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On the summit of success Deepa Ganesh.
No, no that was too long ago. I can’t remember all that,” is B. Saroja Devi’s swift reply, when you ask her about her early days. For this veteran actor who has had over five decades in the film industry, it’s not so much about forgetfulness as it is about what she holds on to as a lived past. Within seconds of having turned her back on her distant past, memories come cascading; those that proclaim a glorious, successful era. The drawing room, the verandah and the corridors, of her huge, stately bungalow, have etched in them stories of her illustrious days. “Switch on the lights,” she instructs, and glass panels lined up with striking, black and white pictures of the doe-eyed beauty beam at you from all sides. Quite the queen of south Indian films, Saroja Devi acted in over 180 films and in Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi languages.
“I wanted to be a teacher,” says a fulfilled B. Saroja Devi, winner of the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award. As a little girl, she loved her school, St. Theresa’s. “I was taken in by the teachings of Jesus. Discipline, sincerity, respect for elders, love for fellow beings… all this was taught in our moral science class and it became a part of my life. If I became the most sought after actor and was known for my discipline, I owe it to my early foundation,” she reasons. Like every girl of her age,
she too sang and danced, helped her mother with everyday chores, till one day, the senior actor-raconteur Honnappa Bhagavathar spotted her and offered her a role in the film. “‘I’m not interested’, I told my mother…,” but Rudramma was hardly the one to relent. She ensured that Saroja Devi took up the offer and there she was, acting as the lead in “Mahakavi Kalidasa” (1955). Two more films followed. “In those days, films were made in Madras studios, and I was spotted by MGR, Sivaji Ganesan and offers from Tamil started flowing in. I had told my mother that I want to stop acting and go back to school, but that was not to be…,” remembering how things went completely out of her hands.
“My mother was a major force in my life. I can’t recall a single occasion, when I had the courage to go against her wishes.” Rudramma was very pragmatic and a woman of enormous foresight. She took care of her call sheets, her schedule, what she wore, what she ate, her hairstyle… Rudramma, extremely fond of her youngest daughter, also made sure that Saroja Devi got an encouraging gift each time her films ran for 100 days, or 25 weeks, or won a National Award.
“Way back in 1966, my doughty mother imported a blue Chevrolet for me from America. When ‘Sasuraal’ became a huge hit, she gifted me a gold chain… It’s the same one that Rajkumar puts around my neck in ‘Bhagyavantaru’,” she narrates. “My mother was my universe, and to this day, I need someone to tell me what sari I have to wear. I’m a very dependent person…,” she adds.
School went completely out of her life, and she went on to become the highest paid actor (Tamil film industry used to pay her four and a half lakhs!). With “Kalyana Parisu” becoming a big hit, she shot to popularity and began to work four shifts everyday. “I had no time. In between shots, I just shut my eyes and went to sleep,” she recalls. And she literally starved to achieve those enticing body contours, in the absence of gyms and celebrity workouts. “My waist was so tiny in Amarashilpi Jakanacharya, and I worked very hard for it.”
Saroja Devi acted with all the legends of Indian film industry. Talk about them and she gets energized. “MGR was my guru, I haven’t seen a more generous person. And Sivaji Ganeshan he was so disciplined. Acting was like worship for him, always punctual. NTR played mythological characters to such perfection. And Gemini and Shammi Kapoor were such fun to be with. Sunil Dutt and Rajkumar, I always saw them as true blue Indians, full of right values and charged with a nationalistic fervour. What can I say about Rajkumar, who was my very dear friend? We both shared a very special bond and sought each other’s opinion on many issues…,” says Saroja Devi.
One free afternoon Saroja Devi had driven off in her blue Chevrolet to her aunt’s house in Kanakapura and a budbudike dasayya (folk soothsayer) came straight up to her and pronounced that she was going to get married in a few months to a man who worked with metals. Initially bemused, Saroja Devi soon found herself crying assuming that she was going to marry a blacksmith. Of course he wasn’t a tattletale; soon her marriage was fixed to Sri Harsha, a mechanical engineer with Seimens. “My mother was impressed by his good looks and decided that he was just the right man for me,” Saroja Devi describes her late husband animatedly. But very soon after marriage, she ran into serious income tax problems and her entire property was attached. “Overnight, from the peak of glamour I had sunk to the bottom of an abyss! I had almost come to believe that everything was over for me. But it was my husband who brought me out of this mess. If I’m living peacefully, without any financial woes, it’s because of him,” she says, reminded of the penury in which many brilliant actors of yesteryear lived and died. In fact, it may be wrong not to mention that Saroja Devi has lent a helping hand to many in the industry.
Every big award has come Saroja Devi’s way. She has been the head of National Award jury twice. And has received an honorary doctorate from Bangalore University.
The phone hasn’t stopped ringing ever since the award has been announced. Saroja Devi too is very happy to receive the award. However, she is sad that filmmakers no more write roles for actors like her: “Everywhere I go, people speak of Kittur Channamma and Mallamana Pavada… why can’t they write another role like that for me? Why do they create characters only for Amitabh Bachchan?”
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