Surekha Sikri in one of her last interviews: 'Feels like I've been discovered by a whole new generation'
Last year, Surekha Sikri, bound to a wheelchair after a brain stroke, discussed winning her third National Award for Badhaai Ho, losing out on a lot of roles after the accident, and unfulfilled wish to work with Amitabh Bachchan.
(This was one of the last interviews Surekha Sikri did. It was taken when the veteran actor won her third National Award for Badhaai Ho in 2020. It is being republished in view of her demise on 16 July, 2021.)
For Surekha Sikri, the cranky and quirky mother-in-law/grandmother of Badhaai Ho, the film and its enormous success, followed by her winning the National Award (in the Best Supporting Role category), have been a major turning point in her life and career.
“It feels like I have been discovered now by this whole new generation, even as I have been into films, theatre, and television for over 40 years now,” she chuckles. While Sikri was bestowed upon the National Award for Best Supporting Actress twice in the past — for Govind Nihalani’s Tamas (1988), and Shyam Benegal’s Mammo (1994), winning this time has been far more special for the veteran actress, who outclassed many younger breed of actresses, like Taapsee Pannu, Divya Dutta, Geetanjali Rao, and Rasika Dugal to take home the honour.
Calling the comedy-drama a paisa vasool movie, Sikri says, “Parallel cinema had its own charm. It had its own place but Badhaai Ho is a dream role for an actor. It is a role with an arc. My phone kept ringing for many days, which has never happened before. I was also thrilled to get this token of appreciation from Amitabh Bachchan, who I long to work with. Badhaai Ho has influenced a lot of filmmakers to make feel-good family films, the story was so well written, and the script was first rate.”
Sikri was hungrier more than ever to sink her teeth into many more challenging roles. Quite a few makers were keen to rope her in their projects after her scene-stealing moments in Badhaai Ho. But an unfortunate incident, that occurred about a year ago derailed her life as well as her career. “I had a brain stroke 10 months ago. I fell down and hit my head in the bathroom in Mahabaleshwar, where I had gone for a television shoot. Now my wheelchair has become my companion. I feel so helpless. I am unable to stand straight. I received a number of awards for Badhaai Ho, and I went to receive those on the wheelchair. It would have looked very odd to get up from among the audience, and climb all those steps to reach the stage. It would have become a big tamasha,” she says.
Playing a parent of lesbian girls, and portraying a yesteryear actress, are two of the most "exciting" roles that she regrets losing out on because of her accident, she says. “Lot of doors opened up for me, and I would have done better work had this accident not happened. I had discussed the projects with the makers but they have returned my dates obviously because they are scared that they may not get what they want. One of these films wanted the subtlety of moment with hand and foot but I guess I can’t please them enough. For the film about the gay children and their parents, and how they reach an understanding, the director wanted subtle gestures which I may not be able to do. I would have loved to play Nazia, the actress of yesteryear. I had read the script. But I wouldn’t like to spoil it. I would not be able to do justice to it though I should be more positive in my thinking that I can do it,” says Sikri.
While Sikri is hoping to bounce back soon, and tries to keep a positive outlook, she does feel low at times, she says. “This is a real disability for an actor. You can’t use your hand, foot, and your body the way you want to because it is not following your commands. This is really very frustrating for an actor. Body language and movement is a great deal for me. People get scared and maybe they can’t trust me with any role whether I will be able to do them or not,” says the actress, sounding disappointed, especially since she does not want to retire ever. “I don't believe in retirement. My mind keeps working. It keeps clicking,” she says.
However, a small role in Netflix's Ghost Stories (an anthology of four stories directed by Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Karan Johar, and Dibaker Banerjee with an ensemble cast) has come as a boon to her in these trying times. It has definitely lifted her spirits. She recently finished shooting her part for the story directed by Akhtar, that has Janhvi Kapoor playing one of the leads. “My role is that of a patient. She is being taken care of in her own apartment by a nurse, played by Janhvi Kapoor. It was a very interesting experience, and I enjoyed working with Zoya’s team. They are all so committed to their work. I didn’t find that kind of professionalism and commitment in television or elsewhere. Janhvi is a very expressive actor. I like the way she speaks her dialogues. She can make a wonderful actress. She has got her mother’s talent,” says Sikri.
And of course, memories of Badhaai Ho, and her character's crackling one-liners bring a big smile on her face. She does not tire talking about the film, and its team. She appears amused thinking how she bagged the role. “Amit (R Sharma, director) wasn’t sure about casting me. I think all good filmmakers are terrified by television actors. They are often looked down upon by the filmmakers, and that is because television actors have a very unsubtle way of acting, whereas Amit likes subtlety. I was delighted that such a good role was being offered to me, and I didn't want to lose it. I heard the narration, and after one or two days, when I didn't hear from them, I was worried, and wondering whether they would cast me. It took them a while to decide upon me. But Amit didn’t tell me who he had in mind if not me," says Sikri, laughing heartily.
Born into an Indian Air Force family, Sikri’s entry in the acting profession was purely accidental. “My younger sister was interested in becoming an actor whereas I wanted to become a writer or a journalist. When we were studying in Aligarh, Al Kazi (Former Director, National School of Drama) brought King Lear to our college. My sister was impressed but due to certain circumstances, she changed her mind, and instead, on my mother's insistence, I filled up the NSD admission form that was being distributed in the college. I cleared the interview as well as the auditions and got admission in NSD, and I shifted to Delhi in 1968,” she reminisces.
“Al Kazi was an extraordinary and an extremely disciplined teacher. He taught us all the right values of respecting work, and doing it wholeheartedly. Besides acting class, we also had lessons in costume designing, make-up, lighting, music, and play analysis. He took us to concerts, museums, and painting exhibitions to teach us about art. I also learnt a great deal about play writing. It was an enriching experience. My first play was a Greek tragedy, The Trojan Women, and I played the ‘Helen of Troy.' We had some distinguished names in the same batch, like Manohar Singh, Om Puri, Raghubir Yadav,” she recalls, adding, “That is how my career was decided but I am very happy with what happened by chance. Acting helped me open up because I was an extremely shy person. You need to have the courage to expose yourself,” she says.
After completing her graduation from NSD, Sikri bagged her debut film, 1978 political drama Kissa Kursi Ka (with Shabana Azmi in the lead) while she was working in the NSD repertory. Later, when Sikri shifted to Mumbai, she followed up her film career with Saeed Mirza’s Salim Langde Pe Pat Ro, Prakash Jha’s Parinati, Shyam Benegal’s Mammo, Sardari Begum, Zubeidaa, and Hari Bhari, Aamir Khan starrer- Sarfarosh, and Rituparna Ghosh’s Raincoat. “But my work on the big screen has been sporadic. It was in bits and pieces, a small role here, and a small role there. I haven’t done many movies. I could have done something much better but it didn’t happen due to certain misunderstandings. Also, I am very bad at networking, and kind of stay away from people,” she says.
Quite surprisingly, Sikri, who was so passionate about theatre, did not do a single play in Mumbai. It was television that gave her more fame and recognition. “I rang up a few theatre groups in Mumbai but they weren’t very encouraging. Here, theatre groups are quite clannish, and they function in closed groups. It would have been quite a struggle for me had I continued with theatre. But bagging television projects was much easier. I did Banegi Apni Baat (1994-98), followed by Just Mohabbat (1996-2000), and both were successful shows. But many years later, it was my character Dadisa in Balika Vadhu (2008-16) that made me a household name for almost eight years,” she says. “I occasionally miss that magic of theatre. I love the lighting, and it’s so magical when you see the audience looking like a dark spot in the auditorium,” she says, with her expressive eyes going wide.
“Off late, television has become quite regressive. They keep copying each other and show things just to shock people. They say outlandish things, have over- the-top acting and stories. They show the same old-fashioned stuff. I need to connect with the script. Only when ideas attract me, I say a yes,” she adds.
However, with the encouraging response to Badhaai Ho, Sikri, who believes the quality of cinema has improved considerably, would like to do more movies. “I feel that the quality of cinema has improved after Irrfan (Khan) and Nawazuddin’s (Siddiqui) The Lunchbox. I like Nawaz, and I am happy to say that Nawaz and I did Sarfarosh together though we didn’t have any scene together (laughs). I like Irrfan too, and I am so delighted that Ayushmann (Khurrana) and Vicky Kaushal have also won the National Award,” she says.
Sikri is still hungry for good roles, and characters with grey shades is something that she finds much more exciting. “Earlier, I played more soft, goody-goody parts but now I am getting to play characters with slightly negative or grey shades, which I like more because I find their psychology more interesting. I don’t like being sweet-sweet (laughs),” she says with a twinkle in her eyes, adding, “I would love to play a social activist. I am an activist by nature.”
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