected film critic, Pauline Kael to enthuse, “… she is exquisite, perfect (a word I don’t use casually)”. Ray and Sharmila both belonged to Bengal’s cultural elite. Ray studied at Tagore’s Shantiniketan, while Sharmila hailed from the Tagore family herself.
From this genteel background, Sharmila moved to Bombay and began as Shammi Kapoor’s peaches and cream heroine in Shakti Samanta’s breezy musical Kashmir Ki Kali (’64). She was accorded a lukewarm response till she repackaged her persona and in 1966 caused a catalysmic shake-up by becoming the first heroine to pose in a bikini for a magazine. With An Evening In Paris ( ’68), she portended an era of high gloss and glamour. Heroines had worn swimsuits before but Sharmila gave sex appeal a modern definition. Whether it was in the way she held a coke bottle or the way she accentuated ‘Don’t be silly’, Sharmila exuded a stylized ‘come on’ that dragged Hindi cinema screaming and kicking into a new age.
The backlash, however, hit home and Sharmila Tagore vowed not to “leave the industry with the image I had acquired after An Evening In Paris“. Her marriage to the extremely eligible Nawab of Pataudi helped. Luckily for her, Aradhana (’69), which charted the growth of her character from a young girl to an old lady, changed the cartography of her career soon afterwards. If her `Roop tera mastana’ song with Rajesh Khanna gave off a real erotic charge, she was as convincing as the unwed mother. She gave a delicately layered performance. But in the midst of the histrionic hosannahs she received for this superhit, Sharmila characteristically chose to take off to give birth to son Saif.
Not long afterwards, she returned to the studios, showing off an incredibly tiny waist. She expertly juggled her steam queen image with soul-in-the-eyes histrionics in a series of Rajesh Khanna hits like Safar (’70) and Daag (’73). She continued to work with Ray through Nayak (’66), where she surprised everybody by wearing spectacles throughout the film, Arenyer Din Ratri (’70) and Seemabaddha (’71).
Her twin turn as two variedly different prostitutes in Amar Prem (’72) and Mausam (’75), defined the transition in the portrayal of the fallen woman (one of Bollywood’s pet themes). The ground-breaking, starkly realistic whore of Mausam who spewed obscenities, has become renowned but Sharmila conveyed more pathos as the moist-eyed, mostly-mute courtesan of Amar Prem whose amazing eyes were the (broken) windows to her soul.
After easing out of films from the mid-70s onwards, Sharmila has done only the occasional character role or come out of the shadows to endorse products in prestigious advertisements that reflect an elitist lifestyle. Even in retirement, a nifty-at-fifty Sharmila remains one of India’s leading exponents of style.