'In India, sexuality is covert; bikini was a taboo': Celebrating a 'natural' royal, Sharmila Tagore

Farhana Farook
·9-min read
An Evening in Paris
An Evening in Paris

Sophisticated and erudite, Sharmila Tagore was a natural runner for royalty. On her 76th birthday, we celebrate the woman for all seasons.

Satyajit Ray’s studio was her school. Shakti Samanta’s set her playground. And being kin of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore her heirloom. Sharmila Tagore was cut out for a great romance with the movies.

Draped in handwoven sarees for mentor Ray’s reality chronicles and the soaked-in-sensuality muse of Samanta, young Sharmila was confident and comfortable in her skin.

An Evening In Paris
An Evening In Paris

Stylised gait and bouffant, winged-eyeliner and curled eyelashes… she was glamour overload when she preened in beachwear.

Switching to the conventional was perhaps her shrewdest move. Though Aradhana was Rajesh Khanna’s vehicle to superstardom, it was a celebration for Sharmila as well. She proved that marriage could not mar her career. That in a hero-centric film, she could walk away with the sympathy and the awards given her ease with tears

Life truly came full circle when Satyajit Ray presented her the Best Actor Filmfare for Aradhana (1969).

Sharmila Tagore and Rajesh Khanna in Aradhana
Sharmila Tagore and Rajesh Khanna in Aradhana

Wedded into royalty, she played the Begum of Pataudi to the hilt… the two distinct lives running parallel but never at loggerheads.

At 76, very much like the silver in her hair, Sharmila continues to spot the silver lining in life whether it’s through travel, books or just the giggles of her grandchildren…


Daughter of Gitindranath and Ira Tagore, Sharmila Tagore was born on December 8, 1944 in Hyderabad. Her parents were distantly related to legendary poet/writer Rabindranath Tagore. Sharmila had two younger sisters, the late Oindrila Kunda and Romila Sen.

The family later moved to Kolkata. Satyajit Ray first set eyes on his Aparna (her character in his Apur Sansar, 1959), when 14-year-old Sharmila visited him with her parents.

In the memoir, My Years With Apu, Ray recalled, “She wore a yellow frock… it was difficult to imagine her as Apu’s (Soumitra Chatterjee) bride… Yet, the girl’s eyes told me not to reject her. I told my wife to dress her in a simple cotton sari… and tie her hair up in a bun… She was Aparna to the fingertips!”

Sharmila’s act as the adolescent wife, who dies during childbirth, in the last of Ray’s Apu trilogy was bang on. The film won the President’s gold medal and the British Film Institute’s Sutherland Trophy. It was followed by Ray’s Devi (1960), a heart-wrenching story of a young bride, sacrificed at the altar of superstition.

“Manekda (Ray) could’ve been intimidating but he wasn’t. He made eye contact with you. His eyes would always twinkle and he’d smile while he spoke to you…. Even if you stood there and did nothing, he’d make it look as if you were emoting by getting the frame right,” said Sharmila in an interview.

She worked with Ray again in Nayak, Aranyer Din Ratri and Seemabaddha (between 1966 -1971).


The film that brought her home to Bollywood was Shakti Samanta’s Kashmir Ki Kali (1964) opposite Shammi Kapoor. “I had to lip-synch the songs. That was uncomfortable. I was stiff during the first song, Tareef karoon kya uski, shot on Dal Lake. But by the time the film got over, I’d learnt how to be coy,” Sharmila recalled her shift from Ray’s world.

Thereon, she gave commercial hits like Waqt with Shashi Kapoor, Yeh Raat Phir Na Aayegi with Biswajeet, Aame Samne with Shashi and Sawan ki Ghata with Manoj Kumar (between 1965 - 1966)

 Dharmendra and Sharmila in Anupama
Dharmendra and Sharmila in Anupama

She formed a hit pair with Dharmendra, starring in seven movies - Devar, Anupama, Mere Hamdam Mere Dost, Satyakam and Yakeen (between 1966 -1969).

Of these, her act of a self-loathing Anupama won her acclaim. She also did Chupke Chupke and Ek Mahal Ho Sapno Ka (both in 1975) and Sunny (1984) with Dharmendra.

During the ’60s, Sharmila’s beachwear avatar in Shakti Samanta’s An Evening In Paris (1967) made a splash. In quick succession, she did a bikini cover shoot for Filmfare in 1968, inviting more acerbic reactions.

“Some called it a deliberate move to grab eyeballs. I hated that… I didn’t want such a reputation... The Indian approach to sex is not overt. Even in our artistic representations, women are always decorated with ornaments and hair. Sexuality is covert even in our ghazals… So, swimwear was considered taboo," Sharmila once explained


Shakti Samanta’s Aradhana (1969) worked as alchemy. The film buoyed several careers – along with Rajesh Khanna it boosted Kishore Kumar’s popularity too. Moreover, it had Sharmila play a beleaguered wife and a woebegone mother. “When I was first shown as an old woman on screen, the audiences started giggling. But by the time the scene ended, they were sniffling,” she recalled

From then on, she partnered Rajesh’s success in films like Safar, Amar Prem, Daag, Maalik, Chhoti Bahu, Raja Rani and Avishkaar ( between 1970-1974). Of these, Safar had her play a woman, who loses both the man she loves and the man she marries in a quirk of fate.

Amar Prem had her play the prostitute Pushpa, who becomes the soulmate of her caller, played by Rajesh. Avishkaar had the Rajesh-Sharmila pair venture into the stark world of Basu Bhattacharya, where romance withers when confronted with reality.

“Kaka (Rajesh Khanna) often come late on the sets. Though we were friends, we had our tiffs too. When you’re working together, you tend to be selfish. Both of us wanted the same side of our profiles to be on camera. Being the hero, he won most of the time,” she said in an interview.

With Sanjeev Kumar in Mausam
With Sanjeev Kumar in Mausam

Her other films between 1972- 1979 include Daastan, Aa Gale Lag Jaa, Amanush and Griha Pravesh (all between 1972 - 1979).

Noteworthy is Gulzar’s Mausam (1975).

As the woman, who pines for her lover and as the daughter, who discovers her father, her double role fetched the National Film Award. Again, in Gulzar’s Namkeen (1982), she played one of the daughters in an all-female family, overwhelmed by the presence of a man.

“Here, your life stops at 30 and you’re considered redundant. But that’s the time when you’ve had experiences and are more than just a pretty face. So, I never gave up. I took time off to have children but continued working,” said Sharmila.

In the early ’90s, her international forays included Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala. She won the National Award for her work in Goutam Ghose’s Abar Aranye (2003). Playing Deepika Padukone’s mother in Break Ke Baad (2010) was one of her last significant roles.


Looking back at her romance with cricket captain Nawab Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi… well, it had the razzmatazz of a fairy-tale – a match between the most glamorous professions of cricket and films. Sharmila married Pataudi in a nikah ceremony on 27 December 1969 and acquired the title of Begum Ayesha Sultana Khan.

“When we decided to get married... we were in the throes of young love; we didn’t know what the fuss around us was all about… For us, the world began and ended with each other,” Sharmila reportedly said.

They had three children – Saif Ali Khan, Saba Ali Khan and Soha Ali Khan. They were together for 47 years, till Pataudi’s death, at age 70, on 22 September 2011.

In the foreword to Suresh Menon’s book, Pataudi: Nawab Of Cricket, Sharmila wrote, “I first met him a few weeks before my 21st birthday. He was, even at that young age, the same person till the end of his life— mature, calm, responsible... I, on the other hand, was impulsive and unschooled in the ways of the world. I guess we complemented each other.”

On another occasion she said, “Life has completely changed after Tiger’s (Pataudi) demise… I do miss him terribly but he lives within me… That consoles me,” she said.

Sharmila insists she’s not a ‘high maintenance’ person. “A car doesn’t have to be a Mercedes as long as it’s cool and moving. My jewellery doesn’t have to be worth 22 carats. It should be aesthetic. Flying economy doesn’t bother me. The idea is to enjoy life as it comes,” said Sharmila in an interview

And with such affable grandkids like Taimur Ali Khan and Inaaya Naumi Kemmu, life’s hit a fascinating curve.

Unravelling the world of classic Bollywood cinema - here’s more from Farhana Farook.