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Shashikala – Of Torment and Triumph



She was a star by the age of five. Much to the proud delight of her father whose dreams of going on stage had been thwarted by his outraged businessman father who had cut short his flight from home and dragged him back to join him in the family business. But when his daughter showed flashes of histrionic brilliance at a tender age, Anantrao Jawaikar was more than happy to let her romp around as Bal Krishna at the annual Ganesh Utsav in Solapur. Ironically, Shashikala’s talent, a couple of years later, ensured that she was the only one of the family who got one hearty breakfast of rabri and jalebi from the local halwai shop and one very welcome lunch everyday which culture-patronising families pooled in to give her. The rest of her five siblings often had to make do with just a glass of water which was also Shashikala’s dinner most days. The tall, fair and very handsome Jawaikar (“He’s still the most good-looking man I’ve seen,” insists his daughter fondly) had started life in a chaandi ka paalna but then made the mistake of sending his younger brother abroad to study chartered accountancy. This very expensive dream was a major drain on the family resources but he battled on in the hope that his family’s troubles were only temporary. Once his brother returned to India, he’d open an office and the family’s glory days would return. “My kaka did return, baba got him married with a lot of pomp and show and soon after he opened his office too but our lives didn’t improve because he made it very clear that now that he had a family of his own he couldn’t take on any more responsibilities,” Shashikala remembers. Hurt and bewildered, Jawaikar didn’t know what to do next. His sons had rebelled against him for lavishing all his wealth and attention on an uncle who now refused to have anything to do with them and branched out on their own. He was drifting along aimlessly wondering how to salvage something from the life which lay in a shambles around him, when someone suggested that Shashikala who was now in high school and a beautiful, talented young girl, should try her luck in the movies. “And that’s how we landed in Mumbai, the city of dreams,” she continues with her narrative.

The city of dreams quickly became a city of nightmares. Jawaikar shuttled from the house of one friend to that of another while Shashikala was taken in by one family from Solapur as an unpaid help. “I lived on dog’s food and was made to do everything from helping madam with her bath to cleaning her shoes. It was a shocking transition for a kid who’d been pampered all her young life. And there was no one I could turn to for solace. I’d get to meet my father only once in a while when he’d carry me off to the Shivaji Park garden where I’d lie with my head on his lap and weep for hours. I was like a forsaken Cinderella and my only fairy godmother in those dark days was a maasi who’d quietly slip a Glucose biscuit or a badam sweet into my hand when things got really bad and tell me softly that everything would be all right soon,” the woman everyone loved to hate reminisces misty-eyed. The ordeal ended one midnight when she was suddenly thrown out into the street by madam’s husband.

Young Shashikala was then taken in by another family, a Muslim guy with five children who promised her father that Shashikala would be treated like his sixth child. And he kept his word. There at last, Shashikala found love and didn’t mind all the household chores she cheerfully took on. It was here that Prabhat Studios first discovered her and bore her off to Pune for a Marathi film, Tota Yache Banna on a monthly retainer of Rs 100. In Pune she moved in with a Brahmin family. There were about half-a-dozen kids here too, the eldest daughter just a year older than Shashi. She’d signed a year’s contract with the reputed studio and when the tanga came to pick her up every morning and she noticed the dazed smiles on her neighbours’ faces, Shashikala believed that she’d made it. But the dream was short-lived. The film was shelved and the partners of Prabhat fell out with each other and the young girl with stars in her eyes was quickly forgotten.

Just when she was beginning to believe that stardom had eluded her forever, she got a lucky break. Once at Central Studio she’d bumped into Noorjehan who’d noticed this lil’ girl’s striking resemblance to her. They could have been sisters. When her husband, Shaukat Hussain was scouting around for a suitable girl to play the young Noorjehan in Zeenat, his wife remembered Shashikala who was tracked down and brought before the great director. He gave her a long, probing look and admitted that yes, she did look like Noorjehan but as soon as Shashikala started speaking he knew she wouldn’t do. The girl didn’t know Urdu. And there was no time to teach her because the set was standing and they couldn’t stall shooting any longer. “Get me another girl,” he ordered and then noticing how downcast the mulgi looked he smiled and told her that she could join in the qawwali they would be picturising soon.

That qawwali was unique because instead of men or women Shaukat sahab had decided to shoot it with girls many of whom had still to reach their teens. So Shashikala joined Shyama and Shalini for the qawwali and walked away with the prize of Rs 25 that the director had announced for the best performer in that number. With that prize money, Shashikala remembers dreamily, her family celebrated their first real Diwali. “There were sweets, patakas and clothes for everyone,” she smiles at the memory. “My father had even bought me two saris, one blue and one pink.”

The memory of that qawwali stayed with Shaukat sahab and soon after Shashikala, then all of 13, signed a four-year-contract with him at the princely salary of Rs 400. He promised her that he’d make her a heroine. Her first film was Jugnu, a Dilip Kumar-Noorjehan starrer in which she had a significant role. Shashikala was in heaven. She remembered watching Dilip Kumar in his first film, Jwar Bhata, when she was a junior artiste contracted with Bombay Talkies. Now she was actually doing scenes with him, not just standing in a crowd. What’s more Shaukat sahab had even paid Roshanara Begum an unimaginable Rs 1000 for a khas song which was being picturised on her. The only hitch was that the sound of the clap completely unnerved her and Shashikala who’d been so perfect during rehearsals would stumble through retake after retake. But a patiently indulgent Shaukat sahab quickly overcame this problem by keeping the clapper boy well away and persuading his protege that the scene they were shooting was only a rehearsal and in the bargain getting take after perfect take. With the camera lovingly following her every move Shashikala was on a high. What did it matter if a too involved Dilip Kumar dragged her a little too roughly and threw her too hard on the ground, leaving her knees scraped and bleeding? This was the life she and her father had been dreaming of for so long. If only they didn’t shoot at night!

From the time she was a little girl performing at the Ganesh Utsavs, Shashikala had hated working through the night. It was hard to keep awake when you just couldn’t wait to curl into a little corner and nod off. But baba was always there, shaking her awake and coaxing her to do just one more shot. Then at 4 am, when “pack-up” was finally called he’d rush her home, heat her a big glass of milk with malai floating on top and then pat her to sleep. At 10 am she’d open her eyes to the tantalising aroma of khichdi and ghee. “He was a wonderful father,” Shashikala says fondly and shudders when she remembers how once she had hurled the thali he’d set for her away, saying she didn’t like the food. “I guess, the fact that I was earning Rs 400 and all the attention I was getting at the studio had turned my head. That day he taught me one of the most important lessons of my life. He reminded me that ann is God and should always be treated with respect. ‘I know you’ll become a big star one day but you should never forget the past, the old days. You must never forget and you must never lie,’ he told me quietly. And that’s something I’ve never forgotten,” she asserts.

Jugnu was a superhit. But soon after riots broke out, the partition followed and Shaukat Hussain and Noorjehan moved to Pakistan. Shashikala’s starry dream came to an abrupt end and her days of struggle started again. She did a film with PN Arora, Girl’s School with Amiya Chakravarty and Jal Tarang with Geeta Bali. All of them were box-office duds and fed up Shashikala decided to chase after another sapna. At the age of 18, much against her father’s wishes, she married Om Prakash Sehgal, a businessman.

A married girl and a young mother is not heroine material and Shashikala watched sadly as the dream of stardom slipped from between her fingers. Her husband started a film for her. It was in the making for six years. By the time it was wrapped up, Mohan Segal was a top director. Shankar-Jaikishan the numero uno music directors. Kishore Kumar a successful star and Kum Kum who was the vamp was a heroine. Everyone had moved on except Shashikala. “It was just bad luck,” she sighs.

Things changed when V Shantaram suddenly signed her for Teen Batti Char Raaste along with Smriti Biswas, Sheila Ramani and Nirupa Roy. Annasaheb had approached her earlier for Amar Bhopali but Shashikala couldn’t do that film. This time she wasn’t going to lose the opportunity of working with the great man. Teen Batti… was a comedy with all the girls playing themselves. Smriti was a Bengali, Nirupa a Gujarati, Sheila a Sindhi and Shashikala a Marathan. They were all fun-loving actresses and managed to coax a smile and a laugh even from the normally stern Shantaram. The atmosphere on the sets was always jovial and soon the girls and their husbands became familiar fixtures. The film was Shashikala’s long dreamed of hit but it didn’t get her much credit. Disappointed she put her all into Ranjeet Studio’s Nazarein which had some fabulous trick shots and was scheduled to open at Minerva till Mehboob’s Andaz came along and nudged it aside. “It finally opened at a third-rare theatre and was never seen,” Shashikala sighs again.

Her career got a boost again when Shantaram signed her for Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje. But there was some time before this musical could be launched so Annasaheb decided to rush through a quickie, Surang. It was a film about a mad adivasi woman who comes from a tribe of stone cutters down South. Shashikala who was very fair and pretty was signed for the lead only after an eight day test and told that she’d have to report for make-up everyday at 4.30 am. It would take her a good couple of hours to have her face and body painted over with the dye Annasaheb had mixed himself. She didn’t grumble but on the first day of the shoot messed up her takes royally. After 6-8 retakes an early break was called and Shashikala stood before her mentor with downcast eyes and confessed that she had messed up things despite two months rehearsals. She feared she’d be out but Shantaram looked her over and asked her quietly, “Do you want to do the film?” Shashikala nodded. “Then you’ll do it,” she was told reassuringly. “I can get work out of even a stone sculpture.” That was all the assurance she needed. The next day she was blithely swinging from a branch 6-12 feet above the ground, with a mad woman’s smile. “People came to Minerva theatre just to see that hoarding. The film drew rave reviews at the Berlin film festival but it couldn’t make the cash counters jingle and I lost Jhanak Jhanak… to a newcomer called Sandhya,” Shashikala tells you drawing a heartfelt “Oh no, not again.”

Her hopes rose again slightly when Kishore Sahu cast her opposite Johnny Walker in Sauda which created ripples because it also starred the Hollywood kid and the Elephant Boy Sabu. It was a prestigious project which was abruptly shelved and Shashikala moved to stunt films and double shifts to keep the kitchen fires burning since by then her husband’s business had crashed. “There was a time when I didn’t see my children and husband for 10 days. I was shooting from 10 am to 6 pm and then again from 9 pm to late at night. And then there were dance rehearsals with Hiralal master from 4 am to 8 am and then again from 6 to 8 pm. because I wanted to match Vyjayanthimala step for step in a dance competition in Patrani. It was a role Shyama had let slip and I had landed on the rebound only after I’d promised Vijay Bhatt that I’d give Vyjayanthimala some real competition,” she reminisces. And she did.

Shashikala was not a trained dancer yet she managed to hold her own not just against Vyjayanthimala but even Saira Banu in Jawan Mohabbat thanks to rehearsals every spare minute she could spare with Gopi Kishan’s assistant Madhav who taught her all the intricacies of Kathak with which she could counter’s Saira’s excellence in Bharat Natyam.

In Phool Aur Patthar Robert Master came to her aid and twisting her leg painfully taught her to dance the twist as seductively as Helen, the junior artistes egging her along by changing the lines of the chart-topping Nat King Cole ditty, Kissi bala kissi bala to Shashikala Shashikala. Incidentally, for this film, Shashikala who’d just returned from Paris experimented with a blond wig and looked so chic and firangi that on the first day of the shoot, the journalists gathered on the sets didn’t recognise her.

Years later, when Shashikala was 45, it was Gopi Kishan again who taught her Kathak in just three days and 24 hours of arduous rehearsals. On the fourth day when Shashikala reported for the shooting of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Khubsoorat, Gopi Kishan told her with a characteristic wave of his hand, “Haan re purani basmati, chal re ek rehearsal ho jaye.” And Shashikala shuru ho gayee, leaving Rekha wide-eyed with amazement.

Khubsoorat gave Shashikala the chance to renew her acquaintance with Ashok Kumar who along with Shantaram she considers her guru. Shashikala was first approached by Vasant Joglekar for a small role in a Bombay Talkies production starring Usha Kiran and the legendary star whose films with Leela Chitnis she’d grown up watching. Vasant Joglekar was rooting for her but there was a catch. Dadamoni had been convinced that Shashikala couldn’t speak Hindi well. So the first day’s shoot would be like a screen test for her. If he didn’t find her upto the mark she would be out. Shashikala took up the challenge and despite being kept waiting all day and despite it being a 300 feet shot with the man whom she idolised, Shashikala came up with a fantastic take which so impressed Dadamoni that he embraced her exclaiming, “You’re a fantastic actress!” And Shashikala’s two scene appearance became a four scene one.

Soon after she signed a two year contract with Filmistan for Rs 22,000 a month. A princely sum those days. But despite all the money she was making, frustration was building up in Shashikala as she watched actresses like Shyama whom she had beaten to the Rs 25 cash prize during that qawwali in Zeenat, graduate to lead roles while she stayed stuck with second leads and bit roles. One day on her return from the studio, bombarded with complaints from her children’s ayah, she took out her frustration on her two daughters, beating them up mercilessly. “That incident haunted me for days and finally I sent them away to a boarding school in Panchgani so the incident would not be repeated,” she says quietly.

Meanwhile the offers continued to trickle in. Shashikala gave every role her best. One of them being that of the vamp in Vijay Anand’s first film as a director, Nau Do Gyarah and grew more and more disillusioned as each film, including this one on which she’d pinned a lot of hopes, bombed. Just when she’d all but given up hope Tarachand Barjatya of Rajshri Pictures approached her with the choice of two roles. “But see the Gujarati play, Sanskar Laxmi first. If you accept the role opposite Ashok Kumar you’ll get Rs 20,000. And if you opt for the bhabhi’s role which is more challenging you’ll get Rs 10,000. Now make up your mind,” he told her. Shashikala opted for the bhabhi’s which was an out-and-out negative role and everyday, almost in tears because this character was so alien from the real Shashikala, she’d tell Dadamoni that after this she was most definitely quitting the industry only to be reassured that after this she’d be flooded with offers, she’d become a star. Encouraged, she decided to give the film her everything. “My first shot was with Meena Kumari. Looking at her I had to tell her disdainfully, ‘Tere haathon mein jaadu hai air mere haathon mein jadu?’ I thought to myself, ‘Meenaji may be a great actress but I’m also a ziddi Marathan’. And picking up the broom I gave it my best shot. And after the take was okayed, Meenaji looked at me with respect and told me approvingly, ‘Hai Allah, bahut achcha pehla shot diya tum ne,’” Shashikala smiles at the memory. Aarti celebrated a silver jubilee and Shashikala’s disdainful toss of her head and sniff caught the audiences’ fancy and wooed the critics. “I picked up all the awards and ended the year with a couple of more jubilees… Junglee, Bheegi Raat… Followed Dadimaa, Neel Kamal, Gumrah… Among the vamps I was definitely numero uno,” she beams.

After that there was no looking back. She bagged the Bengali Journalist Association award for five consecutive years. And the Filmfare award for two successive years “till they decided to give someone else a chance and I lost all interest in awards”. One of her award-winning films was Gumrah. As she sat with the rest of the cast and crew on a round table conference, Shashikala was planning out how this secretary would look, act and speak. A role which was to make her memorable and give her many tense moments. Shashikala remembers one crucial scene, the turning point of the film, taking take after retake at a time when the industry was hit by a raw stock crisis, till she pleaded with the director, BR Chopra to call for pack-up, they’d try the next day. “One last shot,” he pleaded in return and Shashikala, weary and waning, came up with the perfect take drawing an approving nod from Chopra and a mischievous, “You’re not the only one who’s gone through this trial. Rajendra Kumar went through it too during Kanoon, and there were so many others.” Shashikala recalling that moment of glory doesn’t fail to give Mala Sinha her due for tirelessly standing through the marathon session, giving her her cues. “Mala was an angel in that film. But she was a bundle of trouble in another film in which we were working almost simultaneously, a South production, Paisa Aur Pyar. Perhaps she was plagued by personal problems and took out her anger and frustration on me, her mother in the film. I had my own problems too. Playing mother to an actress who was almost a contemporary when I was just as talented and beautiful. I would call my daughter everyday from the sets and complain, ‘Shailaja, mujse nahin hota hai.’ And one day, when I was told that 10 days work had to be reshot I got my excuse and told them I was dropping out. No amount of pleading could make me change my mind till Ashok Kumar who was playing my husband in the film, himself asked me what the matter was. After a lot of hemming and hawing I confessed that playing mum to Mala was giving me a complex and he surprised me by laughing and saying, ‘Is that the only reason? Look at me, I’ve played a lover, brother, father and a friend. Shashikala, this is all make-believe. We’re only playing characters. Nothing is for real.’ That was another important lesson of my life and smiling at him I told him playfully, ‘To chalen, race ka ghoda tayaar hai,’” she ends the narrative with a smile.

Professionally, Shashikala was on a high. Personally, she had reached a low. Differences cropped up between her and her husband. And in an incident which was almost like a real life version of Gumrah, she eloped with another man abroad, leaving her husband, kids and career behind. “That was the biggest mistake of my life,” she admits. “I really became gumrah and paid for my foolishness when away from home I was humiliated and tortured for days till I returned home crazy and broken.”

For days after that, she roamed the streets like a mad woman, sleeping on pavements, eating what she could lay her hands on, touring ashrams in Hrishikesh and Pondicherry in search of peace of mind.

Then one day, she bumped into an old friend, Mahesh Desai, the maker of a Gujarati film, Satyavan Savitri, which had won her the Best Actress award. Desai’s mother who was running a home for unwed mothers, widows and young girls in trouble recommended Satyanarayan Goenka’s meditation course. Shashikala took the course for a month, and felt better. Then, for the next 15 years, she followed him through Gaya, Banaras and so many places all over India, finally finding her mental balance and returning back to the industry to a red-carpet welcome. Sargam, Khubsoorat, Dulhan Wohi Jo Piya Man Bhayee, Aahista Aahista, Swami… were all jubilee hits. And Shashikala was back.

She has fond memories of Swami and Shabana Azmi who despite being a National Award winning actress at the time, would watch every take of Shashikala’s carefully “perhaps because she respected me”. And working with two talented actresses, Nanda and Padmini Kolhapure in Ahista Ahista was another enjoyable experience. “That was an award winning role and I remember I’d really worked on the get-up, the look of the tawaif changing with her costumes, veni and make-up as she aged. I even forgot my vanity and looked fat, my stoutness drawing amused smiles and giggles from Nanda and Padmini,” she smiles.

The good times didn’t last long. Soon the frustration, the restlessness returned. There seemed no purpose to life. “All my life I’d worked for people… my parents, my siblings, my husband, my children. Now everyone was well-settled. So why was I working? I wondered.” Caught in the business of living she couldn’t continue with her meditation and a misunderstanding with a producer resulting in subsequent humiliation on the sets. She lost interest in her career yet again. Ghar Ghar Ki Kahani, another jubilee hit, was the last film of her second innings in the industry. Then it was adieu again.

She moved to Pune to live a “normal” life but after six months of binging she was bored. She also realised that her family, friends and relatives needed Shashikala, the film actress, not Shashi the woman-next-door. That realisation brought more pain and hurt and distraught she flew down to Calcutta and her daughter Shailaja begging her to set up a meeting with Mother Teresa. May be she’d smooth things over? It wasn’t easy to meet Mother. First she was very ill and not seeing any visitors and then she was away, Shashikala was told. But she did get to meet Mother’s right hand, Sister Agnes who after hearing her story sent her to Sishu Bhavan. Another session of story telling there and she was sent back to Pune to meet the superior of Mother’s ashram there. This time, Shashikala begged tearfully to be allowed to work at the ashram. For three days she cleaned the toilets, on the fourth day she cleaned the dormitory. Shashikala who for years had had six servants at her beck and call did all the dirty work cheerfully, uncomplainingly. The fifth day she was given the task of bathing the patients, some insane, some with scabs all over their body. She didn’t flinch. On the sixth day she tended a spastic child with complete devotion. “I knew I was being put through a test. Everyone is sceptical of industry folk. They think we’re into social work for publicity. But believe you me, we’re more honest and straight than a lot of hypocrites out there,” she insists. On the last day of the week, Shashikala was told to stand with a tray of dressings as one man with a gaping wound was being tended to. “For a minute I looked at the wound and almost passed out. And then from somewhere I got the strength to stand there as calmly as the sisters,” she remembers. That test too she passed. Now for the final one. On the eight day she was urgently summoned to find that a patient had just been brought in from a gutter. He was surrounded by sisters one of whom was feeding him juice, the others praying while Mother Superior unwrapped the bandage around his foot and worms came crawling out. “It was the most pathetic sight I’d seen and yet there was not a hint of revulsion or disgust on the faces of the sisters who were praying peacefully. I watched dumbly, their calmness giving me the courage to watch the patient quietly till he died just five minutes later,” she tells you displaying the same serenity.

After that Shashikala was hooked. Social service became her life. But she still hadn’t met her inspiration, Mother Teresa. One day, she told her daughter that they’d just drop in without an appointment. Take a chance. Her whimsical visit paid off. Mother was talking to some people. After she was through with them she beckoned Shashikala who hugged her and sobbed, “Mother I’m so lonely, I have everything but peace of mind.” Mother calmed her down and told her to go the children. Shashikala spent two months with 300 insane children who called her Babua. And through them she found her sanity… serenity.

Her next stop was Nirmal Hriday. The Dying House. There, holding the pulses of terminally ill patients, praying with them and watching them slip away peacefully to the next world, Shashikala finally made peace into her yesterdays. The next time she met Mother she was able to say to her, “Mother I’ve forgotten my past.”

Shashikala was a new woman. A woman who forgot her family, friends and films and spent the next nine years of her life with the sisters of charity, working for God, with no expectation of any return. Living with leprosy patients in Surat, watching them try to build a life as they lost an arm, a ear or a nose. “That’s one place where most volunteers don’t stay for more than a couple of days. I stayed a month,” she says proudly.

From Surat she moved to Goa, another home, more people to help. “This was my way of repenting for my sins,” she murmurs. Then back to Mumbai and the news that her eldest daughter Rekha was dying of cancer. The restlessness returned. Till one day at dawn she woke to feel something heavy on her chest pressing her down. “And then suddenly in my left hand I found a cross and in my right a statue of Jesus. And the heaviness and restlessness was gone,” she reveals. Then one morning in Pune she woke to the image of Mother, Christ and a child. “I thought that was a sign that Rekha would get better, she’d live. But no, this was God’s way of warning me that he’d come soon to take her away,” she sighs sadly. Shashikala returned to her daughter’s bedside. And in her last dying moments made her recite the Gayatri Mantra and the rosary. Rekha’s last words coaxed by Shashikala were, “I forgive everyone, including you mother.” She died peacefully, a smile on her lips. And left Shashikala with a smile on her lips.

Her strength drained away with her daughter. An SOS call was put through to Mother. “Mother who rarely blessed a person once blessed me three times,” Shashikala beams.

“Thanks to mother’s blessing,” she continues, “I’ve found myself two brothers.” Saawan Kumar, the only producer in the industry who’s called her his bahen, and Mohan Wagh, a photographer whom she modelled for and who took her best photograph — hopeful and happy in the circle of Mother’s love.

With Mother’s blessings she’s returned to the industry. Today she’s a busy actress. Wrapping up four films and shooting for two serials and a couple of pilots. Busy and at peace. Mother has moved on. But her memories live on for Shashikala. The woman who didn’t possess a rupee to her name, who wore mended clothes and who ate meals which wouldn’t cost more than a rupee, has given Shashikala a new life. “I feel reborn today,” she confesses. “People who’ve known me for years say that I’m a different person. More dignified, ageing gracefully, and finally at peace with myself.”

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