Smriti Biswas – Interview
Her enthusiasm to revisit her past is perceptible. Her kohl-laden eyes and crimson lips only seem to highlight the fact. “I love jewellery,” she says pointing to the uncut diamonds on her ears and a panorama of rings. “This one is an emerald and this is a Burma ruby,” says erstwhile actress Smriti Biswas playing with her fingers. But more precious seems a pile of press cuttings by her bedside … one as Filmfare’s covergirl, of Raj Kapoor’s Holi bashes, of charity cricket matches… and one in a swimsuit! Though frayed, they testify her golden innings in the 1950s. “Stars those days lived life fully,” she chuckles. “Today they have become clever.” Her animated conversation overruns my cassette. Any doubt she dubs herself a `talkative girl’?
She’s more than 85. But her recall of those early years is bang on. The days when tongawallahs hummed her hit number Jawani mastani (Dhamkee). When as a kathiawadi in Shamsher she matched steps with Bhagwan Dada. Or when she hosted kebab parties for B.R. Chopra and carried rosgollas for Madhubala in a matki. And even those when she played the dholak at best friend Geeta Roy’s wedding with Guru Dutt. Also vivid is her recollection of playing heroine opposite Dev Anand in Humsafar. “We were shooting a scene at Lido cinema. I had to slap Dev. But I couldn’t do it. He took my hand and showed me how I should be doing it. He was a perfect gentleman,” says the dancer-actress.
But it’s not only memories that she dwells on. Today she’s busy discussing ideas with older son Rajeev Narang (the younger one is Jeetu) who’ll be making his directorial debut soon.She’s also excited about setting up her home in the hills in Nasik. Her passion for cooking too stands undiminished. But she misses her gang of girls. “My best friends Nirupa Roy and Begum Para are no more. Shyama lives far away in town. Shashikala and I aren’t in touch. And Nargis, I lost years ago,” she says wistfully.
“My husband made me promise I’d quit films”
She was riding a professional high in the late 1940s in Bengali and Hindi cinema when she fell in love with doctor turned-producer-director S.D. Narang. She went on to play heroine in a line-up of his productions including Ek Aurat, Nai Bhabhi, Aparajita and later the costume drama Arab Ka Saudagar, Yahudi Ki Ladki and a cameo in Dilli Ka Thug.The romance raged on for 10 years unable to culminate in marriage. “We belonged to different religions; I’m a Protestant Christian and he was a Hindu,” she explains.
But when she finally walked the aisle with Narang in 1960, she had to walk away from the arc lights. “Narang saab told me, Peeche mud kar mat dekhna (never look back)! You’ll have to give up films. I want a wife not an actress’. We got married after I gave him that promise.” She continues.”I never went on a film set after that. Even when Narang saab’s film Anmol Moti (an underwater movie with Babita and Jeetendra) was shot in the swimming pool of our bungalow, I didn’t go to see it. I stopped attending parties. I was so happy being at home; I’d paint, write, cook,” she says. “Even after Narang saab passed away in 1986, I didn’t return to films.” Her eyes inadvertently fill up. “I was very happy in my married life. I still cry for him even after 25 years of his demise. He was out of this world. He was a man of character… shooting se ghar, ghar se shooting.”
“Meena Kumari liked to live in pain”
She has fond memories of her colleagues too, one of them being Meena Kumari (they worked together in Chandni Chowk). Meena even shared homegrown remedies for arthritis and diabetes with her. “Meena would say eat basi (leftover) roti with sabzi for breakfast and you’ll never have to worry about these ailments.” She adds, “She was unhappy and liked to remain in that state. It helped her write. She used to write beautiful Urdu shayri (verse), which she’d recite for us. She was forever searching for love, something she never found.” The last time she met the actress was the day Guru Dutt passed away. “We had taken Geeta (singer-wife of Guru Dutt) in Meena’s car. We were going for the cremation at Charni Road. Geeta was hysterical. We couldn’t control her. She tried to free herself and kept screaming `Mujhe jaane do (let me go)!” She was rushing towards Guru’s body. With the state she was in, we thought it best to take her home. We turned the car and took her to her brother Mukul Dev’s house.” She adds, “That was also the last time I saw Meena.”
“Waheeda should not be blamed for Guru Dutt’s suicide”
Incidentally, Smriti was very close to both Guru and Geeta. “We lived in Khar and met every day. Often I’d have dinner with them. Guru liked Konkani food. Geeta’s tiffin came from her mother’s house. She enjoyed macher jhol and other fish delicacies.” She continues, “Narang saab was a member of the boating club in Powai. We had a floating shack there where all of us went fishing.” Smriti featured in Guru Dutt’s Sailaab and says he was more like a ‘girlfriend’. “When he bought a house on Pali Hill, he took me to see it. But the house didn’t prove lucky for him. It brought strife between Geeta and him ”
And what was the reason for the discord? “He was a very sweet person, but thoda eccentric the!” About rumours of Guru Dutt’s fondness for Waheeda Rehman irking Geeta, Smriti says, “I really don’t know what went wrong. Waheeda should not be blamed for his suicide. She was a sweet girl and innocent.” She continues, “He was depressed because his last few had not done well. May be, he wanted Waheeda to remain his exclusive heroine and not work for other banners.”
She’s protective about Geeta too. “Geeta was sawli (dusky) but so beautiful! She had a beautiful voice. But yes, she was suspicious and possessive. It wasn’t her weakness, it was her nature. She was my jaane jigar (sweetheart). I could see no wrong in her.” She adds, “Guru and Geeta loved each other a lot. But a creative person wafts space. He couldn’t handle the possessiveness. When Geeta pestered him for attention, he’d say in jest, ‘Bore mat karo (don’t bore me)’.”
“Nargis gave me a naughty birthday card”
Smriti was also friends with the hit onscreen couple Raj Kapoor and Nargis and featured in Jagte Raho with them. “Once we went to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) for a charity cricket match. Raj Kapoor headed one team and Nargis the other. In the first few overs, I bowled out two Ceylonese artistes. I was then carried around the stadium!” she says adding, “At night we’d go around the city in horse carriages, even to casinos.”
Another evening she remembers is when Russian artistes had visited R.K. Studios. “Nargis, Nirupa and I served snacks. We also waltzed with the Russians.” Holi bashes at R.K. Studio were also famous. “We’d throw Raj Kapoor in the pool.” She adds that Raj was a foodie and was particular about his menu. “Once I heard him asking his cook John ‘Why is there less marrow in the soup?’ After eating all kinds of kebabs he’d want to eat ghar ka dal bhaat. His wife Krishnaji (Kapoor) would send him a dabba every day, though she never stepped inside the studio.
Smriti says that Nargis was ecstatic when she later married Sunil Dutt. “One day she called me up and said that Dutt saab wanted to eat malai prawns. I prepared king-sized prawns. On seeing the huge bowl, Dutt saab, pulled it towards him and said, ‘I’ll eat this alone’!” She continues, “Nargis wasn’t fond of cooking but for Sanju’s (Sanjay Dutt) birthday she’d prepare a pudding. When Sanju was sent to the boarding school at Sanawar, she’d often miss him and drive off to see him. Sometimes she’d tell Sunil, `Dutt saab, Baba ko bulalo na (please call Baba back home)’. He’d say, ‘No, let him study’.”
When Nargis was suffering from cancer, Smriti didn’t visit her at the hospital. “I couldn’t bear to see her so ill. I’d rather remember the happy moments, like the one when she gave me a naughty card on my birthday,” she says digging out yet another clip from her archive. [ Interviewed by Farhana Farook in 2011.]