Mrinal Sen, who first cast her in Bhuvan Shome said recently, "It's surprising that an actress of her talent is getting recognition so late in her career." The then 16-year-old had gone on to win a National Award for her powerful performance. Thereafter, she had to wait for an unbelievable 30 years before she could display her immense acting talent in Gulzar's Hu Tu Tu, which too, fetched her the National Award for the best supporting role of an ordinary school teacher rising to the post of a chief minister.
It has been a long journey from Sen's Bhuvan Shome (1969) to playing Aamir Khan's mai in Lagaan to Akshaye Khanna's mother in Dil Chahata Hai and Bobby Deol's grandma in Humraaz. But she still treasures television as much as cinema. "It's difficult to choose today what I like more - television or cinema. Both are my bread and butter, and every coin has two sides," she says.
Vickey Lalwani meets Suhasini Mulay, the agriculture technology graduate from Montreal's McGill University who began her reel life as a documentary filmmaker.
Did you always want to become a documentary filmmaker?
Not really. It's a long story. Actually, I acted in my first film Bhuvan Shome when I was in school. Out of school, I could have easily gone ahead and become a full-fledged heroine. Somehow, I could not come to terms with the fact that I'd have to run around trees. I decided to go to Canada instead and study agriculture. I hung around there for two years, and realised that the knowledge I was acquiring was never going to be implemented in India.
Plainly speaking, I was in the wrong place doing the wrong thing. I switched over to Montreal University for a course in Mass Communications. After completing my course, I came back to India and started working in Doordarshan. The red tape got to me. I could not adjust to the callousness around me. I was appalled at how the bureaucracy functioned.
I quit in a week's time. I moved on to Pune for a job with FTII. I was again appalled, in fact more so, when I saw the FTII functioning in a manner similar to Doordarshan. I quit in three weeks. I can never work in conditions where lazy bones while away time, creativity is killed by political interference and hard work is not rewarded.
I was still wondering what to do with my life, when the fifth International Film Festival happened in Delhi. I was working there as an assistant. Satyajit Ray was chairman of the jury, he liked my work and offered me the job of his personal assistant for his forthcoming Bengali film Jan Aranya. I was floored. It required me to shift to Calcutta (now Kolkata).
It required me to learn a lot as the techniques involved here were primitive to the ones I had learnt in Canada. But I wasn't frustrated as generally most foreign-returns are. I knew that this is where I wanted to be. I never wanted to leave my motherland. From there, I went on to assist Mrinal Sen in his film Mrigaya. Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, the two ultimates, what more could I have asked for? It was time for me to branch out on my own. I came back to my hometown Delhi...and decided to make a few documentaries, to begin with..
How did this documentary filmmaker bifurcate into films?
I am a part of an organization - 'Pak India's people's forum for peace and democracy'. The idea is that the people of the two countries should interact with one another, as the two governments are unlikely to get their act together. We were going to have a conference in Peshawar and I rang up Gulzar Saab to come along with us and recite some of his 'nazams'.
He expressed unavailability as he was shooting for a film. I don't know why but he asked me for my pictures before I hung up. I did not take him seriously. Two days later, his assistant called up to enquire whether I had despatched the envelope. A few days later, he had signed me for Hu Tu Tu-a film which dealt with power corruption.
"I quit when I saw the FTII functioning in a manner similar to Doordarshan. I can never work in conditions where lazy bones while away time, creativity is killed by political interference and hard work is not rewarded"
That opened the window to acting. A bell started to ring in my head. My documentaries had to be put on the backburner. Documentaries were the epitome of creativity alright, but never fetched much returns.
I needed money for my old age. I jumped into acting, and shifted to Mumbai. Things started happening. Looking at only the promos of Hu Tu Tu, Ashutosh Gowariker zeroed in on me to play Aamir Khan's mother in Lagaan. While I was still doing Lagaan, I was offered a comedy TV serial Life Nahin Hai Ladoo. A few days later, I was offered Dil Chahta Hai. Then came the TV serial Virasat (Sahara). This role excited me no end. Even though it was like a soap, it was not the mainstream 'saas-bahu' set-up. I play a mother alright, but she is not the 'gharelu' type; she is a woman who gives more credence to the step-son than her own children, which is a relief from the stereo typed 'sauteli maa'.
Can you give us a peep into your work kitty?
Apart from Virasat, I am doing Piya Ka Ghar (Zee) wherein I play the crippled wife of Alok Nath. Though I am crippled, I am the one who wears the pants in the house. The character has many shades. Before I become crippled, I am shown as a normal woman. Once confined to the wheel-chair, I become terribly frustrated.
I am also doing Shagun (Star Plus). As for films, I have Vikram Bhatt's next Humko Tumse Pyaar Hai starring Arjun Rampal, Bobby Deol and Amisha Patel, Rohan Sippy's directorial debut Kal Ho Na Ho starring Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai, Makrand Deshpande's Hannan starring Manoj Bajpai and Sonali Kulkarni, and Suniel Shetty's first production.
Are you open to the usual 'saas bahu' type of serials?
I am not closed to these, but it peeves me a lot to see the bizarre portrayal of women in these projects. I can understand power struggle, property struggle - but I cannot digest offensive behaviour meant just for dragging the serial. I am not going to do any unrealistic role ever. Frankly, 'saas bahu' quarrels are getting a bit too much and too predictable on the tube.
And the 'Kittie Party' and 'Lipstick' types?
I have not seen Lipstick as yet. As for Kittie Party, I just saw one episode for Achint Kaur who is a good friend. So, I can't give you my stand on those.
"When the TRP ratings dip, the tracks are changed. 'Agar koi character bore kar raha hai, use teerth yatra par bhej do. Agar koi character achcha lag raha hai, ucska role badha do'"
Do you think television in India has grown in terms of content?
On quantity, yes. But on quality, it's got a long way to go on the serial front at least. Serials are quite straitjacketed into either 'bhoot-pret', men having extra-marital affairs and 'saas bahu ki nok jhok'. I am yet to see a family talking about bus-rickshaw travel, household expenses, LIC policy and income tax. Isn't that what real life is all about? When I get home, I prefer to switch on Discovery Channel rather than Star Plus, Zee or any other.
What draws you to a script?
It must have things, which I feel from within. I will not say any lines just for the heck of it. For example, I would never say, 'Jo kismet mein hai, wohi hoga. Jo kundli mein hai, use tum badal nahin sakte.' On such ocasions, I have put my foot down. And yes, I have lost a role or two in the process. For instance, once I was told to say the lines 'Mard log bahar jaakar kaam karte hain aur hum aurten ghar baitkar unki apeksha karti hain'. Wasn't that contradicting my own self? I stormed out.
So aren't you given a bound script in a serial?
Who is? We all are told about the track, by which you can make out your role. In films, only the hero and heroine are trusted and given the bound script, subject to its existence. I don't know why we character artistes are discriminated against.
"Without Reena, Lagaan would not have seen the light of day"
Do the serials follow the track conceived?
Not always. When the TRP ratings dip, the tracks are changed. 'Agar koi character bore kar raha hai, use teerth yatra par bhej do. Agar koi character achcha lag raha hai, uska role badha do.'
How do you do the difficult scenes?
Difficult? (laughs). I am a performer. If you are a performer, you must know how to feel from within. If you cannot feel from within, you are not a performer. Read between the lines.
Do you follow any self-improvement regime on your acting front?
Yes. Having directed many documentary films in the past, I am a good observer and judge of mannerisms, look, etc. I observe the good points of many artistes and pile them in one corner of my brain. In today's times in this line, you need to grasp the residue and reject the filtrate; unlike in the past, we played many different shades and characters. You can't remain yourself in each portrayal and expect the public to accept.
How was it working in 'Lagaan'?
Working in Lagaan was a lifetime experience. It's really a special feeling to have been associated with a movie that was nominated for the Oscars. Aamir is a perfectionist. He tends to be fastidious at times. I must compliment him for having agreed to produce a film based on such an unusual subject. Remember, Ashutosh Gowariker was running around with his script and no producer was willing to touch it with a barge-pole. But I was most impressed with Aamir's wife, the executive producer Reena. Without Reena, Lagaan would not have seen the light of day.
Are you satisfied with the way things are going on your career front?
Four national awards on documentary films titled An Indian Story (based on the Bhagalpur blindings), Bhopal Beyond Genocide (based on the Bhopal gas tragedy) Chithi (based on education), Official Art Form (based on paintings) and one for the Best Supporting Actress). God willing, things will be still better from here on.
You are single, live alone. Never felt the urge to marry?
Oh! I had an option of either getting married and producing children, or pursuing my career. Arre bhai, we are living in India. It means that the man would definitely have kids and traipse off to work and the woman would be relegated to rearing up children. I wanted to have a husband and children, but not at the altar of my equality. Marriage and motherhood could have excited me if and only if I could see a man who was game to 50-50 in every aspect of homemaking. I am still searching for that type of a man.