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Simi Garewal: the icon of style

By Dinesh Raheja
April 03, 2003 18:17 IST
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Dinesh Raheja

With her Armani clothes and silken hair, Simi Garewal has been one of the most stylish actresses in the film industry for 40 years. Simi Garewal

Her impossibly chic signature style remained non-alienating, whether in her empathetic roles onscreen (Do Badan, Mera Naam Joker) or her television persona as the benign host of Rendezvous With Simi Garewal.

This sophisticate spent much of her earlier life abroad. Born to a brigadier father, Simi was shunted to London when she was barely six years old and stayed in the foggy city till she completed her O levels.

But the early exposure to Hindi films had already won a convert. Simi remembers seeing the Raj Kapoor classic Awara when she was just five and says it "blew my mind". Her father wanted her to study drama but a determined Simi, who was still in her teens, was keen on coming to India. Her father capitulated after she threatened to go on a hunger fast. In the early 1960s, Simi came down to India with her mother with little more than a working knowledge of Hindi.

They stayed at the plush Hotel Ambassador in Mumbai, but Simi had to scrabble hard for success like any other newcomer. She joined the Filmalaya Acting School and jogged Mehboob Khan's memory about a chance meeting between the two years earlier when a childish Simi had professed her eagerness to act. Khan remembered the spunky child and, since he was in the process of wrapping up Son Of India (1962), he offered Simi a small role in the film.
Simi Garewal's landmark films
 Year  Film Costars
 1966  Do Badan  Manoj Kumar, Asha Parekh
 1968  Saathi   Rajendra Kumar, Vyjayanthimala
 1969  Aranyer Din Ratri  Soumitra Chatterjee, Sharmila Tagore, Samit Bhanja, Aparna Sen
 1970  Mera Naam Joker  Raj Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor, Manoj Kumar
 1971  Andaz  Shammi Kapoor, Hema Malini, Rajesh Khanna
 1971  Do Boond Paani  Jalal Agha
 1972  Siddhartha  Shashi Kapoor
 1973  Namak Haram

 Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Rekha

 1976  Chalte Chalte  Vishal Anand
 1980  Karz  Raj Kanwar, Rishi Kapoor, Tina Munim

Other supporting roles came Simi's way and she humbly made the most of them. She was one of the Teen Deviyan in Dev Anand's life in the ambitious 1965 film. The same year, Simi acted in Johar Mehmood In Goa, which surprised people by becoming a hit.

The newcomer with expressive eyes, sylph-like figure and measured manner captivated the audience when she played the third angle in Raj Khosla's love story Do Badan (1966). As the doctor who falls in love with her blind, melancholic patient (Manoj Kumar) but cannot make him forget the love of his life (Asha Parekh), Simi was the picture of grace and restraint. She bagged Filmfare's Best Supporting Actress Award.

Sure, Simi's accented Hindi could sometimes raise sniggers among the audience but many noted directors rushed to control this and utilise her keenly thought out acting ability.

Simi won another award for Saathi where, in a departure from her sympathetic image, she played a spoilt rich girl who sets her eyes on Rajendra Kumar and marries him -- though he remains faithful to his first love Vyjayanthimala. Director Sridhar lavished a couple of heavenly Naushad-Lata Mangeshkar combinations on Simi (including the title song) and the sari-clad young actress did full justice to that paean to unrequited love, Yeh kaun aaya roshan ho gayi mehfil.     

But Simi's genteel cucumber sandwich image stopped her from being accepted in the regular naach gaana (song and dance) genre. She needed directors of calibre to tap her potential.

Raj Kapoor cast her perfectly in her career-defining role in Mera Naam Joker (1970) as the soft-spoken teacher who loves Manoj Kumar but maturely handles her adolescent student Rishi Kapoor's massive crush on her.   

When Satyajit Ray cast her in his Bengali film Aranyer Din Ratri (1969), Simi was over the moon. Especially because the auteur went against type and cast her as a tribal girl seduced by a city slicker.

Noted director K A Abbas also experimented with Simi's image and cast her in his Do Boond Paani (1971) as a demure rural wife battling against a perennial water shortage, but keeping alive her hope represented by the canal her husband (Jalal Agha) is busy building.

Simi Garewal's famous songs
 Song  Film Singer
 Mere jeevan saathi, kali thi  Saathi  Lata Mangeshkar
 Yeh kaun aaya roshan ho gayi  Saathi  Lata Mangeshkar
 Teetar ke do aage teetar  Mera Naam Joker  Asha Bhosle, Mukesh
 Jab bhi yeh dil udaas hota hai  Seema  Mohammed Rafi
 Peetal ki mori gaagri  Do Boond Paani  Parveen Sultana, Minoo Purshottam
 Wada kar le saajna  Haath Ki Safai  Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi

Simultaneously, in commercial cinema, Simi struggled to make the best of the non-pivotal roles opposite major stars that came her way. In Ramesh Sippy's Andaz (1971), she was endearing as Shammi Kapoor's sweeter-than-molasses wife who dies to gift him a much-desired child. In Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Namak Haram (1973), she was the rich but eternally sympathetic voice of sanity who tries to curb Amitabh Bachchan's anger. In Prakash Mehra's Haath Ki Safai (1974), she just threw her long hair around in the hit number, Waada kar le saajna.   

International filmmaker Conrad Rooks' Siddhartha (1972) was considered the high point in Simi's career at this stage. Shashi Kapoor played the salvation-seeking protagonist who learns much about the art of loving from Simi's character. Unfortunately in India, much of the film's finer points were overshadowed by the brouhaha over Simi's topless shots.

By the mid-1970s, Simi's career seemed to have run out of steam. Films like Chalte Chalte, which cast her as older woman opposite newcomer Vishal Anand did not make waves despite the melodious music; while a blockbuster like Kabhi Kabhie had her in a peripheral role (as Neetu Singh's foster mother).  

Simi's marriage did not work out but the actress did enjoy a resurgence in 1980 with Subhash Ghai's Karz, where she let go of her vanity to play a Machiavellian vamp who cold-bloodedly kills her husband (Raj Kiran) only to encounter her nemesis in his reincarnated version (Rishi Kapoor).

Subsequently, Simi has successfully dabbled with biographical documentary filmmaking and directing a feature film (the Mithun-Anuradha Patel thriller Rukhsat), before finally grabbing the spotlight with her class-centric celebrity interview show Rendezvous With Simi Garewal

Still nifty even in her 50s, Simi may not have always got her due but the diva seems to have finally found her groove.

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Dinesh Raheja