Ours after India awoke as an independent nation, a family in Ranaghat, in the Nadia district of West Bengal, bleary-eyed from staying up for Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s midnight address, was woken to the wail of a newborn baby girl.
Actor Rakhee Gulzar was born in the wee hours of that morning; her simple family unaware that the child would go on to become one of the most versatile and successful Indian actors of the 1970s and 1980s.
Rakhee made her debut as an actor in a Bengali film at the age of 20. Mumbai beckoned soon, and her first Hindi film, Jeevan Mrityu, was released in 1970. But she is best remembered for her role in films such as Reshma Aur Shera, Sharmilee, Bemisal, Trishul, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, Kabhie Kabhie and Ram Lakhan.
After a brief marriage to film producer and journalist Ajoy Biswas, Rakhee married film-maker-lyricist Gulzar. Their daughter, Meghna, is part of a new breed of Indian directors in their 20s and 30s, and Rakhee, estranged from her husband, spends time between her Mumbai home and her farm in Panvel.
Her first thought, as she speaks about her year of birth from her Panvel farmhouse: “Gulzar, my daughter and I love our country. Even if I am offered the moon, I will not migrate.”
As a child growing up in Bengal, Rakhee was oblivious to the significance of her date of birth, although there were celebrations in the local government institutions and at her school. “There were no celebrations in my household,” she recalls, “I went to a local girls’ school and, on that day, we had poetry recitals and were forced to wear a sari, which I loved. But my birthday was insignificant.” Her father was struggling to keep the family’s bearings intact because he lost everything he had when East Bengal became East Pakistan and later, Bangladesh. “My father would say, ‘What did we get? First we were ruled by the goras and then by scoundrels.’ My parents still harbour some disappointment, but I try to make them happy.”
But Rakhee makes it more than obvious that even she is sceptical of India’s progress: “What choices do the people of this country have? The laws of the nation are not respected by the powers that be. We have few role models to look up to. The youth is an arrogant generation without values or feelings. We are surrounded by unrest, be it in Kashmir, the North-East, Sri Lanka or the Naxalite movement in so many parts of the country. There is absolute, uncontrollable chaos beyond the big cities.” But she is positive about what’s in store, because she has not lost her faith in the democratic system of governance.
For the last four years, the actor has been a recluse; her last film was Dil Ka Rishta (2003). “I began to feel the monotony of being on a film set and don’t feel like stepping into one again. There’s too much noise and technicality now, I don’t fit in,” she says.
Her date of birth, if not her spirit, has led many of her friends to call her an independent person. She agrees: “I am totally independent and a loner. I still don’t celebrate my birthday but, on that day, I go to a school and spend time with children.” Her wish for her 60th birthday is individual initiative for drastic change. “I intend to do something worthy before I leave this world. If we try, we can change everything. If the city is dirty or the environment is damaged, we are to blame.”