The 20th UK Asian Film Festival 2018 (UKAFF) – ‘Tongues on Fire’, kicked off this week on Wednesday 14th March. Coinciding with 100 years of women’s rights to vote, the theme of UKAFF is ‘F-Rated’, which celebrates women in cinema. With a host of leading ladies who have and continue to make an impact to South Asian cinema, BizAsiaLive.com caught up with the legendary actress and chat show host Simi Garewal, who gave a posthumous tribute to the late Shashi Kapoor. The duo starred in Hermann Hesse’s iconic film ‘Siddhartha’ (1972), directed by Conrad Rook.
At a mini press conference over tea, the ‘Rendevous’ host warmly greeted journalist into the room, and in true fashion made us all feel very welcomed as she would with her guests on her show. Radiating in her signature look of all white, conversations commenced starting with how Garewal started her career in acting.
“We were living here in London, every alternate year we would go on holiday to India for two weeks and at the age of 10 or 11 I was quite a tomboy, I wore shorts and had my hair in a crew cut, but everybody in the family including friends, knew that I wanted to be an actor. Staying at the Ashoka hotel, we were having lunch and my father’s friend said “Oh Simi wants to be an actress, there’s a very big director over there”, he says, I asked is he really a big director?, “Yes he’s made a very big film called ‘Mother India’, his name is Mehboob Khan.” So I thought I must go up to him, so I did in my shorts and asked – excuse me sir, I want to be an actress. At that time I couldn’t speak Hindi and I had a very English accent at the time. He couldn’t speak a word of English. He looked at me and said “Kya karti hain?”, I said I’m studying in London, but I definitely want to be an actress. “I know girl like you, glamour, no, no, no. Go, go to London. It doesn’t happen, hota nahi hai, aap London jaon, bhool jao ye sab”. I got very angry and said, excuse me, whether you like it or not I’m going to be an actress one day. And I walked off, and nobody talked to him like that before. Then he calls out to me – “Eh larki, idhar aao”, so I turned back again and he said, “Parayhi khatam karo aur Bomaby aao mein tumko madad karta hoon.”
Fast forward a few years later, Garewal explains when she turned 15 she returned to India, joined Filmalaya School to learn Hindi and then later bumped into Khan at a function. After Khan recollected first meeting Garewal, he said, “Maine tumko kahi dekha hai?” Garewal replied, “Yes, but I was very different then I was 11 years old and I met you at the Ashoka.” Khan then responded, “Maine tumko bola tha ke mai tune madad karoon ga, maine zuban de thi.” He was very religious, so he thought I gave her my word, so I have to do it. So then he said “Tum aao, mere studio me aao aur me uske baat karoon ga, screen test leyunga.” Following on from this, Garewal got her first break in cinema.
Talking about ‘Siddhartha’ (1972), it was an iconic film, it also made a lot of headlines because Garewal was the first Bollywood actress being nude on screen. Asked if this had worried her in case it backfired, Garewal said, “I didn’t refuse to do it. When I was offered the film, because I read the script, I said I won’t be doing it. And I remember Raj was like a mentor, he was such a senior person I used to take his advice on many things. I remember we done our whole shoot in Bharatpur and I came back to Mumbai and I met him at the studio and he says, “Tum batao, how’s the shooting going for Siddhartha?” I said it’s going fine. “So all those love scenes are they all done?” I said, no I refused to do it. He said, “You’re an actress aren’t you? You’re not playing the role of a nun are you?…”The courtesans role is of a woman who teaches a man how to make love. And if you’re not being true to your role, you’re cheating the audience, you’re cheating the director. It’s up to you it’s your decision, but that’s what I feel.” Then I went back and said look, if it’s done aesthetically I will do it. But I was very nervous.”
It was Kapoor who finally put Garewal at ease. “When I had to go topless I couldn’t look up, I just kept looking down, I was so shy and embarrassed. And he just said these words to me, “don’t be shy, you’re beautiful.” I can’t tell you what it did to me, it made feel so good, comfortable and confident and after that I was alright.”
Garewal shared how she landed the role in Siddhartha. “[Rooks] contacted us and said he’s making this film and would like to meet me. He met us, talked about the film and then he went away again and we didn’t hear from him in sometime. Again he contacted us. I remember I had gone to Lucknow for a function and the Indu-Pak war had begun and we were on a plane which suddenly dropped down, because they said there were aircraft with guns all-over the place, and we landed in New Delhi in utter darkness. There was a blackout because the war had begun, and there on the loud speaker in the airport, “Will Miss Simi Garewal please come on the phone. Urgent Call for Simi Garewal.” And I go pick up the phone and the voice on the other end says, “Simi, it’s Conrad here. I want you to act in Siddhartha.” I said can we talk about it when I’m back in Bombay once the war is over?” [laughs].
What would you say to someone who hasn’t seen ‘Siddhartha’?
“Siddhartha is a philosophy and also literature, of course Hermann Hesse. And these days it’s a culture or cult film, it’s shown in America and all the college towns in both the course of philosophy and literature. Most people have read it. I read it when I was about 17, and when you’re around 16 or 17, you’re always looking and searching for what’s life is about, what lies ahead and how to deal with life. And I remember reading Siddhartha that time, I could identify with Siddhartha’s search. Even when on the sets of Siddhartha, Sven Nykvist the camera man also said he had read Siddhartha when he was 17 and everybody was in love with that idea. It’s just a person who is in search of the answers to life. Where do you find the answers, how do find it, will you find it with the wealth and the city life and the glamour and the women, drinks and food and love? Or is it in the river? The natural course of the river that flows like life? It’s that search.”
Was that what made you say yes to the role? “When you read a book and you enjoy reading a book and somebody asks you to enact that book, it’s like winning a prize! So I was delighted.”
Asked about her fondest memories in Bollywood, Garewal shares, “It’s been a long journey and there have been many wonderful moments as well. But, what I feel most proud of and what I cherish the most, is really not the time when I was acting, it’s the documentary I made on Rajiv Gandhi. To me that stands out as the highlight of my life. It was a glorious experience something which many are not privileged too. And I learnt so much, I learnt beyond my film industry. I learnt about politics, learnt about vagaries of the system, how people are and how they change and the anomalies, I learnt it all. I had such a ringside view of the arena. We were with Rajiv for four-and-half years, everyday, everywhere. Whether he went China or Pakistan or Chennai or Maharashtra; everywhere, everyday. It was a great and glorious experience and to get to know a person like him, as a human being. To get to know such a fine, refined, kind, empathetic gentleman, who even though was Prime Minister, he was always a gentleman first.”
So what’s next for Garewal. “I have written a mega, mega script for a digital network. I’ve spent two major years writing the script. Plus I’ve written another script which I want to direct which I’ve never had the opportunity of, because now I’m back with ‘Rendezvous’. I’ll hopefully comeback with ‘Rendezvous’ this year and then maybe I can do that film.”
Is there anyone in mind to play the characters for her film? “I have some people in mind, but it changes. Because when I started writing that script I had somebody else in mind.”
‘Rendezvous’ is coming up to its 100th show, asked if there is anyone she hasn’t yet interviewed and would like too?
“So, not on my show, but the person who I would really like to interview is Sonia Gandhi. I admire her and I would love her story, what a story! A woman born in Kuruba Sanu in Italy, comes to India and rules India and carries forward a legacy of the most prominent family of our country. Carrying it in such admirable and dignified way. She was so shy,when I was making ‘India’s Rajiv’, I kept saying to Rajivji I would love to have Sonia on my show as well, and it would be nice if she could speak a few things. He said “She’s very private and very shy.” But I said it would make a lot difference to my show if she does this.” Garewal in awe of Gandhi said how inspiring she was, “Look at the strength that women have within them, which come out at the right time, we don’t know all that we are capable of.”
The interview ends, though it felt like a conversation with a friend over tea and biscuits. BizAsiaLive.com would like to thank the queen of chat-shows for taking the time out and sharing so many wonderful stories. ‘Rendezvous’ is slated to be back on our screens at Diwali 2018.