Shyama, spirited star of the Indian silver screen

A look at the celebrated career of the graceful actress who turns 81 today.

Sonal Pandya

From small roles to second lead and, finally, the top-billed actress in films like Aar Paar (1954), Shyama rose from a paltry salary of Rs30 to a princely Rs2,000 as a Filmistan heroine. Unlike other actresses of her era, she was just as comfortable taking on characters with shades of grey in Bhabhi (1957), Chhoti Bahen (1959), and Bahurani (1963) rather than becoming the traditional love interest of the hero.

Shyama was an adept dancer with expressive eyes, who lit up the screen with her infectious smile. She played a grandmother in her last film Hathyar (1989) and retired soon after. Her first brush with the silver screen was as a teenager, joining other actresses like Rehana, Shashikala and Zebunnissa in an all-female qawwali from Zeenat (1945).

Born Khurshid Akhtar, Shyama and her family settled in India from Lahore after Partition. She changed her screen name to Shyama from Baby Khurshid upon the suggestion of filmmaker Vijay Bhatt.

Shyama tasted A-list success with Guru Dutt’s Aar Paar and the popularity of the Bombay noir comedy along with co-stars Johnny Walker and Shakila. She played Nikki, daughter of Guru Dutt’s boss Lalaji. Her carefree, modern image in dungarees from the song ‘Sun Sun Sun Sun Zaalima’ opposite Guru Dutt’s more playful avatar was a refreshing change. The film changed the course of her career.

Shyama married cinematographer Fali Mistry at the height of her career in 1953 and continued to work in starring roles in films like Mirza Sahiban (1957), Barsaat Ki Raat (1960) and Zabak (1961). PL Santoshi’s Muslim social Barsat Ki Raat was a woman-orientated feature which co-starred Madhbala, Mumtaz Begum and Bharat Bhushan. Like in her debut, Shyama featured in some well-known qawwalis composed by Roshan and written by Sahir Ludhianvi for the film. But now, she was at the forefront with the qawwali focused on her character Shama.

However, the only awards honour of her career came with Sharada (1957), directed by LV Prasad. In this love triangle with Raj Kapoor and Meena Kumari, Shyama played Chanchal, a newlywed who must come to terms with the fact that her husband and young stepmother were once in love. Shyama won the Filmfare award for Best Supporting Actress over her Bhabhi co-star Nanda.