| Sharmila: Ready for the job
London, Oct. 18: Sharmila Tagore today expressed respect and admiration for Anupam Kher, whom she has replaced as 'chairperson' of the Censor Board, but made it clear she personally was not involved in any controversy.
'First, this is a government decision,' she said. 'The decision to appoint or not to appoint Mr Kher is a government decision.'
The 14-year-old schoolgirl chosen by Satyajit Ray to play Aparna in Apur Sansar in another time and another age way back in 1959, nevertheless, finds herself the focus of attention in London where she has come to lend glamour to two functions at the Nehru Centre.
Asked whether as a soft Bengali lady she could cope with the job of being the rough, tough Censor Board chief, she responded: 'The job is not to do with being rough, tough. If I say no, it's not being personal.'
Sounding a trifle like Clint Eastwood in one of his 'make-my-day' moods, she said: 'I have to do what I have to do.'
She explained: 'It is not possible to please everyone all the time.'
In her first interview since being appointed chairperson ' the title she has chosen although she has no strong objections to the media calling her either chairman or chairwoman ' she has taken a few days to think out her position carefully.
Her inclinations appear liberal but given the country's complexity, size and stage of social development, she believes Indian cinema does need a censor board and this is why in principle she had accepted the job offered to her.
'Contrary to any suggestion that I am at the centre of controversy, this decision (Kher's removal) has nothing to do with me,' she emphasised. 'The government offered this post to me, and I have asked the government some questions. They have not come back yet with the answers. In principle, I have accepted.'
One of the aspects she needed clarifying was exactly how much time she would be expected to devote to the post.
'I'm in Delhi, the office is in Mumbai. What are the guidelines' Is it a passive role'
She seems prepared for intense media interest, though, in her new job. 'Judging from the past, the job has been at the centre of the media world. Recently, the story has been on the front page every day.'
Sharmila went out of her way to speak warmly of Kher. 'I like him. I have nothing but the highest regard and respect for Anupam. Anupam and (his wife) Kiron are close personal friends of mine. I have a lot of respect for him as an actor. It (Kher's ouster) could have been done with more grace,' she acknowledged.
Sharmila maintained that she was innocent of the ways of politicians. 'I don't know much about the ways of politicians at the ministerial level.'
As to the fundamental artistic question of whether India needs a censor board at all, she admitted she had thought deeply about this. 'The debate (about whether there should be any form of censorship) is going on and I have been a member of the PBS ' the Public Broadcasting Service ' which has been having this debate. But the fact is that, at this stage, we have a censor board and they need a chairperson.'
She said what was required was a careful and sensitive balancing act. 'We are a democracy, we are a thriving democracy,' she added. 'But India is not like England or America which has only one language.'
The situation in urban areas in India was different from villages, she said, implying the censor had to be aware of the effect a film might have in contrasting societies and that a 'one-size-fits-all' type of censorship policy would not work.
She gave the example of highly regarded Bengali directors. 'The films of Aparna Sen and Rituparno Ghosh do well in Calcutta but in village India things could be different,' she said. 'There are some films that do well in the metros but don't do so well in the villages and vice versa.'
Making her point about progress, she pointed out that corporal punishment in schools, both in India or in Britain, was largely a thing of the past. 'Tiger (her husband, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi), was flogged at school,' she said.
She was presumably referring to Winchester College, where Pataudi wrote his name into the batting records before going to Oxford, which he captained as he did India. Her son, Saif, also went to Winchester, a school known more for the strength of its scholarship than for the master's cane.
The question of censorship raised difficult questions in developing countries, she continued. Though she did not specifically say so, she appeared to be referring to films that tackled communal issues.
'Take Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. What happens if you have a riot where people get killed' You could say a writer has every right to express himself but what happens if people are not ready (for complete freedom) in India' What happens if you get a crowd of 20,000 gathering over something'
She hoped she would be given a good team. 'I believe the censor board has 160 members. They do their best but there are ambiguities and the rules are open to interpretation. In the past, the censor board chairman has had a lot of authority.'
She described her new job as a 'bed of thorns'. 'I am taking it on with mixed feelings,' she said. 'It will be a learning experience.'
Today at the Nehru Centre, she launches Madhuritu, a CD of Tagore poems and songs by Soumitra Chatterjee and Ananda Gupta. Tomorrow, she does the same for a book, Indian Cinema: The Bollywood Saga, by Dinesh Raheja and Jitendra Kothari.
Aware it will probably be standing room only at the Nehru Centre, she excused herself with a polite: 'I must go and wash my hair.'
It's one problem Anupam Kher doesn't have.