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Deepti Naval writes to Sadhana, goes silent with Sharmila

In an excerpt from her book about her childhood, actor Deepti Naval recalls how she was film-crazy in her school days

Deepti Naval at 16. Image courtesy Aleph Book Company
Deepti Naval at 16. Image courtesy Aleph Book Company

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Sitting at my writing desk in the Green Room one day I pulled out a white sheet of paper and started writing a letter to Sadhana, requesting her for a fan photograph. For days I waited anxiously and ran out to the thhada every now and then to check the letterbox and see if there was an envelope from Bombay addressed to Deepti Naval. I cannot describe how elated I was when the envelope finally arrived. I quickly tore it open and pulled out from within, a beautiful black and white photograph of Sadhana, one from the film Mere Mehboob, where she has a tinsel veil over her head and is smiling, the fringe on her forehead intact. I still have that photograph. I noticed how her eyeliner was painted out longer than her upper eyelid to make her appear doe-eyed! Sadhana’s photograph was the only fan photograph I ever asked for, and I still preserve it.

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Next, we saw Sadhana sitting at a black piano in a glittering white chiffon sari, giving her slant glances to Rajendra Kumar and smiling her bewitching smile. When Arzoo released in the freezing cold January of 1965, my destination became clear to me. I will go to Bombay, join films, and become the next Sadhana. I was that crazy about her. I wanted to fall in love like she did in Arzoo, and when love didn’t work out and I’d go into heartbreak mode, I wanted to sing a ‘Bedardi baalma tujhko mera man yaad karta hai’ just like Sadhana did, walking around the pine needles and orange chinar leaves in Kashmir.

There’s a picture of me with my classmates from the farewell party at the end of school where I’m in the same white outfit that Sadhana wears in the song. I managed to convince Mama to get me an identical outfit stitched for the event. I turned up in a tight fitting white churidar kameez, and on top I have the same flowy cape made out of white Leela lace. My hair is braided in a single plait, à la Sadhana style, and I actually managed to look like a startled version of Sadhana in Arzoo. Only the Sadhana Cut is missing; a thing that perhaps got left behind in childhood.

‘A Country Called Childhood: A Memoir’, by Deepti Naval, published by Aleph Book Company, 388 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>999
‘A Country Called Childhood: A Memoir’, by Deepti Naval, published by Aleph Book Company, 388 pages, 999

I was now in the fourteenth year of my life and in the eighth standard when I got to see a huge number of films. Asha Parekh, Sadhana, Sharmila Tagore, and Mumtaz had taken over from the earlier galaxy of stars on the big screen. Among all the films I saw that year, there were two films that affected me deeply. Anupama was one of them.

The Sharmila Tagore–Dharmendra starrer Anupama released in the year 1966. And for a whole season I did not speak, at least I tried my best not to, because Sharmila Tagore did not utter a word in the entire movie. She only communicated through her eyes. Wasn’t that incredible? Her furtive glances were so dramatic . . . I loved it!

Didi was amused; she kind of gauged what was going on in my silly head. She knew I’d seen the film and was affected by it, but she wasn’t sure if this was for real. I’d spend hours sitting up on the terrace, in silent mode. Mama would call me, I’d hear her, sure I would, but I wouldn’t answer. Instead, I’d quietly walk down the two floors, stealthily come and stand in the kitchen door doe-eyed and all that, waiting to be noticed. Didi would laugh, but my mother was annoyed. One day, I recall, I’m up on the barsati and Mama comes up fuming. She stands at the entrance door, glaring at me.

‘Good Heavens! Did you not hear me calling you? Can’t you for God’s sake answer me? What on earth are you doing sitting up here when I’m looking for you all over the place?’

I look at my mother wide-eyed, as if I haven’t seen this woman before.

‘For heaven’s sake! Answer me!’

I quietly get up without changing my expression, and without making eye contact with this beautiful woman called Mama, walk past her and start to descend the stairs ever so daintily. So serious was I about emulating in real life the Sharmila Tagore of Anupama, though my state of mind was more like Dharmendra’s: ‘Ya dil ki suno duniya vaalo, ya mujhko abhi chup rehne do . . .’

Then I was back, on the swing, this time hissing under my breath, ‘Kuch dil ne kaha . . . kuchh bhi nahin . . .’

That euphoria remained all season. The whole summer I had not spoken. By autumn, as the leaves in Company Bagh turned to brown, we were jabbering away again tucked in our razais, discussing details of the mystery of Teesri Manzil and the romance blossoming between Shammi Kapoor and Asha Parekh, dancing at the Rock ’n’ Roll Club, doing the Shake Dance to the loud and hypnotic ‘Aaja aaja . . . main hoon pyaar tera!’, a challenge to the central nervous system: ‘O aaja . . . a a aaja . . . a a a aaja . . . a a aaja . . . a a a aaja . . . a a aaja . . . a a a aaja . . . a a aaaaaaaa!

Incidentally, this was the number I gyrated to in my film Chashme Buddoor.

Of course, as the years rolled on, and I grew up to be a young woman, I would cause my mother much angst, but at this time, even through those non-communicative years, as I sat on the rolled-up mattress gazing at the clouds with Mama glaring at me from the barsati door, there was much beauty in life!

The other film that stands out in my memory chart is Teesri Kasam, the Raj Kapoor–Waheeda Rehman starrer that released in the same year. We all walked to Ashoka Cinema: Mama, Piti, Gyaniji, Didi, Gugu, and I. I remember on my return from the show, the whole family was chatting about the impact of the movie, but I walked up ahead, all by myself, wanting to be alone, thinking about the ending of the film. My heart kept saying, ‘Why . . . why?’ at Waheeda Rehman’s decision to go back to her nautanki in the end. It pained me, the fatalistic ending. Shailendra’s words haunted me for days.

Sajanva bairi ho gaye hamaar . . . chithiya ho to har koi banthhe, bhaag na baanthhe koye . . . karamva bairi ho gaye hamaar . . .

The depth in Mukesh’s voice had touched a chord, and was leading me to myself, a voice that made me contemplate the passage of time. These were songs that made me look at life from the far end, not what I was living now, but what it would be at the end of the journey . . . it was making me look back at things I hadn’t yet lived. Teesri Kasam had quietened me down. It made me reflect, and I started an inward journey.

Excerpted with permission from ‘A Country Called Childhood: A Memoir’, by Deepti Naval, published by Aleph Book Company.

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