Subhashini Ali is the most improbable actress you would ever meet.
Daughter of Colonel Doctor Lakshmi Sahgal, who founded the Rani Jhansi regiment of the Indian National Army, an alumnus of the famous Welham Girls High School, Dehra Dun, and estranged wife of noted film director Muzaffar Ali, this former MP from Kanpur has an opinion on everything.
And wants to be heard.
A hardcore feminist who condemns sati and beauty pageants with equal fervour, Subhashini strives for the betterment of the female species of the planet with the hope that things will improve.
Vivek Fernandes met this intriguing woman to find out what prompted her to act as Shah Rukh Khan's mother in Santosh Sivan's magnum opus -- Asoka The Great.
It is very unlikely that someone with your convictions would consider being part of the glamorous world of Hindi cinema. Why then did you agree to work with Santosh Sivan for Asoka The Great?
I never considered doing films. That's the whole point. It just happened.
Santosh is a close family friend. I really like him a lot and admire him. I think he is a brilliant photographer.
I met him through my son Shahad, who was working with Mani Ratnam in Dil Se, which had Santosh as the cinematographer.
At the time, Santosh came over to my uncle's house in Madras, where he shot a fantastic interview with my mother. There were no studio lights. He just used two towel stands with a sheet over them. The lighting he achieved was unbelievable.
I was very touched by his gesture, happy that he did it for us. I think that deep down, he's a committed pacifist. That appeals to me tremendously.
I happened to be in Bombay when he was working on the preliminaries of Asoka The Great. He was offering a role in his film to everyone he met -- an old man who was staying with us at that time, the doorman at the Taj, his rickshaw driver. Even me.
I thought he was joking. I agreed to do it in jest.
Later, I realised he wasn't serious about the doorman at the Taj, but was serious about me. That was crazy.
Shahad had helped Santosh organise his shoot and was to go along with the crew to help out. Just before they were to leave, Santosh asked Shahad where I was.
My son just panicked. Santosh was a good friend of his. If I let them down, it would be a great embarrassment for him. He told me there was no way I could get out of it. So I did it.
Was it fun?
A film unit is not strange for me. (Ex-husband Muzaffar Ali is the director of the classic, Umrao Jaan.) It's very boring to sit around watching a shot.
The few days that I spent with this film unit, it was like a big picnic. You meet a lot of interesting people, especially the technicians. I like the mechanics of filmmaking -- so much effort goes into it.
Saboo Cyril, the art director, is quite a genius. He creates marvels from nothing -- he'll take flower petals, add them somewhere; he uses little children as props, too, to decorate the screen, as Mani Ratnam does.
If you only knew how Asoka The Great was shot, you'd never believe it. There were these huge pillars which were just moved around. You had exterior décor, interior décor, a throne room -- it was so exciting.
Didn't the story appeal to you?
I wouldn't have done the part in Asoka The Great or any part for anyone.
Emperor Asoka was also perhaps the greatest practising pacifist the world has ever seen. What a story! It is something to be very proud of to have a king like that in India. When you win a battle and then become a pacifist, that is a big thing.
What was it like working with Shah Rukh Khan?
I have always noticed one thing about stars -- they are very self-absorbed. I think they have to be. How can they be stars otherwise?
I played Shah Rukh's mother in the film. He is very well-behaved, fun, polite. I wouldn't say that I know him or that he knows me. He is a star, but a very well behaved one.
Are you planning on changing the condition of the women of India through the camera? Could -- and would -- you use cinema to bring their struggle to the forefront? Make another Sandstorm or Godmother, perhaps?
Films are not my scene. My involvement in films is only through a husband who was in films and a son who will soon be working in films.
I have worked a lot on scripts and costumes -- all the free work has to be done by the family only!
I do know the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, but it's just not my thing.
Photographs: Jewella Miranda