by Harihar Swarup January 2011
Saroja Devi: An actor of substance
One can never call B. Saroja Devi, decorated with the prestigious NTR (N.T. Rama Rao) National Award, a forgotten actress though she is 73. She acted with all the legends of Indian film industry. Talk about them and she gets energised. MGR (M.G. Ramachandran) was her guru. “I have not seen a more generous person than him”, she says. She acted, besides MGR, with two other heroes in Tamil those days Sivaji Ganeshan and Gemini Ganeshan — and also with two stars of Kannada cinema, Dr Rajkumar and Telugu superstar NTR. To Hindi superstars, Dilip Kumar and Shammi Kapoor, she showed her supremacy. She acted in more than 170 films.

Initially, Saroja Devi, also winner of the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award, wanted to be a teacher. As a little girl, she loved her school, St Theresa’s. She was taken in by the teachings of Jesus. Discipline, sincerity, respect to elders, love for fellow beings...all this was taught to her in her moral science class and all these virtues became part of her life. “If I became the most sought-after actress and was known for my discipline, I owe it to my foundation”, she says.

Like every girl of her age, Saroja Devi too sang and danced, helped her mother Rudramma with every chore till one day the senior actor-raconteur Honnappa Bhagavathar spotted her and offered a role in films.

She was not interested, she told her mother but Rudramma was hardly the one to relent. She ensured that her daughter accepted the offer and there she was, acting as the lead in Mahakavi Kalidasa. That was the year 1955. Those days, films were made in Madras studios, and she was spotted by MGR, Sivaji Ganeshan and offers from Tamil started flowing in. She told her mother she wanted to stop acting and go back to school, but that was not to be.

Her mother was a major force in her life. “I can’t recall a single occasion, when I had the courage to go against her wishes”, she says. Rudramma was very pragmatic and a woman of enormous foresight. She took care of her daughter’s call sheets, her schedule, what she wore, what she ate, and her hairstyle. Rudramma also ensured that Saroja got an encouraging gift each time her films ran for 100 days, or 25 weeks, or won a National Award. Way back in 1966, Rudramma imported a blue Chevrolet for her daughter from the United States. When the film Sasuraal was a huge hit, she gifted her daughter a gold chain; it’s the same one that Rajkumar put around her neck in the film Bhagyavantaru. “My mother was my universe, and to this day, I need someone to tell me what sari I have to wear. I am a very dependent person...”, she says. By that time school was completely out of her life and she went on to become the highest paid actor. With the film Kalyana Parisu becoming a big hit, she shot to fame and began to work four shifts everyday. She had no time for other activities. In between, she would just shut her eyes and go to sleep. And she literally starved to achieve those enticing body contours in the absence of gyms and celebrity workouts.

One free afternoon, Saroja Devi drove off her blue Chevrolet to her aunt’s house and a jyotshi (soothsayer) came straight to her and predicted that she was going to get married in a few months to a man who works with metals. Initially bemused, she found herself crying, assuming that she was going to marry a blacksmith. Soon her marriage was fixed to Sri Harsha, a mechanical engineer. She describes her late husband animatedly.

Soon after her marriage, Saroja Devi ran into serious income-tax problem and her entire property was attached. “Overnight, from the peak of glamour I had sunk to the bottom. I had come to believe that everything was over for me. But it was my husband who brought me out of the mess. If I am living peacefully, without any financial woes, it is because of him”, she says.

Saroja Devi is known for her philanthropic and social consciousness. She organised many endowments in the name of her late husband, daughter Bhuvaneshwari and her mother and has constituted charitable trusts, rehabilitation centres and health programmes.

Source: The Tribune, Chandigarh, India

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