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How Shashikala grew from being a Bollywood star to serving people

Bollywood’s favourite vamp, actor Shashikala, who passed away on April 4, had led a professional and personal life marked by dramatic ups and downs

Written by Alaka Sahani | New Delhi |
April 11, 2021 6:35:52 am
Shashikala, Shashikala films, Shashikala death, Shashikala career, Bollywood star serving people, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express newsDeveloping the negatives: Shashikala stole the show even in cameos. (Photo: Express Archive)

From behind the rings of smoke emerges Shashikala with a cigarette holder between her fingers and dancing to the dreamy Kya ho phir jo din rangeela ho along with Helen on the elaborate sets of the 1957 film Nau Do Gyarah. Later in the movie, the actor tries to woo Dev Anand with the flirtatious Asha Bhonsle song Jaane jigar haye haye. Shashikala, who wasn’t playing goody two shoes in it, had her hopes pinned on its success after going through several upheavals in personal as well as professional life. The film, Vijay Anand’s directorial debut, however, didn’t work at the box office in spite of its evergreen melodies, much to her disappointment.

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Some years later, Shashikala risked playing yet another negative, albeit challenging, role — the scheming and mean sister-in-law to Meena Kumari in Rajshri Pictures’ Aarti (1962). The Phani Majumdar-directed movie was a major success. Shashikala’s performance in it — big blazing eyes and manipulative ways — would make her a popular “vamp”, even as she played a range of supporting characters. In Bimal Roy’s Sujata (1959), she’s the bubbly piano-playing Rama crooning Bachpan ke din; in the Shammi Kapoor-starrer Junglee (1961), she is a rich girl who falls for a commoner; she is the vivacious Annie in Anupama (1966); and in Phool Aur Patthar (1966), she is the off-shoulder gown-wearing blonde moll who grooves to Sheeshe se pee and takes a bullet for love. But, interestingly, the negative roles, such as the blackmailing secretary Leela in Gumrah (1963) and the shrill mother-in-law in Paisa Ya Pyar (1969), received mass attention and brought her the kind of recognition that another actor from an earlier generation — Lalita Pawar — had mostly enjoyed.

Shashikala A Jawalkar, who died at the age of 88 on April 4, was described as “a gem of a person” and “an actor par excellence” by co-stars Dharmendra and Priyanka Chopra, respectively. While she had acted in more than 100 films, the road to her success was replete with potholes. Born in pre-independence India, she gained popularity as a child artiste for playing the role of Lord Krishna during Ganesh Utsav in Maharashtra’s Solapur. She moved to Mumbai, at the age of 11, after her cloth-merchant father Anantrao Jawalkar suffered heavy losses. “It was not easy to find work in the film industry as I went from one studio to another with my father. I was too old to be a child actor and too young to play other supporting roles,” recalled Shashikala on a Vividh Bharati radio interview. After facing hardship and hunger for nearly two years, her first noticeable screen appearance was in Zeenat (1945) as a qawwali singer, after singer-actor Noor Jehan took Shashikala under her wing.

Shashikala, Shashikala films, Shashikala death, Shashikala career, Bollywood star serving people, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news Actor Sunil Dutt with Shashikala in the film Sujata. (Photo: Express Archive)

Screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi, who is a family friend and has known Shashikala for more than a decade, says: “A child doesn’t make the choice of joining the industry to earn a livelihood. She did what was expected of her and excelled in it. There was so much of authority in her performance. Even if she made a brief appearance, she stole the scene.” Shashikala, whose career witnessed many highs and lows, featured in landmark movies like Basu Chatterjee-directed Swami (1977), playing Girish Karnad’s stepmother; in Hrishikesh Mukherjee-directed Khubsoorat (1980), where as the Kathak-loving badi bahu, she matches steps with Rekha; and the cruel mother-in-law of Ghar Ghar Ki Kahani (1988). The actor, awarded the Padma Shri in 2007, appeared in television serials, too, such as Son Pari (2000-04) .

Notwithstanding her professional success, Shashikala’s personal life remained turbulent. “My whole life was spent in supporting my parents, siblings, husband and children. I never thought of myself,” she mentions in the Vividh Bharati interview. After her two daughters, Rekha and Shailaja, went to boarding schools and her father passed away, Shashikala battled loneliness. There was trouble in her marriage with businessman Om Prakash Saigal. She got involved with another man and moved abroad. The relationship turned out to be abusive and she returned to India. After years of looking for peace and trying vipassana, she found hope in meeting Mother Teresa, and eventually embraced Christianity.

Shashikala, Shashikala films, Shashikala death, Shashikala career, Bollywood star serving people, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news Dharmendra and Shashikala in the film Phool Aur Patthar in 1966. (Express Archive photo)

For nine years, she worked in Mother Teresa’s ashrams, serving the poor and underprivileged. “She has led a life that was so varied — from being a star to serving people. She had a great desire to visit Jerusalem on a pilgrimage. Her entire life was synonymous with a pilgrimage. There was hardship, suffering and, eventually, she found her peace in spirituality,” says her granddaughter Sonia Sen, adding that her maternal grandmother was very disciplined and punctual all her life. Shashikala moved to Sen’s Colaba home after the latter shifted to Mumbai and her daughter Shanaya was born.

After she quit the world of entertainment for good, nearly 15 years ago, Shashikala spent most of her time with the family and in the church. “Nani was robbed of her childhood. When Shanaya was born, she was possibly reliving her own childhood through her. She was completely devoted to my daughter,” says Sen, whose husband Soumitra loved the crab curry Shashikala used to make.

Shashikala, Shashikala films, Shashikala death, Shashikala career, Bollywood star serving people, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news Girish Karnad, Shashikala and Ritu Kanwar in the film Swami. (Express Archive photo)

Years after Shashikala moved away from the film industry, she had kept herself updated about contemporary cinema. Chaturvedi says, “She watched all my movies on the release day itself. She would discuss the movie and everyone’s performances at length. She was not in touch with the industry but closely followed cinema. She would often ask me for book and movie recommendations. As a person, she was very curious and had kept pace with time.”

Age hadn’t slowed down Shashikala. She remained active — making her morning tea, walking to the church daily — and loved dressing up. She loved bright clothes and fuchsia lipstick. Occasionally, she would recount some hilarious story from her acting days. The pandemic, however, had dampened her spirits as she was homebound. “Nani led a remarkable life. She worked hard for everything; she didn’t get anything on a platter. She was a fighter,” says Sen.

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