Rameshwari wahi jo sab ka man bhaayeby Aparajita Krishna October 6 2020, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 26 mins, 15 secs
Aparajita Krishna takes us with her on a journey through Rameshwari’s life - from a student of acting to becoming a film star, wife, mother and now a business woman.
As a 16-year-old cine-audience in 1977 I had met her on-screen and had instantly connected with her debut Hindi film. The heroine of ‘Dulhan Wahi Jo Piya Man Bhaaye’ became ‘Rameshwari Wahi Jo Audience Man Bhaaye!’ Remember that the 1970s was the reign of middle-of-the-road Hindi films and Jaya Bhaduri’s unique stardom was solid. Zarina Wahab and Rameshwari carried further that legacy. Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil were more to the classic art-house cinema born and one to which they would value-add with their remarkable talent.
Coming to Rameshwari, years later and beyond the screen-acts, I would meet her in person. It would be via common friends Om Puri and Kulbhushan Kharbanda who both had glowing and most praiseworthy things to say about her. She had requested to not suffix ‘Ji’ to her name so I am trying hard to sound cool by addressing her here as Rameshwari. The ‘Ji’ was truly out of deep respect that I feel for her as an actor and the person who I have met on a few occasions and about whom everyone has such good things to say. Doing a profile on her was my cherished desire. I had met her and husband Deepak Seth, actor-producer-director, on 25th February 2008, for a talk that I needed for another assignment. This article gets updated with her just sent inputs.
Generation-now would obviously not have experienced the stardom of actor Rameshwari, but back then, away from today’s hyperbolic marketing, multi-platform instant globalised connectivity, Rameshwari of the Hindi films of late 1970s, 1980s was a pan-India star.
Rameshwari Talluri was born in 1956 and her childhood was raised in Andhra Pradesh’s Kakinada. She went to the Municipal Girls High School at Kakinada and studied there till class 9. She recalls, “It was idyllic. One hardly studied, but had great fun. But, the eternal question of my life remained, ‘Why can’t I be more like my elder sister Krishna who is brilliant at everything!!”
Her parents, father Bhaskarudu Talluri and mother Lakshmi Kantami, gave the girls a secured, middle-class environment in which they were expected to study. Father was in central govt service and mother was a home-maker. Rameshwari recalls, “Father was very Gandhian. We were allowed to wear only khadi till age 12-13. I used to get a scolding from my father for just putting nail polish. I don’t even remember till what age I had not worn an ear-ring. But, suddenly one day after 10 years he said ‘No it is not right for me to do this. You wear what you want to wear.’ Wonderful! He felt we must be craving for clothes. He then gave us total freedom in everything.” It was indicative of a very noble and progressive man’s parenting.
After Rameshwari’s first term in class 10 her father got transferred and the family shifted to Tirupati. Sister Krishna had procured a seat in the medical college in Tirupati.
The actor-to-be’s first tryst with the world of cinema happened just by the way. Sister Krishna’s friend came to know of a film shooting happening at the university. He offered to take a few of them to watch the shooting. They landed at the shooting of the Telugu film ‘Kode Nagu’ (which would later be re-made in Hindi as Zehreela Insaan). The star cast was big! Sobhan Babu, Chandramohan, Lakshmi Chandrakala and Raja Babu. The very young Rameshwari noted, “They were all so normal. Meeting Raja Babu and Sobhan Babu was like a little dream and to think they were so well-behaved! Gentlemen! We were also introduced to a smart busy associate director K Raghavendra Rao.” And then the associate director asked the visiting group if they would like to be a part of the film? “We got excited, but told him that we can’t shoot without our father’s permission. My father raised no objection upon hearing the name of the director K.S. Prakash Rao, who was a very respected and meticulous director of that era. The shooting for the film was great fun. We were asked to utter a few lines. The atmosphere on the set was very easy going and devoid of any malice. I was hooked by this atmosphere,” the to-be-actress would confess.
The team work and the camaraderie at the film-shoot stayed with the young girl. Perchance in 6 months’ time, there appeared in a magazine an advertisement about the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) at Pune. Rameshwari took her sister into confidence and was encouraged to apply. “Now I realise that meeting Prakash Rao Garu and K Raghavendra Rao Garu was the first step in my cinema journey. When I applied for a seat at the FTII they were very helpful. Infact without my sister’s support I would not have had the requisite confidence to apply to the FTII and pull it through. It was after getting the seat that we informed our parents. How my father agreed to let me pursue this dream is another long story!”
Though the father had brought up the girls in a very liberal way, films were not part of his curriculum. The elder daughter was in medical college. He wanted the younger one to be really well educated too. Now here she was dreaming of a career in film studies. It was a very uncommon choice back then. Suddenly one day this father got a draft and ticket for his daughter to go to the film institute. And so Rameshwari came to the FTII, straight after her school pass-out from Tirupati. It was in 1973. Hindi was not her spoken language and she had come to become a Hindi film heroine. She came out with flying colours in the audition. She would flashback to tell, “I remember the audition piece. It was about a young film crazy girl who gets a call from a superstar. The telephone conversation was the audition. My lack of Hindi knowledge added to my talk-excitement in the act and created a good comic scene.” Having sailed through the act, Rameshwari got into the training. But the language barrier spilled beyond the telephonic expertise. “After the first term I wanted to leave. But my father insisted I have to complete the course of two years. He got me Chandamama in Hindi to read. I was supposed to read one paragraph at a time. It helped me in getting confidence.”
Among Rameshwari’s classmates at the FTII were Naseeeruddin Shah, Rajender Jaspal, Deepak Seth, Abha Dhulia, Shashi Saxena, Rita Kaul, Vijaya Jena and Shakti Kapoor. She remembers, “Ofcourse I was ragged, but in a very sweet way. It never broke anybody’s spirit.” Deepak Seth and she became best friends. “Deepak and I had become friends right from the first day. We behaved like we had been friends forever. It was after coming to Bombay that we got into a serious relationship. Most of the FTII friendships stayed through the years till the present. The other day when we went for Javed Khan’s daughter’s wedding, it was like a reunion. I can recall almost every moment from my FTII days.”
You had told me, “Infact whatever exercises I did in the class (FTII) made me into a better actor.” You were also quoted saying, “I got exposed to world cinema. My exposure to world cinema made all the difference to me even as a person. We were seeing world class actors on screen.” Do summarise your learning at the FTII. The films that impressed you.
I was impressed by the Polish and French cinema, Orson Welles, Andrzej Wajda, Kurosawa, Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray. We learnt from Fellini’s 8½. I was definitely in love with Alain Delon (French actor), Mastroianni (Italian film actor). My all-time favourite was Mr Shashi Kapoor!
I discovered Hindi films and their marvellous talent at the FTII: Gurudutt, Raj Khosla, Vijay Anand and Lekh Tandon. How well they could combine commercialism with story-telling. Actresses such as Greta Garbo, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly were so beautiful! Then Nutan, Madhubala, Sadhana, just to name a few, extraordinary talents! I learnt a lot just watching these beautiful faces.
And then the strike happened at the FTII. Girish Karnad was the director of the institute. Reminiscing it the actor says, “The strike happened almost because of me and a few others. We were supposed to start shooting for a diploma film of a direction student. The main role was being done by a complete stranger. It could have been done by any of our classmates. But, once things subsided all the acting students were given their respective footage.”
Rameshwari acted in a lot of diploma films. “Though I did many films, it was Kajallota directed by Dattaray which became my entry point.”
The FTII alumni now came to Bombay to enter films. She recalled, “That time being a graduate from the film institute did matter. They looked at me. They gave me an appointment. I didn’t know how to ask for work. Being an acting student from the FTII was itself like asking for work. Finally it was because of the trade-fair held by FTII, that Rajshri Productions called me. Otherwise I wouldn’t have got it. No way can I disown that part. My exposure to world cinema made all the difference to me even as a person.”
Do recall that first most important meeting with the team at Rajshri Productions. It was for the casting of Dulhan Wahi Jo Piya Man Bhaaye.
I went to Rajshri Productions office like any other newcomer looking for work. They always encouraged newcomers. My friend Abha Dhulia was already working in Tapasya. I met Tarachandji and Raj Babu. They were cordial and told me that they did not have any acting job for me but if I wanted to join their screenplay department as an intern I could. I did not and till today I regret that I could have learnt. But they called me back. It seems they had seen the film institute trade show of a little film and they found me heroine material. One day I got a message from my room-mate Abha and went to meet the Rajshri people. Lekh Tandon was there too. Tarachandji said that they all liked my work but wanted to see me with make-up tests. There was a tall, big man who instead felt I did not need any make-up. That man was the great Dwarka Divecha (cinematographer). My make-up test was done at the Mehboob studios and it was directed by Sudhenduda (Sudhendu Roy). Next day I was told that I was going to be signed for four films. The first one got cancelled because of some problem, though they had shot for a few days. Then Dulhan Wahi Jo Piya Man Bhaaye got launched. I met Lekh Tandon, the little master. In the true sense he was a master of film craft. He was in love with all the characters of the film. Jehangir Chowdhury, the cinematographer, was brilliant. To be surrounded by Madan Puriji, Iftekharji, Leela Mishraji and Shashikalaji was such a learning experience. Prem Krishen was such an amicable co-star and Shyamlee was like a friend. It was with Lekhji that I formed a strong bond, which lasted till his last day. The film had all the ingredients to be successful. It was very carefully crafted. I don’t know if I had received any awards, but loads of love from the audience, which I received till today.
You made your distinct mark. In a way the ground was laid by Jaya Bhaduri’s debut in 1971 and then the art-house films of Shyam Benegal brought in the talent of Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil. Zarina Wahab and Vidya Sinha were also featured prominently in the middle of the road films. How do you assess their contribution?
Absolutely. Rehana Sultan, Shatrughan Sinha, Asraniji, Paintal, Anil Dhawan and Jaya Bhaduri, all these people inspired us to join the FTII and paved our way into the film industry.
In 1978 came the Telugu film Seetamalakshmi, with you in the title role. It was directed by K Vishwanath. You won the Filmfare Award for Best Actress. Any special memory?
I loved being in the film. Raghavendra Raoji introduced me to Vishwanathji and the producer. I remember I was very worried about the dance rehearsals. Some of the movements were weird. But I was reassured by Vishwanathji that his heroines do not do such kinds of movements. I loved that role of a sweet little girl from a village becoming a film star. I worked with such superb actors like Chandra Mohan ji and others. Everyone was a professional. But I had a grudge. They did not let me dub in my mother tongue. Vishwanathji was also very upset. But the producer felt I cannot handle the village accent. When I tried to fight for my rights they branded me as arrogant, an argumentative person. I did get the Filmfare Award and quite a few other awards too. But they did not invite me to the film’s success functions. Later when it was being made in Hindi by another producer I was approached. But I felt so bitter about them that I plainly refused the film.
In 1978 came Mera Rakshak in which Rameshwari co-starred with Mithun Chakraborty. She was quoted saying, “In Mera Rakshak I looked pretty glamorous. I personally did not like that film. The film starts with a scene where I am bashing the villain because he touched me. And after four scenes, all of a sudden, I start dancing funny. I objected to this since I found it meaningless. But they didn't understand what I was trying to say. They felt I am throwing tantrums like most of the producers usually think. I tried my level best to make them understand my point of view but unfortunately they never understood. Actually, the story was about a woman who fought a court case for her husband. The film did well at box-office. It would be a hit even without that worthless dance."
She would tell this article, “For me the high point was the location, Mettupalayam in Coimbatore district. I loved roaming around in the streets.”
And then in 1979 came Sunayana with Naseeruddin Shah. The film did very well but unfortunately involved Rameshwari in an accident that would have far-reaching consequences. She fell during the horse-ride for the shoot and injured her eyes.
Did you have to travel abroad for surgery? Did the producers meet the medical expenses? Why asking because in India, more so back then, the film industry may not have taken sufficient safety precautions. You wonderfully overcame it, but did it back then shake you up? Could the accident have been avoided?
I fell off the horse and hurt my eye. Lekhji was the first one to reach there. Nothing happened to the eye but an eyelid was badly torn. Doctors said we had to wait at least nine months before any surgery. We did. Raj Babu made sure that I got the best possible treatment. I was sent to New York with all expenses paid for. It was just a freaky thing. I was hurt in my eye and not a scratch on any other part of the body. No, I was not shaken, probably because of my parents, my sister and Deepak. It was not that important. Yes, it did hurt me when I was replaced in a lot of movies. But again not that important.
In 1980 came film Aasha with Jeetendra and Reena Roy. In 1981 Agni Pareeksha had you co-star with Amol Palekar and Parikshit Sahni. In 1981 came Sharda with you in the title role and with Jeetendra, Raj Babbar and Sarika as co-actors. All did well and furthered your graph. For Aasha you got a Filmfare nomination as Best Supporting Actor.
Aasha was the biggest hit of that year, but for some reason I did not get any credit. I was supposed to be nominated but I don’t recall very well what happened. Agni Pareeksha was not a success but working with Amol, Parikshit, Veenaji, Utpal Dutt and Dr Lagoo was lovely. Sharda was great fun. It had Lekhji as director. The producer was K K Talwar. Very caring. It was again a Lekhji and cinematographer Jehangir Choudhary combination. Lovely songs. I don’t know if it furthered my career.
I had chanced upon a very interesting quote from Rameshwari. It said, “I am spiritual, but not religious. In Dulhan Wohi Jo Piya Man Bhaaye, I was supposed to sing a Bhajan with devotional expressions. Believe it or not, I had to rehearse so much to portray the scene. I wanted to give that calm and devotional feeling on my face because that was never there in me. I know lots of people are under the impression that I am a very devotional woman. I remember once I was on the sets and during a break my director came to me and told me that there is a very famous temple here, if I feel, I can go there. I simply burst into laughter and told him that I never go to any temple".
In our industry and among the audience the image of the roles is confused with the personality of the actor. Right?
That’s right. I am not religious, but I hand-make Ganesh idol, light diyas on Diwali and try to light diyas almost the whole karteeka month. These are things I grew up with. I know the Hanuman Chalisa by heart. When I recite it, I feel a sense of security. The song ‘Mangal Bhawan Amangal Hari’, in Dulhan Wohi Jo Piya Man Bhaaye was a little difficult to render because of the lyrics. But I found in the film Aasha, a close-up at Mata’s mandir very interesting. I told myself that I have to believe in the purity of devotion. And I did. That one shot is appreciated till today. Yes, I don’t like to go to temples. I don’t like crowds. For God my thoughts are enough.
Chann Pardesi (1981) would be a stranger to the young cine-goer-India 2020, including the young diaspora generation, but back then the film emerged to be a cult classic, a box office hit and a national award winner. It found its place in the annals of Punjabi film history and has now got technically upgraded for a new viewership. The credits of the film read ‘Rameshwari Presents’. This Punjabi film combines in its narrative a powerful dramaturgy, sensitive and realistic treatment, very good music, excellent camerawork across locations that had the sweep of interior Punjab’s agrarian and moffasil vistas and a very forceful ensemble acting. “This film came with its own fate”, Deepak Seth would summarise.
My talks with people over the years have kept informing me of the great generosity that actor Rameshwari and Deepak Seth extended to their struggling fraternity and friends. Their home back in the 1970s, 1980s was a meeting place, adda, for all. On the day I had met them in 2008, Deepak Seth had reminisced at his same abode, “A group got formed. Rameshwari got commercial success (in films) very early in her career. She kept to her roots.”
Rameshwari of - ‘Rameshwari presents’ - confirmed to me that the entire planning, pre-production, script sittings etc of the film was held at their house in Mumbai. “When they would need some money, Deepak would arrange for it. The shooting he attended totally. Because the first shooting schedule went a little haywire. I pushed him there. You need someone to sit on the head and control things. In fact they wanted me to do the role played by Rama Vij. But I could not have done it. I don’t know the language.”
Ravindra Peepat recalled on the 7th May 2008. “Rameshwari had immediately become a quick star (with ‘Dulhan Wahi Jo Piya Man Bhaaye’). She bought her house and car. None of us had one. Her’s was an open house. People would be squatting and lying around. Sometimes six, sometimes eight persons would be sleeping all over the place. No problem. Koi shikan nahi thi. Both of them, Rameshwari and Deepak, were fantastic. We were all connected as collaborators with ‘Chann Pardesi’.”
Chitrarth Singh, the director of the film shared, “Dulhan Wahi Jo Piya Man Bhaaye was a hit. Rameshwari got more films. Theirs was a big flat at Bandra. In this house a type of a langar would be going on. Free food. Anybody could come and go. People were free to visit, sit in the group, make contacts, use the phone and if need be even spend the night there. There were many people in that group. That house extended such generosity! No wonder till today everyone is so attached to that house.”
Chann Pardesi had a very good run at the box-office and garnered a lot of film industry plaudits and appreciation.
Rameshwari went on to also act in a series of regional language films. She told this article, “I must confess that the Oriya film Manini (1979), was my most favourite film. It was a super hit and totally deserving. I felt so good doing the character Manini. Chinnodu Peddodu (Telugu film 1988), was a favour I did for someone. I don’t think I was even paid for that film. It’s a mistake I committed many times.”
Friends forever Rameshwari and Deepak Seth married on October 1st, 1987. On her Facebook she wrote in 2020, “It’s been 32 years since Deepak and I are married. Not bad at all considering that we both are argumentative. We had the most confused wedding. I was all Andhraite and Deepak was all Punjabi. We had an Arya Samaj wedding and we had Chinese vegetarian lunch. It was an extremely hot, humid day. You can see our shining faces.” They would later become parents to sons Bhaskar Pratap and Surya Prem.
The1988 release Hum Farishte Nahin had Rameshwari and Deepak Seth closely associated with the making behind-the-scenes. She also acted in it. It starred such known actors as Raj Babbar, Smita Patil, Om Puri, Poonam Dhillon and Kulbhushan Kharbanda. Rameshwari would acknowledge, “Everyone was very sweet. We did not pay anyone anything. Making films is much easier than marketing it. We don’t know it till today. Hum Farishte Nahin started on a whim. Making the film was easy because of Deepak’s tenacity but we bungled up our marketing. The film opened up with 88%, but we did not have the theatres for the second week.”
For Nijam, the 2003 released Telugu film; you got the Best Supporting Actress Award. Do recall.
Nijam was special. Director Teja had approached many big names but for some reason they did not want to do this role. One day he called me and explained the role. Next week I met him in Hyderabad and signed the film. It was great working with Mahesh Babu, Prakash Raj and a very able supporting cast. I told Teja that I wanted to dub for the film. He was surprised and said fine, please do it exactly the same as you did during the shoot. I felt so validated when people especially appreciated my voice and my speech. I thanked Teja a lot for creating a role of that caliber in that age group. The younger generation recognizes me from this film Nijam.
In assessment I feel your simplicity in appearance and acting was very individualistic and that became your trump card. Glamour got substituted with nearer to home persona. You lent your personality to your roles.
I suppose so. I like to look like the character I am playing. Most of the roles I did were of the girl next door. I did not get a chance to be different. I was doing a character in the film Kalka produced by Shatruji. I remember going down into the mines with a totally blackened face and soiled clothes as I was playing a coalmine laborer. When the shoot got over I started chatting with the crew in English. Suddenly a very imminent journalist exclaimed, ‘Rameshwari is that you?’ It seems he had not recognized me the whole day. That was a thrilling moment for me. That’s what actors aspire for, isn’t it? Yes, a bit of my personality enters the roles.
In 2005 you starred in ‘Bunty Aur Babli’ as Bunty’s Mother, Mrs Trivedi. Shaad Ali directed it. How do you assess the film and how did you see the working set-up now from what it was in the 1970s/1980s?
Frankly, it was not easy to do such a small character. You don’t get enough time to be able to do it. But I love Subhashini Ali and her son (Shaad Ali) spoke to me to do the role. The working atmosphere was too professional for my taste. I was used to being part of everything.
In 2007 came a film produced by you and Deepakji. Punjabi film ‘Mein Tunn Assin Tussin’. Was it based on Shakespeare’s ‘Comedy of Errors’? How did it do?
We made a few mistakes in the production of the film. We did not pay enough attention to the script. It did not do any business. Yes, it was based on Comedy of Errors.
In 2011 you acted in the film F.A.L.T.U, director: Remo D’souza.
About Faltu: nothing to talk about - just a boring little role…
In 2014 came the Telugu film - Rowdy Fellow - directed by Krishna Chaitanya. How did it do?
When a director calls me and asks me to do any role I always do it, but when the producers want to dub it with any voice, it is unfortunate. Especially in the Telugu industry it is rampant.
You must have chosen to slow down work over the years to also raise a family.
Not really. The kind of film offers I was getting were not really great. So I just stopped. I became more selective. It is not that I left films.
Who have been your favourite actors in Indian cinema (Hindi and regional) of your time and in the now?
Where do I start? From Hindi to Telugu to Hollywood to French… so many films. I am a film buff. I have often marvelled at the older generation. Be it Cary Grant or Alain Delon, Mastroianni (Italian film actor) or Dilip Kumar or Motilal or Ashok Kumar, S V Ranga Rao or Soumitrada (Soumitra Chatterjee). They were all so super talented. The leading ladies were spectacular, subtle yet bewitching - Nutan, Madhubala, Asha Parikh, Meena Kumari, Janaki and Jamuna. And so many fantastic character actors. This is not even half the list of my favourite actors. But Shashi Kapoor was my actual crush.
Till today people talk of the great generosity your house offered/s to people and colleagues.
I was not even aware of this. Deepak is a typical generous person. My name is a little better known. But his nature transcends into my nature. I did not realize being generous. I thought it was the way he wanted it. I come from a small family, but Deepak had a bigger family and even a bigger extended family. Having all the friends was a blessing. My father used to say he is so proud that his daughter has so many friends.
You come across as a very sorted out person with a very happy demeanor. A great quality. But at some time in the later part of your career you may have felt the absence of good roles in cinema. You had said to me back in 2008, “I started my career on a very high note. So I was always thinking Oh God what was I doing and what am I doing now?” It is also a reflection on our film industry that does not know how to use older actors in roles. As in our mainstream cinema is not at all consistent in scripting senior actors as protagonists.
I think I am balanced. My glass is always half full. Yes, I have loads of disappointments but my personal life compensated for a short lived career.
Rameshwari has over the years produced TV serials and acted in quite a few. But now in the present she has emerged as an entrepreneur.
She informs, “We have a small gated community business near Karjat. We call it Neembaada. To justify the name we planted lots of neem trees. We spend a lot of weekends there. Deepak’s nephew, who was already a professional at making hand-made luxury soaps, was experimenting with various skin-care products. Our friends used them and were highly appreciative. They are vegan products, botanically obtained ingredients. Even our packing is totally recyclable. Our elder son Bhaskara was also very interested. So we supported them totally and made it into a proper business, which we call Neemli Nationals. We get them made from various manufacturers according to our specifications. Though they are available on a lot of sites we sell them mostly on our website. It is doing great. It is very family oriented. Manu Seth is the production head. Bhaskara Pratap is the marketing man and Surya Prem is logistics person. They have good support from our staff. We are very proud of our products. We do get a lot of orders.”
Lastly how do you assess the life lived and how do you see the coming years?
I don’t know. I hope I was a good daughter, a good sister, a good aunt, a decent daughter-in-law, a good partner for Deepak and a mother-friend to my boys. I get so much happiness from the small things I do: a good meal, a well grown plant. No job is small. My honesty is known. I am not a narcissist. I might not be the most liked one, but integrity and honesty are important to me.