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Interview by By NITHA SUBRAMANIAM
She won India’s National Award for her first film, Mahakavi Kalidas.
She has starred alongside all three leading actors of the 1960s and 70s – Sivaji Ganesan, MGR and Gemini Ganesan.
She was also one of the highest paid actresses, and certainly one of the most memorable faces of South Indian cinema. Not bad for someone who wasn’t even fond of watching movies!
The star, who has acted in Tamil, Telegu, Kannada and Hindi films, revealed that she’d wanted to become a teacher but gave up her dream to pursue her mother’s dream for her instead.“When I was little, people used to notice the mark under my eye and say: ‘She will become someone special.’ Back then, when I used to dance and sing in school, seeing me perform made my mother happy. So when she asked me to become an actress, I couldn’t refuse,” said the actress who was in Kuala Lumpur recently for a live interview on Astro Vaanavil in conjunction with the birthday of the late Indian actor/politician M.G. Ramachandran.
Her eyes lit up when she talked about the actor, her co-star in many films including the hit Nadodi Mannan. “He was such a good human being, you know. MGR is like a God. He is a Theiva Piravi (divine soul),” said Saroja Devi, whose animated expressions befitted the prefix to her name – Abhinaya Saraswathi (goddess of expressions). Asked to compare him to his rivals Sivaji and Gemini, she said: “Sivaji was very sophisticated, Gemini was true to his moniker, Kaadhal Mannan (King Of Romance), while MGR was a very simple man who wanted his films to carry good messages.” Like MGR, Saroja Devi too was selective of her roles.“Storylines are very important. They have to carry good social messages,” stressed the actress who strongly believes in culture and tradition.
It is hardly surprising then that hers was an arranged marriage.“I never met my (late) husband before marriage. He was an engineer in Berlin. Even when the invites had been printed, my mother didn’t allow us to meet. When my mother-in-law suggested we should meet each other, my mother said: ‘Nothing doing. Hasn’t he seen my daughter in the movies?’ I was a superstar, the highest-paid artiste but you can see how my mother was controlling me,” said the actress whose mother tongue is Kannada. Luckily for her fans, her husband didn’t turn out to be quite as controlling, for he allowed her to continue acting, unlike many men in that era.
“It was only after marriage that I finished my 100th film. I also received both the Padmashri and Padmabhushan (India’s highest honours for artistes) then. So many achievements came after marriage – I became the chairperson for film studios and organisations. “Before marriage, I hadn’t even seen a 100 rupee note! Only after marriage my husband taught me everything – about income tax, corporation tax and running a business. Of course, my mother was not happy that I was still working,” she chuckled. “She wanted me to become a good wife and mother.”
Her strict upbringing, and careful choice of decent characters (yes, no swimsuits and skimpy clothes!), might explain why she led a relatively scandalfree life. “On film shoots, my father, mother, brother-in-law, cousin and make-up man would all follow. Tell me, how can any man court me when he has to bypass so many people? My parents were with me all the time. If they couldn’t make it, my sisters or cousins would go with me to the set. Now, I don’t have to worry. Who’s going to chase after me now?” laughed the 60-something actress.
Today, despite having the fame and all that money can buy, Saroja Devi leads a very simple life. She prays, loves to eat rice and sambhar (dhall curry) and holds on to her traditional beliefs. “What God has given is enough. Even if you have 10 cars, you can’t go in all of them at once. And you can’t eat diamonds or gold, after all.”
SAROJA DEVI’S THOUGHTS
On her Hollywood idols: “I like Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren. I met Sophia Loren at a film festival in Russia. She was shooting the film Sunflower then.”
On her favourite actress today: “Radhika. She’s one of the best actresses around. She uses her own voice (and does not resort to dubbing).”
On the current Tamil movies: “There’s no story at all. It’s the same – fighting and revenge. And the ladies are addressed disrespectfully (vaadi or pohdi) by the men.”
On watching her old movies again: “I feel very sad because most of them (her co-stars) are no longer around. When I think about how Sivaji, MGR, Kannambal, Sri Rangarao, M.R. Ratha, S.B. Subbiah, T.S. Balaiya are all gone, tears roll down my cheeks.”
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