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June 5, 1999


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Housewife, star!

Bhanumathi. Click for bigger pic!
Some people are mediocre, others are good and still others are impressively talented. Dr Bhanumathi Ramakrishna belongs to the last category there. Bhanumathi is a singer (both in Carnatic and Hindustani classical), a music director, a writer, screenplay writer, director, producer, actress, painter and a businesswoman.

And if you just raised a supercilious eye and wondered at the quality of her output, you'd do well to know that she's won the national best actress award thrice, has bagged the Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Academy award for her short stories, an honorary doctorate degree in 1975 from the Andhra University and Padmashri from the Indian government.

In films, her career reached it's zenith with a double role in in her first venture as director, Chandi Rani, in 1953. It was made simultaneously in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi by her Bharani Studio. The film was released at the same time all over India.

Even now, at 74, Bhanumathi lives a very simple but active life. She looked exhausted when Shobha Warrier met her.

"I came back only by three in the morning after a late night shooting," she said. She was directing a television serial for Doordarshan based on her own autobiography. But despite the tiredness, her face, devoid of makeup barring the long red bindi on her forehead, had a special glow about it.

But once she started talking, she looked much younger, her spirit showing she wasn't the kind to sit idle even for a moment. And the biggest surprise was to hear this bubbly and conventional lady, who made her reputation in films, affirm that she cares little for cinema. Excerpts from an interview.

I can't believe that you don't like films. You have been in the film industry for the last 60 years. Still, don't you like the world of films?

Whenever I tell people that I don't like movies, they say they are surprised. But the truth is, I don't like films. When I started acting in 1938, people looked down upon those who acted in movies and dramas. Somehow, that attitude remained in my mind and I felt people looked at me as an inferior being because I was acting in movies.

I just wanted to be a middle-class woman, a middle-class wife and a middle-class mother. Even today, I lead only a middle class life. I don't like the modern ostentatious film life.

How did the girl from a musician's family enter the world of films?

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My father is a disciple of the Thiagaraja parampara and music is like life to him. When I was just 13 and studying in the third form, my father's friend, producer-director C Pulliah, who had made quite a few films with children, was in search of a young teenage girl to act in his film on dowry, Varavikrayam (Bridegroom for sale) for the East India Film Company. He wanted a girl who could also sing and my father's friends were very keen that I acted and sang in the movie. But my father had no intention to let me enter the world of films.

What worried my father was whether anyone would marry a girl who had acted in the movies? Pulliah convinced my father that everything depended on how we conducted ourselves. If we were careful in our dealings, if we were strict, there was nothing to worry in the film world also. Finally, my father was convinced. Another reason why he let me act in the movie was that there was no hero in the film!

Where did the shooting take place? In Andhra Pradesh?

Since the East India Film Company was based in Calcutta, the shooting also took place there. I was there for two months.

How was the experience? Did you enjoy?

I don't remember much. I think it was okay. My father was there with me and he was satisfied with the arrangement because there were no heroes or love scenes in the film. I was to die before I got married. You know, I committed suicide in the film because my father did not have money to pay as dowry.

See the irony? Even after six decades, girls commit suicide and the menace called dowry is still there. Bridegrooms are for sale even today!

The film did well and people appreciated my acting and singing. My father's ambition also was fulfilled, since all the songs became big hits. I was forced to act in my second film soon. Although I wanted to continue my education, I was not allowed to. Even today, if an artist is good and successful, producers won't leave her.

Since there was a hero in my second film, my father put forward many conditions, that the hero should not touch me or hug me or kiss me.

But didn't you want to continue acting?

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No, I didn't like to act at all. I didn't like acting then. Even today also, I don't like acting. Fortunately, my second film was a failure because I did not act the love scenes convincingly. My aversion to films was quite evident in those scenes.

What was it that you didn't like about movies?

When I acted, I felt I was doing something artificial. Nothing in the films appeared genuine or natural to me. Another problem with me was that when I had to romance somebody in a film, I felt I was really being asked to fall in love with that person. I didn't like the feeling at all since I didn't love that man in real life.

When a man held my hands, I felt angry. I wondered what right he had to hold my hands. See, I was only a small, innocent girl then. (laughs) I didn't have the maturity to understand that it was not real and I was not asked to love him in real life.

Surprising that though you didn't like the film industry, you continued to act.

Yes, it surprises us all. It surprises me too. My second film was a failure, still I was booked for my third film. The shooting was in Kolhapur. Even when the shooting went on, I was more interested in playing with my friend than in working. How can a fourteen-year-old give more importance to work than play? I was just doing what the directors and my father asked me to do. I had no interest at all in acting.

Didn't you tell your father that you didn't want to act?

Of course, I told him that several times. The problem was that the producers refused to leave me alone. My father picked only good roles for me and I acted only to fulfil my father's ambitions. I was ready to do anything for my father. I didn't want to hurt him, I didn't want him to suffer also.

I was asked to dance in my fourth film but I didn't know to dance,. I knew only music. That was in 1940-41. The picture flopped because of my atrocious dancing (laughs). I felt shy about dancing since that too seemed artificial. But my songs were successful.

Weren't there many actresses in those days?

Not many women came forward to act in those days. In Telugu, you had only people only Kannamba, Santhakumari, etc; in Tamil, you had T R Rajakumari and who else... I didn't know much about Tamil films.

Singing actresses were in great demand in those days. In Hollywood too, filmmakers preferred actresses who could sing then.

You fell in love with your husband when you with your husband when you were very young, didn't you?

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I saw him (P S Ramakrishna Rao) first on the sets of a film. I was 17. I noticed that everybody liked him. He was a simple, quiet and unassuming man. I watched him without him noticing me and slowly I fell in love with him. Poor man, he didn't know that I, the leading lady of the film, was in love with him. He was just an assistant to the director. Call it love at first sight.

That was the time my father was trying to arrange my marriage with a rich, handsome man. For the first time in my life, I disobeyed my father and strongly objected to marrying his pick. I married my husband without his permission.

How did the marriage take place without your father's permission?

I let my father knew about my love through my sister. When he came to know that I was very serious about marrying Ramakrishna, he summoned Ramakrishna. Imagine it was news to him (Ramakrishna) that film star Bhanumathi was in love with him. But he shocked my father by saying that he didn't want to marry a film star since he was a very poor man. He said, "If your daughter wants to marry me, she cannot sing or act. I will not allow that." My father wanted me to sing at least but he refused that too. He said, 'I want my wife to stay with me in a hut if I have only a hut; if there is no hut, she should be ready to stay under a tree too'. Then he walked away.

Were you disappointed when he put forward such conditions?

On the contrary, I found all that very romantic; I started loving him even more. But he just walked away after declaring his demands. It may funny but I always wanted to marry a poor man! I knew I would only marry him and I was very happy I was going to marry a man who was very poor.

To cut a long story short, the one-sided love affair ended happily when the lady who had adopted my husband decided to perform our marriage without my father's consent. None from my family attended the wedding. Instead of a hut, we stayed in a shed but we were extremely happy.

You must have been very happy not acting in films.

Yes, I was very, very happy because I didn't have to act. I cooked for him, I kept the room clean and neat for him and I waited for him to come home. I found all these chores quite romantic. Once he was back, we used to catch the Number 11 bus and go to see movies. Those were the days.

But many film producers might have approached you then.

Initially they didn't, because all of them knew the Ramakrishna didn't like his wife acting in movies.

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How did you come back to films again, which you hated so much?

That was the irony. It was B N Reddy (Nagi Reddy's brother) who dragged me again into the world of cinema. He wanted a young girl for his film Swargaseema but all the other heroines were either middle-aged or old. I was only 18 then. So, he was hell bent on convincing Ramakrishna to allow me to act.

Oh god, they called us every day for three months and finally I pleaded with them not to pressurise us and destroy our happy married life. We also told them not to separate us, but they weren't willing to leave us alone. As the last straw, I think, Reddy asked my husband, 'Do you suffer from an inferiority complex? Do you want to destroy an artist? We feel you don't want your wife to be more successful. You have no right to destroy an artist.'

That did the trick. He didn't want the reputation of having destroyed an artist. He then asked me, 'Do you want to act?' I said, 'I don't want to. But I'll do anything for you. If you want me to act, I will act. I get pleasure only from doing what you like.' So, he gave me permission to act in that movie.

See what god had in store for me. The film because very successful not only in Andhra but all over south India. Do you know, the film world is like a flood and the rushing water swept both of us in their way. We didn't have my other choice but move along. All the senior artists of today, like Sivaji Ganesan, Thangavelu and Balaiah had told me later that they had seen Swargaseema 40-50 times and that they were my fans! By then I had a son, Bharani. That was also the beginning of my career as a music composer too. Have you see the movie, Swargaseema?

You should one day. That was the first film in which I really acted. I learnt acting only then.

So, after Swargaseema, he allowed you to act in more films?

You can't say he allowed me. I wanted to act in movies by then.

You wanted to act? But then you hated movies.

Yes, that's true. But I wanted to earn some money for the sake of my only son, Bharani. After I became a mother, my desire was only to provide him a better life. When I was flooded with films, offering unbelievable amounts, I thought, 'Why not work and earn some money for my son.' I wanted to buy everything in the world for him.

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No When did you start producing and directing movies?

Before we started our Bharani Studio, we had only the Vahini Studio in Madras. I wrote a story, Chandi Rani then. It was my long-cherished desire to do a double role. When I requested my husband to direct the film, he said he was very busy. But he urged me to direct the film myself. I was the first woman to direct a film in three languages? I made the film in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi simultaneously. And, remember, I was also acting in the film.

You wrote the story too.

I wrote the story and screenplay. I directed all the three language films and the films were released from Kanyakumari to Kashmir on the same day. This was in 1953. Believe me, I didn't do this to enter any record book. It just happened. I think god has been kind to me.

You are also a short story writer in Telugu and you have won the Andhra Sahitya Academy award for your short story collection. How did you manage to write short stories when you were busy acting and directing movies?

I won the Sahitya Academy award for my collection of short stories, Attagari Kathalu. I am also a member of the Sahitya Academy. I wrote my first short story when I was 14, when I was acting in my first film. It continued, I enjoy only one thing in my life and that is writing.

There were not many women in the film world when you entered the scene. Did you feel discriminated against then?

I never felt that way at all, because talent scares people. Somehow, they felt there was nothing that I couldn't do. So they couldn't oppose me. Of course, my husband was there in the film industry and he respected my talent and me. To tell you the truth, men were afraid of me. Even today, they are afraid of me because I amn't afraid of anyone or anything. Why should I be afraid? I need not, because I have talent, and it is god's gift to me.

Were the actors also afraid of you?

Yes, they were scared even to hold my hands (laughs).

Do you feel today's heroines are being exploited? Or, is it because they are willing to do anything for money?

Nobody shuns money. Everybody wants to accumulate money in today's materialistic world. Okay, one girl may refuse to expose, but there will be many others who are willing to do just that. So, I cannot blame the girls.

At the same time, let me also say that they should set some restrictions on themselves. I was lucky during my period. Not only that, in those days, nobody picturised scenes like you see today.

You said earlier that your husband didn't like to be known as Bhanumathi's husband. But you became more popular than he did. How did he take your success?

You see, he was always working behind the scenes. As I was an artist, my face was familiar to people and they recognised me. On the other hand, people see only the talent of those who worked before the camera. My husband had no problems since he understood me and recognised my talent.

Was your son not interested in films at all?

My husband never wanted our son to be in this field. He used to say, 'Let the connection with films end with us.' Anyway, our son became a doctor and his daughter is also studying medicine. But my grandson is interested in acting...

Then the grandmother can direct the grandson.

Oh no, I don't want him to enter the film world. Of course, I directed him in a scene in my serial. Yes, I, the grandmother, directed my grandson (laughs).

You said you don't like the world of films. Still, when you look back, what comes to your mind first? Is it a feeling of satisfaction?

(Thinks) Generally I do not think about my film career at all. Still, looking back, I think that what gives me immense satisfaction is that I could develop some characters from nothing. Of course, I had help from the director, writer, etc.

Above everything, I feel I didn't lose anything in life by being an actress. What I wanted from life and what my husband wanted from life, we got. I wanted to live the life of a middle-class woman and, even after being an actress for 60 odd years, I could achieve that. The glamour, the money, the name and the fame didn't affect me. What I wanted to be, I still am. That is the most satisfying thing in my life.

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