Punjabi cinema and theater actress Nirmal Rishi, and Pran Sabharwal, a prominent theatrical actor from Patiala, have been conferred Padma Shri this year.
With an illustrious career spanning six decades in theatre and films, the legendary Nirmal Rishi, 80, declares that acting is not just a profession but her life’s essence. This year, she is a proud recipient of the prestigious Padma Shri award for her outstanding contribution to the world of Art, solidifying her inseparable connection to Punjab’s vibrant art and culture scene.
“I’ve lost count of the plays I’ve been a part of. Stepping onto the stage has always felt like a cathartic moment,” says Rishi, who earned the 2012 Sangeet Natak Akademi award for her exceptional acting skills. Renowned for her compelling performances in social, religious, and adapted plays, Rishi’s artistic journey began under the mentorship of Punjab’s acclaimed theatre figures, Harpal and Neena Tiwana.
“They discovered my talent in mono acting in Rajasthani during my college days and imparted invaluable lessons about the art through hands-on experience. Workshops led by luminaries like Ebrahim Alkazi and Balwant Gargi provided us with fresh insights into the world of theatre. Those were truly the golden years,” reminisces Rishi. Collaborating on nearly 50 plays with Tiwana, some notable productions include “Kabuli Wala,” “Aate Ki Katori,” “Dug Dugi Payi Wajdi,” “Foolish King,” “Lesson,” “Adhure Sapne,” and “Chamkaur di Garri,” among others.
In films, she shot to fame with her role as Gulabo Maasi in her debut movie “Long Da Lishkara” (1983). She was also a big hit in recent films such as “Nikka Zaildar” and its sequel, “Nikka Zaildar 2.”
The actor says she enjoys playing characters which are emotional,but also loves to experiment and surprise herself.
Rishi also enjoys training young talent and says the challenge is to keep the finances flowing. Many talented actors have to switch to other mediums to earn their livelihood, she rues. “More sponsors and no tax on theatre will really help theatre grow.”
The veteran actor has always maintained that films are her bread and butter but theatre is her life. Rishi says as long as she lives, she will carry on acting.
Born in 1943 into a Brahmin family in the village of Khiva Kalan in Mansa district, Rishi’s father, Sarpanch Baldev Krishan Rishi, and her mother, Bachni Devi, played significant roles in her upbringing. Her enthusiasm for theatre emerged during her school days. Opting for a career as a physical education instructor, she enrolled in Government College Patiala for Physical Education. She has acted in over 60 films.
Prithviraj Kapoor’s fan to doyen of Punjabi theatre, a journey of seven decades
One of the two personalities selected for Padma Shri honor from Punjab, Pran Sabharwal (93), is a Patiala-based veteran theatre actor credited for over 5,000 performances in seven decades.
Born in Jalandhar of Punjab on December 9, 1930, Sabharwal, who otherwise served as an employee in the erstwhile Punjab State Electricity Board (PSEB), was attracted towards acting after getting inspired from the doyen of Hindi cinema, his idol, Prithivraj Kapoor. Without having any formal qualification or training in acting, Sabharwal went on to make theatre and radio his life. And there was no looking back. Sabharwal was also one of the founder faculty members of the Department of Speech, Drama & Music, at Punjabi University, Patiala.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Sabharwal said: “I am ecstatic that my work, dedication and love for acting has been finally recognized. I never had any formal qualification or training in acting. I was just a big fan of Prithviraj Kapoor and had even requested him to take me to Bombay but he told me that I should continue to live in Punjab and pursue acting in my own mother tongue-Punjabi.”
“I am settled in Patiala since 1962 after I was posted here in the electricity board. I also retired from the board. But my love for theatre started when in 1952, Prithviraj Kapoor had visited Jalandhar for some performance and I kept running after him like a fan boy. He asked me what do you want? I said please take me to Bombay, I want to work with you. He said I should continue to pursue my love for acting but in my own mother tongue- Punjabi. I obeyed what he said after I got his blessings and best wishes,” said Sabharwal.
Sabharwal said that he was extremely proud and happy to know that veteran actor Nirmal Rishi, too has been selected for Padma Shri honor from Punjab. “It was i who introduced Rishi to the world of theatre and she went on to touch skies. The name of our play was “Paisa Bolta Hai,” he said.
Sabharwal will also be honored at Republic Day programme in Patiala Friday where Punjab Governor Banwarilal Purohit will be the chief guest.
A radio drama artist of All India Radio (AIR) since 1951, Sabharwal is also credited for over 500 radio plays in his career. He also performed in Punjabi films including national award winning ones. Some of his films include “Chann Pardesi”, Marhi da Deeva”, “Shaheed Udham Singh”, “Vairy Jatt”, “Angrejan” and “Ruttan Piar Dian”.
He also acted in several Doordarshan television shows including iconic Punjabi serial “Eho Hamara Jeevna” based on Dalip Kaur Tiwana’s novel.
He also produced “Punjabi Bal Ramayana”, a first of its kind play, written by his artist wife Sunita Sabharwal, which covered the entire epic in two hours. He also remained a fellow, theatre and television department, Punjabi University, Patiala.