Cast in a different mould
An actor who transcended the boundaries of the medium, Rohini Hattangadi reflects on her eventful career.
I never took acting as a means to reach somewhere.
The Drama queen Rohini Hattangadi
There are actors and there are performers. But then there are those who combine the best of both. Rohini Hattangadi is one of them. Still shining on the theatre circuit, Hattangadi is a name to reckon with on the film and television circuit as well. Her serial “Char Divas Sasuche” on ETV Marathi is running for the last nine years and her character Ashalata Deshmukh has become a household name. Recently she returned to Doordarshan after many years with “Karam Yudh”. But for a large section of audiences, she is still the Ba of “Gandhi”. Let's rewind.
“I just wanted to be an actor. Unlike many others I didn't join theatre or National School Drama with the hope that it will be a stepping stone for cinema. If I had such plans I would have joined FTII which is in my hometown Pune. My heart was in theatre because I learnt from my father (Anant Oak) that real acting is learnt through theatre. That's why I came all the way to Delhi to join NSD.” She learnt from the best in the business, Ebrahim Alkazi, and topped her batch. “Naseer and Om were my seniors. One day Om told me that Saeed Mirza is making a film and he is looking for a girl for a small role. That's how I got ‘Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastan'. I played the sister of Dilip Dhawan. I had four-five scenes. It was a new experience for me. In theatre you develop a connection with the audience. It is a kind of give and take. When you spend years on the stage you start getting live feedback from the audience and mould your performance accordingly. Some people start crying loudly, what we call melodrama, to get response from the audience. I believe in internalising and then expect the audience to understand the nuances. Once a director told me to cry but I said when my acting can make the audience cry why I do I need to waste my tears!”
In cinema, she says, the challenge lies in maintaining the continuity. “The director could start shooting the fifth scene first. So while giving take for the scene I need to know what I am expected to do in the first four scenes. Sometimes it gets quite confusing and on television you never know when the channel will change the story or dump the character!” She says her character Ashalata is positive throughout and combines the best of professional and homemaker. “The series has completed 2300 episodes and is going strong. I don't know what forces Hindi satellite channels to indulge in so much negativity.”
Coming back to her career, Hattangadi says, “Somehow Saeed Mirza started to see me as his lucky charm. He cast me for just one scene in ‘Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Ata Hai'. I was fine with it as I was getting an opportunity to spend time with friends. The bread and butter was coming from Marathi theatre productions which I was doing with my husband (Jayadev Hattangadi).”
However, “Gandhi” changed it all. “We didn't have a phone. One day I got a telegram from Dolly Thakore that Richard Attenborough is in the city and is casting for the film. Go and meet him. I was reluctant but went. He told Dolly to ask me to lose weight and come to London for audition. I didn't have that kind of money to spend on losing weight at a Peddar Road clinic. Again Dolly insisted, so I did. Then I didn't have a passport. Somehow it was managed and I went to London. There I saw Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil and John Hurt and Bhakti Barve were already there to audition for the role of Gandhi and Kasturba.” There she realised the scale of the production.
An abiding image of Rohini as Kasturba in “Gandhi”.
“I was pitted opposite Ben Kingsley. We were given the scene where Kasturba refuses to clean the latrine. As a theatre person I had this habit of rehearsing my lines before going on stage. I was anxious as to how to approach Ben. Fortunately, Ben was also from theatre. When he said can we do our lines before the audition, I felt so relieved. Sir Richard took three, four shots from different angles and next day he announced the results. Even before we got to know, my good friend Smita was already sure that I will get the role.”
Hattangadi admits she didn't know much about Gandhi and Kasturba before the film. “I knew Gandhi only as a freedom fighter. It is only after reading his autobiography that I realised what a man he was. Very little is written about Kasturba. I found two books on her, ‘Hamari Ba' and ‘Ba Bapu Ki Sheetal Chhaya Mein'.” Today Hattangadi is almost an authority on Kasturba as her theatre production “Jagdamba” runs to houseful shows.
“As Harilal says in the play, without Kasturba there was no Gandhi. The film didn't go into that much detail but Kasturba never liked Gandhi's experiments with his sexuality and made it clear to him. However, as shown in the latrine scene the two were made for each other. Remember she was an uneducated girl from a village in Gujarat who not only learnt the British ways of using cutlery in South Africa because her husband expected her to, but also followed his principles, like cleaning latrines, which is not a normal practice even now. Gandhi also realised that he can't take her for granted.” She says she was never in awe of Ben. “After all I was trained by Alkazi sahib! For both of us the most difficult part was to learn to operate the charkha and talk simultaneously. We had to get it absolutely right, as this was one of the most crucial scenes to make it look authentic.”
However, “Gandhi” increased her screen age manifold. She was only 27 when the film released. “Just after ‘Gandhi', I was called by James Ivory for a role in ‘Heat & Dust'. When I went to meet him, he was shocked as he expected a 55-56-year-old woman. He said you are so young, how did Richard make you look so old. I said he used make-up. Ivory didn't want to use make up.”
After working in such a huge production, Hattangadi started expecting high standards in Indian films as well. “I would feel what are they doing…can't do it properly! But as I said I never took acting as a means to reach somewhere. So after ‘Gandhi' I didn't hire an agent to get me work in Hollywood which I sometimes feel I should have, but it was not my priority then. I started my family and realised that theatre won't be enough to make ends meet.”
Desperate to get some work she accepted “Zakhmi Sher” where on the first day she was shocked to know that she has to play Jeetendra's mother. “I was told that you have three-four scenes as a young girl and later you will play the mother of the hero. I didn't realise that it is their way to explain a mother's role. Later I was told similar stories to play Dharmendra's mother as well. Even Jeetendra was shocked. I was at least 12 years younger to him.”
Mahesh Bhatt's “Saransh” consolidated her image as the mother. “I did get films like ‘Party' and ‘Arth' but mostly I got mother's role.” She never felt like commenting on the acting standards of Bollywood stars? “How could I when I myself was also doing films like ‘Tamacha'. Yes, once I asked Amitabh Bachchan how did he manage two different levels of performance in ‘Shahenshah' and ‘Agneepath' (in both the films she played his mother). He said in the former the subject wanted the audience to have some fun and forget, the latter expect them to sit up and take note. My attempt is to be convincing in both. As actors we keep on hoping to get that one good role, but at times we have to go through a lot of trash to get there.”
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