“Three female figures from the Hindi film world instigate me to slap them,” thus joked the outspoken film critic of yore, Devyani Chaubal. The female characters who 'set' her off thus were: Manorama, Lalita Pawar and the just departed Shashikala Om Prakash Saigal.
The actress, from Solapur, Maharashtra, once told the film critic Fatima Zaidi of Shama, an Urdu magazine, 'Agar paapad belna koi muhavara hai aur woh kisi shakhs pe laagoo hota hai toh woh main hoon (if there's a phrase paapad belna in Hindi, that applies to me in toto)’. Shashikala was from a very poor family. It was difficult for her family to make both the ends meet. A precocious and sensitive girl, Shashikala decided to try her luck in Bombay as she had a keen interest in dancing, acting and singing.
But finding a toehold, let alone a foothold, in the ruthless Bombay film world was no baazeech-e-atfaal (child's play) for the young and naive girl, oozing with rusticity of rural Maharashtra. As for her command of Hindi at that time, the less said, the better. Yet, she didn't give up. Ironically, her first breakthrough came in the 1950s when she met Noor Jehan. With the help of Jehan, Shashikala made her Bollywood debut as a side actress in ‘Zeenat’.
Imagine, a young girl, not even knowing proper Hindi, got a chance to act in a movie that necessitated Khaalis Urdu (unadulterated Urdu)! But always quick on the uptake, she learnt the spoken Urdu in no time and later even learnt how to read and write it! She was getting to act in movies, albeit sporadically.
Meanwhile, she acted in Bimal Roy's ‘Sujata' as well. V Shantaram offered her a small role in ‘Teen Batti Chaar Rasta’. 'Phir bhi main chaurahe pe hi khadi thi (Yet I was standing at the crossroads of my career)’, she told an interviewer years ago. In fine, she was not happy with the progress but she soldiered on.
Then came Tarachand Barjatya's blockbuster ‘Aarti’ (1962). Acting alongside Ashok Kumar, Pradeep Kumar and the tragedy queen Meena Kumari, Shashikala was praised for her negative role. Film critics Chandra Tarkunde and Bunny Reuben were all praise for her performance because she had to perform in the exalted company of three stalwarts of Hindi cinema. She eventually got the Filmfare Award for her role in the movie.
Her harsh fate also relented with that and she went on to act in a number of movies such as Gumrah, Khoobsoorat, Waqt, Anupama, Phool aur Patthar, among others. Who can forget her vampish role in Phool aur Patthar and the way she sang ‘Sheeshe se pee ya paimane se pee’ for Dharmendra on the marquee? She exuded oomph and the sylph delectability of a vampish character.
But the fame and success brought in their wake a feeling of gnawing discontent. She was always playing negative roles and was conflicted with the thought that in reality, she was far from the negative person she was portraying on the screen. She had everything in life but no peace of mind. This inner turmoil led her to Mother Teresa, who took her under her wing. She spent nine years working for Mother. She looked after spastic and other physically challenged children and people with leprosy and swept the floors and cleaned toilets. The work energised her and the unbounded affection she received from those she served filled her with hope, she told Vividh Bharti listeners on an afternoon show, 'Ujale Unki Yaadon Ke'. It helped her realise that some of her suffering was because of the guilt she felt at not being around enough for her daughters as they were growing up. But the arclights beckoned and she wished to return. She did so after asking Mother, who would never have stopped anyone from leaving.
She never tired of her craft and kept acting till the end, including in TV serials. She believed in the dictum that one must keep working till the wrinkled eve of one's life. And she did just that. In 2007, she got the Filmfare Award for her yeoman's service to Hindi films. Au revoir, Shashikalaji.