Actress Shammi passes away: Troubled personal life seldom diluted her impeccable comic timing
Shammi Aunty became one of the biggest rediscoveries of popular sitcom Dekh Bhai Dekh that ran for 65 episodes.
Sometimes a ringside seat to history being made offers a better perspective than even those who actually make it. Born Nargis Rabadi to a Parsi priest in 1931 and christened ‘Shammi’ once she entered films, Shammi Aunty, as she came to be fondly known by generations of superstars and viewers, was one such individual. Always ensuring that you broke into a smile whether you saw her in person, in a film or on the television, Shammi Aunty might have been relegated to the category of the character artist for a better part her 64-year career but with her death, we are witnessing the last of a special kind of ‘artist’.
In the 1990s, when Indian television was undergoing a sea of change with the onset of satellite television, a sitcom on Doordarshan called Dekh Bhai Dekh introduced one-time-popular-but-long-forgotten actors to a new generation. While Navin Nischol and Farida Jalal were the first ones that parents of these viewers could connect with, Shammi Aunty became one of the biggest rediscoveries of the popular sitcom that ran for 65 episodes. This was also a period when cable television would play old films, mostly black and white from the 1950s and 1960s ad-nauseam. Spotting the ‘character actors’ such as Tun Tun, Sunder, Agha, Shubha Khote, Mohan Choti, and Shammi Aunty in these became a fun game of sorts. It is then one would get to know of the former greats such as Master Vinayak or Bhagwan Dada from the elders and the manner in which their eyes would light up while reminiscing the past is also responsible for making many youngsters fall in love with the good old days.
Having started in films accidentally when a family friend asked Nargis to go meet actor-producer Sheikh Mukhtar, who was looking for a second-lead in a film opposite Begum Para, Shammi was given her name thanks to the ‘another’ Nargis already in the business. Shammi debuted in Ustad Pedro (1949) opposite Mukhtar and Begum Para and following the success of the film got her first lead opposite the legendary singer Mukhesh in Malhal (1951). She met her namesake, Nargis, during the making of Malhar and the two became thick as thieves. Later, Sunil Dutt too would become very fond of Shammi as would Dilip Kumar, whom she counted amongst her close friends. This was an era when stars were truly larger than life.
In an interview given in 2013, Shammi mentions how a Nargis would command more money than Dilip Kumar, who was considered the biggest star around. In fact, had Shammi’s Sangdil, where she played the female lead opposite Dilip Kumar not crashed at the box office, chances of her becoming as big would not have gone bust. Being the only breadwinner in her family, her father died when she was just three, Shammi could not say no to any work that came her way post-Sangdil and this is where the tide turned for her.
Through the 1960s, one would see Shammi do secondary roles including the comedian or the vamp in some of the biggest films of the period such as Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (1960), Half Ticket, Jab Jab Phool Khile and Upkar. Her excellent comic timing with Kishore Kumar in Half Ticket gives a glimpse of what she could have been had she not been labeled a character artist.
Shammi was briefly married to Sultan Ahmed before he became a filmmaker famous for his daku films. After seven years of being together, she walked out of his house in 1980 with just the clothes on her back. It was Nargis who helped her get film offers and friends such as Rajesh Khanna, Shashi Kapoor also helped her in every possible way. Once she made her comeback, Shammi decided to produce a film called Pighalta Aasaam (1985) that was originally supposed to feature Rajesh Khanna but his fallout with the director, Esmayeel Shroff, saw her take over the reins as the director and Shashi Kapoor fill in for Khanna. The film tanked and so did most of Shammi’s savings but once again, it was a friend, this time Rajesh Khanna, who helped her get a couple of shows from Doordarshan that saw her get back on her feet.
The 1990s and early 2000s saw Shammi make regular appearances in films like Mahesh Bhatt’s Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahin (1990), a cameo that still makes you laugh, and Gopi Kishan (1994),Coolie No. 1 (1995), Hum Saath-Saath Hain (1999) but it was largely television shows such as Zabaan Sambhal Ke, Shriman Shrimati, Kabhi Yeh Kabhi Woh and Filmi Chakkar that kept Shammi Aunty busy and endeared her to the viewers.
For a few years now, the internet would throw up photos of the golden girls like Waheeda Rehman, Asha Parekh, Helen, Nanda and Shammi Aunty catching up every now and then. Images of such outings that included film previews organized by legendary screenwriter Salim Khan would warm the hearts of thousands on a regular basis. One would hardly get to see the stars of the golden era in films as their films outings like Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi (2013) that featured Shammi Aunty as Boman Irani’s grandmother had become rare. Rest in peace, Shammi Aunty.
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