by the masterly hands of Pandit Durga Lal and Birju Maharaj, Smriti
Mishra was a brilliant Kathak dancer when she was discovered by Vijay
Singh to play Jaya Ganga’s female lead role of the courtesan.
sensitive performance as Zehra in Jaya Ganga (Jaya, Fille du Gange) won
her the praise of the press worldwide. After Jaya Ganga, Smriti has
completed many other films in India and abroad including Shyam
Benegal’s Sardari Begum, Sudhir Mishra’s Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin, Pamela
Rook’s Train to Pakistan and Aparna Malladi’s American film Mitsein.
Smriti was also the first actress to star in an IMAX movie titled
Kingdom of Tigers. She also played a role in Vijay Singh’s One Dollar Curry.
Rais is a Paris-based Indian actor. After a brief involvement with the
Bombay theatre, he moved to Paris in the eighties where he has been
associated with Ariane Mnouchkine's reputed theatre company, Théatre du
Soleil. His performance in Mnouchekine's Indiade and the Greek
Tragedies established him as an actor who had come to stay.
Jaya Ganga (Jaya, Fille du Gange), he played the lead male role
of Nishant, the young Indian writer. Variety magazine described him as "a handsome, forceful hero whose self-searching honesty about his feelings wins sympathy."
like the Ganga
India, Delhi, 21 Jan 1996)
Mishra, the heroine of Jaya
Ganga, is refreshingly different, says Nikhat Kazmi finds out.
She is not
glamorous, made-up, put-on
and oh-so-perfect. She doesn't roll her eyes, flutter her lashes and
pull an act. She does not sport those smiles that never reach the eyes;
has no pat replies, and is hardly bothered about presenting the perfect
The girl next door
who steps out of the shadows when the arclights fall on her. The
friendly neighbourhood girl who changes colours once the cameras begin
to roll. The actress who may be one film old, but is being heralded as
turn-of-the-century Smita Patil, after her mesmeric portrayal of an
enigmatic courtesan in Jaya Ganga.
Yes, Smriti Mishra
is a natural.
Despite being untrained, inexperienced and somewhat unsure of career
goals, she has managed to win accolades for her debut performance; has
already bagged two prestigious roles with directors like Shyam Benegal
and Sudhir Mishra; and caught the eye of several Bollywood badshahs as
star of substance. Quite a long way off for a sweet little girl from
secluded small towns (Benaras and Allahabad). For some who is described
as 'young, choti si and insecure' by the director, Vijay Singh. For
someone who can still recollect the heartbreak she underwent when
Bhatt rejected her after he first screen test and candidly declare,
an avid fan: "I always dreamt of acting with Naseeruddin Shah. I'm so
fond of him!"
What's on her side?
freshness that is able to blend itself into a variety of characters. So
that, after having essayed the role of Zehra, the khandani tawaif who
falls in love with a visedhi Indian, she nows plays Sardari, a singer
Shyam Benegal's Sardari Begum and a woman who is hopelessly in love
a married man in Sudhir Mishra's Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin. "Love. It
happens to anyone, doesn't it?" she queries. "To an innocent,
kind-hearted honest girl who is unable to control her emotions and is
willing to do anything for the man she loves. So what if the man is
married. So what is she is puzzled, confused and must suffer heartbreak
and unhappiness too."
But it isn't
innocence alone that
works wonders for Smriti. It is freshness with an uncanny aggression
a diehard spirit that refuses to be quelled by rejection and defeat.
Before she emoted in front of the camera, Smriti dreamt of hitting the
headlines as a dancer. "I'm a brilliant kathak dancer," she declares.
"But I just couldn't make it due to the dirty politics that forced me
leave the Kathak Kendra before completing my course. It is really
unfortunate that in India there is politics in everything. In dance,
too." But the politics of dance was not potent enough to break her
spirit. She shifted to Bombay, where Mahesh Bhatt spotted her on just
one of those days when a star-struck Smriti had been gazing at her
favourite star. Naseer, of course.
Mahesh had told me.
Can you imagine how excited I was. Mahesh Bhatt calling me beautiful!
Now that was something," she gushes. he called her for a screen test
then rejected her. "I cried the whole night," she confesses. In fact,
even Vijay Singh had not been too pleased with her first screen test
Jaya Ganga. "She was horrible," he laughs. "Her Adam's apple was
hanging down till her knees and she dramatically delivered the dialogue
in a manner that was no different from the regular Hindi film," he
If was only later, when he asked her to whisper the words and be her
usual self, did she realise that she had something.
Something that made
her win over the
other probables for the role: Madhuri Dixit and Manisha Koirala.
Something that is reminding everyone of Smita Patil today. Something
that tells her she will be able to survive in the big bad world of
Bollywood, both "as a commercial heroine and an art film actress." And
something that convinces her that she will "manage in both the worlds,"
for she has an acting credo that is both rigid and adaptable. "An
actress should be able to do everything. She should be able to play a
sweeperess, a prostitute and a princess. She should be able to sweep
floor and sit on the throne with equal ease," she elucidates.
The only no-no in
this artistic credo
are those usual bugbears: cheapness and vulgarity. After having
delicately performed an intimate sequence in Jaya Ganga, Smriti is
willing to repeat the intense passion play in future films. But only if
they are artistically handled, with no place for voyeurism. "I have no
objection to portraying lovemaking scenes onscreen. After all, love is
life and we are here in cinema to depict life. Only, it should be
artistically depicted and must be integral to the story of the film. I
will not do it in order to make the film a bigger and better commercial
bet,' she states.
was the love
sequence which bothered her the most in Jaya Ganga. The director had to
throw everyone out - even the technicians - while rehearsing the scene.
So much so that during the initial takes, Vijay handled the camera, the
boom and the sound recorder all by himself while Smriti shed her
inhibitions and simply performed. A performance that light just go to
win all those mandatory awards and catapult her into the limelight. One
that might even cajole an ambitious actress into making a handful of
compromises with credos and roles. Nevertheless, one which might
perchance perpetuate the unsullied innocence of a small-town girl in a
crumpled salwar-kameez and a freshly scrubbed face.
not have asked for more"
Delhi, 2 Feb 1997)
Smriti Mishra who has been
acclaimed for her roles in Jaya Ganga and Sardari Begum in conversation
with Vishnu Khare
Alone and looking
vulnerable, she sat
behind a transparent glass-table in her producer-director Vijay Singh's
Vasant Vihar office. In a one-piece creamish, embroidered gown, sans
even a hint of make-up, she is as beautiful as the Zehra of Jaya Ganga
or the young Sardari Begum with her dreamy elsewhere eyes and full
sensual mouth. Smriti Mishra is only three films old - she went almost
unnoticed in Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin, and Jaya Ganga and Sardari Begum
await commercial release - but she is almost an international
Jaya Ganga is doing the rounds in the global film circuit - this week
is being shown at the San Francisco Festival - and Sardari Begum will
meet the same fate, having made it to the 1996 Indian Panorama.
Born in Allahabad
but taken to
Varanasi when only 3 days old, Smriti has had a middle class
hindi-heartland upbringing and does not flaunt the mongrel public
accent. Mishras can be extremely orthodox - even reactionary - Brahmins
but Smriti's father, AN Mishra, regional transport officer in Varanasi,
is an enlightened cultured man who allowed his third daughter to
to Delhi after finishing school in '88 to learn Kathak under such
masters as Durga Lal and Birju Maharaj.
"Had my first guru
Durga Lalji not
died so early, I would have never left Kathak for films. I started
dancing as a little school girl and my only ambition was to be a good
Kathak dancer. But guruji died and I did continue under the great Birju
Maharaj-ji but something had snapped in me and by 1993-94 I wanted to
something independent, something different. It was Ram Gopal Bajaj. now
the director of the National School of Drama, who coaxed, cajoled and
compelled me into films," confessed Smriti. Then came the coup. Vijay
Singh left his Paris abode and came to Delhi and asked Bajaj to be the
casting director for his maiden film Jaya Ganga. Even a cursory glance
into the script convinced Bajaj that in Smriti Mishra he had found
Zehra, the dreaming young Muslim prostitute-heroine of the film. The
rest is history.
Smriti was given
the script of the
movie six months before the shooting started and she was not even sure
that she would land the role. But once she was chosen, it was smooth
sailing. "Most people wonder how I could act in a movie with almost no
experience. But they forget that all Indian classical dances have a katha
(narrative) element and abhinaya (enactment) is a
sine qua non in
our choreography. The training in navarasa (the
moods) is a great help. Surely, acting before an audience or a camera
has to be more 'natural' and controlled, but a background of classical
dance is an advantage. Public performances also help you overcome crowd
or camera fright."
acknowledges that she has
learnt a lot from her three directors - Vijay Singh, Sudhir Mishra and
Shyam Benegal. "Vijay explains the scene and lets you emote in your own
way, with minimum suggestions. It was he who asked Sudhir to cast me in
Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin. Both Sudhir and Shyam babu are consummate
professionals. They know the minutest details, the most subtle nuances
of the shot. I am so fortunate to get such gurus in the very beginning
of my career in films."
Of course, her role
in Jaya Ganga has
given her the utmost satisfaction. Zehra is a dream character- she is a
singer and a dancer, a lover of Urdu poetry, a rebel who wants to run
away from the brothel and fulfill her ambition as a public performer, a
highly emotional young woman who does not deny the erotic in her. "An
actress couldn't have asked for more in her first movie. But when I see
my films, I am far from satisfied with my performance. I know I could
have done better," says a wistful Smriti...
Jaya Ganga is
enthusiastic audience at film festival screenings, which are sometimes
followed by Smriti's dance recitals. She has danced in Sydney and she
invited to perform in Paris, London and New York. She sang her two
in the film and the tune was turned into the Zehra theme by the
Vanraj Bhatia. Singing runs in the family, claims Smriti, who still
nurses the ambition to learn classical singing at the feet of none
other than Pt. Jasraj. How she wishes Shyam Benegal would have allowed
her to sing a few lines in her own voice...
Smriti wanted to be
a science graduate
but the ready-to-be-dissected frog pushed into the bosom of humanities.
The years 1988-1994 were her years of struggle and there came a time
when her four sisters were rather worried about her future. Then came
the three films and the laurels and the "ugly duckling" grew into a