It’s not a task getting an interview with veteran Shyama. She answers the landline herself, her feeble voice betraying excitement. I am also keen to meet the actor who romanced Guru Dutt in the spiffy Sun sun sun zalima in Aar Paar. When I reach her flat at the plush Napean Sea Road, she’s all ready and waiting in a pink salwar kameez, her short hair neatly combed. Daughter Shireen has dropped in to check on her 74-year-old mother, who insists on staying alone. Shireen gives a barrage of instructions to the maids, gives her mother a lingering hug and leaves us to chat on a drizzling afternoon. “I fractured both my legs sometime back. I stay at home. Main kahin nahin jaati hoon (I do not go out at all),” says the erstwhile actor pointing to the walker waiting in attendance. Apart from dhagas (holy threads) around her wrist there are emerald green beads. “My hairdresser gave them to me,” she says. She hands me a black diary. The pages, yellow with the years, hold a record of her films. Black and white moments of her trysts with legends Guru Dutt, Nargis, Meena Kumari and Raj Kapoor stand framed on her drawing room shelves. Memories, unlike people, do not have a shelf life. She relives those years in bits and pieces, some easily and some with effort…
Shyama, born Khurshid Akhtar, began her jaunt in Hindi cinema as a nine-year-old. She became one of the chorus singers in the qawwali “Aahen na bhari” in the Noorjehan starrer Zeenat (1945).
“I had gone with my friends to watch Noorjehan shoot for a film in Dadar. The director Shaukat Hussain (Noorjehan’s husband) asked us, `Does anyone of you want to work?’
I put my hand up and said, ‘Main karoongi (I will)’. She continues, “My parents were not well off. Yet, Abba didn’t want me to work in films. I said, ‘What’s the harm?'”
I was always interested in acting. During the lunch break in school, I’d stand on the table and dance. Later, I even learnt singing and dance. I watched every film,” recalls the actress who was one of the busiest stars of her times, playing lead, second lead and vamp roles in around 147 films.
“I was lucky to get good roles. I even got the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress for Sharda. I enjoyed doing family dramas like Do Behnein, Choti Behen, Bhai Bhai and Do Bhai. In Do Behnein I played the good girl and the bad girl. Rajendra Kumar was a newcomer then. So initially, the film didn’t do well. But when it was re- released, it became a hit,” says the actor who was also appreciated for her roles in Barsaat Ki Raat, Tarana and Aar Paar in the ’50s. “I had a photogenic face. Whatever direction the light fell from, I photographed well. I maintained my figure. I was particular about my diet and for days I’d just be sipping glucose water to remain slim. I used to wear all kinds of clothes — ghararas, salwars, saris and pants,” smiles the actor who was known for her puckish prettiness.
While doing Sazaa (1951), the 16-year-old Shyama fell in love with director and ace cinematographer Fali Mistry. “We were fond of each other. But I was very shy. I couldn’t express myself,” she confides. “Initially, he asked me not to work after marriage but I said that wasn’t possible. I had worked very hard to reach where I was.” They got married in 1953 and had three children, two boys Farook and Rohin and a daughter Shireen.
“I was very content in my married life. Even after my first child, I didn’t give up acting. Fali had confidence in me. When it would get late I’d say, ‘Fali hum late hogaye hain. Magar khana hum saath khayenge (I’m late. But we will have dinner together)’. We had a great understanding,” she says of the Muslim-Parsi marriage.
Though she chose Fali as her husband, she did have her share of suitors amongst her co-actors. “I got many proposals from my peers. I don’t want to take their names. Some of them are no more while the others have their families. Sometimes we call each other up and ask kya haal hai?” she laughs.
She continued acting, doing character roles, even after Fali passed away prematurely in 1979. The last film she did was the Sanjay Dutt starrer Hathyar. The highlightof her day today is just aaram (rest) she says. “I rest; I sleep and see my old films. I have sent the DVDs to my sons too,” smiles the mother who says she has `secured’ her children’s future. Her close friends are Waheeda Rehman, Nanda and Shashikala but she greatly misses Nirupa Roy and Nadira. “I was very close to Nirupa. She died suddenly. It was a great shock,” she says softly. About friendships in the industry then and now she says, “We used to hide each other’s secrets, today they let them out.”
She seems a wee tired as it’s time for her afternoon siesta. The memory jog has also been an exertion of sorts. I gently draw the interview to a close. Any regrets I ask her. “I miss my family” she says referring to her sons who have settled abroad. “Also, my parents had nine children. Today I’m the only survivor.” She continues, “Log aaye our chale gaye, yaadein chhod gaye. Meri dushmani kisise nahin, dosti hai sabse (People came and went, leaving behind memories. I have enmity with none, friendships with all).
Any unfulfilled wishes? “Last year I was honored with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. Let’s see if I get some more!” Down yes, but definitely not out. That’s Shyama for you! – [Interviewed by Farhana Farook in 2010]