By N. Niranjan Nikam
Star of Mysore (SOM): Very few heroines have had the opportunity to be paired with top stars in the country and you name the leading actors of your time you have acted with them. The list includes MGR, Rajkumar, N.T. Rama Rao, Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, Kalyan Kumar, Dilip Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Sunil Dutt to name a few. How did all this happen?
Saroja Devi: Those days you did not need any recommendation. Tell me what is the name of this area?
Saroja Devi: The studios were as big as this area. Almost all the studios were as huge. Vahini Studios was one of the top ones. If there were eight floors, in all the eight, shooting would be going on. If I was shooting in one floor, in other floor NTR or Nageswara Rao would be shooting. In the break they would come and watch us from a distance. They would enquire, ‘who is the heroine?’ They would watch us acting. And they would ask somebody nearby, ‘how does she act, does she create any problems?’ And the reply would be no, no, she is a very dedicated artiste. Immediately, they would recommend that in their next film they wanted me.
There were recording studios also in the same place. P. Susheela would be recording there and she sang for many of my films. During breaks I would ask who is recording. They would tell Susheela. We would just walk up to the building without bothering to use the car. After she finished her singing or the music director called for a break, I would invite her ‘Susheela come let us have lunch.’ Hence, there was great camaraderie those days among all the actors, singers, musicians even as they watched us perform regularly in the studios. This is very much unlike today where they have to go in search of roles and ask for chance.
So the movies in different languages, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi would all be shot in different studios at the same time and Madras was the leading studio centre. That is how NTR spotted me and cast me in his own movie Seetha Rama Kalyana. One day MGR came and saw me acting in a Kannada movie. He enquired ‘who is this girl?’ He was told that I was from Bengaluru. He was producing a film called Nadodi Manan and he cast me. Hence, there was no need for any recommendation.
Even the press people would come there and watch us shoot. They would watch the scenes and write, “Saroja Devi is working in this picture, she spoke to us and her character and acting is so good.”
SOM: Bhairappa, your father was in the Police Department. He asked you to learn dancing and encouraged you to take up acting as a career. This was at a time when acting was considered an undignified profession, especially for women. How did you overcome this prejudice and hang-ups?
Saroja Devi: What you say is correct. Even I did not want to act in films. I wanted to be a teacher. But it was my mother Rudramma who wanted me to dance and act. She told me ‘You act in one film and if you don’t like it then you can go back to school.’
SOM: Till what class did you study?
Saroja Devi: (Smiles wistfully) I have studied only till fifth standard and I still feel that loss. I always wanted to be well educated. Now-a-days the children are admitted to English medium schools but those days there was no such compulsions and we had to study in Kannada medium schools.
Many may mistake me but I strongly feel that artistes should know English because they should at least understand to read the accounts. Otherwise many of us have been taken for a ride. Only because I know English I can converse with you. Besides, since I was working in other language films I needed to learn English and somehow I managed.
After I got married to Harsha (Shriharsha), he saw to it that I was comfortable throughout my life because he knew the predicament of artistes who have to live without money and literally walk like a beggar on the road. He always said, ‘My wife Mrs. Harsha should always move around in a car and live in a big bungalow. She should never stretch her hand for seeking but instead her hand should always give.’ He has done so much for me. I consider him my God and it is very difficult to get a person like him in my life.
However, it is the fate of a few women especially film artistes that they do not get good husbands. Men come into their lives only to snatch away their money. I think it is their destiny and I feel sad for such people.
Luckily for me, my mother was an intelligent woman and so was my husband. Those days during the peak of my career I had not seen a one hundred rupee note. My mother would manage all the accounts. I never demanded anything for myself nor did I have any desire. If my mother wanted me to wear a particular saree or jewellery I would wear it. If she wanted me to put on the bindi or tie two plaits, I would do it without a murmur. That is how I was brought up and till today I am like that.
SOM: But how did you overcome the stigma of entering a so-called undignified profession?
Saroja Devi: This is a lesson for everyone. My parents did not care about the image of the profession. My mother always said, it is very difficult to earn a good name in a profession which is considered to be slimy. My mother told me, ‘You have come to this line. Do not wear ugly clothes or do ugly love scenes. You must do very dignified acting and always be called a ‘Gaurava Kalavide’ (honourable artiste).
And after I started doing well in the cinema industry those who were calling it a dishonourable profession started respecting it. Then others also started sending their children to cinema. Not once did people comment, ‘Chi, look how indecently or provocatively she has acted.’
SOM: MGR even today evokes great emotions in Tamil Nadu. But you were from Karnataka. How did the Tamilians accept you as a heroine and what made you and him a super-hit pair in 26 films?
Saroja Devi: Because I worked in more films with him and all were hit films like Anbe Vaa, Enga Veettu Pillai, Padagoti. Even I have acted in very good films with Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, NTR. And in one particular movie ‘Aatma Balam’ with Nageswara Rao, the song ‘Chitapata chinukulu padutu’ (she sings a few lines) became a super-hit song all over the world.
Sometimes when I see all these songs on TV, tears start flowing without my knowledge. The reason is because those were the days when I spent more time with all these great heroes on the sets than at home. I would go home for only two or three hours to sleep. The rest of the time either I would be with MGR or Sivaji Ganesan, Dilip Kumar even other artistes like M.V. Rajamma or even the Press. I spent the better part of my life with such people than I spent on my own and that is the attachment I have for the industry.
Just this morning I was telling somebody about legendary actor Ashwath who struggled throughout his life.
SOM: The innocence of black and white films, the acting skills though very dramatic at times, the simple dance movements, melodious songs are all a distant memory today. As a highly acclaimed actress, do you think anything has changed in today’s cinema?
Saroja Devi: Let me put it this way. Those days in the cinema hall, when they showed a long shot, we would immediately say, “Oh, namma Rajkumaravaru barthayidare’ (Our Rajkumar is coming). But in today’s cinema till they come close we cannot make out who it is. Again when the camera panned at a distance on a heroine and slowly moved towards the screen, immediately we would say look our favourite heroine Bhanumathi, Anjali Devi or Janaki or Jayanthi is coming.
Probably if today’s actors are given more opportunities may be they will also become like the earlier legends. But the producers do not give them chances. Another thing today is, most of the heroines do not speak Kannada themselves. I do not know whether they are not encouraged to speak or the producers do not make the effort to make them to talk in Kannada or the heroines themselves feel instead of putting so much effort, why not go and act in some other movie. It all looks very clumsy to me. But during my time I made all the efforts to learn the language myself.
Times have changed and you cannot force even your own children to do anything. My son Gautam Ramachandra (named after MGR) who is studying Environmental Science in Holland came home recently. I asked him to get married. But will he listen to me? My daughter’s name is Indira Parameshwari. Her first name is after Indira Gandhi, my favourite leader and the second name is after Goddess Chamundeshwari. All I want is my children to bring us good name. Just because I am Saroja Devi I cannot expect everyone to listen to me.