Apara Mehta's life tracked on the lines of the life of Paro, the happy-go-lucky daughter-in-law she played in Ek Mahal Ho Sapno Ka(EMHSK). As in the serial- she lost her mother-in-law and then her father, and then her husband lost a fortune at the stock exchange and they began almost all over again.
Today, though, is another day. In heavy demand for TV serials, films and plays, she is all smiles. "There is light at the end of every dark tunnel," she quips.
Better known as Savita 'chachi', she has become a household name- courtesy her colourful saris, big bindis and swaying walk in Balaji Telefilms Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (KSBKBT) wherein she plays wife, daughter-in-law, and now grandmother. As of now, she has completed over 2700 episodes of Hindi TV serials! Add to this her episodes of Gujarati TV serials and Gujarati-n-Hindi stage shows, and you wonder where she acquires her fitness levels from!
She takes after her mother, Mandakini Mehta, who was a Gujarati theatre artiste. Recently when she was in Ahmedabad, she had a pleasant surprise when she discovered that she was the great-granddaughter (thirteen generations down) of the character Kusum in the famous Saraswati Chandra written 200 years ago.
Over hot cups of tea at her Santa Cruz residence in suburban Mumbai, she relives her past, underlines her present and dreams about her future in a tete a tete with Vickey Lalwani.
You married quite early. Right?
Right. I married Darshan Jariwala, actor and stockbroker, when I was just 18. But life didn't change at all after marriage. My mother-in-law, Leela Jariwala, who was a stage artiste as well, would keep a hot cup of tea ready when I returned from my rehearsals. My in-laws were so good that even when my daughter was born, they encouraged me to work.
So you are basically a theatre artiste?
Yes. My roots lie in Gujarati theatre, which is very professional. You are paid well, and you cannot afford to be anything but perfect here. To improve my craft, I learnt classical singing and Kathak.
How did you get into the performing arts?
It all started when I compered Santakukdi on Doordarshan for just a lark. I was in the tenth standard at that time. Thereafter, I began getting offers of acting in Gujarati plays.
A few years down the line, I began getting offers of acting in TV serials- Gujarati and Hindi. I had the time and inclination, and the support I told you about. Frankly, EMHSK which ran for four years set the ball rolling. Paro's 'chulbuli' character became a favourite of every viewer. Alongside, before and after, I did many serials like Dillagi, Alpviram, Hum Hain Anari, Love Marriage, Chandan Ka Palna... and of course, KSBKBT which is still on air.
" I act mainly through my eyes. And I can cry one moment and laugh in the very next- without any retakes"
How much has KSBKBT given you?KSBKBT has given me the recognition which was eluding me so far. And what recognition! If I would work 20 years in films, I would not have achieved so much. Wherever I go, I am recognized - be it in a party or a rickshaw. But I am enjoying it. Who doesn't like to be famous? People find my body language attractive and talk about my so-called sex-appeal, even though I play a grandmother.
Mihir's death in the serial certainly helped the serial to become the talk of the town and the cast members to become known faces. The day Mihir died, I became the mother of every man in this country. I got thousands of letters condoling me on my fictional son's death!
Who designed your look in KSBKBT?
Myself. Basically, I have always been a 'saree' and 'bindi' kind of woman. So I told the production guys that this was my domain. As the story jumped 20 years ahead, I even told them that I'll be wearing the 'bandh gala' blouses from here on. The 'bandh gala' makes one look a little broader. Even the glasses which I have started wearing have been suggested by me. They said I should use those only when I was shown reading something, but to look my age in the serial, I have kept them on throughout.
How did KSBKBT happen?
Ekta and Shobha Kapoor first offered me the role after seeing me in EMHSK. Since I was already doing a daily soap, I wasn't too sure whether I'd be able to give quality time to another daily soap. And I was apprehensive of playing a mother to a 30-year old Mihir. But when I learnt that I won't have to look worn out and frail, I agreed. There has been a lot of criticism against the serial, that most of the elder generation has not greyed.
I can't fathom why common sense is becoming so uncommon these days. The Virani 'parivar' is a big industrialist family in Mumbai. Don't many ladies from industrialist families in Mumbai dye their hair?
Tell us about your theatre assignments.
Well, I have just came back from Dubai doing a Gujarati play Kanch Na Sambandh. Then there's another Gujarati one Adhura Thoy Madhura (ATM) directed by Feroz Bhagat, and I am also doing its Hindi equivalent Kuch Khati Kuch Meethi (KKKM). Rajesh Khanna had decided to play my husband in KKKM. He rehearsed for six months but could not do it. There is a big overseas market for Gujarati and Hindi plays. We (the Gujarati community) take to plays very seriously. For us, stage acting, or rather acting in any media, is serious business.
"As a theatre artiste, you have to be confident all the time. You have no time to fumble, stumble and pick yourself up"
How did 'Devdas' happen? And how was the experience?
Devdas literally fell into my lap. One fine morning I got a call from Sanjay Leela Bhansali who asked whether I could dance. When I told him that I was a proficient Kathak danseuse who had learnt Kathak for 10 years from Asha Joglekar (mother of actress Archana Joglekar), he did not even audition me for the role. He told me that he and his mother watched EMHSK and KSBKBT regularly and that was enough. I was overwhelmed that everyone present from Shah Rukh Khan to Madhuri Dixit or for that matter Birjumaharajji, who I revere, recognized me instantly though I had never met them before, thanks to EMHSK and KSBKBT, I guess (smiles).
Besides Devdas, I acted in Priyadarsan's Hindi film Yeh Tera Ghar Yeh Mera Ghar as Suniel Shetty's sister. I was pitted in the film opposite my real life husband! Then I did a cameo as a call girl in the controversial film Chori Chori Chupke Chupke (which I did for Niraj Vora, a good friend). It was nice working with Salman Khan in the film. He offers me a lift in his car. When I offer myself to him presuming he has set out in search of a call girl, he tells me that he does need a call girl but one who can bear a child for him since his wife Rani Mukherjee has not been able to conceive. When that film was released, I received a lot of flak for that 'pallu'-down kind of thing. People complained 'Eh Tulsi, dekh teri saas kya kar rahi hai'.
How do you define acting?
Acting is a way of life. One can learn a bit of the techniques and craft involved, but one can never learn acting per se- because acting is purely inborn. Acting can never be methodical, it has to be spontaneous.
Also, one's IQ plays a big role in deciding whether you are a good actor. The more intelligent you are, the better you'll be. You should be able to understand your scene to portray exactly what the writer has visualised and what the director wants out of the script. Acting cannot come by training.
I don't do any homework. I feel and react, not pause, ponder and dramatise. All those who come from so-called acting schools are certainly not superior than those like me who believe that acting requires no method. Let me elaborate on this.
Let me forget the flak I received for Chori Chori Chupke Chupke character. Believe me, I would still love to play a prostitute in a full-length role. That would be a mind-blowing challenge to emit the highest spontaneity. As a woman from a well-to-do family, howsoever hard I try, I would not be able to put myself in a prostitute's shoes. So whatever output I would deliver would be 100 per cent what I feel at that point of time when the director calls 'Action'.
"People find my body language attractive and talk about my so-called sex-appeal, even though I play a grandmother"
Do you think that being a stage artiste has helped you on television?
Yes. But many stage artistes have goofed up on the tube. A few things have to be picked up, that's all. You can't carry the same format of stage in toto into television. For example, if I am doing a weepy scene on stage, I will go full blast so that the last bencher can hear me. The same scene requires the same feeling but very little of body movements and loud voice when enacted for television. Then I would be using more of facial expressions, mainly my eyes- simply because the TV camera focuses on your face.
Have you refused mouthing some lines or doing a particular scene?
At times, yes. Say in KSBKBT where we have had different directors, it becomes imperative to tell the new director if and when a particular shot is not in sync with the earlier part of the story.
Your strengths as an actress?
I have a good control over my eyes. I can move, expand and contract them as per the requirement of the scene. I act mainly through my eyes. And I can cry one moment and laugh in the very next- without any retakes. I have never used glycerine even when I had to weep, leave aside cry. And, I have not to be told that where I ought to look when the camera starts rolling.
Your weaknesses as an actress?
My husband and daughter would definitely tell you those, not I(laughs). But honestly, I have learnt to camouflage those weaknesses, and those cannot be easily seen unless the audience is watching with a magnifying glass!
What gives you most satisfaction- theatre, television or films?
Theatre. Theatre satisfies the creative actor lurking inside me and whets my appetite instantly. It draws the best out of me, and I still get an immense thrill when the curtains go up. Above all, theatre improves my confidence levels all the time which helps me as a person. As a theatre artiste, you have to be confident all the time. You have no time to fumble, stumble and pick yourself up.
And between the positive and negative characters?
I prefer the negative one. It has more scope to perform. Honestly, it has become a bit boring after I became goody-goody in KSBKBT. The negative character is the propelling force behind every story. Without the negative character, any story would come to a standstill.
Some roles you would like to play on television?
I would love to a play a socialite in a Kittie Party type of serial. I have no inhibitions as an actor.
"Negative character is the propelling force behind every story"
Your co-stars with whom you share a good rapport?
Smriti Malhotra (aka Tulsi of KSBKBT). We often discuss our scenes before doing. And boy! She is a great performer!
Is the KSBKBT innings never going to end?
At least not for another 18-24 months. The serial is holding the viewers' interest. Remember, it started on the same day as Kaun Banega Crorepati! Boy! Haven't we come a long way?
How satisfied are you at this point in your career?
Quite satisfied. I am getting lots of work, but I am not going to pick up anything and everything. I am not overtly ambitious as an actor who would go to any extent to grab a role by undercutting her price or cutting some one else's role. Recently, I turned down an offer to act in a comedy TV serial after having shot for the pilot; I realised that there was no humour in it.
I want to earn name and respect as an actor by playing mind-blowing roles in all the three media - films, television and stage. The order of mentioning them does not indicate my preference. I refused Yash Raj Films 'Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai'. They were casting me opposite Deven Varma, for whose age I wouldn't have qualified even as the third wife. The role was eventually done by Bindu which I think was fair enough. I turned down Karan Johar's forthcoming home production 'Kal Ho Na Ho' because the role had no substance. At the end of every day, my family should feel proud of me. And finally when I am sitting on a rocking chair, I should feel having achieved something in life.