I Do Not Feel Old, I am Always Ready to Go' - Asha Parekh
Dadasaheb Phalke Award for veteran actor Asha Parekh, came as a surprise
The Dadasaheb Phalke Award was sprung on us like a surprise when it was bestowed on 80-year-old veteran actor Asha Parekh. The star of the Hindi film screen was never known to step out of the mainstream, and films starring her turned out to be thumping box office hits one after another.
Sadly, the patriarchal slant of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award comes across when we discover that over its 68-year-old history, of the 52 personalities bestowed the award includes only seven women. Asha Parekh happens to be the seventh. The others are Devika Rani, Ruby Myers (Sulochana Senior), Kanan Devi, Durga Khote, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle.
Sadly, sterling actresses like Nargis, Waheeda Rehman, Nutan, Vyjayantimala and many others have been conveniently forgotten. Suchitra Sen was once considered for the Award but she refused to attend the function in person and in those days, the awardees had to be physically present. For Asha Parekh, who turned 80 on October 2 this year, it was a great birthday gift awarded to her by a woman, President Draupadi Murmu.
Once known as Bollywood's 'Jubilee girl', Asha Parekh contributed to the film industry, by being among its most celebrated heroines over two decades. She also turned producer in her later years and headed the Central Board of Film Certification between 1998 and 2001 (those were turbulent years of the CBFC).
Asha Parekh belongs to an era when heroines, despite that invisible halo around their heads, were grounded, friendly, and not surrounded by bodyguards, black cats and hangers-on. This writer met her at a tribute function organised by Nandan and a film society, to celebrate the long innings of the late Shakti Samanta. Asha Parekh and Shammi Kapoor, on a wheelchair, were special invitees flown in from Mumbai along with Samanta.
The room was flush with members of the media but the focus fell on Shammi Kapoor. Samanta and Asha Parekh were sadly sidelined. But she took it all with the grace and dignity she is known for. She responded to the few questions that came her way, with a smile that lit up her face. Gone were traces of the plucky young girl with a bouffant hairdo, tight churidars and impish smile lighting up the screen with top heroes across two generations, jumping, prancing and dancing her way into the hearts of an applauding audience.
Born of a Gujarati Hindu father and a Bohri Muslim mother who later took on the responsibility of designing her costumes for most of her films, Asha Parekh was born on October 2 coincided with Mahatma Gandhi's birthday. She enjoys this coincidence except expressing a bit of disappointment because her birthday is always an alcohol free day across the country.
Not that she was ever known to drink and smoke in private or in her public life. She was so attached to her mother that when the older lady passed away, Parekh went into deep depression and took psychiatric help to get out of her depression.
She hates the way dance sequences are handled in today's mainstream films because "they are poor imitations of Western styles, completely distanced from Indian culture and lack an Indian identity. In our time, we hardly had any dance master on the sets and were left to do our own movements in collaboration with our co-actors."
"Dance in cinema in our time was graceful and Indian and expressive, not at all like the aerobic and athletic exercises passing off as "dance" in today's cinema," she said. Asha Parekh was a trained dancer and founded her own dance troupe which travelled far and wide. This gave her edge over her contemporaries who could not dance to save their lives.
Parekh acted opposite heroes across generations beginning with Shammi Kapoor, Jeetendra, Sunil Dutt, Dev Anand, Vijay Anand, Dharmendra, Rajesh Khanna, Manoj Kumar, Shashi Kapoor, and so on. Her only double role was in Rakhi Aur Hathkadi which did not do as well as her other films.
She was the highest paid actress of her time and was one of the most successful actresses of the 1960s and 1970s. A brief glimpse into her remuneration reflects how the rates for actors in terms of pricing have changed dramatically over the past decades. For a bit part in Bimal Roy's Baap Beti (1954), Asha Parekh was paid Rs.100. For her debut film Dil Deke Dekho (1959), she was paid an honorarium of Rs.11,000 and for Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971), her price was Rs.3 lakhs.
After her days as a leading lady ended, Parekh took on supporting roles as bhabhi (sister-in-law) and mother. A notable film she did in which she played such a part is Kaalia (1981), which is the only film in which she shared screen space with Amitabh Bachchan. But she called these roles the "awkward phase" of her career. So she stopped acting in films, and her friends recommended that she become a television director. She took their advice and became a television director in the early 1990s with the Gujarati serial Jyoti.
In her memoirs The Hit Girl (2017) co-authored with filmcritic Khalid Mohamed, she threw the doors of her long relationship with writer-director Nasir Hussain in a no-holds-barred story of their love life. They had founded a distribution firm together and went on to distribute more than 20 films till they went their separate ways because "he was a married man with two growing children and his wife was a very dear friend of mine".
"We broke up mutually after many years and I never met him again except just before he passed away in 2002, a broken man after his wife passed away a year ago. His children are still in touch with me. Both of us had agreed that we would not permit his marriage to break down," she wrote.
Thus, she is perhaps the sole single woman of her generation of stars in the Bollywood film industry. "I did feel sorry for never having married but looking at breaking marriages all around me, today, I feel it was the right decision. It was not even a decision but it just happened.
"Though remaining single has become my way of life, it is also a bit scary because you begin to lose one friend after another and become lonelier than you were before. We had formed a close group of friends among actors like me - Sadhana, Shammi, Nanda, Waheeda Rehman, Helen and myself.
"I felt like breaking down when I attended the funerals of Sadhana, Shammi and Nanda one after another. But, this too, is a part of life – an inevitable part of growing old. But I do not feel old myself. I am always ready to go. The Dadasaheb Phalke Award is one of the best things that have happened to me." And that is Asha Parekh for you.