Sonia Sahni – Memories
My mother is from Peshawar and my father is from Lahore. My father was a mining engineer, so he had to go to places where there were miners. On one of his mining expeditions, he saw Kashmir and fell in love with it.
So we shifted to Kashmir much before Partition. I was the youngest child among seven sisters and two brothers. Unfortunately, I lost my father when I was six months old. My childhood was a very happy one. I have very precious memories of that time, it was lovely. Being a large family, we were together all the time. I tell my son, the kind of childhood we had you will never have. As the youngest, I think I was a spoilt brat! I was a tomboy and till the sixth standard, I was in a co-ed. school. My family thought that was the reason I was so tomboyish, so they put me in a girls’ school.
I never fought with my sisters or anyone. In fact, I was treated like a errand girl. ‘Merl laundry la de’, and my elder sister would say, ‘Channa leke aana’. I would get bugged, and say why can’t you all do your own work. They would reply, ‘Hum log bade hain, bura lagta hal’. You know how the younger ones are treated! Till today, my elder sisters think I am a little baby and treat me like one. They keep asking, are you okay? The servants all right? Are they looking after the house? I tell them, they are not looking after my house, I am.
Though I never thought about acting in films, I was very good on stage in school plays and even in college. Never, I wasn’t even crazy about movie going. My mother was very conservative and Kashmir is such a place that when you live there, you have to live like others. You have to be very conservative. I would never go to college without covering my head. I didn’t enjoy sitting down for three hours to watch a film. I would rather go swimming, or play or climb a tree. Though I knew I was a good actress, from the plays I did. But since my mother was in the teaching line, I thought I would become a teacher or something like that.
Then I was in the tenth standard and was doing a school play, a film unit had come to Kashmir, and the producer-director was Roop Shourie. (I don’t know if he is well known now, but at that time he was a very famous man.) I.S.Johar was there too and he saw the play and wanted to sign me. At that time, he was casting for Johar-Mehmood in Goa. When he asked me, I told him to ask my mother.
Till today, I don’t know what he said, because she agreed! I never imagined that she would say yes. But she was insistent that I should finish my education. Johar agreed because for two years, he was also busy with Lawrence Of Arabia. He said, ‘Let her finish college, but she can come in for shooting in between’. Because that was the only movie I was doing at that time.
Having finished my tenth, I waited for two years. I was very proud and happy and would boast to my friends that I was going to be in films. But for two years, there was no sign, no letter or any indication from I.S. Johar. So I thought that I might as well forget about it. I was not going to be in films. My college education was going on though. I had just finished my exams when a letter came from Mr. Johar. It just said, ‘Please reach Bombay because I am starting my film’.
After that, they started training me, in my diction, etc. But There was no problem because I had learned Urdu in school. So my first film was Johar Mehmood in Goa and I played a Portuguese girl in the film.After that, there were lots of films. Till the years ’71 and ’72, I was playing heroine roles. But I had worked mainly in black and white films earlier.
Then came colour movies and with that, came new people and faces. Then I thought, why don’t I play second leads. I was lucky that the scripts in which I played second leads were good. For five years, I was under contract with Mr. Johar. So all my films were with Mr. Johar. I worked with Mehmood, then I worked with Kishore Kumar, then Dev Kumar, with Sujit Kumar, Sanjeev Kumar and they were all strugglers at that time. My movies may not have been runaway successes but they were always silver jubilee hits. My first film itself was a silver jubilee hit. Yes, I did lose out on a lot of films because of my contract, I won’t say I made a mistake but at that time, I didn’t know that such things could later on create a problem. I thought everyone did it. But I feel in a way it was good. Because I was from Kashmir, a very conservative girl and I didn’t know anything about the film industry in those five years. I learned many facts. So those five years were like a part of schooling. Though it was lot of fun and a lot of hard work.
I have worked with many heroines. I worked with Hema Malini, I worked with Waheedaji also, with Parveen Babi, with Zeenat Aman, all the girls. When I used to see girls like Rekha and others, while I was doing second leads, I used to wonder what was lacking in me. Why were they not taking me instead of them? That was heartbreaking, but not for long. I was a happy go lucky person and my films were hits, so it was okay.
Nowadays, I find that our way of working is very different. During our times, films were an institution in themselves and we were trained for acting. When seniors came in, we were taught to get up and wish them and things like that. I don’t think it’s like that nowadays. For us, each and every movie was important, it’s not like that today. It’s more commercial, more like a money making machine. We were happy with what we were paid. Today, there’s more competition of this one is getting this much and why should I get only this much? We never bothered much about money but on how much we were one-up over the others with our acting: Performance was much more important to us. In our time, it was hard work, really hard work. We went to dress rehearsals and dance rehearsals. It was not like, ‘Main yeh kapda nahin pehnoongi’, ‘Main yeh kyon pehnoon’? Nothing doing! What your producer-director bought, you had to wear. If we were friendly with our dress designers then we would say, ‘Idhar se kam kar dena’ or make little adjustments. But we couldn’t fool with them or be rude to them, which I believe is now the case. If a heroine’s dress is not nice, she says ‘I am not going to wear it’.
Even though I started doing second leads, I worked with the heroes. I worked with Dharamji, Raj Kapoor, Raaj Kumar and Dev Anand. I don’t find Raaj Kumar eccentric at all. In fact, I found him very intelligent. I think he likes to behave differently on the sets. He is a very nice human being and I always found him consistent.
After the five-year contract with Johar ended, for nearly a year, was without work. Because it took time for people to realise that I was freelancing. Then I got some very good offers, they were B-grade but they were good roles for me at that time. I did Sandesh, Bhavna, Raat Ke Andhere Mein with Dev Kumar, Sujit Kumar… They were all new boys and I worked with Dara Singh’s son too. Not this young boy, but the older one. I think he only did that one film, Bandish.
I remember that when I was working, there were a whole lot of assistants who have become big names now. Like B. Subhash, Ramesh Sippy, Lawrence D’Souza.
Being a heroine, it was not really difficult to do second lead roles. I was working with Sanjeev Kumar when colour movies were introduced. But some of those producers could not afford the cost of making colour movies. The role of Darpan came to me, which had Waheeda Rehman, Sunil Dutt, myself and Jagdeep. Actually, Kishore Kumar was playing the hero but due to a problem, it couldn’t be worked out. But I enjoyed doing second lead roles. In fact, it was more fun doing vampish roles than heroine ones. They were more challenging. It is more difficult to do a bad character because it is not you, when you are basically a good human being.
To be frank, I don’t know which film I enjoyed best. Because I gave of my best to each and every role. Whether it was a vamp, or a bhabhi or a character role. The roles were also meatier then. There was no difference in people’s attitude towards me because I had a good standing in the industry. In our time, whether you were a junior artiste or second lead or first lead, there was no difference. When we went on outdoor locations we all were put in the same hotel, with the same type of rooms for everyone. It was not like the hero and the heroine were at the Taj, others at the President and yet others at the Ambassador. We were all like one big family. We used to have bonfires and joke and things like that at night.
Sometimes, I feel that nowadays they fight more for what they are, than for the role. Anyway, it was fun doing all kinds of roles but what I enjoyed most, was comedy. You have to have good timing for comedy. I did a lot of films like this. I would still love to do comedy. Many times, when I played vamp, I made it into a comedy. I did funny bad women and not bad, bad women. Deven Verma was very good at timing. Mehmood was also good, but sometimes he did roles where he was the hero. But while doing comedy he was very good.
I met my husband through a common friend. Besides childhood, my marriage and the time after that, were one of the most precious, happy and beautiful periods of my life. To think that at first I was so suspicious of him! For Shiv Palitana, it was love at first sight. But not for me. I did not know if he was enamoured of me because I was an actress, or if he wanted my money or some such thing. But finally, he convinced me. Shiv is from the royal family and he loved car racing. He even won championships.
H e was already a married man and he had a son too. But he had been separated from his wife for sometime before we met. When I fell in love, I moved in with him. We lived together for two years before we got married. I kept working even after my marriage. Shiv only said, ‘If you can manage both the house and your career, then go ahead’. He wanted me to be happy at any cost. He made my life very beautiful. He loved travelling and so did I, and that was one more thing we had in common. He took me on a cruise and we had one of the happiest marriages. When my son was born, I decided to give up acting. I wanted to look after him. Ketan is now in boarding school. I wanted to be a proper housewife.
Shiv died in 1990 of a heart attack and for sometime, I was in a total daze. We were so much in love and so happy, that I just could not take it in. It was a long time before I pulled myself together and started living again. Though I miss him terribly, I have great fun when Ketan comes home from his boarding school. Dhiren is his first wife’s son, but I consider him as my own son. I love both the kids very much.
After Shiv died, my family hated seeing me in white, so I have dispensed with it now. I have my social work. I go to the school of mentally retarded children and spend hours with them. I really adore them. Children are such lovely people, they give their love so unstintingly. I somehow manage to pass my time.
I have had my share of funny encounters. One day, a teenage boy called up and asked, ‘Soniaji, are you as beautiful now as you looked in Hulchal? I said, ‘My dear boy, you are 20 years too late’! Now, on second thoughts, I feel I should have invited him to come and see for himself! He would have really got a fright!
It is really embarrassing how people expect you to be the same. One day, I went to my friend’s house because she wanted me to attend a pooja. As I was saying my prayers, I saw a fat woman three times my size, looking intently at me. After I finished,she lumbered up to me and said, ‘You never used to wear glasses in films. How come you are wearing them’? And then she had the gall to add, ‘You were so slim, abhi toh aap phail gayee hai’. I am not all that fat! During my heyday I was so slim, that most of the producers insisted on the dress designers padding me up. The South producers especially, would come up to me and in their South Indian accent say, ‘Soniaji, idhar or udhar weight badhaiye’, pointing to their chests and backs! Because the South Indian heroines of those times were extremely voluptuous. Even Sharmila Tagore was very slim and both of us had a problem trying to make our perfect figures look more voluptuous! I can go on and on about the funny incidents really, but I think these kind of incidents make life more funny and life worthwhile.
Even though I may be past 40, I still feel young at heart. I am always laughing and joking. No matter how old you grow, if you are still young at heart, you will definitely find life more colourful. (As told to Jyoti Suvarna in 1993).