'Raj's second film was with me; Dev's second film was with me; Dilip's second film was with me'

Actress Kamini Kaushal, 'the Aishwarya Rai of her day', walks down memory lane with Amit Roy — warmly recalling her old heroes, and the 'fun' she had with Shah Rukh Khan

By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 3.08.14
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Tete a Tete Tete a Tete

There's a lovely expression used in India to describe people such as Kamini Kaushal — it's "yesteryear actress". In her case, it's not strictly true. When Shah Rukh Khan asked her to do a little turn in Chennai Express last year, she was quick to agree.

"It was fun, really fun," she says. "Such a charmer — he is really sweet."

So how did Shah Rukh compare with Dilip Kumar, who was said to have had more than a crush on her (Kaushal considers this aspect of her life to be too deeply personal to go into it even after a lifetime)? Or Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor?

"Raj Kapoor was a real prankster," she laughs. "It was nice working with all of them — they all had their personalities and each one of them had something very special," she says.

"I worked with Raj, his second film was with me; Dev's second film was with me; Dilip's second film was with me. We sort of grew up together, all of us. It was a relaxed kind of atmosphere," she adds.

She reveals that she is reading Dilip Kumar's autobiography. When I tell her that (Lord) Meghnad Desai had also written a book — Nehru's Hero: Dilip Kumar in the Life of India — focusing almost exclusively on Dilip Kumar's films, she asks how she can get hold of a copy.

Lord Desai, who probably knows as much about movies as he does about economics, rattles through Kaushal's movies on learning I am meeting her. "Kamini Kaushal's early films were with Dilip Kumar — Shabnam, Shaheed, Arzoo, Nadiya ke Paar; Aag with Raj Kapoor; and with Dev Anand," observes Lord Desai. "She got the Filmfare award for Best Actress for her role in Bimal Roy's Biraj Bahu."

For those who grew up with Kamini Kaushal, mention of her name evokes wistful memories.

(Lord) Swraj Paul rings up his wife, Aruna, who goes through Kaushal's movies she remembers from her Calcutta days.

Lord Paul turns to me: "Kamini Kaushal was 'the Aishwarya Rai of her day'."

Maybe these comparisons are never strictly accurate but there is a chance to talk properly to Kaushal who has been spending time in England with her middle son, Shravan Sood, who lives in London with his wife and two children.

Kaushal is best known for her debut film, Neecha Nagar (The Lower City), which went to Cannes in 1946 and won the Grand Prix (Grand Prize) in the festival's very first year. It is a tale of oppression of the poor, directed by Dev Anand's elder brother, Chetan. The male lead was the handsome Rafiq Anwar, while his brother, Rashid Anwar, was the producer.

"None of us had faced a camera before," Kaushal remembers. "Ravi Shankar was new, he had not done music for anybody. It was Zohra Segal's debut. Uma Anand (Chetan's wife) was with us in college — we were together. Chetan had been teaching at The Doon School and got to me through my brother."

Kaushal is a little hurt that when Cannes marked 100 years of Indian cinema last year, "not one person bothered to highlight the fact that this is the only Indian film that won a prize at Cannes."

Kamini Kaushal, which is her stage name, was born Uma Kashyap in Lahore on January 16, 1927, which makes her a sprightly 87. If she were English, she could easily be cast as Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple. Incidentally, in 1984, she was cast as Aunt Shalini in the memorable British television series, The Jewel in the Crown.

Though she was only seven when her father died on November 26, 1934, he had left an abiding legacy. He was Shiv Ram Kashyap, a distinguished botanist who discovered six species of plants. When he went to Tibet, he took his two sons with him, one as a cameraman and the other as a stills photographer. He began compiling an illustrated volume, Lahore District Flora, but his colleagues record that "before he could complete the book his life was suddenly and prematurely cut short by the cruel hand of death". One of his assistants, Amar Chand Joshi, finished the seminal work.

The Telegraph has, at least, been able to solve a mystery that has existed in Kaushal's family for over a century. It was known that Kaushal's father went to Cambridge sometime in the early part of the last century. Shravan tells me that his grandfather read the Natural Sciences Tripos but despite many attempts neither he nor his mother were able to find out which college the young Kashyap had attended.

When I put the problem to Patrick Zutshi, keeper of manuscripts and university archives at the university library, he says: "Ring me back in 15 minutes."

When I do, Zutshi has the answer. Kashyap was admitted to Fitzwilliam House, a "non-collegiate" residential establishment for talented foreign students, between 1910 and 1912. Founded in 1869 as Fitzwilliam Hall, it was renamed Fitzwilliam House in 1922. In 1966, it was granted a royal charter and became Fitzwilliam College.

Its distinguished Indian alumni include Subhas Chandra Bose; Shankar Dayal Sharma, the 9th President of India; the astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar, known for the Hoyle-Narlikar theory of gravity; Dinesh Dhamija, founder of the online travel agency ebookers; and the lawyer Sachindra Chaudhuri.

Kashyap completed Part I of the Natural Sciences Tripos in 1911, Part II in 1912.

"My father was a great scientist," Kaushal says.

Indeed, he was, as one of the founding members of the Indian Botanical Society. There is a library honouring him at Government College in Lahore, while at Panjab University in Chandigarh, there is a wing named after him.

The family's academic tradition continues. Kaushal herself did her BA (Hons) in English from Kinnaird College in Lahore — she was invited back for its 75th anniversary. When her elder sister died, leaving behind two daughters, Kaushal married her brother-in-law, B.S. Sood, and set up home in Bombay where he was an officer in the Bombay Port Trust. One of her daughters, Kumkum Somani, has just written a book for children on Gandhi's philosophy, while the other, Kavita Sahni, is an artist.

Of her three sons with Sood, the eldest, Rahul, and the youngest, Vidur, studied at Stanford, while Shravan got his MBA from Wharton. Shravan's daughter and son, 9 and 5, are at prep school in London — the daughter, Kara, would like to follow her mother, Superna, to St. Hilda's, Oxford, where she read Latin and Ancient Greek.

Kaushal goes over the many upheavals in her life. "There was the fight for freedom, World War II, Partition. We had to leave Lahore. It was a very traumatic period. I still remember when my mum left home, all she took with her were dad's medals."

Before her old house in Lahore was knocked down and replaced by "a big mall", Kaushal did go back as if in Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. "You know how memories come flooding back — where you slept, where you dug a hole, where you played with the dog. The lady who was living in our home started crying."

Her idyllic childhood in Lahore, then a sort of cultural paradise, has coloured her views on how children should be allowed the maximum possible freedom. "It was fun. There were no taboos. We were allowed to experiment. We did dance, swimming, drama. We walked on stilts — I did riding. I had a whole menagerie of animals — a monkey, a goat, 50 rabbits, a ram, a squirrel lived in my shirt and went to college with me. I discovered so many nests in the gardens. Where is a child going to find a tailorbird nest? Leaves literally stitched together. They were a part of my growing up."

I have planned a small surprise for Kaushal. I have invited along a friend, arguably Britain's most talented film editor who cut The King's Speech, The Madness of King George and others in that league.

"I know it's nearly 70 years ago but do you remember your co-star Rafiq Anwar in Neecha Nagar?" I ask Kaushal. "Well, this is his son, Tariq Anwar."

It takes a while, then a happy smile breaks out on her face.