Lalitaji had the Pawar

Left eye a-twitching, a voice which could cut glass and a body lingo that said no-trespassing, there she was — harsher than-life: the she-devil everyone loved to hate. And if she were still fuming and fulminating, come Wednesday (April 18), she would have been 96 striking terror from her rest bed. The pun’s irresistible: Lalitaji had the Pawar.
Born Amba Laxman Rao Sagar in Nashik, to a cloth trading family, she passed away in 1998 at the age of 81. She did not live to see the vamps of the new millennium, which is just as well, because those monster-mausi roles have been relegated to the booby tube. Like Pran was identified with evil in his heyday, she exuded sheer malice and tyranny from every pore of her petite body.
Redeemingly, towards the mid-point of their careers, both switched lanes and suddenly oozed the syrup of human kindness. Pran turned in his most seminal performances of benevolence with Upkar and Zanjeer. As for Lalita Pawar, she turned softy with Mem Didi and Professor (the man-hating dowager who flips for Shammi Kapoor masquerading as an oldie). But if you ask me, the Indian Cruella de Ville’s flipside — of a goody-two-shoes Samaritan — was best evidenced with Raj Kapoor in Shree 420 as Ganga-mai and in Anari as Mrs D’Sa. To his Chaplinesque woes, she was the perfect Agony Auntyji.
So why am I ambling down Lalita Pawar lanes today? Literally because I can never forget my only face-to-face encounter with La Pawar at K.N. Singh’s ground-floor apartment. The much-feared villain with the mobile eyes and brow led a life of semi-retirement in a leafy bylane of Matunga. On Sundays there would be an extended game of cards, drinks and bhajias. She was a regular there, and was fanning herself with her cards. She asked if the fan’s speed could be increased. It was instant, no one could refuse her. She looked at me, bemused, “Oh, so you’re the one who writes those reviews?” and went on to inform me about Baburao Patel, the editor-critic of Mother India magazine. He would often describe a film he disliked as “fit enough only for rapists… and the mentally unstable”.
“No one can be as frank and fearless as him,” Lalitaji looked pointedly at me and held her gaze, to monitor my reaction. “Of course,” I responded with humility. “I can never ever hope to be compared to him.” She inspected her cards and continued, “Or with Foltan for that matter.” Foltan was the nickname of K.N. Singh’s younger brother Bikram Singh, my senior and mentor. Again, I said instinctively, “Never, how’s that possible? Bikram saab has taught me everything.” To that, she chortled, almost disparagingly, “Bahut shyaana ladka hai… says all the right things.” I didn’t dare to contradict her. I was getting a doze of her on-screen vamping medicine, and it tasted sweet.
Any which way, the life and career of Lalita Pawar have been chronicled inadequately in the English language media. Books, monographs or in-depth articles weren’t quite the norm in the 1970s-’80s. How wonderful it would be to wind back to a megathon Q and A with the actress who shifted from the silent era to the talkies and then established herself as a formidable character artiste, never complaining about her typecasting as a horrifying stepmother or mother-in-law who would rain abuse on the floor-swabbing heroine. Never short of work, she was the devious Manthara in Ramanand Sagar’s TV serial Ramayan. A heroine during the 1930s, she couldn’t be the doe-eyed beauty after 1942: Bhagwan Dada had slapped her so hard during a film shot that she suffered facial paralysis and a damaged left eye responsible for a squint which she made into a lethal weapon aimed at her adversaries.
Her private life was rocky. She divorced her husband Ganpatrao on learning about his affair with her younger sister. Subsequently, she married film producer Rajprakash Gupta. She died alone in her home at Aundh, Pune, since Gupta was in hospital post-surgery and her only son was away.
It’s a pity that the showbiz satraps have never spoken of her in their flashbacks to the glory days of the 1950s when cinema was black and white. Ditto its protagonists. Truly, it was an era of absolutes. If the heroine was strictly vanilla, the vamp was blacker than tar. Virtue combated vice with no in-betweens.
Alongside Lalita Pawar — with the onset of colour cinema in the ’60s — Shashikala and Bindu became the presiding vamps. Unarguably, though, Lady Pawar remained unsurpassed. She did not have to break into cabarets, flaunt cheesy outfits or wear blue contact lenses. Our Cruella just had to stare at the camera hard and unafraid. Instantly, there would be lean, mean magic. Now that’s acting.

The writer is a journalist, film critic and film director

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