I will always think of Rati Agnihotri as the actress who emoted to one of my most favourite Lata Mangeshkar songs — Solah baras ki baali umar ko salaam — in Rati's debut film Ek Duuje Ke Liye.
Over the years Agnihotri has seen ups and downs in her life and marriage. But she remains upbeat and forever happy.
"I've cut out all negativity from my life. I only hang around with the people I am comfortable with. I have always had a selected few friends. My best friend Shayla has been with me for decades. She lives in Chennai and we often chill out at her place in her city. I was never a party-going type. Not that I am uncomfortable with crowds. Ask me to entertain 3,000 people from a stage, and I'll do it happily. Ask me to stand in a circle with six people with a glass in my hand, and I’d rather be home with my dog,” says Rati Agnihotri who regaled us with many entertainers in 1980s beginning ith K Balachander’s Ek Duuje Ke Liye.
"Actually I did one Tamil film before Ek Duuje Ke Liye," Rati recalls. "It was directed by the great Bharathi Raja. I didn't know the Tamil language. I didn't know anything about acting. There were no actors in my family before me. I was only 15 when I signed Ek Duuje Ke Liye. Before that I was modelling from the age of 5. I was a cute child and I knew I was cute. Just how the offer to do Ek Duuje Ke Liye came to me remains a mystery to me. All I know is, the great producer-filmmaker LV Prasad saw me and offered me the film. From then onwards everything was a whirlwind for the next ten years. I did films with the biggest of directors and biggest of heroes."
Rati feels today's generation of actors has it much tougher. "Stardom was offered to me on a platter. My son Tanuj who is my best friend after my father, had to go through a longish period of rejection. Now I'm happy to see him doing so well in his career.”
Rati has recently returned to India. She was in Poland for 19 months. "I was stuck there because of COVID-19. At first I couldn’t travel because my pet dog was not allowed. Then all the borders were sealed. I normally travel back from Poland to India from Berlin which I couldn't do. I returned just a few weeks ago, just in time for my son’s birthday. He’s here with me for my 60th birthday. I was in Poland with my sister Anita. We co-own a chain of restaurants in Poland. She looks after all the accounts. I take care of all the recipes. If I may say so myself I’m a very good cook. In fact I am far better at cooking than I was at acting. All the recipes in our restaurants are mine, every single one of them, and the chefs are not allowed to deviate from my recipes by even a fraction.”
Why did Rati give it all up so soon?
"It wasn’t soon at all. You see, I started working at 15. I got married at 23. We Agnihotris are very conservative in certain things, like marriage. My father Roop Agnihotri, though liberal enough to allow me to work, wanted me to get married when I was 23. As far as I was concerned it was the right age. While my career lasted, I worked with all the heroes spanning many generations. From Amit ji in Coolie to Sanjay Dutt in Johnny I love you, I worked with them all. I worked with heroes of several generations. I did two films with Shashi Kapoor as his leading lady and I also co-starred with his nephew Rishi Kapoor. For six years I was in and out of studios, never late for any shooting. That was because my father managed my film career so well.”
Any favourite films from her own repertoire?
“I loved them all. If got to do an author-backed role in BR Chopra’s Tawaif I also enjoyed doing the singing and dancing in Johnny I Love You and John Jani Janardhan. I loved the Bengali brigade. Basu Chatterjee gave me such lovely roles in Shubh Kamna and Shaukeen. And I loved the Punjabi brigade too, the Chopras and the others who cast me in my big hits.”
It is obvious that the father was the pivot of Rati’s life.
“He was not just my father he was also my best friend. Both my mother and I were totally dependent on him. When he died suddenly at a young age we were bereft. I was completely shattered. I knew nothing about the world outside the one that my father had built for me. My wedding was three weeks away when my father left us. We thought of cancelling it. But my Bua who is like the mother figure of the entire Agnihotri family, commanded us to go ahead with the wedding, We had a very small ceremony and then a modest reception for my husband Anil’s friends.”
After marriage Rati never looked back …until her second innings.
“I did work again from 2001, and I enjoyed that phase as well. Now I am done with acting. I spend my time with my son, my dog, with my sister Anita in Poland. It's yoga in the morning. I have put on some weight after menopause and not because I don’t look after myself. It’s a hormonal issue. But I am happy with my extra weight. There’s more of me to love.”
Does Rati miss the limelight?
“Not at all. When I was working I never bothered with my image. There was no social media. Journalists would come on the sets, have lunch with us, interact directly and report that I was Ms Professional or whatever. Back then, stars were projected as more human in the media. Today it’s all about the image, and that isn’t real, therefore not good. No, I don’t miss the limelight. I am a very switch-on-switch-off person. When I was acting I gave all of myself. Now when I don’t act, I don’t think about it.”
Finally I needed to clear the controversy that has plagued Rati Agnihotri’s career forever. Is it true that Kamal Haasan and she were not on talking terms during the making of Ek Duuje Ke Liye?
Rati takes a deep breath, “I know this rumour has remained alive all these years. I don’t know what Kamal has to say about it. But I am clarifying once and for all, there was no problem between us. Maybe I was seen to be aloof and haughty because I stuck very close to my producer LV Prasadji. He was an institution — though at that time I didn’t know anybody in the film industry to know his worth — and I’d do exactly what he said. I was petrified of director K Balachander maybe because of his big eyes. When I look back I now realize how blessed I was to have worked with such stalwarts as LV Prasad, K Balachander and Kamal Haasan in my first Hindi film.”