Lalita Pawar: Tribute to her on her death anniversary

Lalita Pawar
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Camil Parkhe
Pune, 24th February 2024: When I went out for the interview that day, I was a little scared. This is usually not the case when I am going for an interview or a press conference. A person – especially a political VVIP or a celebrity – holding a press conference is sometimes arrogant and tough to handle for a novice reporter. When asked a difficult or awkward question, the person may tend to insult the questioner instead of answering the question. But that does not necessarily cause us journalists to panic. The reason why I was scared of conducting this interview was the image and persona of the person whom I was going to interview that day.

The person I was to interview for the Unique Features agency that day was no other than veteran actress Lalita Pawar.

This incident must have happened around 1992. The day before, I had spoken to the actress on her residence landline telephone and fixed an appointment with her for the interview. Speaking at the time, she had given her home address. ‘My flat is on the ground floor and it will not be difficult to find,’ she said. She sounded affectionate and caring.

Nevertheless, my anxiety persisted.
I was going to interview a talented and versatile actress who had acted in nearly 700 Marathi and Hindi films and had created a special image of herself among the film loving audience in the country. In fact, her very image among the millions of people who watch movies was the reason why I was afraid of meeting her for an interview.

Hindi film actors like Jeevan, Prem Chopra, Pran or Madan Puri, who have played the roles of villains, won the admiration of the film audience in the 70s, the 80s and the 90s. People used to think that these villains were behaving like that not only in reel life but also in real life. They were playing their roles so naturally and convincingly.

Nilu Phule has successfully played many villainous roles in Marathi films: I remember once Nilu Phule came to the Pune office of The Indian Express for some news. Nilubhau met reporters after meeting the Pune Resident Editor Prakash Kardalay along with former Nagari Sanghatana’s municipal corporator and socialist leader Madhukar Nirfarake. I was staring at Nilu Phule as he spoke about a civic issue. That was the exact way he used to speak on the movie screen, the way he spoke with a rounded mouth and the identical gestures! Many movie buffs at that time used to think that Nilubhau, who played the role of a cunning leader or a villain in the movies, would be the same in real life.

Amjad Khan, who played the role of Gabbar in the legendary film ‘Sholay’, was probably the first villain in a Hindi film, who was loved, admired rather than hated by the audience in the Hindi film industry.

The film roles done by Lalita Pawar, whom I was going to meet, were mainly of villainous tendencies like those played by Jeevan, Prem Chopra and Pran. In Marathi and Hindi films, she had played several roles of a cunning and scheming mother-in-law or other personality.

The changed look of her eye due to an accident had in a way complemented her in all villainous roles. In Ramanand Sagar’s ‘Ramayana’ serial, Lalita Pawar played the role of Kaikeyi Rani’s maid Manthara. This role took her to every Indian home.

Actors who have acted in many Hindi box office hits, despite their small roles, were made memorable by the popular film ‘Sholay’ and the ‘Mahabharata’ and ‘Ramayana’ serials. If we talk about Ramayana, we can give the example of Jayashree Gadkar, who plays Kausalya Rani, Padma Khanna who plays Kaikeyi or Varsha Usgaonkar, who plays Abhimanyu’s wife Uttara in Mahabharata.

So now I was walking to the house of Lalita Pawar, an actress with a notorious image like Manthara. That was the reason I was highly scared.

It must have been about 10.30 a.m. when I rang the bell of her basement flat. In a few moments, Lalita Pawar opened the door. I kept on staring at her. She was exactly the same person I had watched in so many Hindi and Marathi movies. She had a partially closed eye, a special style of adjusting one end of the saree while conversing, and an unusual agility in movement despite her advanced age. After welcoming me into the flat and asking me to be comfortable, she rushed inside and brought cold lemonade. Most likely it was March or April during the hot season in Pune. As the actress had disappeared in the kitchen for a while, I quickly surveyed the flat. The hall had minimal and simple furniture. Lalita Pawar had very recently shifted her residence from Mumbai to Pune. She was living alone in this flat.

My fright had substantially reduced as I sipped the fruit juice. I was shocked when she started talking to me in Marathi very informally, as if she was talking to younger members in her family or other relatives or acquaintances. ‘Arre, tula mee sangate… (Hey, let me tell you…).’ There was no formal ‘Mr. Camil’.

Even though I was in my thirties and Lalitaji was in her eighties, I, as a journalist, certainly did not expect such a ‘singular’ address in our first visit. Soon I realised that as a senior actress, Lalita Pawar must be addressing in a similar manner many of the Hindi film’s veterans by their first names, like Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Arun Govil, Amitabh Bachchan, et al when the lights and camera were not on them!

As I pulled the notepad out of my bag, she started talking about herself, about her film career and the large number of film personalities with whom she had worked. But before our conversation could take the form of an interview, she visited the kitchen again and placed in front of me a plate full of chakali, laddu and pharsan. Lalitaji’s hospitality was pleasing for me, who was then living on a monthly cot-basis in a lodge as a bachelor at Deccan Gymkhana in Pune. The visit and her affectionate behaviour drastically changed the image of her as a villainous character in my mind.

The interview may have lasted for almost an hour. Lalitaji evoked many memories of her long, nearly seven-decade long Bollywood career. Who will forget Lalita Pawar, who played the role of a village woman who travels in a bus with a hen in her basket in the 1970s comedy film titled `Bombay To Goa’, produced by Mehmood and starring Amitabh Bachchan and Aruna Irani?

In my journalism career, I have never worked on the film, theatre or the entertainment beat; I am also not a movie bluff. In this interview, Lalitaji shared many experiences she had while working in Raj Kapoor’s films ‘Shri 420’ and ‘Anari’. In ‘Shri 420’, she told me what efforts she had taken to get the most suitable saree for the role of a banana-seller ‘Gangamai’, who cared for the homeless Raj Kapoor in the movie.

As the interview went on, she often interrupted to insist that I finish the laddu, chakali and other food items on the plate. ‘Arre, I have made it all myself. Don’t be shy. You are young, eat everything,’ she kept on repeating.

In my four-decade career as a reporter, I have always remembered the phrase, ‘Hey, you are young, eat everything,’ addressed to me by two VVIPs. One of them was Goa, Daman and Diu Chief Minister Pratapsingh Rane, who entertained us visiting journalists at his ancestral home in Sattari in Goa in the early 1980s. After we arrived in Sattari in a Goa Information Department vehicle to visit an irrigation project there, Chief Minister Rane sat in the driver’s seat in his personal Gypsy jeep to take us journalists to his house. There Rane personally served the hot snacks to us and chided me not to be shy.

The second VVIP to coax me to finish the eatables on the plate before me was Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh. The prime minister urged me to have tea and biscuits in the VVIP cabin at Lohegaon Airport in Pune in 1990. VP Singh was at that time travelling along with Maharashtra Janata Dal president and Socialist leader Mrinal Gore in an Indian Airlines flight (not a special plane entitled for a prime minister!) as he was on his party’s bypoll campaign tour.

As I said goodbye to her after the interview, my earlier negative image of Lalita Pawar disappeared totally. The image of a scheming Manthara in the ‘Ramayana’ serial was now replaced by the image of the affectionate Gangamai in the film ‘Shri 420’.

(Camil Parkhe is a senior journalist based in Pune. He started his journalism career in Goa and has worked in various newspapers in different capacities.)

Camil Parkhe