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Saturday, 3 March 2012

Actress Girija Shettar of Geethanjali and Vandanam











GIRIJA SHETTAR (Geethanjali and Vandanam fame) writes her memoirs in three parts.

A brief introduction

GIRIJA SHETTAR (Geethanjali and Vandanam fame) was born and brought up in England the daughter of an Indian father and British mother. She is a multi-faceted personality who, after leaving school, starred in some successful Indian films.

The first was the super-hit Geethanjali (Director Mani Ratnam; starring opposite Nargarjuna; 1989), followed by Vandanam (director Priyadarshan; starring opposite Mohanlal), which was also a hit. A keen admirer of non-commercial cinema, Girija next took the lead in the little known Hrudayanjali (director ARR Reddy), a film that explored the devastating effects of rape. Her most recent work was an UK independent film Slide Away (2007), exploring the themes of death and immortality.

Despite being offered further roles, including from the directors of Geethanjali (Mani Ratnam) and Vandanam (Priya Darshan), and from television companies to host various shows, Girija left the field to follow other interests.

She completed a doctoral thesis on the integral yoga philosophy of Sri Aurobindo – a field she is involved in on a practical basis too, spending as much time as possible at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry and at the related idealistic community of Auroville. She is based in London and is a writer and a poet.

Girija is sharing some of her experiences and memoirs from her days of stardom. This is the final in the series.



Part III

Destiny, it seems, did not care to keep me in the filmmaking world and, like a concerned parent, wanted me to get an education. Though, not any old education: the first hint of what would consume my post-film life came when, through a dance film, I had the revelation of the Shiva/Shakti Tandava.

A different kind of education.

When I joined films I was not qualified in anything – I had just finished school. Although I had planned to attend Art college and had a lot of ideas about re-creating Happenings like the artists of the sixties, I did not like what I had seen of college students. I was unimpressed and disappointed by their wasteful attitude – they just seemed to drink all the time and to not be concerned about what could be achieved in the real world. That did not appeal to me – I wanted to live (and since junior school had wanted to be independent of my parents support).

My father suggested I visit India to study dance and to see the culture. Something in me knew this was what I had to do. I bought a mini Sony dictation machine and decided I would become a writer.

My first months in India were spent absorbed in Bharatanatyam classes (which left my feet covered in blisters), mastering the downing of one raw egg a day (my teacher told me I needed it to build up my strength) and pretending I was a hot-shot journalist writing important features for international magazines! I would write all the hours when I was not dancing or exercising. I also joined a wonderful group of drama students, where I made my first social contacts and with whom I enjoyed my first adrenaline boosting Indian motorcycle rides.

I failed to get any of my articles published – including an interview with the great Saeed Jaffrey. I had met the veteran film actor through a colleague of my fathers who one day came to ask if I would like to go and watch a film being shot at a house near where he lived. Of course I agreed and lo and behold there he was – as it seemed to me the only Indian actor at the time who was widely known (and loved) by the English public for his roles in Gandhi, A Passage To India, My Beautiful Launderette, among others, as well as for his beautiful wife – the talented cook Madhur Jaffrey.

He very generously granted me an interview and told me all about his life and work – including his meetings with Marilyn Monroe and work with Daniel Day Lewis. He is a great gentleman, and he said to me I bring people luck, so I hope you will have good luck now. It was not long after this meeting that, entirely serendipitously, I won the role of Geethanjali in Mani Ratnams film of that name.

Believe it or not, I met Saeed again many years later - an entirely strange meeting, on an entirely empty road in Wales at a point in my life where I was deeply involved in academic study. As mystical as ever, he asked me: Are you a journalist now? No, no, I am just a student, I told him. But four years’ later a journalist is what I was.

However, returning to India. After Geethanjali and Vandanam I was absorbed in the filmmaking world. I was now an actress good and proper and I would receive many phone calls from producers about possible future projects. Like anyone whose career is going well, I felt secure and happy. I was not proud – it was funny and nice having giant posters of myself up all round the city, being recognised, asked for my autograph or being sent fan letters, but it didn’t change me. In fact when people approached me I would often say I was not Geethanjali Girija the actress to avoid having to talk and smile. But sometimes it felt mean to do that. It became a bit of a conundrum to know what the right thing was to do when approached.

I can also say that, contrary to what celebrity magazines would have us believe, becoming successful in films is not a solution to the woes of the human condition. This ought to be clear from the tragic stories of depressed and suicidal celebrities, but glossy pictures of beautiful smiling people has the devil’s own power to make anyone think otherwise!

Human beings never stop being subject to fluctuations of happiness, depression and fear no matter what their financial or personal status in the world. Nothing has the power to change the essential human condition - except yoga.

And this is what ultimately took my attention away from films. Filmmakers are a brilliant bunch of people, who court wonderful powers and auras that are blissful to bathe in, but India also graced me with the touch of Her spiritual wealth. And, quite simply, the power of that world was greater. I had to renounce the one for the other, and I did it in a single afternoon.

Preparing to leap from the crest of a wave.

The decision was made in a single afternoon, but it is said that nothing actually happens in a single moment – there is always a period of preparation. For me this seems to have been the case. I had been interested in Western occult sciences as a youngster, although I knew nothing about Eastern religious esotericism. I did not know about Lord Shiva or the Tandava or that it conveys the innermost workings of the universe as realised by great Seers - masters of the not only hidden (‘occult’) realms but the ultimate causal Divine realms.

Yet, when I was shown a film portraying this teaching through magnificently conceived Bhartanatyam dances, something in me recognised it. I saw that these dances, this philosophy, had seen and visually formulated the Essences of life.

Streaming through the moments of a human life is a spiritual heart or essence – sometimes in moments of clarity some part of your brain or consciousness perceives this. It is a blissful moment or nano-second and it is for this essence of true reality at the heart of dynamic living that each human being lives - and loves to live.

Throughout my life I had glimpsed these sparking out from moments of living and I knew that somehow they were the aim of life. As I watched the Tandava, it felt like the universe spoke to me, saying: Yes, here is the explanation of those essences and where they lead.

After this, I began studying the philosophy of Tantra and Vedanta and Veda, and took up meditation to see what would happen – to be truthful I took it up because I wanted to go on an adventure. I had no need of it – I was happy, strong, self-assured – but I knew there was an adventure to be had in territory known to just a few and I wanted to have that adventure. It was imperative I embark: throughout my life (this point actually became clear to me while I was acting in films) my purpose in life was to progress and to learn.

So, like the characters in Jules Verne’s novel, once the hieroglyphics were deciphered I had to follow where they led - even if it meant a difficult trip, on pain of abject failure, to the centre not just of the Earth, but of the Universe.



Memoirs of film actress Girija Shettar Part II
Part II

My memories of filmmaking are overwhelmingly ones of great camaraderie. I have to say that actors are a wizard bunch of people to be around – they tend to be open, hopeful and sensitive and you can really dream with actors because they dont have pretensions of being terribly clever or pragmatic.

Free hearts, bright minds.

Actors are more concerned with the endlessly fascinating magic that is self-expression. These days, people take up acting classes as a therapy because it enables the transcendence of emotional limitations. When people act, they become multidimensional personalities full of colour and strength - the full range of the human persona can be explored and expressed, which is often impossible to do in everyday life.

But what inspired me even more than acting or the other actors, was the opportunity to mix and talk with a range of experts.

The dramatic arts is one of those fields where you get to meet many different kinds of professionals - writers, poets, musicians, camera and light technicians, dancers, composers, choreographers, even painters (two of the art directors I worked alongside – Thotta Tharani and Krishnamurthy - are fine artists in their own right who exhibit and sell their paintings; Thotta Tharani kindly gifted my mother a very large paining of a cathedral).

It was the greatest of honours to meet and talk with people who had deep knowledge of the arts, of history, even philosophy. It was this aspect of filmmaking that enabled me to articulate my deepest wish - to be an artist and to seek knowledge. I did not want to be a mere star – something I perceived as boring and unidimensional.

I relished the integral absorption (in mind, in heart, in physical movement) that acting demands. It is a bit like doing yoga, because acting is being a character, and the truth of that character has to be found - at every moment an actor has to be true. But it is a physically and emotionally demanding profession, requiring strong nerves.

After Geethanjali and Vandanam, I was screen tested and then signed up as the female lead opposite Aamir Khan in the Mansoor Khan/Nassir Hussain film Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander. However, irresolvable contractual clashes arose between this and a film I was to complete in Chennai, so I had to quit the project before the end. However, during the months I was with the Mumbai crew both in Mumbai and on location in Kodaikanal I tasted a different working climate from the one I was used to in the south.

In the south I had been surrounded by either very young or older and well-established artists, so it was a familial environment. But in the Mumbai project I was thrust into a large group of fiery, up-and-coming talents contemporary with me, including the supermodel and actor Milind Soman (who also quit the film before the end) and choreographer Farah Khan (Tony award-nominee and co-choreographer of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-produced “Bombay Dreams”). So I was kept on my toes.

In all cases I was impressed by the minds and personalities of my colleagues. The highly respected and talented Mohanlal was especially funny and amiable; Aditya Lakhia (Jo Jeeta, Lagaan) with his easy-going attitude is still a good friend; and Aamir was a master Rubik’s cube player who relished philosophical arguments and was often surrounded by local children who he kept entranced with stories.

Dancing memories.

All in all my time in films was one of much light heartedness. I have lovely memories. I remember a day babysitting Aamirs newly-adopted puppy, who we named Peanut and who didn’t stop nipping me the entire time; and I remember glorious motorcycle rides in the hills with the other actors.

One afternoon when both Aamir and I had a free morning, we went out on a bike and he showed me how the hills looked blue from a distance. He is a very intellectually active and astute person who at the time I remember was very much in love with his (first) wife’s mathematical capabilities. We found a nice spot at the side of the road among the lovely hills to sit for a while and he discussed at length the script of another film he was contemplating doing.

I remember the whole discussion going rather above my head – at this time I was quite able to discuss philosophy (although he beat me in one argument about proving the existence of God), since I had been studying it in Chennai, but the craft of telling a story through a script is another science altogether. I remember being completely stumped for words or ideas.

During this time I also had wonderful meetings with people beyond the film crew. I met reclusive artists and spiritual seekers living in the cool, verdant mountains and who I am in touch with to this day.

Possibly the strongest memories of those times involve the beauty of nature and the joy of dancing.

I remember dancing my heart out in the rain in Ootacamund – this was for a song, but it happens to be something I loved to do as a youngster growing up in England. The rain always made me sing. When I was 12 I went to live with my grandmother in Maidenhead and went to school everyday on a bicycle. Going home was mostly downhill, and after a small bridge over the railway I could freewheel down the crescent-shaped road to my granny’s house. On rainy days, granny says she knew when I was on my way home because she could hear me singing from the top of the road!

Then when I was a teenager, we went to live in a house on the seafront - a perfect place to live for a teenager full of energy and conflict and love. In the summer of course everyone would be out dancing and walking, but I loved even the storms of winter. As the waves, winds and rain raged I would get soaked dancing and singing on the beach to Walkman-delivered music (Motown, Whitesnake, Rainbow, Camel, Lou Reed….).

I remember the blazing heat of Rajasthan deserts (again, for a song) and learning how to ride a camel (sort of), and I’ll never forget one evening during the Kodaikanal shoot for Jo Jeeta. All the actors gathered on top of one of the flat-roofed villas to dance. We ended up dancing the entire night through until breakfast time the following morning – and we were still able to do a full day’s work afterwards! We seemed to have unstoppable energy.

I remember when my mother visited India and was able to accompany me on the Ootacamund-based sets of Geethanjali. We had such lovely walks in Ooty, also a hilarious pony ride and I remember one glorious boat ride on a lake – at that time there were barely any tourists and I remember having the lake almost to ourselves. I have lovely photos of forest glades in Ooty and Kodai and hidden places that some unusual, adventurous friends I made took us to.

I miss those days. Like an Indian film, they were full of the love of freedom and sunlight.

But Destiny had a bigger challenge in store.

Part I

An adventure begins

I feel privileged to have been asked to write a memoir of my film acting days in India – but also slightly nervous because ones perceptions and interpretations of the past change all the time.

There were really two stages to my Indian adventures. The first was making films with the best in the industry; the second was discovering India’s cultural and spiritual heritage - which I believe can change the world.

Two questions I am frequently asked are: why did you leave films and do you regret it?

Apparently, regional magazines and online forums have printed their own reasons – ranging from my being a drug addict to having no further offers of work. These are far from the truth.

I stopped because something else claimed my attention, which impressed me more than even the seductive and regal power of filmmaking genius. The deal was sealed by an inner inspiration that I never disobeyed.

Regrets? Not for years, but then trying times came along and they emerged. However, I was true to myself then and admirably daring. What I regret more is regret itself. It shows a lack of gratitude and of courage (not to mention wisdom).

So, coming to my memories of films… The strongest memory is how beautiful the reality of making films is, in contrast to how the industry is presented to the public through papers, magazines and the internet.

Most entertainment reporting focuses ad nauseam on red carpet glamour, but the distracted hype hides one of the greatest things about filmmaking - the dedication to a shared goal.

I was lucky to work with great professionals and I loved their focus, intelligence and cultural sophistication. Their professional attitude made it a very positive environment to be in.

I worked mainly in the south but also, briefly, in the north. I was cast opposite Aamir Khan in the Bollywood Hindi film Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander, directed by Mansoor Khan and produced by Nasir Hussain – the crack team responsible for the wonderful Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988).

Doors opening.

I - and the films I was in - won numerous awards, including a National Award nomination for my performance in Hrydanjali. I also received several excellent reviews for my work and featured in a number of magazine articles. But it was certainly Mani Ratnam’s Geethanjali that opened up the whole Indian film world to me. Due to that film I was featured on the cover (full, colour) of Screen, India (Issue of June 30, 1989). And one day I even received a phone call from the great Tamil film star Rajnikant, who suggested we do a film together.

I have to say - Rajnikant is a real gentleman. He not only makes his own calls, as he did to me (and I was but a budding new star), but he is extremely polite too.

One evening I, a group of friends and my brother who was visiting me were dining at the Taj Hotel in Chennai. We had noticed that Rajnikant was at another table with his wife. But what we had not realised was that Rajnikant had noticed us.

On finishing his meal, Rajnikant got up, left his table and walked over to our table. He had recognised me and did not feel it beneath him to extend his good wishes. He reached over to shake my hand and said he hoped we had a good evening. It was an incredible moment and everyone was slightly in shock afterwards. According to the papers, Rajnikant does a lot of philanthropy and practises yoga – well, I can safely say that his character matches his public persona.