From the Ganesha on the wall to the aroma of agarbattis, there's nothing filmy about her regular Maharashtrian middle-class home in Mumbai's far northern suburb of Thane. As Usha Naik offers me chai and snacks, I wonder if this is indeed the multi-talented Marathi actress who danced her way into audiences' hearts and made it her home for over four decades. That is, till she flashes her famous dimples.
Naik, who's rarely got her due in recognition or awards, is surprised at being interviewed. "This is for the privileged, I've no connections, godfathers and don't even belong to a privileged caste," she laughs, the sadness cutting across. "I came from a poor background. For me work made ends meet. I still see it like that," says Naik who carries the soon-to-be-released Ek Hazarachi Note (EHN) on her 60-year-old shoulders.
That it has created a buzz among both critics and cine-goers even as it goes through post-production, indicates the extent of this modest veteran's fan following.
Naik agreed to the film because of the director Shrihari Sathe. "I love to work with young filmmakers as it helps me learn and grow. They have new concepts and are eager to try genres and styles I don't even know exist," she smiles.
It is such innovation, she says, that is returning the "cradle of Indian cinema" to its grandeur and national and international recognition. "Fandry and Dhag, made me proud about Marathi cinema." She shakes her head shyly and folds her hand in prayer when told about the similar buzz EHN is creating. "It's too early to say anything."
Despite decades of experience, she readily agreed to workshops the cast was put through. "Getting the Vidarbha dialect right took a lot of effort. Also Shrihari is big on authenticity. Right from the way I drape the nine-yard to the ribbon in my all-grey hair, everything was gone into in detail," explains Naik whose following has only grown since she began playing grandmother in the Marathi daily soap Swapnanchya Palikadle.
Soaps, she rues, are still old school. "Sometimes when they keep telling me to keep on acting louder, I feel strange. But under a director's baton you keep your brain aside and just do what is told. That's been my motto while working with greats like V Shantaram and even now."
But is there pressure to work? "No," she waves her hand, "My son's a mechanical engineer and also runs a wholesale tea agency. I know I won't exactly go hungry if I sit at home."
Naik, who lost her husband five years ago, says, "Its a value instilled by my farmer parents while growing up in Belgaum. For as long I have strength to work, I'll keep putting my shoulder to the wheel."
Though many think she debuted in 1975 in Jabbar Patel's Saamna, an official selection at the 25th Berlin International Film Festival, Naik says she was around five years before. "I trained in classical dance while growing up with the other girls in the neighbourhood. That led to stage performances and finally a move to Kolhapur which was the Marathi film industry hub."
She began working as a background dancer. "If you look carefully you'll find me dancing behind well-known actors like Jaishree Gadkar, Sarla Yeolekar, Laxmi-Chhaya and even Sandhya (in V Shantaram's iconic Pinjra)."
From dancing to getting the odd line or two took a while but her strong screen presence made her stand out and she soon graduated to junior artiste. While most seniors were kind and encouraging, she faced humiliation too. One shoot in Sangli after she had done Saamna still rankles. "Lead actors had their own special rooms while junior artistes, extras and background dancers had a common room to get ready.
Since the common room was occupied and I'd already done a full-fledged role in Saamna, I took my bag and went into the Sarla Yeolekar's room. She created a scene and flung my bag out angrily."
But destiny came full circle and as Naik's star was on the ascent, Yeolekar's was on the decline. "Our paths crossed quite often and I'd make special efforts to be extra kind. Despite her behaviour she was, after all, senior."
This religious nature, she feels, helped save her in an era when exploitation in the industry was commonplace. "I know making compromises may've taken me places." Though she acted in a few Kannada films, Naik refused many Hindi ones. "Hindi cinema was big but they'd want me to dance in skimpy clothes and the kind of people who approached me didn't seem right." Then, in 1985, she was offered Dekha Pyar Tumhara starring Kamal Haasan and Rati Agnihotri (of Ek Duje Ke Liye fame). "It was a good role but I can't forget the tensions on the set. Rati and Kamal had fought. He remained aloof and grumpy. We were all glad when the filming got over."
Asked why there were no photographs or film memorabilia around, she laughs, "Why'd I clutter my house with those things? It's not like I'm going to write an autobiography or anything." But isn't everyone doing that? "But I'm not everyone."