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|October 5, 1997||
Pretty Funny!V Gangadhar
Occasion: Staging of Shubangi Kala Mandir’s English play, Bachelor’s Wives.
Everytime one of the characters, an aged maidservant came on the stage wearing a woebgone expression, the audience went into peals of laughter. She did not speak. With a shrug, she picked up whatever clothes were piled up on a chair and took them off to the laundry. Most of them were not meant for the laundry, but that was where they went. She brough the house down without saying a word. That was Shobha Khote, Hindi screen’s long-standing comedienne, who has now shifted to television.
A well-known screen actress since 1956, Khote is now very busy with her stage shows and TV serials. Bachelor’s Wives adapted from the Marathi farce Gholat Ghol had more than 40 shows and wowed audiences in Bombay and Aurangabad. It was a home production for Khote. That was two years ago. Now, she is essentially a TV presence, with her Zaban Sambhal Ke (based on the Mind Your Language series) being a major hit.
She is a busy person, goes out for shooting early and returning late at night. Appointments are hard to get and sometimes they are cancelled. But Shobha Khote is such a friendly person that when you finally meet up, her apologies are so sincere that you forgot how difficult it was to access her.
We sat in a small, comfortable room, chock full of computers and electronic equipment. ‘I am using this room for editing my TV serials,’ she explained. Before we got down to business, talking about her life, career and future plans.
It was only natural that Shobha Khote strayed into show business. Her father, Nandu Khote, was a star on stage and in the silent movies. Durga Khote, a famous movie personality of the yesteryear, was her aunt. The huge family home at Bombay’s Chowpatty was always full of guests.
"I had a happy, carefree childhood," she says. "Ours was a big, joint family and most of my cousins were boys. I used to play with them, run around, climb trees and was an acknowledged tomboy." She studied at St Teresa’s Convent, Girgaum, and graduated in English Literature from Wilson College.
Life in college was quite exciting to Khote and her brother Viju, another well-known stage, TV and screen actor. She took to swimming and cycling, excelled in both games and set up a new record for the one mile in cycling.
"My family was sports-minded," recalls Khote. "Father had built a gymnasium in the house itself. Many of his friends spent time there exercising. I learnt a lot from him. He taught that one can learn hard work, sincerity and team spirit from sports."
Both at school and college, Khote made occasional appearances on stage.
The role was a challenge. Seema, which starred Nutan and Balraj Sahni was not the run-of-the-mill Hindi movie, and Khote was pitted against two highly sensitive and intelligent artists. But she came out with flying colours. "Amiyada told me he wanted a different kind of actress for the role, who would be natural. I fitted the bill. In fact, he did not even give me screen test," says Khote.
She also had a score to settle with veteran actress Leela Chitnis, who along with her two songs, was producing a movie. Chitnis offered Khote the lead role, on condition she would not work elsewhere for the next five years.
"My father did not agree to this condition," she recalled. "In fact, I had cut my hair for the role and even rehearsed enthusiastically for some weeks. And when they dropped me, I wanted to show them the loss was theirs."
Filmistan offered her roles in Paying Guest and Champakali. PG was a big hit but Khote did not enjoy her role, which was too negative for her liking. "I disliked the role so much that I refused to watch the movie?" She saw it on video much later.
A sportswomen, did she enjoy acting?
Okay, she nods. "Basically, I was fun-loving and liked to be with people. Because of my family background, I had no problems in the film world."
She did another film, Dekh Kabira na Roya with Amiya Chakraborty, who later died of a heart attack. It wasa shattering blow, because Chakraborty had been her friend, philosopher and guide.
"He was very good in casting," recalls Khote. "Even top stars like Dilip Kumar wanted to work with him and gave off their best in his films."
It was Chakraborty also who found she had a flair for comedy. Even her serious roles in his films had comic touches which were highly appreciated. And when Chhoti Bahen, an L V Prasad release from Madras, turned out to be a megahit, Khote was earmarked for comic roles. And her famous pairing with comedian Mehmood began.
For the next six years, films starring Shobha Khote, Mehmood and Dhumal were highly popular and did roaring business at the box office. Sasural, Dil Ek Mandir, Dil Tera Diwana, Bharosa and several other films celebrated jubilees.
Even Khote's negative role have often been tinged with comedy, a case in point being the superhit, Ek Duje Ke Liye.
"Oh, I was not enamoured of being a heroine," Khote shrugs. " I could not dance well. My movements were stiff when most of the time the heroines were running around trees being chased by heroes. I was doing well as the only leading comedienne and had plenty of work. I don’t think I missed out anything because I did not get heroine’s roles."
Her constant pairing with Mehmood were also grist for film industry gossip. Khote laughed.
"I know about it," she admitted. "Yes, we were together in so many films that people gossiped about us. But there was a wide cultural differences between us. Of course, I knew him very well but we were nothing but co-stars."
As tea arrived, we discussed the changing role for comedy on Hindi screen. Khote pointed out that comedians like Gope, Yakub and Bhagwan had been popular them having to resort to buffoonery. Again, during the 1960’s and 1970’s, the comedy on the Hindi screen was clean and depended mostly on comic situations.
I asked her about Mehmood’s type of low comedy, consisting mainly of lifting the dhoti and making fun of South Indians. "When we paired, he was not like that," Khote says loyally. "Maybe, he had to change according to times."
Shobha Khote regretted that most of the present-day Hindi films offered no scope for clean comedy. "Everything is so crude, vulgar," she complains. The dialogue is full of double-meanings. That is why the comedian and the comedienne are almost extinct species, now," lamented the actress.
Why does India not have full-fledged comedies, we asked Khote.
"We can never have those Hollywood-style sophisticated comedies," she replied. "Our society is so varied and a large percentage of our moviegoers are not highly educated. Sophisticated comedy would go over their heads. So we have to exaggerate, overact and indulge in a bit of buffoonery to raise laughter. Subtle jokes will not be appreciated here because they have to be explained to the audiences."
Though she has liked acting in films like Krishan Kanhaiya, on the whole she is disillusioned with trends in modern cinema. ‘There is no respect for verteran character actors and actresses," she says. "We have to wait for several hours for the arrival of the lead pair. The industry does not pay us the respect we deserve."
It ws not so in the past. Nutan, with whom Shobha Khote worked in her first film, Seema, was ever ready to help her and make her feel at ease. The late Geeta Bali was "just out of this world", according to Khote. The heroine did not mind if her co-stars occasionally "stole" her scenes. "We were one big, happy family in those days," she recalls with a sigh. "Juniors, character artistes, even set hands, were treated with respect."
But she is happy that the atmosphere in the TV serials is a vast improvement. "Shooting goes on continuously but that is an advantage," she says.
Why did she branch out into English plays?
It had a larger audience. "Of course, if a good Hindi script is available, I will be glad to work on it," she says. But then, English plays also attract more sponsors. But shifting shouldn't be a problem, considering she has produced and directed even Marathi films.
Her children are well placed -- one son in the US, the second a successful sound recordist and her daughter, Bhavna Balsaver, an award-winning TV actress.
But Khote won't settle into complacence. For her there is yet work to do, worlds to be conquered.
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