“I Was Born Free,” Raakhee Gulzar Speaks Her Heart Out

It will be an emotional homecoming for the widely-adored Raakhee Gulzar at the inaugural ceremony of the 25th Kolkata International Film Festival on Thursday, 7 November.

The reclusive sensation of yesteryear has acceded to be a ‘distinguished’ guest at the personal invitation of Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Bannerjee. The next day she will inaugurate the festival’s exhibition ‘Journey of 25 Years’ at the Nandan complex.

A day before leaving for Kolkata, the 72-year-old actor, in the midst of packing her bags at her Bandra apartment – told me categorically, “For so many years, such an invitation was never extended to me. Maybe I was an untouchable for the festivals.”

Raakhee and Bidita Bag in Nirban.

Her unreleased film Nirban, directed by Gautam Halder, is one of the prime catches at the event. Nirban, also made simultaneously in Hindi as Nirvan, has been selected, too, for showcasing at the upcoming Goa International Film Festival of India and then at the Hyderabad International Film Festival.

A day before leaving for Kolkata, the 72-year-old actor, in the midst of packing her bags at her Bandra apartment – told me categorically, “For so many years, such an invitation was never extended to me. Maybe I was an untouchable for the festivals. I haven’t been in the category of films by Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. To be sure, my all-time favourite director of Bengal was Tapan Sinha, whose work touched the heart. By the time I had started acting, he was making Sagina Mahato with Dilip Kumar.”

Straight-talking is her forte: “Not many are aware that although I may have settled down in Mumbai after my Hindi film debut in Jeevan Mrityu, right down to 2004 almost every year I would travel to Bengal, Assam and Orissa to act in films of the states’ languages, for a token fee.”

Raakhee with children at her farmhouse.

Although her perfromances in the late Awtar Kaul’s 27 Down, Aparna Sen’s Parama and Rituparno Ghosh’s Shubho Mahurat are cherished by the cognoscenti to date, Raakhee Gulzar was off the festival radar. “I never believed in doing films which catered only to film festivals,” she states firmly, adding, “Cinema has to connect with the audience. If I were to be tempted to act again it would be only if the subject was extraordinary and the role in sync with my age. A tough call that. By and large the characters of mothers have been sidelined – which is inevitable. I don’t think films are being made for family audiences today.”

Straight-talking is her forte: “Not many are aware that although I may have settled down in Mumbai after my Hindi film debut in Jeevan Mrityu, right down to 2004 almost every year I would travel to Bengal, Assam and Orissa to act in films of the states’ languages, for a token fee.”

Raakhee and Dharmendra in Jeevan Mrityu.

Besides the strong thematic content of the films, there were other reasons. One to relish hilsa fish during the winter months. Second, to buy khejur gur (date palm jaggery), Gobindabhog rice and Dhaniakali saris for her mother. And the third, to donate whatever money she earned to the Shishu Mangal Hospital run by the Ramakrishna Mission.

Ask her why the 16-year-long hiatus since her last film Shubho Mahurat, for which she won the National Award for Best Supporting Actress, and she ripostes that she was tired of insubstantial roles. However, the story of Nirban by Moti Nandi as well as her characterisation of Bijolibala had appealed to her instantaneously.

Shot over two schedules in Kolkata in 2013, the exposure of Nirban has been delayed for reasons that she is unaware of. “Presumably, now the film has selected by the festivals because of its theme for communal harmony,” Raakhee Gulzar asserts.

"“I portray a pious Hindu Brahmin woman, with a certain degree of humour, whose narrow point of view towards life transforms into humanism. She rents out a room to a young couple and is taken aback when she comes to know that the wife is a Muslim woman. At one point, I wanted to appeal to the West Bengal government to help the topical film to reach the widest audience possible.”" - Raakhee Gulzar, actor

Raakhee with Amitabh Bachchan and Dilip Kumar in Shakti.

A rage in the 1970s with such blockbusters as Tapasya, Sharmeelee, Daag, Kabhi Kabhie, Muqaddar ka Sikandar, Kasme Vaade, Trishul and Kaala Patthar to name a bunch, she made the transition to mother roles with Shakti for the opportunity to act with Dilip Kumar. On her latter-day recall file there are Karan Arjun, Baazigar, Border, Dacait, Ram Lakhan, Khal-Nayak and Soldier as the ones which connected overwhelmingly with the audience. “Choosing a favourite from them is not my job, its yours,” she remarks sharply.

Describing herself as an accidental actress, Raakhee Gulzar laughs lightly, “My agenda was to see different places – take off for outdoor shoots to the deserts, the Himalayas and Sunderbans. In fact, I had no hesitation in doing just one scene – in one trolley shot for Reshma aur Shera, so I could be a part of the unit of at the Pochina desert. If I travelled abroad, with my daughter Meghna who was growing up then, it would be at my own expense. The London countryside, Vienna, Innsbruck, Geneva and Lucerne would be my escape routes.”

The farmhouse, named Roots, serves as a sanctuary for 9 dogs, 32 cows, a variety of birds and snakes. Snakes did she say? “That’s right!” she’s amused. “You city guys are so afraid. If you don’t harm snakes, they won’t harm you.”

Raakhee with her pet cows and dogs at her Panvel farmhouse.

Bring up the point of her reclusiveness and she counters with a flash of her champagne eyes, “Seclusion has been my choice. Although I had 19 family members, I would still isolate myself in the house. As for film and kitty parties, these are just a waste of time. Instead, I would take off to morning shows to catch up on the films of V Shantaram, Sohrab Modi, Mehboob Khan and K Asif. Like my grandson, Samay, I also like the company of nature and animals. Whenever, I feel claustrophobic in Mumbai, I take off to my Panvel farmhouse.”

The farmhouse, named Roots, serves as a sanctuary for nine dogs, 32 cows, a variety of birds and snakes. Snakes did she say? “That’s right!” she’s amused. “You city guys are so afraid. If you don’t harm snakes, they won’t harm you.”

Anything on the wish-list for the Kolkata visit? She did request the festival authorities for a meeting with Sandhya Roy and was informed that she is bed-ridden. A trip to the veteran actor, residing in Tollygunge, is on her itinerary.

Lastly, is she travelling alone to the Kolkata International Film Festival? “You’re hopeless,” is her parting shot. “Of course, I’m travelling alone. I was born free.”

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