Article Hindi

Shashikala (1932–2021): Star who gave up fame and success for peace

Shashikala walked out of Tinseltown not once, but twice, to embrace a life of abandonment the first time and of selfless service the second.

Shoma A Chatterji

The problem for screen villains and vamps is that when they become famous, the audience begins to identify them with the negative roles they play. The line between the real and the illusory gets blurred. One comes to terms with reality only when one gets the chance to meet the star in flesh and blood. Myths are dispelled. Illusions are laid to rest.

The news of veteran actress Shashikala’s death at the age of 88 at her Mumbai residence yesterday took me back to a day when I had the golden opportunity to interview her, an opportunity that came along with a hefty dose of nostalgia.

But it was really a challenge to persuade her to agree to an interview. This was many, many years ago, when she had just revived her acting career, this time on television.

“Mine has been a rags-to-riches story, much like a film script,” she said, relaxing in her comfortable paying guest dig in a Mumbai suburb. She had a house in Pune then and planned to buy an apartment in Mumbai soon. At an age when women begin to hide their wrinkles, Shashikala wore her peaches-and-cream complexion with casual indifference, not caring to wear greasepaint except for the camera.

“But make no mistake," she continued. "It is not age that has mellowed me; it is life itself. I entered films to keep the home fires burning. Back in Solapur, my father had lost all that he had because someone cheated him and cleaned him out. We were six brothers and sisters. There were days when there was no food in the house. A family friend who had watched me perform at Ganesh Mahotsav functions suggested to my father to put me in films in Bombay.

"Imagine! I was the youngest in the family. I had no choice about it. Throughout my career, I never did have a choice for the 18 years that I struggled to make it in the industry.

"Much, much later, there was also a time when I had three cars, six servants and a bungalow, a loving husband, two beautiful daughters, but no peace of mind. I have seen it all. And that has mellowed me. Money does not excite me any more. Nor does success in work. Fame, too, I have tasted in my time. But Mother [Teresa] has taught me to accept everything in life philosophically.”

Shashikala was just a child when she made her debut in Zeenat (1945) in a small role. No one noticed her except V Shantaram. And he cast her in an important role in his Teen Batti Char Rasta (1953). Then came Shashikala’s first lead role in Shantaram’s Surang (1953) in which she played the role of a mad girl.

“Surang brought me recognition," she recalled. "But I was still piqued about the fact that I got the smaller role in Zeenat because I did not know Urdu. From that day on, I started Urdu lessons. What’s more, I stopped talking in Marathi completely, so much so that people thought I was Punjabi.”

Shashikala was also supposed to have done the female lead in Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje (1955) because Shantaram and Sandhya had developed some differences. But by the time the shooting began, Sandhya had come round and Shashikala lost a precious part.

“I do not know why I am identified with vampish roles alone because I have had my share of meaningful parallel roles as well," she said. "One of the most memorable of these is the character of Rama in Bimal Roy’s Sujata (1959) where I had the sacrificing part. In Phani Majumdar’s Aarti (1962), too, I took a negative role because it had Ashok Kumar opposite me and having worked with him very often, I wanted to work with him again. Besides, it was a role where the negativism in the character is not spontaneous but induced by circumstances. I loved that one.”

Shashikala's roles in Aarti and in Gumrah the following year fetched her successive Filmfare awards for Best Supporting Actress in 1962 and 1963, respectively. She also won Best Supporting Actress (Hindi) at the Bengal Film Journalists' Association Awards for Aarti in 1963, for Gumrah in 1964, and for Rahgir (1969) in 1970. She received the Padma Shri, the country's fourth highest civilian award, in 2007 for her contribution to Indian cinema, She was bestowed with the Lifetime Achievement award at the V Shantaram Awards in 2009.

She did a very positive role in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anupama (1966), a lovely, sympathetic role of a talkative, bubbly young woman offsetting the silence of Sharmila Tagore, who played the female lead, and also in BR Chopra’s Gumrah, where she had a multi-layered role with both vampish and positive shades and added a thrilling twist to an otherwise family drama.

Shashikala’s father offered the balance that was needed to keep her head squarely on her shoulders. He chose her roles, looked after her work, accompanied her to the sets, guided her in every way.

Once, she had developed starry airs when she signed a contract with the singing star Noorjehan for a princely sum of Rs400 a month. “I remember I threw the lunch away because I did not care for the food my father had cooked and served," she recalled. "He picked up the things quietly and told me, ‘See, never insult food. This is what has brought you to films. This is what has kept us away from our family back home. And comment on the food only after you have tasted a morsel, not before.' That brought me back to my senses. I never put on starry airs ever again.”

Life, though, had strange things in store for Shashikala. “I don’t know why, but there was this deep frustration in me in spite of the fame, the money and the happiness I had around me," she continued. "One fine morning, I just walked out of the house in search of peace. I wandered around like a mad woman and came back after two months.

"But this no-peace condition turned me into a mental case. I withdrew from films and family absolutely, donned saffron, and went in search of peace from one ashram to another for five long years. I went to Rameshwaram, Dwarka, Bhubaneswar, Benares, everywhere, to search for peace but could not get it. Finally, I underwent a meditation course for 10 days at [Vipassana teacher Satya Narayan] Goenkaji’s ashram at Igatpuri and felt better.

"I got to the root of my problem. I was unable to cope with the reality that my fans were identifying me with the negative roles I played. After the Igatpuri experience, I was cured and there was no confusion in my mind any more. And I came back to Bombay and to films.”

She made mistakes in her two marriages, especially the second one, but she hated to elaborate on these tragedies in her life, reflecting the dignity she possessed.

Her comeback to cinema was varied. She did the musical Sargam (1979) with Rishi Kapoor and Jaya Prada, followed by that lovely role in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Khubsoorat (1980) where, at the age of 47, she had to dance all over again and Rekha was stunned to watch her perform after practising with the legendary choreographer Gopi Krishna for 12 hours for about six days. And, of course, there was the seductive, cleavage-revealing mother Mrs Saxena, besotted with Iftekhar's bachelor Dr Farid, in Rajshri’s Dulhan Wahi Jo Piya Man Bhaaye (1977).

Then, all of a sudden, something happened that put the clock back. Shashikala was acting in a film called Ghar Ghar Ki Kahani (1988). “The director deliberately humiliated and insulted me on the sets and needlessly accused me of putting on starry airs," she said. "I could not take it after some time. I upped and left for Pune and lived there for six months.

"I felt the desperate need to involve myself in active social work. None of the social welfare organizations responded to my request. So, again, I made the rounds of ashrams. I went to Pondicherry, Ganeshpuri, Rishikesh, Ramana Maharshi and then, finally, to Mother Teresa.” And Shashikala’s life changed forever.

After a couple of gruelling interviews, she had to clean latrines in the ladies’ dormitory in Pune, followed by bathing patients with sores and boils and scabs, feed spastic children, dress patients’ wounds, etc. She was sent to Calcutta, where, after a stint with spastic children, she was finally transferred to a 'dying' house to hold the hand of inmates till they died. For eight long years, she served with the Missionaries of Charity.

“This experience was to repeat itself in my own life," she pointed out. "When my elder daughter was dying of cancer, I held her hand when she left us.”

Shashikala broke down after the tragedy “but Mother told me to get back to work. And I worked again to come to terms with the grief. Work began to come — Junoon, then Aha and Sahil."

Having seen her bitching in BR Chopra’s Gumrah almost (then) four decades ago, or performing a sizzling cabaret number in OP Ralhan’s blockbuster Phool Aur Patthar (1966), one found it hard to take in the fact that this was the same lady who walked out of Tinseltown not once, but twice, to embrace a life of abandonment the first time, and of selfless service the second time.

Interestingly, her comeback to the screen was welcomed with open arms each time. Her second comeback was as the loud-mouthed, shrill, London-returned aunt in Cinevista’s hit soap Junoon (1993-98), which was telecast on Doordarshan. But she disappeared completely from the big and small screens after some years and did not make any public appearances at all.

Her passing will never erase the history she has carved for herself through her outstanding oeuvre in Hindi cinema. She had come a long way indeed from being the youngest of six children in a poor Marathi-speaking family, forced to earn for the family at a time when she could have played and been naughty like other children.