The films of mother and daughter, Sharmila Tagore and Soha Ali Khan represent between them the last several decades of Indian cinema – from the Bengali classics of Satyajit Ray to the blockbuster hits of today’s vital Hindi cinema, based in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and sometimes referred to as “Bollywood.” Born in 1946, Tagore is the great-granddaughter of the distinguished Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. She was a schoolgirl with no acting experience when the great Satyajit Ray cast her as the female lead in The World of Apu (1959).
Impressed by her instinctive ability to project sincerity and intelligence, Ray cast her in three more films, often in roles embodying “the conscience” of the films, as Tagore herself has put it. Ray usually paired her with actor Soumitra Chatterjee. Of this pairing, critic Robin Wood wrote, “their beauty—at once physical and spiritual—seems the ideal incarnation of Ray’s belief in human potentialities.” Tagore would become not just a respected actor but a major star in the enormous Hindi film industry in the 1960s and 1970s.
Besides remaining active herself as an onscreen performer, Tagore has seen two of her children become celebrated actors as well. In 1969, she married Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, one of India’s most famous cricket players. Their first child, Saif Ali Khan, is now a major star of Hindi films, and in recent years has been joined by his younger sister, Soha Ali Khan.
Born in 1978, Soha Ali Khan studied history and international relations before beginning her acting career in 2004. Her breakthrough came in 2006 as one of the female leads of the critically and commercially successful Rang de Basanti, for which she won several awards. Like her mother, Khan combines a graceful charisma with an understated acting style and has made a reputation for choosing her roles carefully. – David Pendleton
This program is presented in partnership with the Asia Center, the South Asia Initiative and the Humanities Center, Harvard University.
The prints of The World of Apu and Devi were restored by the Satyajit Ray Preservation Project at the Academy Film Archive with funding from the Film Foundation. Prints courtesy of the Academy Film Archive.
Special thanks: Sugata Bose, Megan Rajbanshi— the South Asia Initiative; Homi Bhabha—the Humanities Center.
Directed by Satyajit Ray. With Soumitra Chatterjee, Sharmila Tagore, Swapan Mukherjee
India 1959, 35mm, b/w, 117 min. Bengali with English subtitles
Sharmila Tagore first appeared onscreen as the young wife in the third part of Satyajit Ray's groundbreaking Apu Trilogy. In The World of Apu, the title character is now an indigent would-be writer. When the bridegroom at a wedding he is attending suffers a prenuptial nervous breakdown, Apu is persuaded to replace him in order to save the bride's honor. The heart of the film follows the developing relationship between two married strangers. This was also the screen debut of Soumitra Chatterjee, who plays Apu. Together, Tagore, Chatterjee and Ray create one the most remarkable portraits of a marriage in cinema.
Directed by Satyajit Ray. With Sharmila Tagore, Chhabi Biswas, Soumitra Chatterjee
India 1960, 35mm, b/w, 93 min. Bengali with English subtitles
In her second film, Sharmila Tagore stars as Doya, the title character of Devi. Doya is a young woman in an aristocratic family in 19th-century Bengal whose comfortable existence is upended when her father-in-law suddenly becomes convinced that she is an incarnation of the goddess Kali. Ray's dreamily sensual and slyly satiric film about religious orthodoxy was originally banned from export. Tagore’s understated performance brilliantly brings out the levels of Doya’s character, as she alternates between acquiescence, boredom, terror and even a sly curiosity about the ways in which she can profit from her father-in-law’s irrational belief.
The screening will be preceded by a special reception at 6pm upstairs in the lobby of the Carpenter Center.
Directed by Sudhir Mishra. With Soha Ali Khan, Shiney Ahuja,
India 2007, 35mm, color, 130 min. Hindi and Urdu with English subtitles
This period piece about the Hindi cinema industry in the 1950s stars Soha Ali Khan, in one of her first leading roles, as a fictional actress in the years just before the beginning of her mother’s career. The film’s love story between a frustrated auteur and an actress with a past is loosely based on the relationship between the great Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman. Khan plays the glamorous star from a poor and manipulative family, with Shiney Ahuja as the tortured writer. Khoya khoya chand is a valentine to a golden age in Hindi filmmaking, and Khan is a non-stop, fearless physical presence, whether singing and dancing, sword fighting on horseback or breaking down off-camera in the best tradition of the long-suffering diva.
Directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. With Aamir Khan, Soha Ali Khan (Appearing in Person), Waheeda Rehman
India 2006, 35mm, color, 157 min. Hindi, English and Urdu with English subtitles
Rang de Basanti was a box office sensation when it premiered in 2006, and it has remained a much-loved and much-seen staple of Hindi cinema in the years since. The film chronicles the growing historical awareness in a group of aimless young people once they are cast in a film about revolutionaries during India’s struggle for independence. This awareness turns to disillusion as they confront modern-day governmental and industrial indifference and corruption. In fact, the film’s nationalism as well as its trenchant critique of the present-day government created no small controversy. The ensemble cast, featuring several male stars, is anchored by Soha Ali Khan’s performance as the young woman at the core of the group of friends.
Directed by Satyajit Ray. With Sharmila Tagore (Appearing in Person), Soumitra Chatterjee, Shubhendu Chatterjeeh
India 1970, 35mm, b/w, 115 min. Bengali with English subtitles
Described by Pauline Kael as “a major film by a major artist,” Days and Nights in the Forest follows four friends from Kolkata who take off for a weekend in the countryside. The all-male group’s plans for a relaxing rustic vacation are sidelined by the appearance of two young women staying nearby. With its panorama of characters, its romantic entanglements and its trenchant view of class, Days and Nights in the Forest is reminiscent of Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, and Ray’s film is strong enough to stand the comparison. Tagore stands out in an ensemble cast because she is the wisest of the characters: she seems to comprehend all four of the male visitors at a single glance, and her sympathetic bemusement is a statement of Ray’s all-encompassing humanism.
Directed by Satyajit Ray. With Uttam Kumar, Sharmila Tagore, Ranjit Sen
India 1966, 35mm, b/w, 120 min. Bengali with English subtitles
Tagore’s third film with Satyajit Ray is this delightful, underappreciated character study. She plays an urbane journalist who encounters the movie star Arindam (played by matinee idol Uttam Kumar) on the Delhi-Calcutta Express. He is on his way to receive an award, and at first resists her attempts to interview him. Soon enough, however, he finds himself pouring out his life story to his new companion, as well as confessing his artistic ambitions and dissatisfactions along with (unwittingly) his anxieties. Tagore masterfully underplays her role as an intelligent woman unexpectedly faced with masculine insecurity. All the while, Ray surrounds his protagonists with a panoply of keenly observed supporting characters. Print courtesy of the Academy Film Archive.