A bottle of coke and potato wafers did the trick. For a nine-year-old from a poor family, these were luxuries. And while she was concentrating on wolfing down everything on her plate, Dilip Kumar’s eyes spotted her potential and he called out to her. That little girl was Aruna Irani. Today’s generation might know her as Hansuba from the tele-serial, Sanskaar-Dharohar Apno Ki but she’s the same lady who was one of Amitabh Bachchan’s first leading ladies in Bombay To Goa (1972), who swayed to the beat as Rishi Kapoor sang Main shair to nahin in Bobby (1973) and who played the stern matriarch in Beta (1992).
A veteran of around 400 films, Aruna swerved towards the small screen when roles in films stopped coming her way. She reasons, “For actresses my age, there’s no work in films anymore. None of my contemporaries are active and not because they don’t want to work. The reality today is that even the hero and the heroine hardly have parents in films so where’s the question of a mama, chacha or tai? The story just revolves around four friends.”
Born on August 18, 1946, Aruna Irani is the eldest of eight siblings (five brothers, three sisters). As a child, work was far from Aruna’s mind. A topper at school, she wanted to be a doctor. Fate willed otherwise. She was forced to stop studying after the sixth standard. Aruna recalls, “My younger sister was stubborn, though. She refused to give up her studies and managed to clear her matriculation. I couldn’t stand up to my parents, especially my father. Sixty years ago, it was enough if a girl knew how to sign her name. Money was to be spent on educating the boys. But in our family there was little money for the boys too. It’s good I was a girl, naach gaa ke kama liya. What would a boy have achieved without education? But there are no regrets; I have deep respect for my parents.”
People often asked Aruna how she managed to speak English since she stopped going to school at a young age. She reveals her secret, “English was taught from the fourth standard and by the time I reached the sixth, I was out of school. If anyone asked me ‘What’s your name?’ I’d reply, ‘My name is Aruna.’ Then I heard people just reply with their name. My desire to learn helped me. I bought a small Oxford dictionary for Rs 3.75. It had English to Hindi and Hindi to English translations. When someone said ‘butter’ I’d check the spelling and realise it was spelt butter and not ‘butar’.”
Aruna’s father, Faredun Irani, owned a drama troupe and her mother Saguna was an actress. Her father always regretted not having a son as his first born; someone who could have looked after the family when he was no more. With grit and hard work, his eldest daughter proved him wrong. She became the provider for the family. Smiles Aruna, “One month before he passed away, I bought a Fiat car for Rs 9,000. He’d stand in the balcony and gaze at it for hours. He was proud I’d made a name for myself.”
Aruna’s first film was Dilip Kumar’s Gunga Jumna. A supplier had come to Soonawala colony in Tardeo where they lived. He gathered all the children and said that Dilip Kumar was looking for a child artiste. Sensing indifference, he pointed to a corner where wafers and bottles of Coca Cola had been stacked. “Ignoring the auditions, we ran towards the table. When Dilip called out to me several times, I reluctantly went to him. He asked whether I would work in the film. Confused, I nodded. They made me say a line of dialogue and I was on,” she smiles.
A dozen-odd films followed, including Anpadh and Parasmani, till she reached a two-year phase when she was neither an adult nor a child. Since no more films were coming her way, her father took her for his drama troupe rehearsals and told her to memorise every female character’s dialogues. Whenever an artiste failed to turn up, she would be the substitute. “That was my learning ground,” offers Aruna. “One day Sarita Khatau was unwell and couldn’t perform. I got to play her part and as luck would have it, director Babubhai Mistri was in the audience. He liked my performance and from then on I was part of every film he made.”
A spate of films later, her performance in Bombay To Goa and a pivotal role in Caravan made audiences and critics take notice. She recalls, “At one point, both films were running to packed theatres on opposite sides of Lamington Road and were silver jubilees. Elated, I was confident producers would be queuing up to sign me. We bought new crockery to serve them tea and snacks. But not a single producer came for three years. I have no clue why. As I sat at home, the money I’d saved vanished. The responsibility of looking after the family weighed heavily on me.”
The tide turned when she was down to her last Rs 4,000. She grabbed an offer to dance a lavani in Dada Kondke’s Marathi film, Andhla Marto Dola for which she was paid Rs 2,500. “Money was coming after a long, long time,” she sighs. A realist, she confides, “I took on everything that came my way. My second innings started after I did Bobby. Many actresses had refused a chance to work with Raj Kapoor as they felt it was a negative role. I’m glad they did.”
As she reached her 30s, assignments dried up again. Aruna was considered too old for the dance roles and too young to play mother. At this point, she turned to Gujarati films, producing and acting in them too. Then her brother, filmmaker Indra Kumar, was instrumental in heralding the next turning point in Aruna’s career. He cast her, albeit after both went through major trauma, as the conniving matriarch Laxmi Devi in Beta. Smiles Aruna, “He told me about his debut directorial venture and asked me to help him cast the mother. Waheeda Rehman, Sharmila Tagore, Mala Sinha and Shabana Azmi had refused to play the character, which had shades of grey. He was in a fix. He wanted to cast me in the role eventually played by Bharti Achrekar. I refused and told him that if he wanted me in his film, I had to play the mother. He mumbled that this was the beginning of his career, and he couldn’t take risks. We had a huge fight. I was devastated. After so many years of hard work, did my brother still need proof of my versatility? I told Indu that I may do 20,000 more roles like the one he was offering me, but I would not play an insignificant character in his film. Two days later, he asked me to play Laxmi Devi. I burst into tears.” She shares further, “I had limited dialogue in the film. Most of what I had to convey was done with the eyes. During every shot, the thought uppermost in my mind was, ‘You didn’t think I could play this character, I’ll prove you wrong.’ There was anger and vengeance in my mind and eyes throughout Beta. Indu’s film gave my career a shot in the arm.”
“I came into the industry because I had to provide for my family. I must thank my brothers and sisters for whatever I am today. If I didn’t have to look after them, I’d have been a non-entity slogging for my children and doing my husband’s chamchagiri. Today the name Aruna Irani does ring a bell.” To her credit, Beta (1993) got Aruna her second Filmfare Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. The first was for Pet, Pyaar Aur Paap (1985). Filmfare presented her with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.
Most of Aruna’s family is connected with the film industry. While Indra Kumar is a successful producer-director, brother Firoz Irani is the Gabbar Singh of Gujarati films, and brother Adi works in Hindi films as well as TV serials. Brother Balraj is with Boney Kapoor’s production company and Ratan was once a producer-director too. Her sister Chetna’s husband is a sound recordist.
The only one far removed is sister Surekha whose husband worked in a bank. Aruna considers herself lucky that her siblings never made any unusual demands on her while they were growing up. “I have seen actors and actresses do everything for their families and ultimately end up with nothing. No family member has ever taken advantage of me.” She explains, “Earlier, there was a ceiling on the land you could acquire in your own name so I bought a 14 acre plot in Adi’s name. A couple of years back, when I asked him to sign the transfer papers, he did so without any hesitation. The land is in my name now. Trust me; he’s not too well off. He has a house and a car but that’s about it. He could have made a deal with me but all he asked was where he had to sign.”
Ask her when the need for her own family arose and she smiles, “I was over 40 when I met Kukuji (director Kuku Kohli). He was the director of one of my films. A spark was lit.”
Aruna was well aware that he was a married man with children. In her defence, she adds, “I did try to settle down with someone else but he wouldn’t let me. To be honest, I was attached to Kukuji too.” Aruna and Kuku Kohli got married in 1990. She’s made truce with the fact that he hasn’t divorced his first wife and is not always by her side.
Aruna made a conscious decision not to have a child. Not only was she in her 40s, she admits she’s orthodox too. Rolling her eyes, she confides, “When I see my nephews and nieces today, I’m glad I have no children. If a visitor comes to the house and my child didn’t greet them or kept lolling on the sofa, as today’s children do, I would be upset. Their attitude is, ‘So what?’ God is great. A dear friend Dr Ajay Kothari made me see reason and helped me make up my mind. He said, ‘It’s fine that you got married, you need companionship but the generation gap between a child and you would be too much to handle’. I believe he was right. My child and I would have suffocated each other.”
Mehmood & I
There were other men in Aruna’s life earlier too but she’s reluctant to talk about them. Admitting their presence she states, “They were good men, I made mistakes but it’s all in the past now. Maybe they weren’t worthy of me or I wasn’t worthy of them, who knows?” Prod her and she acknowledges the importance of the late actor-producer-director Mehmood in her life. “Yes I was friendly with him. In fact, I was over-friendly with him. You can term it infatuation, friendship or whatever. But we were never married. Nor were we in love. If we had been, our relationship would have continued. Love never ends, it’s forever. As I said, I’ve waved the past goodbye.”
Aruna agrees that her friendship with Mehmood could well have been the reason for a three-year slack period in her career. “People misconstrued our relationship and may have had the impression we were married,” she explains. “They believed he wouldn’t let me work. We did many films together and shared a good chemistry. Besides, I was at an age when attractions happen. I got carried away. People were talking and we were being written about. I never issued a clarification. I assumed the media would come to me for my side of the story. I regret not speaking up then.”
My silence harmed my career.” In flashback mode, she recalls her ‘puppy love’. Pramod and she were in the same class in school. Says she, “He was and still is good-looking and has personality. He was good to me. He’d pay my fees. On my birthday he’d get chocolates for me to distribute. And then he vanished. I guess they shifted to Delhi. I missed him. Years later, Vinod Khanna told me his brother wanted to meet me as he was keen I do a dance in his film. I was game. When I met Pramod, he looked familiar but I couldn’t place him. I hadn’t known his surname earlier. He, of course, knew me. He had fun at my expense as I tried to place him. He kept talking about the dance, the money, the film before finally telling me he was the same Pramod who’d been in school with me. It was wonderful meeting him again after 25 years.”
At 67, Aruna is still into two shifts a day. Her willpower to continue facing the camera stems from her fear of having nothing to do. She remembers how irritable her mother used to get as she grew older and had time hanging heavy on her hands. “My mother had every comfort but because there was no focus, she was cranky. I can’t end up like that,” she grins.
“My number one motto is to work to pass time. Money follows. I still have a passion for work. I’ve reached all the goals I set out to. But I need to be busy at least five to six hours a day. I enjoy getting ready, going to the studio and facing the camera. And I’m glad the producers still want me.”
Acting is now mechanical, she lets on. “Over the years I’ve honed my skills. Press one button for a stern expression; press another for a soft expression. Now it’s a cakewalk.” Yet there is one unfulfilled ambition. Sighing, she says, “I’ve always wanted to learn dance. Might sound odd since I’ve been dancing in films for years but I have never been tutored in any dance form. Bharat Natyam is tough. My legs used to ache even when I did the steps in films so today it’ll be even more difficult. I enjoyed Indian dances, never Western dance. I’d love to learn Kathak.”
That’s the spirit. As Mr Amitabh Bachchan says, “Never stop learning.”
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