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7 April 2021

The Greats: Shashikala

04.08.1932 - 04.04.2021

I woke up yesterday morning to the news of veteran actress, Shashikala’s, demise. It was a shock – not because the death was untimely or sudden, but because we had only very recently watched Sujata (1960) on the Criterion Channel. And because there was something about Shashikala herself - full of life and the joy of living. Was she really that way? I don’t know, but that was my perception of her.

Strangely enough, she was one actor l loved to hate. When I first began watching movies, all the films I watched her in had her as the vamp or portraying a negative character. She was so good at being bad that it was easy to hate her. Yet, unlike, say Helen, who was the topmost ‘vamp’ in Hindi films, Shashikala actually had performing roles – some of which allowed her a more nuanced portrayal than the usual black & white characterisations that were/are popular in Hindi cinema.

When I first read of her demise, my immediate reaction was to write a tribute – perhaps a list of my favourite songs picturised on her. But Madhu had already posted her tribute, and my list would have mirrored hers. Since I was taking the time to think about it, it seemed fitting to write about the various roles in which she shone.

Born Shashikala Javalkar, she was the 5th of six children of a once well-established textile merchant. However, the family’s straitened financial circumstances brought them to Bombay, in the hopes that their talented daughter would raise their fortunes. Shashikala herself rued the fact that her lack of knowledge of Urdu, or even spoken Hindi, ruined her initial chances – she lost out on a chance to act as Noor Jehan’s daughter in Zeenat (1945). But it did bring her to the notice of Shaukat Hussain Rizvi, Noor Jehan’s husband, and he offered the 11-year-old girl the role of Dilip Kumar’s younger sister in Jugnu (1947).


Unfortunately for Shashikala, she couldn’t capitalize on the success of Jugnu. While Rizvi had offered her the heroine’s role in his next project, both Noor Jehan and Rizvi migrated to Pakistan during the Partition. And Shashikala was back to doing the studio rounds, picking up whatever role she was offered.

While she did get offered lead roles in films like Nazaare (1949 – opposite Agha), Jal Tarang (1949 – opposite Rehman), and even opposite Shammi Kapoor in Daku (1955), she could never establish herself as the ‘heroine’. 

Photo credit: Film History Pics on Twitter

In the mid-fifties, still in her early 20s, she married Om Prakash Sehgal, a successful businessman. Interested in the movies himself, Sehgal poured his money into producing a film which starred his wife and Kishore Kumar, titled Krorepati.  The film took six long years to make. In an interview with veteran journalist Subhash K Jha, Shashikala remarked that they had made a film called Krorepati (Billionaire), but it turned them into ‘roadpatis’ (paupers).

In a bid to revive the family fortunes, Shashikala accepted every film that came her way during this period. Good, bad or indifferent, she did them all. However, even a character like Rama in Bimal Roy’s Sujata could not open the doors to more positive roles. Films like Nau Do Gyarah (1957), 12 o’ Clock (1959), Kanoon (1960) showcased her as a vamp.

That image was further established in Aarti (1962) – her turn as the shrewish sister-in-law was a mixed blessing: on the one hand, it netted her critical acclaim and a Filmfare award. On the other, it slotted her into stereotypical roles of ever-increasing shrewishness.

Yet, she added her own personality into each of those roles, striving to make them stand apart, relishing in the wickedness her characters unleashed on screen. My last recollection of her in later years is as Juhi Chawla’s lovable social-climber mother, who thoroughly disapproves of her son-in-law’s (Sanja Suri) musical aspirations in Jhankar Beats.

Here, in memory, are some of my favourite Shashikala ‘characters’, in no particular order.

Sunita in Nau Do Gyarah (1957)


Nav Ketan 'vamps' were as interesting as Nav Ketanheroines. And Shashikala's Sunita is, as well. Her character has a definite narrative arc, from an opportunistic young woman who's blackmailed into doing something far more dangerous than she has never done before to someone who becomes a more than willing helpmate. The change is gradual, and much is left unsaid, but the versatile actress let her expressions do much of the emoting.

Rama in Sujata (1959)

The pampered daughter of the house, Rama is nevertheless the only person in the house who loves the eponymous Sujata (Nutan) as her sister. Her whole-hearted acceptance goes a long way in making Sujata’s life tenable, inured as she is to the many pinpricks she faces as the ‘beti jaisi’. Rama is a bubbly, effervescent character whose childishness however, does not preclude her from noticing that her prospective suitor (Sunil Dutt) is more interested in her sister.

Mala in Junglee (1961)

She is the hero's sister, brought up in an atmosphere where to laugh to is to be chastised. While her brother (Shammi Kapoor) grows up to be a pompous stuffed shirt unable to show emotion, Mala is a hop-out-o'-the-kin. She not only loves to laugh, she (gasp!) loves - a clerk (Anoop Kumar) in her brother's office. She is forced to hide both her love and her laughter from her mother and brother. And, much though her mother may constrain her, she is intrepid enough to climb out through her balcony and meet her lover, and sing songs with him even though both of them know that her mother and brother will not approve

Jaswanti in Aarti (1962)

Jaswanti, jealous of Aarti (Meena Kumari), loses no chance to be spiteful, even downright mean. A childhood scarred by poverty, the hardships she has had to endure since, her existence as a drudge, single-handedly taking care of home and hearth makes her both bitter and spiteful. So much so she even does her bit to break Aarti’s relationship with her brother-in-law, Prakash (Pradeep Kumar). It was a black-as-black role, but the actress infused her human frailty with a conscience. It was no mean feat to hold her own against seasoned actors such as Meena Kumari and Ashok Kumar but Shashikala turned in a stellar performance.

Shashikala was reportedly so upset with her career trajectory that she was determined to quit films after completing Aarti. However, director Phani Majumdar was confident that when the film released, the industry would sit up and take notice of this fine actress, negative role or not. Sure enough, the role of Jaswanti netted Shashikala her first Filmfare award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.

Leela in Gumraah (1963) 

When Meena (Mala Sinha) marries her widowed brother-in-law Ashok (Ashok Kumar), she leaves behind a shattered Rajender (Sunil Dutt), who comes to know of the marriage well after the fact. But a chance meeting with him leads Meena to rekindle their relationship. Though uneasy about the burgeoning friendship between her husband and lover, the affair continues until Meena is accosted by Leela – who introduces herself as Rajender’s wife. Then begins a game of blackmail, as a terrified Meena tries to save both her love and her marriage. Who exactly is Leela? And is she really married to Rajender? If so, why didn’t Rajender tell Meena about her?

Shashikala’s nonchalance deepened the mystery that shrouds the character and gave it an edge that was realistic enough to drive anyone off the rails.

Rita in Phool aur Patthar (1966) 

Ensconced in tight fitting gowns and a platinum blonde wig plays the moll with the golden heart. In love with Shaka (Dharmendra), she strives to bring him back to the gang, but the love of a good woman (TM) keeps our man on the straight and narrow. Finally, Rita, in the tradition of good vamps everywhere, gives her life to save her man.

Despite several fashion faux pas, Shashikala infused her character with a vulnerability that forced you to empathise with her. Co-star Dharmendra remembered how Shashikala had made him, then a newcomer, feel very welcome on the sets – it made him, he said, treat his juniors accordingly.

Annie Bakshi in Anupama (1966) 

Annie in Anupama was Sujata’s Rama on steroids. She was as childish, bubbly and effervescent – just raised to the power of ten. The ionally fragile Uma (Sharmila Tagore) draws strength from Annie’s insouciance, and it is Annie who vocalises feelings that Uma cannot bring herself to express. Annie also has no patience for people who do not seem to do what is in their best interests, and it is she who squabbles with Ashok for what she sees as his unnecessary restraint. Annie's peppiness does grate after a while, but Shashikala is a fabulous actor and one can’t find fault with a person who not only stands up for her own needs but becomes the shoulder for a quieter, weaker person to lean on.

Vineeta in Bheegi Raat (1965) 

The female characters in Bheegi Raat were rather interesting. None more so than Shashikala's Vineeta. In my review of the film, I wrote: "Vineeta is very clear that she doesn’t love Ajay, nor does she want his love. But she wants him, and she’s willing to pay for him. When she’s scorned, she makes it her mission to ruin him. There’s a stunning lack of remorse and what’s more, she doesn’t really pay for it in the end either. Shashikala had a meaty role, and she played the vamp with such sass that one couldn't help but admire her single-minded determination to wreak vengeance. Besides, she really rocks the trousers and tight kameezes and furs."

Shefali in Sunehre Kadam (1966) 

On the face of it, this was a regulation ‘heroine’ role – self-sacrificing and maudlin. But before the script went haywire, Shefali was a rather interesting character – someone who knew what she wanted, and went after it, even if her methods could have done with some thought. She masterfully conveyed the change from a flighty, spoilt rich girl to a woman who tries to make amends the best she knows how. It was a portrayal that deserved much more than the film it was in.

Shahzaad in Aab-e-Hayaat (1955)

Finally, a rather fun-filled role, where Shashikala got to ‘swashbuckle’ with the best of them. I first came across this film thanks to Dustedoff’s excellent review which caught my fancy. This Arabian Nights-esque tale of kings and princesses, fairies and djinns was right up my alley and while the humour between the leads (Shashikala and Premnath) made me smile my way through this film. As Shahzaad, Shashikala got to ride horses, roam around in disguise, fence, etc., along with looking pretty and singing soulful songs. Aab-e-Hayaat may not be a great film, but it was definitely a stress-buster.

Shashikala died peacefully in her house in Colaba on 4th April 2021. It seems a fitting end to an actresss who, leaving the trappings of fame behind had spent many, many years in quietly serving the poor and destitute. She may have been the quintessential 'bad woman' on screen, but Shashikala was, by all accounts, someone who lived her life on her own terms and found an inner peace while she was still living. She will be missed.

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