As the charming, forgotten diva of yore breathed her last, Lalit Magazine takes us down the memory lane on a rollercoaster ride that Shakila’s film career was.
A couple of months back, I was watching Guru Dutt’s Aar Paar on television and the moment Shakila came onto the screen, I wondered whether she was still alive. I had not read or heard about her for a long time. The very next day, September 20, she passed away in Mumbai. She was 82. It made me uneasy because I had always liked this actress whose name was unbeknown to many as she wasn’t as much in demand as some of her more celebrated contemporaries, like Meena Kumari, Nargis, Madhu Bala, Waheeda Rehman et al. The news of her death triggered a cascade of memories. I went into a reverie that took me into the good old days when Shakila was quite a familiar name.
The first thing I was reminded of was the Tower House song ae mere dil e nadaan, tu gham se na ghabrana. Tower House was the first Shakila movie I had seen when I was in school and the melodiously haunting Lata number with Shakila lip-syncing remained etched in my memory ever after.
She had a languid grace, as though she were floating on the screen in a white saree, her dark, luxuriant hair messing all around her. Written by Assad Bhopali and composed by Ravi, whenever the dulcet notes of this song fall into my ears, Shakila’s beautiful face grips my mind. Tower House, a suspense thriller directed by Nissar Ansari , was one of Shakila’s popular movies and did well at the box office. The movie had another gem of a song: main khushnaseeb hoon mujko kisika pyar mila sung by Mukesh and Lata. Hamid Ali Khan aka Ajit was the male lead opposite her. I have watched Tower House a number of times, that includes two outings to the erstwhile Regal cinema in Srinagar, mainly because of the songs but also, let me confess now, because I had started having a crush on Shakila. I can say now that she was my first crush, as far as film actresses are concerned.
Shakila’s real name was Badshah Begum and she belonged to a royal family of Afghanistan. There were some family feuds in which she lost almost all her family except her father and aunt. Feroza Begum,her father’s sister, came to India along with her brother and three nieces: Shakila, Noor and Nasreen. Later, Noor married the star comedian Johny Walker as the two fell in love on the sets of Aar Paar.
Tragedy struck the family early on in India when Shakila’s father passed away. Now it was left to the aunt to bring up her three young nieces and the determined lady did just that. Feroza Begum never gave up and devoted her life to her nieces.
Nobody ever thought, least of all Shakila, that she would have a career in movies but strange are the ways of fate, as they say. As chance would have it, A.R.Kardar and Mehboob Khan became family friends. The credit of giving Shakila a break in movies goes to Kardar. He introduced her as a child artist in Dastaan. The year was 1949 and Shakila was just 14. Surrayya was the lead actress in the movie.
She acted as a child artist in a few movies before she went on to play lead roles. Unfortunately, the film fraternity did not forget her origins. She was given the name Arbi Chehra – Arab face, something that didn’t fit into the image of the Indian heroine of that era. And this resulted in her getting roles only in B-grade movies, movies now long forgotten. One of these flicks, Ali Baba Aur Chalees Chor, did well at the box office though, but still did not succeed in giving her the recognition she deserved. Her sisters also started getting small roles in movies, mostly in those that had Shakila in the lead.
And then came the year 1954 and with it the release of Guru Dutt’s Aar Paar. Shakila played a gangster’s moll in the movie, Guru Dutt the hero and Shyama the heroine. This was the first movie that had the cine-goers sit up and ask: “Who is this pretty girl?” They did not know the girl they were talking about had already spent quite a few years in the film industry. Popularity finally decided to shower her blessings on Shakila.
A lot of the fame she got from the movie had to do with some of the songs which were filmed on her, the most popular one being the lilting babuji dheere chalna – an iconic song rendered with full oomph by the evocative Geeta Dutt.
Shakila played a vamp and she was one of the highlights of the movie. As a result, Guru Dutt cast her opposite Dev Anand in C.I.D. This was her first role as a lead actress opposite one of the leading stars of the day. The movie went on to become a super hit and Shakila became a household name. Everyone thought Shakila’s career had taken a leap but that was not to be. C.I.D. was also the debut movie of Waheeda Rehman and just as Shakila had played a negative role in Aar Paar, Waheeda played a similar role in C.I.D. Waheeda seemed to have created quite an impression, particularly on Guru Dutt, which meant that any further possibilities of growing under the Guru Dutt banner turned bleak for Shakila.
Lady Fortune does not smile on us all and she definitely did not smile on Shakila. There were no more meaty roles for her after this. Having just given a super duper hit, in fact two in a row, the actress was relegated to the background once again. It was back to the B-grade business, but then, from nowhere, a little miracle happened: one more memorable movie came her way. It was Shakti Samantha’s China Town. Remember the song bar bar dekho – a guitar-wielding Shammi Kapoor serenading a charming Shakila with all her affectations at full display? But, China Town happened to be her last major film. She did manage some more moves but nothing remarkable.
She called it quits after Ustadon Ke Ustad released in1963. She got married the same year and since her husband was a foreigner, she decided to go along with him to the United Kingdom. She came back to India in 1991 but refused all acting offers and stayed away from the industry.
It is sad that a lot of us came to know about her only after her death. Shakila’s film career lasted only 14 years. She was just 28 when she bid film industry a goodbye. It was her personal decision. Who knows, if she had carried on, she might have become a bigger star, earning what she really deserved! After all, she still had age on her side.
Shakila remains an actress whom some of us remember for her grace and charm and lotus- eyed seductive looks, and of course some of the most exquisite melodies picturised on her.