Sholay Redux 01 – Leela Mishra aka Mausi.
Leading up to the release of SHOLAY 3D, here’s profiling some significant, departed team members responsible for its mythical appeal.
Chitralekha, Anmol Ghadi, Awara, Pyaasa, Dosti, Ganga Jamuna, Amar Prem, Sholay, Shatranj ke Khiladi… the list of classic films is extraordinary but for most of her life, Leela Mishra lived in an ordinary but neatly painted and partitioned one-room tenement. She could be spotted narrating Tulsidas’ Ramayan to her neighbors when not working, which was seldom. The senior most artist on the sets of Sholay, this eternal aunt was married at 12 and became a mother at 17. She joined the industry in 1934 and acted in 300 films, a fact that rested lightly on her ego.
Here is our favorite Mausi, circa 1978, chronicling her life in first person:
I came to Bombay to look after my husband, Ram Prasad Mishra, a character artiste working in silent cinema. Films were taboo to our conservative zamindar families from Pratapgarh and Benaras, but my husband was a rebel, graduating from Natak Mandalis to the screen.
I was discovered by Mama Shinde who worked for Dadasaheb Phalke’s Nasik Cinetone. He persuaded my husband to make me work as well. I had no idea what films meant then. Once my husband brought a small strip of film and said, “You will be working in this.” And I wondered how a fat person like me could fit into such a small frame? The dehati (rustic) that I am, even now I don’t understand the trick of reducing a man into such a small thing.
On reaching Nasik our contracts showed vast disparity. Against my husband’s one hundred and fifty, they were paying me five hundred per month, the premium for scarcity of actresses in those days. The real trial began, when facing the camera I was stupidly overawed by the instrument. Ram, my husband played Ravan and I was Mandodari in ‘Sati Sulochana’. We were awful, promptly shown out and our contracts revoked.
Great hardships followed but I was crestfallen only for losing that salary. Weeks later a Kolhapur Cinetone distributor moved into the hotel across the street. Initially I didn’t notice him. When I did, I realized he was one of those ‘bird watchers’. I complained and he was castigated but he turned out to be a perfect gentleman and offered us work.
Next day I was photographed, the results approved and we reached Kolhapur to a royal treatment. The company, we later discovered, belonged to the Maharaja of Kolhapur. We were hired for three years on the strength of our last agreements plus boarding and lodging.
Our first film was ‘Bhikarin’. During shooting, they wanted me to embrace the actor say, “Kumar, main tumhare bina zinda nahin reh sakti” (I’ll die without you). In life, I’d have died than do this.
A married woman is never supposed to touch anybody except her husband. They persuaded but I wouldn’t relent. Next came Gangavatran directed by Dada Phalke and I played Parvati with no touching. The film was a big success.
Jagirdar was hired to direct ‘Honhaar’ and I was cast opposite Shahu Modak. Again the no hugging routine made Jagirdar furious and he ordered me out. My contract was legal and they were stuck so I was offered Modak’s mother’s, clicking instantly. Not yet 18, it felt great playing old mother roles with actors touching my feet and receiving blessings in return.
Next year, my pregnancy forced me home but in 1940 we went to Calcutta which was a big film center. We worked in three films- Fazli Brothers’ ‘Qaidi’, Kidar Sharma’s ‘Chitralekha’ and R.C. TaIwar’s ‘Khamoshi’. The Second World War compelled us to leave Calcutta when a cameraman friend of my husband’s invited us for a role in Bombay. ‘Kisi Se Na Kehna’ clicked and I arrived as a mother figure. Ever since then I have never begged for roles.
The last film l saw was three decades ago, ‘Awaara’. I know I am a three-scene actress and movie halls suffocate me so I never go to see my films. Also the money on cab and tickets is wasted which can be spent on sharing good food.I don’t even read film magazines so I cannot spot the difference between Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi.
I had the same problem with Rajesh Khanna when we were working for Dushman. Little did I realize that while I was criticizing him for being late, he was sitting in the chair next to me. I met Rekha very recently while we were shooting for Aanchal and now l can recognize her, but only when she tells me who she is.
(On Shatranj Ke Khiladi and Ray)
The producer, Suresh Jindal came four times with the offer. I had heard of Satyajit Ray but knew very little about him. Initially, Jindal did not accept what I was demanding so I refused. Then he returned again and said “Manikda (Ray) wants you or he can’t shoot the film. I am even prepared to pay you fifty thousand but kindly come to Calcutta for a week.” Jindal sounded so lovable that I agreed to work for him – and this time, without any money.
Shabana and I were together on flight, next day we shot and my work was over within 24 hours. Extremely disciplined, we started shooting exactly at 11.30 a.m. and packed up around 4.30. Ray made me relaxed. He would talk very softly to me and say, “Act as you wish.” But I found him very serious. He wouldn’t talk much on the sets.
Once I said something funny about him. He got a bit curious and asked one of his assistants to translate. On hearing what I had said, Ray burst out into laughter and said, “Leelaji, you are a great joker.” At the last phase of my shooting, he said, “You must learn Bengali for my future films”.
“l will,” l said, “provided you shoot in Bombay.” “That’s impossible,” he said. “That goes for me too when it comes to shooting in Calcutta,” we laughed merrily and parted with great memories.
After a life thoroughly enjoyed, Leela Mishra died on 17 Jan 1988; but apni Mausi, Mausi jee still lives on.