Way back in the mid-forties, a little girl saw a picture starring Ishwarlal and that matchless singing siren of Indian screen, Khurshid. Khurshid’s sad soulful melodies, captured her heart and brought tears to her eyes. The name of that little girl was also Khurshid. After seeing the film, she asked herself: “Why I too can’t become a star like that Khurshid?” She went home determined to be a celluloid sweetheart and started song rehearsals before the mirror. She imitated songs from her favorite films and put up stage shows at home with friends. After years of yearning for stardom, all that the ambitious girl got was a bit role as an extra as a singer in a qawwali song. Today the film-crazy teen-aged Khurshid is known by a name familiar to thousands of film-goers – Shyama.
Remember that very first all female qawwali in Zeenat (1945) – “Aahen na bharin, Shikway na kiye”led by the melody-queen Noor Jehan? A bevy of comely faces took part in this rip-roaring sequence which brought the house down. Among this line-up of charmers was Shyama who appeared here as Baby Khurshid. Her ambition to become another Khurshid seemed to have been partly fulfilled. But she was a very small fry in that scene. The lime light was stolen all throughout the picture by the one and only Noor Jehan. When Khurshid Akhtar (Shyama’s real name) saw Noor Jehan reigning supreme over the sets like a queen, she felt one day she too must become a big star, a rather audacious dream for a girl in pig-tails who started film career as an “extra”!
Thus Shyama started her career from the bottom of the ladder. Her phenomenal rise to stardom during the next decade almost nullified the time-honored film maxim – “Once an extra always an extra.”. But her journey to the pinnacles of fame had not been without its sighs and sorrows. She had to struggle for eight long years without losing hope.
Born at Lahore, on June 7, 1935, Khurshid Akhtar had to face a domestic storm after her debut in Zeenat. As the role was rather small and insignificant, she had to rehearse only for a fortnight. “I did not feel camera-shy as there were many other newcomers taking part in the Qawwali-scene.” Her father was away from Bombay and did not know about her role. He lost his temper when he came to know that daughter Khurshid had taken to film acting. Her mother and sister somehow managed to pacify him. Baby Khurshid left the school from the fifth form to seriously concentrate on film acting.
She made a resolve to hit the top-mark and took intensive training in dance and music from the well-known dance-teacher Badri Prasad. She specialized in Kathak. She got some more bit-roles in films and appeared as Baby Khurshid. As a teenager, she was mainly cast as the hero’s younger sister.
She got the rare opportunity to act as a young sister of the celebrated Saigal in Parwana. “I can never forget the encouragement that the great Saigal gave me on the sets if Parwana,” she says, recounting a memorable anecdote, “You see, one day I sat on his lap, feeling terribly nervous. Saigal realized my plight as a beginner. He tried to shed my neurosis by humming a song which had words to the effect, ‘ Don’t be afraid, Sister, work hard and success is bound to be yours.’ His words had an electrifying effect on me. But for his inspiring words, I would have fared miserably that day.”
She continued to be cast in similar roles and played the younger sister to the late Shyam in Kaneez and to Motilal in Beete Din. Unfortunately her frail and delicate figure was not considered good enough for major roles by the tin-gods of the film industry, so she had to act in a non-stop series of insignificant roles. She had to discontinue her music lessons for reasons of health and she concentrated on acting with a vengeance. In Tarana she got a slightly bigger role while in Hum Log she acted as Balraj Sahni’s girlfriend.
Meanwhile, Baby Khurshid, had undergone a change in nomenclature. Director Vijay Bhatt felt that at that time there were too many Khurshids in films and he gave a new screen-name to her – Shyama.
She got her first major role in Chhoti Bhabhi, but for a still bigger break she had to wait for years. I.S. Johar surprised friends and foes by selecting her for the title-role in Filmistan’s Shrimatiji from over one hundred applicants.
However, the sudden rise t stardom was not without its inevitable tears. After a few shots were taken, an important executive said on the sets of Shrimatiji: “This girl is too thin for a heroine’s role”. The remark gave her a rude shock. She went home and wept bitterly. She felt a chance that came to her after a long struggle was slipping away. She at once saw a medical consultant who put her on tonics. She put in the necessary weight. The boisterous role of the modern girl, Indira, in Shrimatiji gave her plenty of histrionic scope. Her sister Gulzar Akhtar helped her with rehearsals and, of course, I.S. Johar was a perfectionist, who knew how to extract the best work from an artist.
Shyama put her best in it, realizing fully well that her entire future depended on this role. Her performance was well appreciated by all and Shyama heaved a sigh of relief.
Then she acted a serious character in Bimal Roy’s Maa with equal ease. Came Shart, another acting triumph of hers. Since then she played all sorts of roles in all sorts of pictures. Her notable films include Chandan, Sharda, Mirza Sahiban, Aar Paar etc. She topped her acting triumphs by her memorable double role in Do Behnen. Her work in Sharda brought her the 1959 Filmfare award for best supporting role.
Today Shyama leads a retired life at her plush Napean Sea Road flat in Mumbai.