My parents married in 1959. I was born in 1961. Mom was already a huge star then. My earliest memory of her is of her playing an ‘animal’ game with me. For instance, she’d say ‘bear’ and then come and give me a bear hug. Or startle me pretending to be a chipkali (lizard). Earlier we lived at Malabar Hill. We shifted to Sagar Sangeet in Colaba in 1977. Acting was her profession. But at home she was a regular Maharashtrian housewife. A hands-on mother, she enjoyed doing everything for me. If the staff wasn’t available for some reason, she’d happily pitch in. She had no qualms about walking down the laundry and giving the clothes for a wash, she was that down-to-earth. She’d attend the sports function in my school. I was a good swimmer. She’d cheer from the stands.
A complete Mama’s boy, I’d miss her terribly when she went outdoors. Once I remember going to the airport with dad to receive her. I have this vision of her walking out from the exit gate, looking beautiful in a lemon saree.
She loved spending time in our bungalow at Mumbra. I’d tag along with her. She’d call me her dum (tail). Vacations meant going for shikaar with dad and his friends. Of course, hunting was later barred and for a good reason. We’d stay in a Dak bungalow. Mom was like one of the guys. We’d go for night runs. We had 22 dogs at our farmhouse in Mumbra. Mom’s pet was a white poodle called Cupid. I had a Doberman pinscher named Sweety. Dad’s black Labrador, Tipsy, would accompany us on shikaar. Dad also ran a poultry and a dairy.
I visited Mom’s sets often. Being ‘Nutanji’s son’, I was looked after. I’d have fun sitting on the trolley and going up and down on the crane. That was my first brush with cinema. Memories of travelling in the train to Kashmir, Madras…and other outdoors are as vivid. As an actor, she was a class apart. Or else she couldn’t have bagged six Filmfare Awards. But as a kid, I hated watching her films. I’d wonder why she was going through so much pain. Today, when I see her films, I admire her as an actor. At the same time, it’s not a happy feeling. Tears well up. You don’t see the actor; you see your mother. I can never watch her films at a stretch. They remind me of her. Why visit those memories?
In Mom’s footsteps
I wanted to join the air-force as I was interested in flying. Dad advised me against it. He believed that while it was good to serve the country, I wouldn’t fit into such a structured life. Mom was keen I follow dad’s vocation. She was aware of the uncertainties of her profession. Mom’s advice to me was, “I can’t teach you acting. But attempt everything with honesty. Meri naak bahut lambi hai. Kadam phoonk phoonk kar rakhna.” When she saw Itihaas (1987), she didn’t say how great or horrible
She only remarked, “Open your mouth and pronounce the words. It’s ‘Maa’, not ‘Ma’.” She cautioned me against speaking Hindi with an English accent.I had an extremely disciplined upbringing. The same applied even after I’d done six films. Once, I was supposed to be at the studio for a 9 am shoot. When Mom saw me at home at 8 am, she inquired why I hadn’t left. I said I had to shave. She said, “Go there and shave. Your unit shouldn’t be left stressing whether you’ll turn up or not.” I was aware of the adulation bestowed on her. But I realised the respect she commanded when one day she happened to accompany me to producer Nitin Manmohan’s office. The moment she walked in, everyone stood up. That moment has stayed with me.
It was the fateful morning of July 16, 1989 when Dad woke me up and said, “Mom isn’t feeling well. You’ll have to take her for a check-up to the hospital.” On the way back, Mom told me it was breast cancer. At first a lumpectomy was done and she was fine. Around June-July 1990, the cancer spread to the liver. Then the deterioration was quick. On February 9, 1991, she was admitted to the hospital again. During that period there was talk of shifting her to Sloane Kettering Institute in the US.
She told me, “Whatever it is, I don’t want to leave my country.” I assured her saying, “Don’t worry Mom, I’ll see to it that you don’t check out from this hospital till I come back.” I was to leave for Ooty for the Shola Aur Shabnam shoot. I regret saying those words because in hindsight they somewhere rang true. Nevertheless, before flying to Ooty, I dropped in to see her that morning. After bidding goodbye and stepping out, I turned back and opened the door again to take a look at her. I saw her looking at me and smiling. That was the last time I saw her alive.
On February 20, while I was in Ooty, I got a call that her condition had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. By the time I reached Mumbai on February 21, it was 4.30 pm. She had passed away.
Mom had turned extremely spiritual and wrote bhajans towards the later part of her life. Her palms often smelt of chandan. She’d say, “Come here and smell it.” She introduced me to the Bhagavd Gita when I was 16. She’d say, “I open any page of the Gita and I find the answer I’m searching for.” When she was diagnosed with cancer her attitude was like, ‘Chalo issmein bhi kuch achcha hoga’. She had understood there was something way larger than us. After she passed away, we’d hung her photo-frame on the wall. Below it, on a pillar, dad had kept a lit diya. From behind the pillar, grew a tulsi plant on its own. It remained there… till the house caught fire (Rajneesh Bahl died of burns after his penthouse apartment in the 32-storeyed Sagar Sangeet caught fire on August 3, 2004).
Laws of life
I was hot-headed, driven towards achievement, no different from any other youngster with boosting testosterone. Believing that I could do it all. Then suddenly one day, you’re sitting at home and the house below catches fire and dad dies. I realised you can control nothing. If you believe you can, then you’re a fool. I’m completely given to destiny. How did I cope? Do you have a choice? You do derive support from the people around you – my wife Aarti, my daughter Pranutan…
Regarding the relationship between my Nani (veteran actor Shobhna Samarth) and Mom (it was alleged that Shobhna had mishandled daughter Nutan’s funds, resulting in a two-decade long court case), I wasn’t exposed to the malefices or the dirt by either of my parents. All I knew was that there were differences of opinion, which had to be sorted legally. My Nani and aunts (actor Tanuja and Chatura) still visited us. I was never not allowed to spend time with them. Nani was a feisty lady and so was my mother. After all Mom had been brought up by her. When the problem sorted out (in 1983), a weight was lifted off the family. Today, I have built a house next to Tanu (actor Tanuja) maasi’s house in Lonavala.
I don’t know why people felt that Mom was a sad person (referring to reports of a troubled marriage leaving Nutan distressed). Maybe, they know her better than I do. I never saw her unhappy. A person like her could never be unhappy. It’s people’s interpretation of her and of their interaction with her. I saw a person, who was full of life, who minded her own business. Of course, she used to be sad at times. Everyone does. Dad has been maligned and misunderstood. Straightforward people usually are. He wasn’t a person to take crap. He was a naval officer. He lived by his principles. He had fought World War II. He was not the kind, who’d have drinks and womanise and fall all over. He was a straight-talking person. My mother respected that. He was the one, who insisted that Mom do Bandini (1963), even though she was expecting me then. He wanted my wife Aarti to continue working. He motivated Pranutan to act since she was a child.
He was more liberal than I am.