Seema Pahwa: Bollywood’s latest go-to mom is an import from DD’s first soap
For an actor credited with barely 15 films in a career spanning close to 50 years, two movie releases in the last three weeks seem to have finally brought Seema Pahwa the attention she deserves. Best remembered as Badki in Hum Log, India’s first television soap opera that came out in 1984, the 55-year-old actor is currently basking in the glory of her image as India’s new-age, small-town mother—acquired courtesy her performance in Bareilly Ki Barfi and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan.
“Some of it (the relatively lower quantity of work) has to do with the fact that I’d taken a break when my kids were growing up. But when I wanted to get back, I didn’t get that much work,” Pahwa said. “Good work hasn’t come my way very often and you don’t get a kick by doing the same stuff all the time. But I’ve done theatre regularly though film and television work has been erratic. So it doesn’t feel like that much of a gap to me.”
Delhi-born Pahwa, who started her career with a radio play in 1968 at the age of five, spent most of her childhood in studios and recording rooms. Theatre happened soon after. An active member of Delhi’s Sambhav group and National School of Drama Repertory Company, Pahwa was already a veteran by the time Hum Log turned her into a household name. A move to Mumbai in 1994 brought about some theatre opportunities and occasional films such as Shyam Benegal’s Sardari Begum (1996) and Zubeidaa (2001). But the actor in her had to mostly bide her time.
“Ferrari Ki Sawaari (that saw her play an over-zealous wedding planner) in 2012 was a big break and considering my work was appreciated, I thought things would happen but they just didn’t until two years later with Ankhon Dekhi (she plays harassed wife to an ageing Sanjay Mishra),” Pahwa recalled. “After that, I was hopeful I might be considered for the mother roles but yet again, there was no work and I sat at home as I did after Dum Laga Ke Haisha. It’s only now that these two films have happened.”
The reason for that, Pahwa said, can simply be attributed to changing times in the industry.
“The directors or writers are not to blame directly. It’s some kind of a norm for certain kind of films to be made at one time. Like in the 1960s or ’70s, you had the Basu Chatterjee type of family dramas which had beautiful stories centered around home. By the ’80s and ’90s, these movies had disappeared and action flicks came in. That era ended when films became only about the hero and heroine,” she said.
Now, Pahwa added, with films such as Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Ankhon Dekhi and Dum Laga Ke Haisha, the ensemble cast has become important again. These are films meant for the family that give as much importance to each character in the family as they do to the lead pair.
“There has been a paradigm shift in storytelling techniques where every character has become an integral part of the narrative. I wouldn’t even call them the supporting cast, they are enablers in the film,” said Bareilly Ki Barfi director Ashwini Iyer Tiwari, adding that actors like Pahwa and Pankaj Tripathi, who play parents to lead actor Kriti Sanon in her film, help the lead actors shine and grow. And their indispensability reflects in every aspect of filmmaking.
“We can’t really understand the promotional game. But the fact that we (character artistes) are involved (in promotional activities) feels great,” said Pahwa, who for the first time in her career participated in some TV shows like The Kapil Sharma Show and The Drama Company during the promotions of Bareilly Ki Barfi.
“It felt like we could also make a difference to putting the film out. These things mean a lot to actors like us who’ve struggled for so long. You then feel like giving more than your 100% because you’re getting returns,” Pahwa said. “For the longest time, supporting artistes have seen movies as a space where you just do your job, collect your cheque and go home which is a very negative approach to have. I think if directors and producers can help maintain positivity by giving them some recognition, films will turn out much better.”
To be sure, Pahwa, who has just finished a film for television actor and debutant director Harsh Chhaya called Khajoor Pe Atke, is in the process of reading and locking a few more scripts.
“I’m really enjoying the tag of the new-age mother. There’s a new wave in cinema right now where directors have come in with new thoughts and experiments. Earlier you’d call it parallel or art cinema, but that’s not the case anymore. Because these are small-budget films, the producer’s risk is lesser, the money riding on the actors is not very high and you can experiment a lot. I think it’s a great, beautiful time,” she said.
The biggest example of unconventional faces making it to the forefront, Pahwa said, is an actor like Nawazuddin Siddiqui whose success in commercial cinema speaks volumes.
Still, Pahwa is under no illusions.
She expects that the roles she will likely be offered immediately will basically want her to repeat her performance as a mother in contemporary small-town India. “If an actor has delivered a performance that you appreciate, you should acknowledge she’s a good actor and can do all sorts of roles. At least try her out.”