Shashikala passes away: Revisiting the 'good woman' roles portrayed by the iconic Bollywood femme fatale

When cast against type, Shashikala unostentatiously strung together a series of parts notable for the manner in which they spoke of rare and treasured feminine kinship, usually relegated to the footnotes of the prevailing cinematic culture.

Vikram Phukan April 05, 2021 10:59:18 IST
Shashikala passes away: Revisiting the 'good woman' roles portrayed by the iconic Bollywood femme fatale

Shashikala. Image via Facebook

In the best (or worst) traditions of Hindi cinema’s bad women, the glamorous Shashikala was invariably pitted against the straight-laced leading ladies of her time, as an ideological opposite or a flimsy Westernised degenerate or simply a rival in love, seething in bitterness and jealousy, a well the actress drew from much too often. She stamped her hyper-camp persona with sheer gusto on the slew of unsympathetic parts she was consigned with — stock characters she made her own spectacularly in a career spanning more than six decades, bringing along wigs, evening gloves and costume jewellery for the ride, and rarely an ounce of subtlety.

Hers was a domestic femme fatale who could scarcely be redeemed unlike, say, Helen’s moll with a heart of gold. For her efforts, she was thrown off a cliff, or mauled in a cat-fight, or publicly chastised or shot down in cold blood.

Yet, for all that, when cast against type, Shashikala, much less ostentatiously, strung together a series of parts notable for the manner in which they spoke of rare and treasured feminine kinship, usually relegated to the footnotes of the prevailing cinematic culture. For instance, in Bimal Roy’s classic, Sujata (1959), she plays Rama, the daughter of the household in which Nutan’s eponymous character — a Dalit woman orphaned at birth — has also been brought up, but sans Rama’s access and privilege. Sujata and Rama regard themselves as soul-sisters, as evinced by the Bechdel-passing duet, 'Bachpan Ke Din', sung evocatively by Asha Bhosle and Geeta Dutt. Rama refreshingly doesn’t appear to inherit her parents’ prejudices when it comes to the barriers of caste, and carefully steps out of the way when she discovers that Sujata has found favour with the man the family had hand-picked as her suitor, without a trace of entitled rancour.

Shashikala passes away Revisiting the good woman roles portrayed by the iconic Bollywood femme fatale

Shashikala (right) with Nutan in Bimal Roy's Sujata. Image via Facebook

In Trilok Jetley's 1963 adaptation of Munshi Premchand’s Godaan, Shashikala plays Malati, a rich Savarna doctor who wears her privilege less lightly than her peers, and draws much strength from the struggles of the peasant women of the hamlet that she chooses to serve, although she can hardly bridge the gap between the two worlds she attempts to straddle. It is a completely pared-down version of the social activist character from Premchand’s book, where the feudal elites and their well-intentioned interventions and introspections are given much more space, but an understated Shashikala makes an impact quite unlike that of her contemporaneous parts as the shrewish housewife in 1962’s Aarti or the blackmailing secretary in 1963’s Gumrah, both Filmfare-winning performances that, unwittingly at the time perhaps, set the tone for the rest of her career and also saddled us with problematic female characterisations that persisted for decades.

Perhaps Shashikala’s effervescence was never put into better use than in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anupama (1966), where she plays the eternally cheerful Annie, at once shrill and endearing, who is a perfect foil to Sharmila Tagore’s painfully shy and reticent Uma — the two women are a study in contrasts, not just by temperament, but in their relationships with their fathers and the men (Deven Verma and Dharmendra) who choose to enter their lives. Shashikala is given two wonderful Bhosle ditties, 'Kyun Mujhe Itni Khushi' and 'Bheegi Bheegi Faza', to showcase her gregarious but never cloying self, and ultimately helps to bring Uma and her equally withdrawn beau-to-be together. The four leads of Anupama incidentally also worked together in Mohan Sehgal’s Devar that same year — a typically convoluted but powerful social drama in which ‘childhood lovers’ Tagore and Dharmendra are stuck in loveless marriages with Verma and Shashikala respectively.

Shashikala passes away Revisiting the good woman roles portrayed by the iconic Bollywood femme fatale

Shashikala and Sharmila Tagore in Devar. Image via National Film Archives of India (NFAI)

Later in her career, Shashikala found herself playing scheming mothers-in-law, conspiratorial queen mothers and brothel madams, but Mukherjee gave her another character for the ages in Khubsoorat (1980), where she is the elder daughter-in-law, or Badi Bhabhi, in a peculiarly rules-bound household run by strict disciplinarian Dina Pathak. Enter an Annie-like high-spirited character, Manju (played by Rekha), who learns of Badi Bhabhi's leanings towards classical dance and gets her to occasionally exchange the cloistered confines of the household for the freedom of an open-air terrace where they dance in an unbridled manner to yet another spirited Bhosle number, 'Piya Baawri'. Both Annie and Manju can be thought of as precursors to Hollywood’s much-touted manic pixie dream-girls, although their sparkle and vim were more in service of their own desires and compulsions than of the forlorn men they were destined to ‘save’. Incidentally, livewire character actor David Abraham played father to both characters.

Shashikala passes away Revisiting the good woman roles portrayed by the iconic Bollywood femme fatale

Shashikala in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Khubsoorat. Image via National Film Archives of India (NFAI)

One of Shashikala’s meatier roles in this period was in Dulal Guha’s Mera Karam Mera Dharam (1987), a rural drama and curry western rolled into one, where she played a woman who, almost over-indulgently, dotes on her niece, Mala (Moushumi Chatterjee), while maintaining the veneer of maternal cantankerousness. In one show-stopping moment when feudal overlords come searching for Mala — who’s supposedly transgressed village norms by her choice of lover — her aunt passionately stands guard on the temple door, scythe in quivering hand, as if possessed by the Goddess Kali herself, and sends the men (which includes Johnny Walker as her spineless husband) scurrying. It’s a rare (and surprisingly real) moment of dramatic heft in a film about power-drunk patriarchy that is otherwise completely run-of-the-mill. The late 1980s marked the start of a hiatus in Shashikala’s career during which she involved herself with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. In her own words, this served as a kind of atonement for her toxic reel avatars — yet, while operating within a reductive mainstream, she had certainly scripted a cinematic path that emphatically spelled out a redemption all of its own, if any such thing was indeed warranted.

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