Rajasthan’s First Character Actress
First among Actresses hailing from Rajasthan to make a name in the Hindi Film Industry was Sarita Devi. This name may not be familiar to today’s generation but viewers of Ramanand Sagar’s successful TV adaptation of Ramayan will recognise her as Mata Shabari. She had a long innings on the big screen with over 200 films to her credit and a short stint on the small screen, featuring in 4 TV shows. But it was her performance in Ramayan which gave her special recognition and foremost fame.
Sarita Devi was born on 23 November, 1925 in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. This brave actress started her acting career sometime in the 1940s when conservatism was prevalent in the state and parda-pratha was observed. Women were confined to the four walls of the house, let alone films, even local stage plays were a far-fetched thought. In such unfavorable times, her career began with consent and encouragement from her father, Poonamchandji Chauhan.
After the initial struggle on reaching Bombay, she landed a supporting role in her debut film Tohfa (1947). She played the leading lady Anuradha’s mother when she was just 22. She got similar roles in her initial films like Rivaaj (1947, Paro’s mother), Hip Hip Hurray (Chaubeji, 1948, Nirupa Roy’s Bua), Chunariya (1948), Chakori (1949), etc. Since then in her entire career she only played character roles and brought various supporting characters like Maa, Naani, Daadi, Mausi, Bua, Mami, Behen, Bhabhi, Housemaid, Caretaker, etc to life. Thus, Sarita Devi became the first Character Actress from Rajasthan in Hindi Films.
Through her heartfelt performances in her initial films, she got noticed by prominent filmmakers like, Bimal Roy, Nitin Bose, Chetan Anand, Hemant Gupta, Satyen Bose, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, J Om Prakash, Dev Anand, among others. She had long association with most of them and continued to showcase her acting skills in majority of their films. Sarita ji made a place for herself in the film industry by playing various supporting characters in films like – Do Bigha Zamin (1953), Baap Beti (1954), Biraj Bahu (1954), Taxi Driver (1954), Tulsidas (1954), Devdas (1955), House No. 44 (1955), Funtoosh (1956), Sone Ki Chidiya (1958) , Love Marriage (1959), Kabuliwala (1961), Sangeet Samrat Tansen (1962), Ayee Milan Ki Bela (1964), Veer Bhimsen (1964), Aaye Din Bahar Ke (1966), The Thief Of Baghdad (1968), Abhilasha (1968), Balram Shri Krishna (1968), Aap Aye Bahaar Ayee (1971), Pakeezah (1972), Gai Aur Gauri (1973), Ganga Ki Saugand (1978), Pyar Jhukta Nahi (1985), Khudgarz (1987), etc. She has been part of two Golden Jubilees and about fifty Silver Jubilee films. She always maintained a good rapport with producers and directors and went ahead to do even one-scene roles in their films like – Guide (1965), Do Kaliyan (1968), Paisa Ya Pyar (1969), Gharaonda (1977), Des Pardes (1978), etc.
During her early years she worked in stage-plays in various languages like Rajasthani, Marathi and Gujarati. Similarly she continued participating in regional films as well. She has 6 films in Rajasthani, 8 films in Gujarati, 4 films in Bhojpuri and one film each in Marathi, Bengali and Haryanvi to her credit. Among her Gujarati films Mangal Phera (मंगल फेरा, 1949), Jeevno Jugari (जीवणो जुगाड़ी, 1963) and Satyavan Savitri (सत्यवान सावित्री, 1963) were noteworthy. In the Marathi Film Umaji Naik (उमाजी नाइक, 1960), she played the role of the zamindar’s sister. She gave remarkable performances in Rajasthani films – Babasa Ri Ladli (बाबासा री लाडली, 1961), Nani Bai Ro Mayro (नानी बाई रो मायरो, 1963), Baba Ramdev (बाबा रामदेव, 1963), Laaj Rakho Rani Sati (लाज राखो राणी सती, 1973) and Gangaur (गणगौर, 1982).
Sarita Devi was especially appreciated for her performance in a negative role as Sanvali Devi in Baba Ramdev (1963). Her clear diction and effective Rajasthani dialogue delivery is still remembered by the film’s viewers. Due to her excellent dialogue delivery she was chosen to dub for Hindi version of seven Russian films. She was honoured by Diamond Pictures for her dubbing of the Russian film, The Fall of Berlin (Padeniye Berlina, 1950).
Though she worked in films with all dedication, she was not a film watcher. She had not seen most of her own films and the few she saw was much later on Television. In fact she saw two of her landmark Rajasthani films Babasa Ri Ladli (1961) and Baba Ramdev (1963) about 30-32 years later at Rajasthani Film Mahotsav organised by Kala Triveni Sansthan in March, 1993. This event was held in Jodhpur to mark the Golden Jubilee of Rajasthani Film Industry where Sarita Devi was felicitated for her contribution.
Sarita Devi was always committed towards her work and family. But her personal life was a constant struggle against difficult circumstances. At the younge age of 12, she was widowed after 2 months of marriage. In 1951 she remarried theatre actor-writer-director L C Goyal who passed away in 1990. Amid domestic and financial problems, she gave her all to raise her children (a daughter and four sons). After enacting characters in films like Aadmi Khilona Hai (1993) and the TV series Shri Krishna (1993), her health started deteriorating. For the last 5-6 years of her life she was bedridden. On 28th June, 2001, Sarita Devi bid adieu to the world.
It was disheartening to know about Sarita ji’s passing after years of suffering. May her soul rest in peace. So many artists touch our lives and many a times, we the viewers never know where they came from and where they went, sometimes not even their names. We are glad that we got to know about Sarita ji. While reading about her we got introducted to Rajasthani films and look forward to watching Babasa Ri Ladli (1961) and Baba Ramdev (1963). Before closing this post we would like to share one tidbit – in Krishna Shah directed Amma (1984), husband-wife pair of L C Goyal and Sarita Devi played Paintal ji’s parents. Please share if anyone can find a capture.