Shashikala mastered the art of playing second fiddle; despite their brevity, her roles attest to impact of supporting actors
While her earlier career was marked by roles where she was either the vamp or the scheming mistress, Shashikala’s later years brought the grace and equanimity that ageing perhaps allows you.
Hardik Mehta’s film Kaamyaab (2018) is a poignant reminder of those who play second fiddle throughout their lives. Art in cinema is almost always embodied by the protagonist. Life in a way, imitates art when we choose to see people through the prism of what is known, disregarding the possibilities of the unknown. Indian cinema’s history, its most illustrious careers could not have been made without the presence of these unknowns, the actors who — despite their small roles — ensure they leave their mark on a film and the audience. We are now in the age of scene stealers, where actors in small roles can make a big impact, but 88-year-old Shashikala, who passed away on Sunday, worked through the era when scripts were written to worship the protagonist — usually the hero, sometimes the heroine. Shashikala mastered the art of playing second fiddle, essaying roles that albeit brief, underlined the significance of the supporting star.
Born in Solapur, Maharashtra to a Marathi family, Shashikala exhibited talent from an early age, dancing and acting in stage shows around the district. Under British rule at the time, the Bombay film industry had nonetheless already begun to attract the country’s best talents. That shift for Shashikala, however, would happen by the forced hand of circumstances rather than choice. Bankrupted by severe financial losses, Shashikala’s father brought the family to Mumbai, in the blunt hope that his daughter’s many talents would eventually find a place. Things, however, weren’t straightforward. Shashikala frequented studios in search of opportunities between working as a house-help at various homes to bring in money. Her first opportunity would come at Prabhat Studio, in a film that was eventually scrapped. From a small scene in Shaukat Hussain Rizvi’s Zeenat through bit roles in the early ‘50s, Shashikala gradually grew a foothold in the industry.
In Bimal Roy’s Sujata (1959) Shashikala played Rama, daughter to a Brahmin family that chooses to adopt and raise another girl, the lower-caste Sujata (Nutan). In Aarti (1962) she played the risible Jaswanti, a manipulative housewife who plots against the eponymous protagonist. So convincing is Jaswanti’s notoriety, her next-door envy, it earned Shashikala a Filmfare award for supporting actor. Awards are good but sometimes they end up pigeonholing actors into stereotypes. In her first two notable roles, Shashikala had played second fiddle to two leading ladies, in films named after them. The one that made the biggest mark was her negative portrayal of a disgruntled housewife — a role she’d find herself regularly called to play in the years after. As with comedy, villainy too used to be a kind of genre that Bollywood relied on recognisable actors to play. Think Pran, for example, Bollywood’s favourite villain of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Not only type, Shashikala began to be perpetually cast in roles that supported other central characters, something she continued to do till late in her career.
In Phool aur Patthar (1966) Shashikala played Rita, a blonde urban diva who is smitten by her scheming partner Shaaka (Dharmendra) and goes to fatal lengths to try and belong to him. It’s a lovely small role that sees Shashikala transform a naïve young woman to someone who makes the ultimate sacrifice for love. This vein of playing notable, yet ultimately dwarfed roles continued for the actress till the latter stages of her career. Marked by her whitening hairdo and cosmopolitan personality, the actress made the switch to television and also played mom to the likes of Salman Khan in Mujhse Shaadi Karogi and Shah Rukh Khan in Baadshah. While her earlier career was marked by roles where she was either the vamp or the scheming mistress, Shashikala’s later years brought the grace and equanimity that ageing perhaps allows you.
I’ve often wondered what it must feel like, for actors to gather decades of experience but come nowhere close to crack the glass ceiling of stardom. An aunt who worked through her life for small theatre productions, claimed it was her happiest experience being on a film set and shoot a scene for a proper Bollywood film. She appeared onscreen for three seconds, said two words and could only show her back to the camera. It is probably her most cherished memory still, for the closest she had come to inhaling the romance of cinema. She looked baffled, every time she showed me the scene. Baffled that despite her middle-class life, despite being a nobody in the wider scheme of things, she was in a Bollywood film. Maybe that is what cinema is really: this make-believe world where everyone who is someone is living a small fantasy they once believed would never come true. Shashikala’s chequered career, her lifelong image of the supporting actor must be seen as the fulfilment of one fantasy, if not all. Because who really gets to have it all?
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