The popular Telugu saying, ‘Inta gelichi raccha gelavali’ that loosely translates to ‘win at your home-base before you conquer the world’ worked the other way round for veteran actress Zarina Wahab. Despite growing up in the Telugu land in her formative years, it was Bombay that recognised her mettle first before she gained good ground in the Malayalam industry. Though Telugu films with top actors like Krishna, ANR, Chandramohan happened intermittently, the industry didn’t embrace her with the openness like the other languages.
Yet, there’s no resentment and she remains grateful for every opportunity that has come her way. Zarina still identifies herself as the Telugu girl who made it big in an alien land. Decades have passed since the actress moved to Mumbai but her Telugu diction remains as proficient. As she returns to Telugu films with the action-drama Virata Parvam exactly a decade after Ramgopal Varma’s Raktha Charitra, Klapboardpost.com engages in a heartfelt chat with the Chitchor actress.
Looking back at her 45-year-old journey in films
It’s been a beautiful journey indeed. I always wanted to work in films but didn’t aspire to be a quintessential heroine. In honest opinion, I was very lucky to get all those films as a leading lady. Even in my brief stint in Telugu, I got to work with great names like Krishna, ANR, Gummadi, Krishna Kumari, Anjali Devi; it’s an experience I can never forget. I didn’t plan anything in my career and never thought that I would end up working in so many films across multiple languages. Because I always got more than what I had cherished, I am very grateful to God.
On not being able to do as many Telugu films
I got too many Hindi film offers after Gajula Kishtayya happened. With my career flourishing in the Hindi industry, balancing it with Telugu films wasn’t easy back then. Probably had I been a heroine of this era, managing a career in both industries would have been easier. My first film in Malayalam with Kamal Haasan, Madanolsavam was such a big hit that people began asking me, ‘Why don’t you shift to Kerala?’. I was already neck deep with work in Hindi films by then, but I have been consistently acting in Malayalam films whenever I’ve gotten an opportunity. I may have got lesser offers in Telugu than other industries, but I never rejected any offer that I’ve got here and made the most of what I got. After a long time, I made a comeback with Raktha Charithra.
Her tryst with Telugu cinema
I was in school when I saw a newspaper advertisement calling for a new face in Adurti Subbarao’s next. I sent a few photos and was called for a screen test. My joy knew no bounds when I got selected for the role. The opportunity happened to me when I didn’t expect much out of it. So many people get auditioned for roles those days and it was a bolt out of the blues for me. I consider myself lucky and cherished working with a director of great repute and getting to share screenspace with a star like Krishna. Adurti was a true disciplinarian, explaining what he wanted from the cast and crew with great clarity. I never saw him raising his voice or getting angry. Krishna was a man of few words and used to sit in a corner of the location after his shot.
Finding her feet in an alien land
Acceptance in any industry boils down to the commercial success of a project and Chitchor, my first film as a heroine gave me a strong footing in Hindi films. However, I was introduced to the industry with Ishq Ishq Ishq by Dev Anand under his home banner Navketan Films. I played the role of a younger sister to Zeenat Aman in the film and I remember shooting for it in Nepal.
Then I received a call to audition for a role in Chitchor and I bagged it within 10 days after giving the screen test. Amol Palekar was in the form of his life then, he was my first hero, the shoot went on smoothly and till today, we remain great friends. He’s the only male co-star I’m in touch with. Rajshri Productions has always been known for being extremely professional; there was no scope for mischief. Everyone used to come to sets, work diligently and get back home. The shoot was wrapped in 27 days and upon release, Chitchor ran for over a year in many theatres. It was natural for an actor in such a film to be getting many offers after a humungous success.
Making peace with her roles
I need to be honest when I say I didn’t think so much about the roles I got. I mostly got to play the girl-next-door roles; they were simple characters and suited my personality aptly. I also did the occasional commercial film opposite top heroes; it’s true that the hero gets a meatier role in such films, but as an actor, you’ve to be part of all kinds of projects, that’s when you grow.
I wouldn’t be able to say in which film I did my best. There are some projects where the story may not be great but I’ll like the role and still do it. In the industry, you do films for various reasons – sometimes it’s for the role or the story; it’s for being a part of a great banner and the co-star in a few occasions, like in the case where I did Ek Aur Ek Gyarah with famed actors like Shashi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna and Neetu Singh. They are decent films and the roles may be reasonably well written, but you don’t have a choice when you’re part of a film with big names. You do it for the experience, regardless of the story or the role.
Not being picky in her later years
I may have been slightly conscious about my roles back then, but I don’t try to be too choosy these days. I have had my share of glory as a heroine. In the later years, I’ve been approached mostly for very well written characters. When they do so much homework with the story and characters, it’s hard to say no. I particularly recollect the days when we were shooting for Raktha Charithra in Ramoji Film City. I received a late night message from Ramgopal Varma where he said, ‘I really regret why I didn’t work with you for so many years’. It was very sweet of him to say that, it was such a beautiful message that accidentally got deleted from my phone. However, it’ll stay in my mind forever.
On the preparedness of young filmmakers in the current generation
The previous generation of directors too was as well prepared as the younger lot today. The only difference being that current-day filmmakers host a lot of workshops and rehearsals now; it wasn’t a popular practice in my early days. Trends keep changing in the industry at a rapid pace, it’s like the transition from the typewriter to the laptop today. I’ve been a constant witness to the transition in the industry, there’s no choice but to adapt with the times. At this age, the only thing that matters is to put my heart and soul into whatever I do. I’m getting time for household work even as I’m doing films and I am in a happy space.
About her son’s entry into the film industry
I didn’t offer any advice when my son Sooraj (Pancholi) had informed me of his interest in films. He caught us by surprise as he told us about assisting Sanjay Leela Bhansali for a film. He did it all by himself; all we did as parents was to ask if he was sure about entering the industry and he was clear about it. We neither told him anything nor did he ask us about the industry later. Sooraj is an understanding, intelligent boy. He never takes hasty decisions and is surefooted about his choices.
The return to Telugu films with Virata Parvam
Venu Udugula, the director, is a top-class storyteller and there are no two things about it. I am doing a Telugu film almost 10 years after Raktha Charithra. He’s an excellent narrator, has great precision on filmmaking nuances and makes things easy for the actor; all I had to do was to listen to him and go for the shot. The process felt effortless and I’m not trying to be humble as I say that. If not for COVID-19, the film would have been in the theatres by now. Despite not getting frequent offers, I’ve always had the urge to do Telugu films regularly and this experience truly satiated the actor in me. I play Rana Daggubati’s mother in the film. She is a very independent lady, a self-made woman who moves on with life even after her husband dies. While the son is working elsewhere, she’s home-bound more or less; it’s an emotional yet strong character.
An interesting fact here, being Venu’s wife’s name is also Zarina. She saw me in a critically acclaimed Malayalam film that was nominated for the Oscars and recommended my name to him. He too watched the film and apparently liked my performance and told that he wanted me to play a role on similar lines for Virata Parvam. So, I am thankful to Zarina.
Spending time with family during lockdown
On a lighter note, I spent so much time with my family in the last few months that I’m tired of seeing their faces (laughs). Over the last few months, fulfilling my role in the house, cooking for the family tirelessly, made my head go round. However, I willingly accepted my role as a homemaker when I took a break from the industry after my marriage. They say that a woman’s life is complete only when she gets married and I enjoyed my family life. It’s a thankless job and you hardly find time for anything else; I had to take care of children when they were young. When they were reasonably grown up, the television industry was growing rapidly and I told my husband that I was interested to act for the small screen. He told, ‘I never stopped you from working, you don’t need my permission to work’ and my comeback eventually happened through television.
Films and COVID-19
Things may remain uncertain in the film industry at least for a year or two. Theatres are shut, shootings are not happening and it’ll take time for the industry to get back on track. We have to wait for it. Even more than the actors of the yesteryears, this generation of actors is an aware lot and know to handle this situation.
On handling the anxieties of the film profession
There’s so much politics in the industry now; back in our day, the climate wasn’t as vicious. They used to simply cast actors on their merit; be it me or Shabana Azmi, they chose people who were right for the film. It feels strange to hear the stories about the games people play in the industry these days and I keep wondering if such stories are even true. The 70s and 80s were simpler times; the industry has been fair to me by all means and all I have are beautiful memories.
The inevitability of death and Basu Chatterjee
I was very sad upon hearing the news of his death. It isn’t new for the world to praise someone to the skies after they die and not realise their worth when they are alive. We may even regret passing by their house and not being able to greet them after they are no more. We all met together last year and went to Basuda’s house; Vidya Sinha was there with us too. Sadly, she too passed away recently.
Stepping into the digital space
I’ve recently shot for Mahesh Bhatt’s web series, that’ll premiere on Jio soon. The experience was more or less similar to that of films than television. The television industry tends to work on a frenetic pace but this project had all the wherewithal needed for a big-budget feature film. As a viewer, it’s a matter of convenience where you want to watch something. Web series is something you watch in the comfort of your homes while films merit a big-screen experience. Both have their own advantages.