That Iconic Touch

The name conjures up vivid images — the superstar of her times, the diva of multiple chartbusters, the will-o'-the-wisp Sultana of suspense thrillers and the lady who set sartorial trends. Presenting Sadhana, who always lived life on her terms.

Meeting up with an icon
Our first meeting was over 15 years ago, when we casually shook hands at the launch party of her husband's television show. But it was only early this year that I could meet her again at a suburban club, moments after she had won a game of bridge. She promised an interview a fortnight later, but that day was to dawn after a month, since she was having guests in residence.

Sadhana Nayyar's bungalow is well-known in her Santacruz neighbourhood of Mumbai. The house is incredibly spick and span though workers are doing up the place. You enter the world of the '60s where the décor is cozy, simple yet stylish, where tea and biscuits come in unasked, and the actress' warm welcoming smile is accompanied by an apology for the "mess the house is in". The charismatic persona is intact, the sense of humour distinct. Sadhana Nayyar, nee Sadhana Shivdasani, is warm yet - to use modern-day parlance - chilled-out. As she recounts the fascinating ups and (a few) downs of her life, the great mimic in her surfaces when she occasionally steps into Quote-Unqoute mode about an associate. The only time her face goes stern is when she declares that she did not attend the Hum Dono - Rangeen premiere only because she was not invited.

From Screen to screen!
Hum Dono was one of Sadhana's very few films that had another heroine, Nanda. "In those days, stories demanding more than one heroine were rarely made. I had just one sequence with Nanda in the temple, and the same was the case with Sharmila Tagore in Waqt. There was Waheeda Rehman in Ulfat, which was somehow released two decades later as Ulfat Ki Nayi Manzilein, though I had not even completed my work in it."

Sadhana's family was very well-to-do till Partition wreaked its havoc on them and they had to come down to Mumbai in the mid-'50s. "I had always wanted to be an actor and my parents had no objection though I was the only child. In Mumbai, I studied in Jai Hind College and was noticed in a college play by a director who was planning to make the first-ever Sindhi film, Abana. I played Sheila Ramani's sister. Arjun Hingorani, who discovered Dharam (Dharmendra), was its assistant director."

Screen, the newspaper, also had a role in Sadhana's career. "That's where I saw an advertisement that Filmalaya, which was being launched by S. Mukerji, wanted new faces," says the actress. "Mukerjisaab had just branched out on his own and for a year I trained at his school, then housed in his famous residence Grotto Villa itself, and my teacher was P.D.Shenoy, who later made several films. Then S.Mukerji signed me as the heroine for his son Joy Mukerji's debut, Love In Simla. It was a major hit in 1960."

Sadhana was never apprehensive about being sidelined because the film's producer was launching his own son. "I had an author-backed role too.," she says.

Since then, Sadhana acted in 28 more Hindi films, and except for the five delayed relics that saw limited release between 1974 and 1995 (Chhote Sarkar, Vandana, Amaanat, Mahfil and Ulfat…) 18 of the others proved hits or successes. The major hits include Hum Dono, Asli Naqli, Ek Musafir Ek Haseena, Mere Mehboob, Woh Kaun Thi?, Rajkumar, Arzoo, Waqt, Mera Saaya, Intaqam, Ek Phool Do Mali and Aap Aaye Bahaar Ayee. The last film, recalls the actress, did decent business when first released in 1971 but became a blockbuster in re-runs in the '80s!

The musical superstar
Most of Sadhana's biggest hits were also musically rich. Her two home productions Intaqam and Geetaa Mera Naam also had exceptional music, but Sadhana says that it was all because of the composers who always wanted to excel, especially in big films with top stars. The late R.K.Nayyar, Sadhana's husband and her first director, had a great sense of music, but she rarely went to music sittings. "But sometimes Laxmiji (of Laxmikant-Pyarelal) would make me listen to a song," she says. "So would many filmmakers."

However, there was an amusing side to this that is not well-known. S.Mukerji for some reason had assumed that Sadhana had a sense of music and would often call her to give an opinion on his musical protégé Usha Khanna's tunes!

Raj Khosla once asked her to rank all the songs from their first film Ek Musafir Ek Hasina in order of how popular she thought they would be. And Sadhana's ranking came almost perfectly correct! "One of Rajji's top favourites among O.P.Nayyar's compositions was ranked last by me, and it proved the least popular in the score!" recalls the actress.

Sadhana has too many favourite songs in her list that spans classics like Salil Chowdhury's O sajana from Parakh, Jaidev's Abhi na jaao chhodkar from Hum Dono, Shankar-Jaikishan's Tera mera pyar amar from Asli Naqli and Laxmikant-Pyarelal's Mujhe teri mohabbat ka from Aap Aaye Bahaar Ayee to her multiple chartbusters in Madan Mohan's Woh Kaun Thi? and Mera Saaya, Naushad's Mere Mehboob, Shankar-Jaikishan's Rajkumar and Arzoo, Laxmikant-Pyarelal's Anita and Intaqam and S.D.Burman's Ishq Par Zor Nahin.

"I was a music addict, though," smiles the actress. "I could never study well unless the radio was on, and I would even be singing along while studying!"

The icon perks up when we refer to her favourite lyricist, the late Rajendra Krishan. "His contemporaries like Sahirsaab and Kaifi Azmisaab would have a PR mechanism in place, but this genius believed in jut doing great work," says the actress. "No one could touch him in Madras (Chennai) where he was king, but even here, I have seen him write a classic within 30 minutes of hearing the tune and situation! There is a funny story about his Kaise rahoon chup from Intaqam. My husband, who was no singer, came and recited the song's tune to me and I could not figure it out! The next day, rather doubtfully, I attended the recording and told Lata (Mangeshkar)ji about it. She sweetly hummed out the mukhda and I said, 'Wow! It sounds great!'"

Those were her days
Did she have friends within the industry? "I would call Rajendra Kumar and Shammi Kapoor good friends from among my heroes. There was no one among heroines," she says.

Having worked with the cream from Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee to Yash Chopra, Vijay Anand, H.S.Rawail, Ramanand Sagar, Devendra Goel, K.Shankar and more, Sadhana still considers Raj Khosla her favourite director. "Others saw me as a glamorous woman or a simple girl, but after Ek Musafir… Rajji visualised me in roles like Woh Kaun Thi?, Mera Saaya and Anita. The first two were my only dual roles. We had started a fifth film called Sajan Ki Galiyan that was being produced by cinematographer Fali Mistry and had shot a beautiful song composed by Shankar-Jaikishan with Dev Anand as my hero, but the film got shelved."

She also enjoyed working with Manmohan Desai in Budtameez. "All my directors were older to me, so it was great fun working with an enthusiastic youngster, who has also been one of the writers of Rajkumar. But the film faced a lot of delays, and as with all such films, it bombed."

Sadhana also remembers her husband R.K.Nayyar as a stylised director who was ahead of his times. "Intaqam, our own film that became a major hit had the heroine taking revenge on a man by pretending to fall in love with his son, which was bold for that era."

The real love story
The actress confirms that Nayyar, who also made his own directorial debut in Love In Simla, fell in love with her right then. Her parents objected, because Sadhana was barely 16 and he was 22, and they went their separate professional ways. About five years later, when Mere Mehboob had proved a blockbuster, Nayyar had gone to meet Raj Kapoor, whom he had once assisted, and Kapoor asked him whether he could arrange a special screening of that film. "That's how Nayyarsaab called me up again, and we began where we had left off. My father supported me, we convinced my mother and in 1966, we got married."

The fashion icon
Sadhana also became famous as a fashion icon. "My forehead was very broad and that stood out when a new camera had arrived at S.Mukerji's office and all of us would take photographs of each other," she recalls. "In such cases, the conventional way out was to stick a patch of hair on the forehead, but Nayyarsaab had a better idea. He told me that Audrey Hepburn had the same problem and that's why she had cut her hair in a fringe. He made me do that and to date, the fringe is known among Indians as the 'Sadhana cut'!"

Sadhana was also tall compared to most heroines, and thus could not afford to wear heels, for that would have made her taller than her heroes! Raj Khosla once told Sadhana to remove her heeled shoes in a sequence and was told that she wasn't wearing any! "I was five feet seven. Add four inches of heels and three inches of hair - a bouffant was in vogue then! - and I would have stood at six feet two!" she laughs.

Another trend the actress set was of making the churidar-kurta a rage. "In Waqt, it came across as a modern style that was not necessarily a Muslim outfit as popularly believed." Her near permanent dress designer was the famous Bhanu Athaiya.

Quitting at the top
Sadhana's troubles came when she developed hyperthyroidism that had little treatment in those days and none in India. She flew off to Boston. The treatment was successful, and contrary to popular thought, Sadhana did not quit films because of that problem. After she returned, she had major hits and successes, among them Intaqam again, Ek Phool Do Mali, Aap Aaye Bahaar Ayee, Sacchai and Geetaa Mera Naam. "But I realised that what goes up must come down, and I wanted to stop at the top. Also I wanted to start a family, but that was not to happen," says the actress, who was also professional enough to complete the films that were delayed.

Sadhana has even refused to be photographed since, simply because she wants to be remembered the way she was. "I know I looked lovely," she says simply and factually. "I could have kept going, doing bhabhi and motherly roles, but I am the only actress of my generation who never made a comeback."

In synch with the times
Sadhana watches almost every film today and hears most of the music. She is a fan of all the three Khans, "Salman for being larger-than-life like the heroes of my times, Shah Rukh for his true-blue star quality and Aamir Khan for his hard work and the way he becomes the character." She admires the lyrics of 3 Idiots, which she considers one of the finest films she has ever seen, and finds the music of Dabangg the most refreshing score in a long time.

And actresses? Says the legend, "They are good, but the last icon was Madhuri Dixit."

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