Excerpts from a recent email interview

Your romantic scenes were very calculated and studied …

It would be wrong to state that I was calculative in my romantic scenes. During the time I joined films, peculiar and unrealistic romantic scenes were conceived and written, and I felt uncomfortable to perform them. The realistic and subtle romantic scenes were introduced by thinking directors such as Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Nitin Bose. I always took special efforts never to go overboard and appear ridiculous in any of the romantic scenes — be it with Kamini Kaushal, Meena Kumari or Nargis.

Can you explain for us how you shot the climax of Footpath where you break down at your elder brother’s death?

Initially I was not able to get the ideal mood for such a crucial sequence. So I requested director Zia Sarhadi to grant me some time, which he readily did. I spent two days playing cricket at the Ranji Stadium. On the second day, after hitting a boundary, I had a feeling of loneliness. I immediately called Zia Sarhadi and he was ready for the take.

Once in the studio, I broke down without applying any glycerine to my eyes. The shot was okayed in one take.

How did you shift to comedy from playing intense characters?

I adopted a natural inclination to shift to light-hearted characters with Azad, Kohinoor and Ram Aur Shyam. I was tired of repetitive tragedies and it was taking a severe toll on my health. Medical practitioners advised me to experiment with lighter roles and it was a challenge for me to opt for comedy to prove my versatility. By then, Raj Kapoor had already proved he was very effective at tragedy with Jagte Raho and Phir Subah Hogi, and so did Dev Anand with Kalapani and Humdono. It was now my turn to try something different and show I could also perform varied characters.

Who was the playback singer who did maximum justice to you?

Talat Mahmood. With his silken voice and vibrato, he gave the maximum effect to my earlier tragic image and pathos-oriented songs. Mohammed Rafi adapted a natural style of singing for me by the sheer dint of his versatility. Mukesh also sang some brilliant numbers for me.

Did you learn Bengali prior to acting in Paari and Sagina Mahato?

Yes, I did. In this aspect I was guided to a great extent by Bimal Roy, scriptwriter Nabendu Ghosh and Tapan Sinha. It has been my practice never to allow other actors to dub my voice. Only after learning Bengali I was confident enough to accept the two films. I shared a warm rapport with Chabida (Chabi Biswas), Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen.

Your opinion of the present generation of actors?

I, Raj and Dev slogged to reach the top. So did gifted actors such as Shammi Kapoor, Dharmendra, Sanjeev Kumar and Rajesh Khanna. Amitabh Bachchan is the best combination of a star and actor in the past four decades.

Coming to the present generation, I admire Aamir Khan, Abhay Deol and Vidya Balan, in whom I have noticed a lot of potential. Amongst the directors I have high opinion of are Asutosh Gowarikar and Rajkumar Hirani.

Why aren’t viewers emotionally attached to today’s films?

In its centenary year, Indian cinema has matured considerably in technique. Content, unlike in the old days, has taken a backseat. Seldom are films now made on literary classics. The audience sees a film and forgets it quickly. During our days a viewer’s involvement with even an average film was much stronger.

Note: The contents of this article have been changed to delete factual errors

(This article was published on June 28, 2012)
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