That Hindi movies have a very special place in Kalpana Saroj’s life is evident. Not only is her own story akin to a movie script, every other sentence in which she narrates her memories, she pauses to refer to a movie character in a similar situation, or hums a few lines from a song. “I have grown up watching Hindi movies,” says the chairperson of Kamani Tubes. “As a child, we would gather to watch movies in the village, projected on cloth screens erected in the open air. It was most exciting!” Later, when theatres opened, Saroj used to save the one rupee needed for watching a movie every week. “It was a big deal for us,” she says. “But then, movies meant magic.”
Even today, movies continue to be her way to spend a happy summer afternoon. “I have watched movies such as Kati Patang, Do Badan, Upkar and Haqeeqat over and over again,” she says. She is also a big fan of Amitabh Bachchan and tries not to miss any of his movies. “I have seen many of his movies many times,” she says. “I could spend an entire day watching his movies back to back.”
At 15, Saroj decided to move to Mumbai, the city where dreams came true, and found employment stitching clothes for hosiery shops. Her interest in movies never dwindled and she thrived on the inspiration they gave her. “At that time, I remember watching movies like the one that had the actress Mumtaz who, like me, was the eldest daughter in the house and worked to take care of all her siblings and parents,” she says. “I was inspired to do the same.” Now she compares her life’s journey with Sikandar’s, the role Amitabh Bachchan portrayed in the 1970s hit Muqaddar ka Sikandar where an orphan grows up to become a rich man. “I used to think if a poor kid like him could face tough odds and become rich, then I, too, had a chance of beating the odds.”
As it turned out, she did. At 22, Saroj, the daughter of a dalit police constable, started working at her husband’s flagging furniture business. She moved into the construction business some years later with ₹5 lakh saved from the furniture business and the rest as bank loans. There’s been no looking back since. In 2006, Saroj bought the ailing Kamani Tubes and has turned it into a ₹250-crore success.
With such an eventful past, it’s not surprising Saroj looks for meaning even in her entertainment. “I prefer watching films with a strong message, or family drama type movies,” she says. “The new movies focus so much on sex and violence that it’s uncomfortable to see them with the family.” But she does watch some of the films starring Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan. “Bodyguard was the last movie I saw in the theatres,” she says. For now, Saroj continues to believe in living life like a hero. “The hero always takes a risk and lives fearlessly,” she says. “That’s why he succeeds.”