Usha Kiron – Memories
Coming from a very simple middle-class Maharashtrian Brahmin family, I was the second of five children. My father was an extremely ambitious man. He wanted us children to do great things for the family. That was the reason he pushed my elder sister and me towards the theatre. In the beginning, I hated it and was reluctant to even do simple stage shows. All I wanted was to marry, have a few kids and settle into oblivion. But destiny had other things in store for me. During a stage performance at the now Excelsior Theatre, the great Udayshankar spotted me. He hauled me off to Madras with my father, where I was to play a big part in his feature film Kalpana. My father was thrilled, even though it was such a small role.
Once in Madras however, catastrophe took place. I was thrown out of the film and sent packing back to Bombay. It was just a misunderstanding, coupled with Udayji’s mercurial temperament and my militant naivette. For a dance sequence, I had to wear a transparent Manipuri costume. Since I was conscious of it, I wore a white slip underneath. Mrs. Uday Shankar asked me to remove it for the shot, since it would have looked very awkward. I didn’t pay heed to it. So later, Udayji noticed it and bellowed at his wife for not taking care of the costumes. She in turn screamed at me. After that incident, I used to hang around the set with a permanent sulky expression. This used to get on Udayji’s nerves and one day he bellowed once again. ‘Don’t you know how to smile?’ I in turn, replied hotly, ‘No! You teach me how to smile! ‘ And that was the end. In retrospect, I would still credit him with shaping my inherent talent, more than any one else. He is an education in acting and dancing for any actress.
My father was hell-bent on making me an actress, and wouldn’t rest till I had got a role in every film possibly. But, it was rejection, and more rejection. It didn’t bother me one bit. In fact, I was secretly happy. My father was so desperate, that he even produced a film which flopped miserably. Of course, there were bit roles in Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati films. But they hardly helped, except for keeping the kitchen fires burning. My father had even quit his job. So the family was totally dependent on me.
Finally, his patience paid off. Amiya Chakraborty came into my life and changed everything. He offered me my first role as a heroine in Gauna. The film bombed, but I was signed again for his next film. I was to play Shashikala’s mother. And I was only 22 years old. Shashikala might have been my age, if not a few years old (Chuckles). It was sheer compulsion that made me do it. We needed the money to get my sister married off. Thankfully, that film also flopped, otherwise I would never have made it as a heroine. But in a way this film also proved lucky for me. Because soon after, I began doing lead roles in Gujarati and Marathi films. I even started getting good Hindi films.
Patita, was my first major hit. Soon after that came Dushman, Baadmaan with Dev Anand, Musafir with Dilip Kumar. Nazrana with Raj Kapoor, Kabuliwaala, Dil Bhi Tera Hum Bhi Tere with Balraj Sahni, Dhobhi Doctor and Adhikar with Kishore Kumar. There were also many others with Ashok Kumar, Pradeep Kumar, etc. Simultaneously all my bilingual films started doing very well. And I was right at the top. I used to work in two shifts, which was so uncommon in those days.
But along with success came the biggest emotional turmoil and subsequent heart break. I fell madly in love with Amiya Chakraborty. I guess it was my extreme youth, that responded to his older charm. Although he was sixteen years older to me, he had an extraordinary attractive personality. We got involved recklessly. The heartbreak was that he was a married man and there was nothing I could do about it. I came from a Brahmin family where mistresses were unheard of. So it was quite a big scandal. Since I was basically an above board person, my days and nights used to be tormented with guilt. Till one day Amia’s wife decided to meet me.
She was a very magnanimous lady. She told me that she realized that her husband and I were really in love with each other. It was not a casual affair. She was willing to step out and give us our freedom. That really jolted me. For a long time, I didn’t say anything. And then I made the biggest, wisest, and yet the most painful decision of my life. I assured the lady that I would never ever seek her husband again no matter what happened. I knew that there was only one way out. And that was marriage. By God’s grace I didn’t have to look far. There was already someone who I had at the back of my mind. A very handsome, well educated young man who used to frequent a relative’s house. I met him and had a very long heart to heart talk with him. I emptied all my emotional baggage, and asked him whether he was still willing to marry me. He smiled and agreed. I became Mrs. Kher in 1954.
My husband is a Gold Medalist in medicine. Sometimes, I feel that he should be given a medal for excelling as a husband. The entire credit of my marriage goes to him. After that first heart to heart talk, he has till date, never questioned, discussed, or brought up the subject of my involvement. It was a closed chapter with him. Do you know that I even completed Amiya’s film Badnaam after my marriage. There were occasions when I had to shoot late without prior information. Even on those days, there was not a hint of suspicion or hostility. He always welcomed me with the same warmth and passion. You know this is how I fell in love with my own husband. It was a love that grew out of sheer respect, awe and admiration for him as a human being.
These were the qualities that always brought me down to the earth. I knew that deep in my heart inspite of all my fame and glamour, he was far superior. I would never have had the guts to do the same, if given the same circumstances. It requires a totally self-confident person with a lot of deep strength. My husband is a man with no complexes whatsoever. When I was expecting my first child, Amiya Chakraborty died. That was the only time I ever brought up the subject with my husband after we were married. I asked his permission to go to Amiya’s funeral. My husband was most understanding and insisted that I do the same. That is the only time I ever stepped into Amiya’s house, after I had promised his wife about not meeting him. In comparison to me, there was Meena Kumari who used to be emotionally tortured by a suspicious husband. My husband was God’s special blessing to me.
After my marriage I made a distinct division between my life as an actress, and as a wife. The very fact that I was acting in films only to support my family, helped me always to be very level headed about the whole matter. I never ever got carried away by my fame and success. It was only after I got married, that I started enjoying my work. And everytime I did think I was something, I was rudely brought down to earth by my little son. Once I refused to get him something when he was hungry. I was in a very harassed mood. My son turned around and rebuked me. ‘You might be Usha Kiran the famous actress, but at home you’re just plain old mum to me!’ That really shook me, and I decided that my husband and children would always be my first priority. I thank God for helping me take this decision. Today my children are proud of me of what I am as a wife and mother, more than an actress. Of course, I don’t claim to be a great housewife. In fact, I am not even a good cook. My husband always jokes that I got everything in my life except good food!
Today my life is more or less complete. I still do the occasional film. But it is more out of sheer boredom than anything else. It’s my husband who encourages me to act. Because he says that, ‘an idle mind is a devil’s workshop’. But I am not happy with the acting environment today. People have become so mechanical and cut-and-dried about everything. There are no emotions left, anymore. The younger lot of actresses are so selfish. They are only concerned for themselves. They try to monopolize every shot. In our days, there was so much genuine warmth and consideration. We would never try to hog the show. I am trying to adopt to the new style of working.
My children are my joy. My son is happily married in Nasik. They have a daughter as well. My Tanvi also eloped and married like me. Actually our initial objection was only because Baba was a Muslim and connected with films. Being an old-fashioned mother, I was very strict and protective about my Tanvi. I wanted her to get married to a Maharashtrian Brahmin just like her parents and brother did. But she rebelled and did otherwise. Over the years I have forgotten all about religion and my initial objections. Baba is a very fine husband to my daughter. I am really proud of him. My daughter is happy and so am I. Her in-laws treat her very well.
I have no complaints whatsoever. But I must admit that today, I’m plagued with loneliness. My nest is empty. But I thank God that at least my Tanvi is married and stays close by. And an occasional visit to my neighbour Dilip Kumar is squeezed in once in a while. A very fine actor.
I have just finished my autobiography in Marathi. And if given a chance, I’d choose to be an actress all over again.
Tanvi Azmi (Saunhita Kher) on her mother
My first encounter with mom’s career was when I was 12 years old. Right up to then, I don’t think it registered that mom was an actress. Because after I was born, she totally quit till I was 12. When I first went with her, I was totally fascinated with what I saw. The kind of respect she received, the camera, the lighting, the entire glamour world. I saw mom in a new light. I think the film’s name was Bawarchi. Up to then, I thought she was just another mother and wife. In my later years, I really grew to admire and respect mom for the way she had handled her home. Because in spite of being a famous actress, she quit at her peak to have me and devoted her entire self to running the household. Everything was run very smoothly and on time. I don’t want to take names, but I had a few close encounters in my childhood, with a lot of star children in Pali Hill, who were so neglected and lonely. I thank God for mom all over again.
These qualities in mom go on to make her a great lady, more than an actress. Even where the marriage is concerned, though my mom likes to give the entire credit to my father, a great deal of contribution has also come from her. This too I realized, only in maturity. When I was young, I thought my dad was totally dominated by mom. When we kids were late or we had done something that we shouldn’t have done, it was always my mom who pulled us up for it. She was the strict one, the disciplinarian. Dad was soft, kind and gentle. But it was only years later, that we realized that it was dad who was behind our upbringing. He was the one who let mummy do all the dirty work of reprimanding us.
Even where their own marriage was concerned, dad had set some very unspoken, unseen rules which mom never told us about. So although she was the temperamental one, losing her temper easily, it was dad who was the silent law. And mom adjusted to dad beautifully. Can you imagine, that when they were married dad was a nobody compared to mom? He used to be called Mr. Usha Kiran! I think that was really killing. But it was dad’s supreme confidence and strength in himself that made him take it so well. He used to laugh it off. Today, he has earned the respect and admiration of all of mom’s friends and filmi colleagues. Today, she’s known as Mrs. Kher.
My parents, especially my mother, are my biggest fans. My mom thinks that I’m a better actress than her. But she feels that I’m too laid back and unambitious. Well actually, for me it is just a pastime. For her it was sheer livelihood. She’s one of the most large hearted, generous people I’ve ever seen. All through my growing up years, my parents have played foster parents to hoards of relatives. I wish I could be even one per cent of the human being that she is. And most of all today, by God’s grace, all the initial objections to my marriage, are all smoothened out… The Azmis and the Khers, are like one big family! (As told to Moni Mathai Singh in 1990)