Oh boy, another family saga! I can settle in for a good long discussion. This is also one of the oldest families in Indian film, on both sides, and pretty much the only matriarchy from the Samarth side. Older than the Chopras and as old as the Kapoors.
Usual disclaimer: All of this may or may not be true, I don’t know any of these people personally or have any special knowledge of anything. But this is the generally accepted “truth” of what happened, and if you are new to the films, or somehow missed this story, it might help you.
You already know the Mukherjee-Samarth family, even if you’ve never heard them called that way. The current generation is Kajol Devgn, Rani Mukherjee, Ayan Mukherjee, Tanisha Mukherjee, Mohnish Behl, and Aditya Chopra and Ajay Devgn by marriage. The previous generation was Tanuja, Nutan, Shomu Mukherjee, Joy Mukherjee, and Deb Mukherjee. And before that was Shobhna Samarth and Nalini Jaywant and Sashadhar Mukherjee. And finally, at the tippy-top of the family tree, there is Rattan Bai.
(Here’s 3 generations of actresses, Shobhna and Tanuja and Kajol)
Wikipedia has an almost unbelievable version of Rattan Bai’s marriage and husband, I am going to repeat it because it is super fun, but also give you the very boring practical version of what it says. Now, the totally unreliable and exciting version is that Rattan Bai was a beautiful wealthy upperclass woman with amazing singing talent who married one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Maharashtra. She married an older man, Prabhakar Shilotri, who was one of the most successful bankers in Bombay and a fervent anti-colonial who funneled money to the underground anti-British movement. His underground activities occasionally spilled over to his regular life, supposedly he slapped the collector of Pune for refusing to give him a gun license. The British hated him, thanks to his attitude and their suspicions of his underground activities. They scoured his banking records and eventually found a technical issue which they could use to arrest him and seize his possessions. And therefore, Rattan Bai was driven to raise money however she could, including turning to the then shocking profession of film.
The boring practical version is that Rattan Bai must have been a respectable educated woman, in order to have had training in singing and music in general. She married not necessarily a super important and wealthy man, but at the least a respectable successful educated man, not surprising since she would have been quite the catch with her beautiful looks and singing voice. And then her husband fell on hard times, possibly because British interference in his successful business, maybe for some other reason, but certainly he must have had hard times for Rattan Bai to consider taking a job. And since he was so much older than her, not surprising that she outlived him. Rattan Bai, a widow, turned to working in the new Bombay film industry in order to support herself and her daughter. After trying other slightly more respectable careers like teaching high school. She was easily able to find work as the sound films had recently come into fashion, and there was a desperate need for trained female singers, even ones who were a little over the hill.
Rattan Bai barely had a career, enough so that it could be overlooked and she could maintain her “respectable” status. It’s hardly even remembered, she is usually confused with the more famous Rattanbai who acted in the same era. But her daughter, spoiled and strong-minded Shobhna, was something different.
After her father’s death, Shobhna and her mother were living with her conservative uncle. He disapproved of Shobhna working with her college theater troupe, and declaring that she wanted to be an actress, not a wife. In an effort to keep the peace, Rattan Bai dug up the one groom who would be acceptable to both of them.
Kumarsen Samarth was from another good old Marathi family. He had European education and was about to start a career in Bombay. All very respectable and appropriate for Shobhna’s uncle. But, for Shobhna, his European education was in cinematography and he was planning a career in film. Oh, and he was very very very handsome.
(This is Shobhna’s handsome husband, unless the internet is lying to me)
Rattan Bai never got really famous or gave a lot of interviews, so we have no quotes from her. But starting with Shobhna, we have plenty of quotes and stories, and there is a distinctive sort of quality to the Samarth women from her straight down to Kajol. They are outspoken, brutally honest, and openly non-sacrificial. These are not women who are going to fall into the two standard female star narratives “I did it all for love” or “I was an innocent who just did it for fun and then got married”. They want to act because they are ambitious and talented. And they got married because they like attractive men and wanted to get married. Heck, they like men in general! Shobhna, Tanuja, and Kajol all are/were friends with their co-workers. There was no false modesty or pretense of shyness once the cameras turned off. They made love onscreen, and then went out drinking after.
(Not sure who the man is with her, but she doesn’t exactly have an “oh dear, alone with a man who is not my husband, I must protect my modesty!” attitude about it, does she?)
But that came later. First, Shobhna walks into her living room after class one day and sees the handsomest man she has ever met. Oh, and also when she asks if he would be okay with her acting after marriage, his response is “sure, what do I care? I’m hoping to work in film myself.” And so they were married. And Shobhna filmed her first movie at age 19 while already pregnant with their daughter. By the way, that conservative uncle got his comeuppance when his own daughter ran off to become an actress too ten years later.
(Shobhna’s cousin Nalini Jaywant. Started acting as a teenager, married twice, last film role was playing Amitabh’s mother in a 1980s movie)
The marriage had some ups and downs. No kids for 7 years after Nutan, because they couldn’t afford it. Which is also one of those things most actresses wouldn’t say in interviews, but there was no “oh, we weren’t blessed with children, such a heartbreak!” pretense with Shobhna. And no pretense that the marriage was the best thing ever from her either. They had good times and they had bad times, and eventually she was tired of him and they split up. She had her career and her kids, she didn’t really need a man. They were friendly, but it was hardly that sort of “greatest tragedy of my life!” story that most actresses, or most women, feel like they need to tell of their failed marriages. So they split up, so what?
Heck, even before that, she had a strong “so I’m married, so what?” attitude. And also, “so I’m an upperclass educated woman and I’m acting in film, so what?” It was a little easier back then, the Hindi film industry wasn’t so large and successful (the Marathi industry was as big as the Hindi industry in Bombay and actresses moved back and forth between the two), and there wasn’t really a film press, FilmFare hadn’t even been founded yet. People could watch actresses onscreen and imagine them as pure innocent Indian women, but they had no idea if that’s what they were like in real life, in real life they might not even have been recognized on the street. Shobhna being a wife and a mother who acted was nobody’s business but hers and her husband’s.
Shobhna being an acting mother, and later a happily separated wife, is especially remarkable considering the career defining role she took in 1942. Shobhna was one of the first onscreen versions of “Sita”. In two separate films, opposite the same “Ram”, Bharat Milap and Ram Rajya. There performances were so popular, images of the couple in character were printed on religious calendars.
Prem Adib was not Shobhna’s most common or popular co-star. That was Motilal, generally described as “India’s first natural actor”. He was not Marathi, he was one of the many north Indians who came to Bombay for a new life and landed in film, thanks to his good looks and charm. He and Shobhna made a popular pair onscreen, but were no more than friends. At least, at first.
Another actress wouldn’t have even been friends with a man not her husband, but Shobhna liked men and saw no problem with becoming friends with a co-star and enjoying their time on set together. But she was still with her husband, and trying for a son (it took 3 tries, 3 daughters before a son). And from Motilal’s side, he was seriously involved with another actress, Nadira. They never married but were known in film circles to have been an item. Nadira is another woman whose personal life would never have let her act today. Or at least, she would have had to give a whole bunch of interviews apologizing for it. She was married twice, the second time to a man she bluntly called “a golddigger”. She was also Jewish, and both of her husbands were of a different faith. And then there was Motilal, debonair man about town who loved to gamble and enjoy himself, and enjoyed his time with her.
(Can’t find any photos of them together, but here is Nadira by herself, in her career making role as the stubborn Rajput princess in the Dilip Kumar adventure movie Aan)
But by the late 40s, Shobhna’s marriage was over. Her husband couldn’t take her career success and they had grown farther and farther apart. Reading between the lines, I think Shobhna just didn’t see any reason to be married any more. She talked about how being an educated upper class woman in the film industry, she basically could get anything she wanted. Everyone on set respected her, and everyone wanted to work with her. There were so few women of her class willing to act, and they were desperately needed for the more “refined” kind of parts. She could support herself, do work she enjoyed, and have far greater freedom than any other woman of her class who would be trapped in a home. And now she had her 3 daughters and a son, what did she need a husband for?
Instead, it was much more fun to have a boyfriend. She and Motilal were acknowledged as a couple. They kept working together, and playing together. He was terribly romantic, she told a story of him hiring a plane to throw stones down at her house with notes saying “I Love You” written on them. They would fight, they would make up, it was exciting. And it lasted for years, this wasn’t just some flash in the pan affair, this was a long term relationship. But not a marriage, or anything close to it. Shobhna had her own house, her own money, and made her own decisions. And if Motilal disagreed, that was just too bad, he would have to learn to live with it.
Shobhna turned producer in 1950, at age 34, in order to launch her oldest daughter, Nutan, 14. She also turned director for the film unsubtly titled “Hameri Beti” (our daughter). And Motilal did his bit for the family, playing Nutan’s father in the film.
(Here’s teenage Nutan, debonair Motilal, and still shockingly beautiful Shobhna)
Shobhna only produced a few films, mostly to successfully launch her daughters, first Nutan and later Tanuja. She kept working herself well into her 60s. But the majority of her income by that time came from investments. Remember, Shobhna’s mother had been a singer and an actress, but her father had been a banker. Shobhna not only made enough money to produce her childrens’ launches, she also bought herself her own house in the suburbs and a Bombay flat and suburban house for each of her children.
She lived until 2000, long enough to see her children and grandchildren each find success. And to see her oldest daughter die, in 1991. They had a tumultuous relationship, I’ll get into that more in Nutan’s entry, but by her death they had made peace and were closer than ever. At the end of her live, Shobhna lived in her house in Lonavla, and was as outspoken as ever. In one of her last interviews, with rediff, she said of her own family,
[Tanuja] is an extremely unpredictable girl, but with a golden heart. Even with me, she can be very rude at times and I never know what to expect from her. But she’s never fake — she is what she seems, just like her daughter Kajol is. Tanuja is a natural actress while Nutan had groomed herself as a performer….My only son Jaideep though, is a different kettle of fish altogether. I find I have a better rapport with his wife than with him, but he’s a caring son in his own way.’
I’m not saying she’s mean, but that’s not exactly the kind of talk you expect from an 83 year old about her children! Especially when she is talking to a reporter and knows everything she says will be quoted and repeated in press reports all over the world. That “never fake” description doesn’t just go for Tanuja and Kajol, it goes for Shobhna too.