V Shantaram is renowned as the Indian filmmaker who made path breaking movies that were way ahead of their times. He made movies in Marathi and Hindi. The feisty Shanta Apte was one of his many protégés who he introduced to cinema. Many do not know that the legendary filmmaker had a turbulent personal life having married thrice to Bimal, Jayshree and Sandhya.
His relationship with his second wife, Jayashree, went from bad to worse, turning into a murky legal battle that only added to the animosity between the sparring duo. Jayashree, an actor, was born and brought up in Mumbai and shared screen space with Shantaram in “Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani”. She acted in many memorable movies with her mentor but the entry of Vijaya Deshmukh (later rechristened Sandhya, by the maverick director) seemed to have angered her. As is the case with many actresses who enter into wedlock with their much married hero, Jayashree had conveniently forgotten how her entry into the producer-director’s life would have caused immense heartache to his first wife Bimal. Both Shantaram’s first wife and second wife lived close to each other near Peddar Road in South Mumbai. Their children, interestingly, got along like a house on fire.
The out-of-work Jayashree made an attempt to re-enter movies in the mid-50’s. In one of her media interviews, she claimed that she had to work to support her three children – Kiran, Rajshree and Tejashree as well as her sister and brother-in-law. Her second attempt to make it in Bollywood was an unmitigated disaster. Bollywood is not so kind towards mothers with three children. Jayashree may not have had any inclination to do mother-sister roles. Barring a few exceptions, most heroines who have had a fairly successful career in Bollywood are not eager to return as character artistes. Later, Jayashree seems to have entered into an out-of-court settlement with her ex-husband and could afford to remain insulated from Bollywood after her comeback attempt had failed. To her credit, Jayashree did not give too many interviews to film magazines and she was far removed from the spotlight. Another development that worked in her favour was her daughter Rajshree’s interest in Bollywood.
Rajshree was introduced by Shantaram in 1960 in the movie “Stree”, which also had Sandhya fresh from the successes of “Jhanak Jhanak Payal Bhaaje” (1955), “Do Aankhen Barah Haat” (1957) and “Navrang” (1959). After “Jhanak Jhanak Payal Bhaaje” was shot, Sandhya landed straight in a hospital for spine surgery. The rigorous dance movements in the movie and Shantaram’s penchant for perfection did her in. Though Sandhya’s dance was nothing great, the success of her movies made her famous. Most of Shantaram’s movies had great music and that worked in Sandhya’s favour. She even got to visit US along with her mentor when “Do Ankhen Bara Haat” won an award. Shantaram was a creative genius. None could deny that. But he had a weak spot for women who were his protégés.
Sandhya’s first meeting with Shantaram happened after an intense struggle. She had prayed to a Goddess in a famous Gujarat temple that she would give up rice if her wish to meet Shantaram was fulfilled. Her vow worked wonders. Not only did Sandhya meet her mentor, but her closeness to the latter drove a wedge in Jayshree and Shantaram’s marital life and they soon parted ways.
Sandhya, according to Bollywood insiders, used to wear only white when she was not shooting. Credit has to go to Shantaram who did not mind showing Sandhya in a voluptuous avatar in his super hit “Pinjara” (1972). Sandhya’s lavanis is this movie is legendary. “Pinjara” was inspired by a Hollywood movie. A year earlier, Sandhya’s movie “Jal Bin Machli Nritya Bin Bijli” had proved to be a damp squib. Sandhya’s dances had lost their charm. After retirement from movies, Sandhya has maintained a low profile. Reports even suggest that Sandhya never wore any jewellery in her personal life.
Considering that Shantaram was known to pay peanuts to his artistes, Sandhya’s earnings from her cinematic career could not have amounted to much. Also, since Sandhya choose to act only in her mentor’s movies (as per the contract), the rest of Bollywood remained aloof to her talent.
Jeetendra was selling merchandise in film studios along with his uncle when he was spotted by Shantaram. The common refrain in Bollywood circles was that Shantaram’s heroes were never successful. Case in point – both Prashant (Sehra, 1964) and Abhijeet (Jal Bin Machli, Nritya Bin Bijli, 1971) vanished from the scene after their debuts. Jeetendra was skeptical. But he chose to ignore the advice others gave him and debuted with Rajshree in “Geet Gaya Patharaon Ne” (1964). This movie had the 40’s hero Surendra play an important role. The title song was rendered by classical vocalist Kishori Amonkar but Shantaram infuriated her by dubbing her voice with that of Asha Bhosle’s. Amonkar’s mother Mogubai Kurdikar warned her against touching her tambora (tanpura) if she sang for films again. Amonkar never sang for any movie ever again.
Shantaram was disciplined and a hard core perfectionist. Though Bollywood welcomed Rajshree with open arms (in sharp contrast to her mother’s not so happening career), Rajshree’s heart was clearly not in movies. Although most of her movies set the cash registers ringing (Sagai, Brahmachari, Suhag Raat, Jaanwar), Rajshree’s dwindling interest in Bollywood was precipitated by a chance meeting with an American while she was shooting for “ Around the world” in 1967 with Raj Kapoor. She fell in love with this young American graduate and they decided to get married.
Rajshree had been signed to play the lead in her father’s “Boond Jo Ban Gayi Moti” (1967). One day Rajshree was late for the shooting schedule and kept her dad waiting. The flustered Shantaram lost no time in throwing his daughter out of the movie. He roped in a starlet called Mumtaz who was doing C grade movies with the likes of Dara Singh and Sheikh Mukhtar. The movie flopped at the box office and Jeetendra’s association with Shantaram also came to an end. Jeetendra tasted big time success with “Farz” released in the same year. Unlike other men who were introduced by Shantaram, Jeetendra had a successful career in Bollywood despite critics calling him “wooden”.
Her father’s anger became the tipping point. All of a sudden Rajshree got married and left for the US leaving all her Bollywood producers in a lurch. Bollywood lore has it that I S Johar even wrote to the then American President to intervene but to no avail. Rajshree comfortably settled in US along with her husband who ventured into a clothing design business. Shantaram had perhaps washed his hands off from the entire episode though he graced his daughter’s wedding that was a three-day extravaganza in the year 1969.
Jeetendra has gone on record to say that Rajshree was an extremely warm human being who never threw any starry tantrums and was always cordial and helpful. She was also a great host when Bollywood celebrities visited her in the US. Rajshree adapted herself to a life in US travelling in public transport, doing her own shopping and enjoying her freedom. She even worked in airports. The anonymity that the US gave seemed to have appealed to her.
Despite such a chequered career, it is tragic that Shantaram’s last outing “Jhanjar” that was released in 1986 was a disaster from the word “go”. The movie, a total washout in the box office, starred Padmini Kolhapure and Sushant Ray who was also Shantaram’s grandson (his daughter Charusheela’s son). Sushant’s career never took off despite acting in movies like “thodi si bewafai” with Shabana Azmi and Rajesh Khanna.
Sushant rechristened himself as siddarth and acted as Kajol’s silent lover in “Baazigar” (1992) until a massive heart attack led to his sad and untimely demise that left his widow (former actress Shantipriya) completely devastated. “jhanjar” was shot in Bangalore and during the shooting, Ranjana Deshmukh who was Sandhya’s neice met with an accident that led her debilitated for life. Ranjana was educated and was all set to marry Marathi actor Ashok Saraf when tragedy struck. Ironically, once Saraf learnt that Ranjana had become disabled, he lost interest in her and married an upcoming Marathi actress who was much younger than him. It was Ranjana’s will power that allowed her to lead a normal life despite being confined to a wheelchair. She later suffered a massive heart attack and passed away.
For a man who was a legend when it came to story-telling and was at his creative best when it came to filming songs for his movies (remember the colorful Holi song in “Navrang”?), Shantaram had his own weaknesses. He was a poor paymaster. He had risen from very humble beginnings to becoming a top notch director and this may have made him rater wary about spending money. His weakness for his women protégés was well known. His own niece Nanda never acted under his direction though he gave her the opportunity to play the main lead in the immensely successful – Toofan Aur Diya (1956).
Poor Nanda, who started as a child artist, had to slog hard to support her family after her father Master Vinayak’s untimely death. She went on to a highly successful career in Bollywood. It is not clear why Shantaram never supported his sister after tragedy struck them. During the later part of his life as an actor (somewhere in the late 50’s) Shantaram suffered an accident and was bedridden for quite some time. One is not sure – but Stree (1960) may have been Shantaram’s last outing as an actor.
Having said all this, it is however an undisputable fact that Shantaram was a doting father to all his children.
The name of Shantaram will be forever etched in Bollywood history.
(After working in the corporate world for close to two decades, Bhagyalakshmi started her second career innings as a head-hunter. She is passionate about Hindi movies and loves retro music. When her family shifted to Chennai in the 80’s, Bhagya had a taste of Tamil cinema too. In the long term, she plans a book on two of her favourite directors – Guru Dutt and K Balachander. She travels across the country on work and is based in Mysore.)