indian cinema heritage foundation

Silsila: The Cast

01 Sep, 2020 | Book Excerpts by Amborish Roychoudhury
A poster of Silsila (1981) from the Cinemaazi archives

'Cults become cults, they are not made. It's the becoming that is interesting, not the making.'

There are some films that sure fizzle out of the theatres in a heartbeat, but figure out a way to survive. Through a torrent leaked online, on an old bootlegged DVD or VHS, or YouTube upload, and then in the hands of the omnipresent Twitterati—the films form a 'cult' of their own.

Amborish Roychowdhury gives an ode to these cult favourites in the book In A Cult of their Own: Bollywood Beyond Box Office. He draws upon his own experiences of watching them as well as interviews conducted with personalities such as Aamir Khan, Pankaj Kapur and Deepti Naval to celebrate these gems of Indian cinema.  

Following is an excerpt from the book containing some interesting anecdotes about how the sensational casting of Yash Chopra's Silsila came to be.  


When Silsila was conceived, Yash Chopra had visualized Amitabh, Jaya and Rekha in the lead but considering what was (reportedly) going on in their personal lives, coupled with the fact that Jaya Bachchan had all but quit films after Nauker (1979), Silsila was announced with Amitabh Bachchan, Padmini Kolhapure and Parveen Babi portraying the main characters. Kolhapure was apparently playing the wife Shobha, and Parveen Babi was to portray Chandni, the lover. Parveen Babi may have pulled off the 'other woman' role with aplomb, but Padmini Kolhapure as Amitabh Bachchan's wife seems to be a terrible idea in retrospect — she was in her late teens and Bachchan was more than twenty years her senior! Anyhow, Kolhapure couldn't commit to the dates and Smita Patil stepped in. So, with this cast, Chopra planned the first shooting schedule. 

Bachchan asked him whether he was happy with the casting and Chopra, hesitantly, replied in the negative. The ideal cast was Bachchan, Jaya and Rekha, according to him, but nothing could be done as the shoot was about to begin. Amitabh Bachchan said, 'Let's go back to Bombay tomorrow and speak to both of them.' They flew back to Bombay together the next day. Not a single word was exchanged during the journey; both wondered what was about to happen now. 
Before Silsila could begin filming, Yash Chopra was in Kashmir to oversee the shoot of Sawaal (1982), starring Sanjeev Kumar and directed by Ramesh Talwar, a film for which Chopra was the producer. During the same time, Amitabh Bachchan was in Kashmir shooting for Kaalia (1981). Sensing an opportunity, Yash Chopra made him read the script of Silsila. Bachchan asked him whether he was happy with the casting and Chopra, hesitantly, replied in the negative. The ideal cast was Bachchan, Jaya and Rekha, according to him, but nothing could be done as the shoot was about to begin. Amitabh Bachchan said, 'Let's go back to Bombay tomorrow and speak to both of them.' They flew back to Bombay together the next day. Not a single word was exchanged during the journey; both wondered what was about to happen now. 

Both Rekha as well as Jaya Bachchan were only too happy to say yes. Chopra also made the two ladies promise that there won't be any trouble on the sets. He is also said to have revealed in a BBC interview that he was on tenterhooks throughout the shooting of the film. But it's a testament to the professionalism of the three principal actors of Silsila that despite what transpired in their personal lives, they didn't allow any of it to tamper with the film in any way. As a matter of fact, generations of film fans have debated whether it actually helped in creating the intensity on screen.

After the two leading ladies had been cast, the ones they replaced were to be informed of the change. Being part of Kaalia, Parveen Babi was also shooting in Kashmir when all this was unfolding. Yash Chopra always found such situations awkward to deal with, and instructed his assistant director Romesh Sharma to inform her and apologize on his behalf. Within days, as fate would have it, Yash Chopra bumped into Parveen Babi at the Srinagar airport. Parveen assured him that it was okay. She understood that what he was making was a once-in-a-lifetime film, and whatever decisions he was taking were in the interest of the film.

Dealing with Smita Patil went differently. Shashi Kapoor had already been cast as Amitabh Bachchan's older brother. Kapoor, four years older than Bachchan, had so far always played his kid brother, in Deewar (1975) and Trishul (1978), while in Suhaag (1994) they were twins. Silsila was the first film in which he played the elder brother. Yash Chopra requested him to break the news to Smita Patil that the cast has changed, and she was no longer a part of the project. Smita Patil took it sportingly but felt Yash Chopra could have spoken to her in person. Later, they met in Rajkamal Studios where Smita Patil was shooting for a film, and they settled things amicably. 
An apocryphal story about casting Sanjeev Kumar goes that he initially turned the role down, under the impression that he will have to play second fiddle to Bachchan. Yash Chopra insisted on a narration and during the process, Kumar realized that he would have some powerful scenes with Jaya Bachchan.
An apocryphal story about casting Sanjeev Kumar goes that he initially turned the role down, under the impression that he will have to play second fiddle to Bachchan. Yash Chopra insisted on a narration and during the process, Kumar realized that he would have some powerful scenes with Jaya Bachchan. He and Jaya Bachchan shared an impeccable working relationship and they had made some wonderful movies together — Parichay (1972), Koshish (1972), Anamika (1973), Naya Din Nai Raat (1974), Nauker (1979) and of course, Sholay (1975). He signed the film, and delivered an underrated but brilliant performance as Rekha's husband, Dr. Anand.

His is the most refined performance of Silsila. Right after one of the most evocative romantic numbers ever made, Ye kahaan aa gaye hum/ Yun hi saath saath chalte, even before you are out of the stupor, Sanjeev Kumar's furious snarl snaps you out of it. His wife and her lover sing love songs and spew poetry at each other, getting all snuggly in each other's arms, and then suddenly the husband bursts out, 'What the hell is going on?' Only later does it dawn on you that Dr. Anand/ Sanjeev Kumar is in the operation theatre where the lights have gone out, and he is annoyed. Priceless.

As he realizes what his wife is up to, Dr. Anand sits Shobha (Jaya Bachchan) down to tell her what is going on, and then tells her a fairy tale. A fairy casts a spell on the prince and leads him away, while the princess is left shedding tears at her misery, back at the palace. Instead of crying, Dr. Anand says the princess should fight for her rights. Shobha then asks who he is, in this tall tale? This is what he has to say to that:

Hum uss nagar ke Raja hain. Raaton ko bhes badal kar hum praja ka haal maloom karte hain. Logon ko nyay dilaate hain. Hum par har zimmedaari hai, Bhabhi...nagar ki, mahal ki, kartavya ki, parampara ki. Aur hum parampara nibhaa rahein hain... 

I am the king. I disguise myself as a commoner and walk around my town, to know how my subjects are doing. I deliver justice. I have duties...towards my city, my palace, my responsibilities, my traditions. And I am carrying them out...
As he realizes what his wife is up to, Dr. Anand sits Shobha (Jaya Bachchan) down to tell her what is going on, and then tells her a fairy tale. A fairy casts a spell on the prince and leads him away, while the princess is left shedding tears at her misery, back at the palace. Instead of crying, Dr. Anand says the princess should fight for her rights. Shobha then asks who he is, in this tall tale? This is what he has to say to that: Hum uss nagar ke Raja hain. Raaton ko bhes badal kar hum praja ka haal maloom karte hain. Logon ko nyay dilaate hain. Hum par har zimmedaari hai, Bhabhi...nagar ki, mahal ki, kartavya ki, parampara ki. Aur hum parampara nibhaa rahein hain... 
Only Sanjeev Kumar could have mouthed the above dialogues the way he did. One look at his face and you will know why he is one of the best actors we have had, since the dawn of Hindi cinema.

In another scene, Dr. Anand is leaving town for work and is standing in the airport lounge with his wife Chandni (Rekha), not wanting to leave as he fears that by the time he returns, she will have eloped with Amit (Amitabh Bachchan). Though she obviously doesn't have much left to say to him, he tries to prolong the conversation as much as possible by making mundane small-talk. He reminds her to pay the telephone bill, about the gardener's wife being ill, tells her he has left some blank cheques for her to encash if she needed money, asks her to check his mail, all this while not forgetting to tell her that he will put up at The Taj, so that she knows where to find him. 

'Mujhe yakeen hai jab main ghar wapas lautunga toh tum mujhe yahin khadi milogi,' he adds. (When I am back, I know I will find you standing, waiting for me right here.) 
Few actors know how to use silences well. Jaya Bachchan is one of them. In Silsila, she uses this skill with a lot of panache.
These moments simply sparkle. In India, intense acting is all about thunder and lightning. Few actors know how to use silences well. Jaya Bachchan is one of them. In Silsila, she uses this skill with a lot of panache. A wife who watches silently as her husband drifts away, slowly but surely. A wistful look here, a soulful glimpse there, she underplays Shobha to perfection. In one powerful scene, the fiery wife in her leaps out and comes face to face with her rival. We watch them from a distance, converging at each other. It's almost like armies coming together in a battlefield. The wife asks her nicely to let him go. The lover refuses outrightly. The wife throws some caution and warns her —if it's a war she wants, that's what she will get.
 

This excerpt is from In A Cult of their Own: Bollywood Beyond Box Office by Amborish Roychoudhury published by Rupa Publications. 

The banner image did not appear with the original publication. 
 


 

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About the Author

Amborish Roychoudhury is an advertising professional by day and movie maniac by night. He's been trying his hand at writing about movies, and blogs at amborish.com. This is his first book.
He lives in Mumbai, India.

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