Yeh Shyam(a) ki Tanhaiyaan

While meeting the older generation of film people has been absolutely brilliant and truly enlightening, meeting Shyama was joyful yet heartbreaking. It was sad to see the actress of yesteryear leading a relatively isolated and lonely life today. Especially when you consider that at her peak, she was easily the busiest of all actresses in the 1950s. She acted in all types of films in all sorts of roles – heroine, second lead and vamps, doing close to 200 films.

Shyama, born Khurshid Akhtar, began her career as an actress starting out as a 9 or 10 year old in the chorus of the first all-female qawali in Indian cinema, Aahen Na Bhari, Shikwe Na Kiye, in the Noor Jehan starrer, Zeenat (1945). By 1949 she began getting lead roles while still in her early teens. Some of her important films include Bimal Roy’s Maa (1952), Shrimatiji (1952), Guru Dutt’s Aar Paar (1954), Chhoomantar (1956), Bhai Bhai (1956), Sharada (1957), for which she received the Filmfare award for Best Supporting Actress, Chandan (1958), Duniya Jhukti Hai (1960) and Barsat ki Rat (1960) amongst others. She particularly made a great pairing with Johnny Walker and her exuberance and liveliness made her the perfect actress to give lip sync to Geeta Dutt’s unique style of singing; perhaps maximum Geeta Dutt songs have been picturised on her. Post mid 1960s, following marriage to ace cinematographer Fali Mistry and 3 children later, as she grew older and gained weight, she switched over to character roles often being cast as the sinister brothel madam or kothewali with her last film being JP Dutta’s Hathyar (1989).

As I’ve mentioned in my earlier posts on meeting Smriti Biswas and Kamini Kaushal, meeting Shyama was part of a project fellow filmmakers and close friends Shivendra Singh Dungarpur (Shivi), Arwa Mamaji and me are doing on the golden age of Indian cinema. Meeting Shyama took quite time, in fact months, through repeated phone calls as she wasn’t keeping too well. We were almost resigned to not meeting her at all when one saw a photo in the Bombay Times of Shyama celebrating her birthday with a host of her colleagues – Nimmi, Shakila, Jabeen Jalil amongst others. Following up on the photo, we first met Shakila and when Shyama found out we had met Shakila, she finally agreed to meet us.

We met Shyama at her flat in the posh Napean Sea Road area. The walls of the entire flat are adorned with pictures and lobby cards of Shyama in her heyday. Shyama began the interview with us with gusto and cheerfulness as she recalled her awe for Noor Jehan and her career in films, recalling her work with masters like Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt and even giving us some spicy gossip of her times. But it was a mask she failed to keep up for long. Pretty soon she gave way to tears as she wept openly talking about her loneliness and the isolated life she was leading today. It was sad, poignant and as I’ve said, heartbreaking. She did recompose herself and continued with the interview but the exuberance was now missing. It was hard to see the actress who looked so cute in dungarees in Aar Paar like this.

Shyama, sadly, is a typical example of the older generation of film artistes whose entire life revolved around their film career. Once their careers faded or ended, they had little else to do in life as they struggled to live life outside the limelight. For Shyama, now in her 70s, husband Fali Mistry passed away prematurely in 1979 and her children too have their own lives. Health problems too plague her as she uses an oxygen cylinder for respiratory purposes and she is periodically in and out of Breach Candy Hospital near her home.

Shivi, Arwa and I have tried to keep in touch with her by meeting her and just sitting and chatting with her a couple of times since that first meeting. One of my most memorable movie memorabilia is a song booklet of Shrimatiji, signed personally by Shyama while Shivi proudly displays an autographed photographed of her in Aar Paar in his office, beautifully framed. But the last few times we have called to visit, she cited ill-health each time and has not been up to meeting us.

Each time one has met Shyama, I can’t help but recall the hard truth of Henry Miller’s words – “Fame is an illusive thing — here today, gone tomorrow. The fickle, shallow mob raises its heroes to the pinnacle of approval today and hurls them into oblivion tomorrow at the slightest whim; cheers today, hisses tomorrow; utter forgetfulness in a few months.”


Header Photograph courtesy Arun Dutt

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  1. Sunset Blvd….Wrinkled Emotions…..

    Was thinking…all of us are going to be old and then dead someday. But people in the movies (media)and in the gaze of the media, we really never accept them as mortals like us. Thus the shock and lament I believe.

    Like George Fernandes in this election. Pushing 80, frail as hell, hardly coherent in speech din’t feature on any news channel or hardly got any space in print media. He lost with a handsome margin. He was standing independent as a rebel against a party he formed!.it was pathetic to see a stalwart like him not even having enough volunteers to help him around personally, leave aside campaigning etc….. Sad yes….but then you also feel…vanity, ego, anger…often send logic for a toss.

  2. Charu,
    You hit the nail on the head.

    Thanks for your feedback. Much appreciated.

    Yes, we do have all the interviews on tape and are compiling the transcripts. Let me tell you, it makes for extremely fascinating reading.

  3. Hmm… good article… evokes a sad scenario and a tremendous amount of nostalgia… Great that your blog and upperstall keep on reviving such memories… We need history to understrand the present and move forward…

  4. That must have been something… you now, its the way life is – what happens to people once the limelight is cut off. Yet, it is so awfully sad. Loneliness always is.

  5. Did u do the interview on tape..? What a fabulous initiative and through that an opportunity to meet the ‘stars’ we have all so admired, loved and literally looked upto…! Literally, because, we were all kids, watching these ild B&W films on Sunday and later, Saturday evenings on good old DD… Watching films on (now defunct) video-tapes… Listening to the songs on LPs and cassettes and on radio- and visualizing the song picturization from our memories of the weekly Chayageet…

    Lucky guys, you! Just holler if you need even someone to help pick up the equipment! “Hum bhi khadey hai, raahon mein”

  6. Irene,
    I think this meeting with Shyama hit all of us all the more harder as the others we met be it Kamini Kaushal, Shakila, Shammi Kapoor, Smriti Biswas, Tanuja or Kum Kum – they might have been out of the limelight for years themselves but at least seemed content in life with some family around them. Otherwise, yes, that’s the way life is in showbiz – several luminaries of yesteryear have known to be extremely lonely and forgotten in the twilight of their lives, the world over…sad but true…

  7. a piece written with a lot of feeling and studied facts, evokes nostalgia yes, but also leaves the reader with some thoughts. a fine balance this is.

  8. Karan,

    This kind of loneliness and abandonment is common to many, many old people. Often, they don’t even have the power of money to make their lives comfortable. I guess it’s just that a film star’s drop into oblivion punches us more in the stomach, because the fall is so much bigger.

    Sadly, with lives becoming busier, and our society becoming more and more youth-centric, there seems to be no place for old people any more. Specially harder I think to live in a city like Mumbai.

  9. It is sad what our profession can do to us… she’s soo gorgeous…i felt very bad after reading the article… it can happen to neone of us….

  10. Well sketched and thoughtful. Do write often.
    Two things stand out. Not having a personal life of your own that is seperate and unlinked to the screen industry is the cause of this sadness and sorrow. One should always have ones own personal space to go back away from the limelight when the time is ripe. Whether one is in sports, films or politics.

  11. Aahana, tragic indeed are the ways of showbiz…The highs are very high but the lows…

    Thanks for the feedback, Leenus. Agree with you totally. In fact, have yet to see anyone more content in life today than Kamini Kaushal among the older lot of film personalities. She was always clear right from the beginning. There’s more to life than films. And lived her life that way.

  12. Thanks Surya.
    Yes, we have recorded the interviews on a handycam. We’re also in the process of editing and compiling proper transcripts of all our interviews. It’s fascinating, brilliant, enlightening, nostalgic, poignant, joyous…a treasure trove of memories of Indian cinema’s golden age.

  13. Hi Karan,
    A touching piece of information. I feel while you meet the stalwarts now and then you should also have them recorded on a handy cam, maybe some day it will help us compile these precious information in a dvd form. what say?

  14. Hello Mr. Bali:
    Would you consider adding some of what you have here to the Wikipedia article I requested on Shayama?Someone put in a stub and I added a little bit, but the article is woefully inadequate at this point. Perhaps you can fix this by adding a brief biography and a filmography.

  15. Nice piece evoking the fickleness of fame and fortune. Also kudos for you and your gangs work in documenting the golden age of Bollywood through personal memories. Loved the quote from Henry Miller – one of my favorite authors too.
    Sanjivan: Think you are ban on the target… such depressive states are perhaps universal … thanks for pointing out the warning hidden in Shyama;s story for all us.

  16. Nice write up but Shyama ki Shaam [Tanhaiyaan] is no different from Praveen Babi’s, Lalita Pawar’s and so many others…’Sunset Boulevard’ / Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowinghee Lane, Notes on a Scandal…all depicted this pain and loneliness beautifully.. but I look at tis this issue beyond films…in fact it has nothing to do with films…It’s universal -happens all the time- with many …It’s painful because most of us go on living life without imagining similar situation for ourselves..hence never prepare ourselves for the same but when it eventually turns up– we do not know how to handle it and plunge ourselves into depression! Hope there’s something for us to learn from these stories and prepare ourselves better to face it when it sets in!

  17. Mr. Spellman,
    I’m still working on collecting enough material on Shyama to write a detailed, in depth profile. Will keep you posted.

    Thanks. Had a very nice second meeting with Smriti Biswas yesterday so more fascinating material to sift and document! 🙂

    Thanks. Yes, if this serves as an eye opener to people, nothing quite like it.

    Ram, do visit soon. I myself haven’t met my mother for a very long time having been totally caught up in work. Am, in fact, taking a little extended break and going home later this month. Every moment spent with our parents at this point of their lives is well worth it.

  18. I can’t wait for this project to come to fruition and be shared 🙂 You are fortunate indeed to be meeting such great people. Am sorry for Shyama’s unhappiness…and agree that as your life changes you need to change to and adjust to things to remain happy. Thanks for sharing!

  19. Memsaab,
    Yes one is indeed lucky to have met all these greats of Indian cinema. How I wish I was a filmmaker in that era!

    Thanks for the feedback. Practically all of Shyama’s films in her heyday were in B & W. I can only recall Zabak (1961) in colour where she was leading lady to Mahipal. Don’t have any colour stills of her, sorry! But if I manage to get any, will surely upload.

  20. Very good article. Can you add some photos of her hey day specially from the films which had colour – not black and white.

  21. Poignant piece…I’ve been following your blogs about personalities (mainly heroines) of the ‘Golden Age’ of Bollywood. Have you done interviews with cameramen, music directors, art directors and other technicians and of course male stars / important character actors? Would be nice if you share a few morsels of your encounters with such people…

  22. Thanks for your feedback slowfade.
    Have met Shammi Kapoor, music director Ravi, cinematographer VK Murthy, make up man Baburao Pavaskar and most recently dancer Sheila Vaz (Ramaiya Vastavaiya, Leke Pehla Pehla Pyar). Yes, would be doing pieces on these meetings too by and by.

  23. Dear Karan,
    Would the completed work ( of editing and compiling proper transcripts of all your interviews.of the yesteryear Greats ) be available in form of DVD’s of interviews ? or will it be in form of a book ? If yes , when one could buy a copy and at what source ?
    Please advise avaialabilty details .
    I particularly hope that the completed work will certainly include articles, many memories and recorded interview of yestreyear actress Shakila .
    Have any article been published on Shakila in the Upperstall Blog ?
    Please advise

  24. Filmgoer, we have a lot of work still to do on the transcripts and this is connected to another larger project, so unsure yet of both, final product and timeline.

    Of course, we have Shakila’s interview as well. I intend to do one of my forthcoming blog pieces on that meeting and also on the one with Shammi Kapoor. Sometime soon, I hope.

  25. I had posted a comment here a few seconds ago but it seems to have disappeared.
    Anyway, I just wanted to say I was directed to your blog by Greta (“memsaab”:-) ) when I commented to her that I wanted to know more about Shyama.
    Thanks for this update on her, though it is very sad to learn that she is so lonely. I wish her the very best in her life !

    I am a big fan of old movies and artistes. (Am a regular at Greta’s blog :-)). I must say I think it is fantastic that you and a few others are doing this project to get into contact with and bring back into focus some of those who were part of the golden era of Hindi cinema. I wish you good luck and best wishes for this project.
    All the best,

  26. Raja,
    Yes, I have to say it’s been a most enriching experience meeting these luminaries of yesteryear and hearing about their experiences in the film industry.

    Memsaab is a good friend via the internet though we’ve never met! 🙂

    Thanks once again for your comments.

  27. Nice article. I do a radio show on radiodil.com of on artists of yesteryear on Thursdays (7PM USA time). Today on June 10 I am doing mu show on Shyama (her birthday was on June 7). My show will be rebroadcast later. If you happen to call her, please convey my regards (and my appreciation for films) and belated Happy Birthday.

  28. I felt really sad reading about Shyama. I’m an RJ with AIR and once wanted to feature Mubarak Begum in one of the shows I anchor. When I started reading about her on the net, I discovered that she was living in abject poverty in Bombay. I managed to get her telephone number and called her at her home. She told me that she had no money and no way to support herself and her daughter, who’s quite ill. And she said, other than a few hundred rupees she gets as pension from the government, she had no other means of income. She said she could still do shows if somebody would call her, and sang a few lines of her song “Mujhko apne gale laga lo” to me over the phone. It broke my heart. When I mentioned this on my show, one very kind gentleman took her address from me and sent her some money. It is a pity that once these artistes, who’ve enriched our lives with their work, are past their prime, they are no longer remembered by the society. It’s indeed a cruel world…

  29. Sunil,

    With Shyama it’s not so much the money as the loneliness. The problem is many of these artists never had a life outside their filmi one and once their careers started to fade, they really didn’t know what to do.

    In absolute contrast was Kamini Kaushal, totally content and happy in life with her family. Films were never the be-it-all for her even in her hey day and she always looked to get the most out of life. She regaled us with her trip to China, her meeting with Chairman Mao and one really had to force her to talk about her film career.

  30. Agreed Jayant, Shyama was indeed one of the most beautiful and gifted actresses of her time. She is based in Mumbai. No doubt, I think the 1950s and 1960s were a golden era in the history of Indian cinema and Shyama was fortunate to be one of the people working in that era. She was lucky enough to be working with stalwarts like Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, LV Prasad and AR Kardar!

  31. I feel sad that she feels so lonely, it hurts me. Last summer I was in mumbai for the first time i stayed there for three days and had a citytour with a guide and personal driver. I had a great time there.
    but didn’t know of shyama existence. Now i am feeling sorry not knowing her before.
    i saw some movieclips of acress and actors in (1950 and 1960).
    Remember this golden time wil not come back only we have is memories.
    When i saw shyama its was her smile, style of acting, beauti that touched me.

  32. By coincidence I came across this site. I always wondered about my favorite Actress Shayama. I idolized her, still do. In Wikipedia there is not much about her. Where was she born? Who is she? Whom she got married? Had children etc etc. Today I found more info about her. Thanks to you all. In my judgment she was the most beautiful Bollywood lady at her peak. Her mischievous smile, her femininity, her exuberance, her loving personality, her smile- she was just the woman of any man’s dream. I feel very sad that she not happy during her golden years. I will just tell her- millions still love her and if I can do anything for her I will do it. Send her a get well and be happy card and best wishes. Unfortunately we can not turn the clock back and we must live in the present. Let her be happy and just enjoy whatever time is left. Our love to her. Thanks for sharing the info about Shayama, my most favorite woman in the world.

  33. Well its really sad to know she is not in a good health & feeling lonely life as she had 3 children atlist they should be proud of there famous MOM who had still so many fans out there in world.
    I will pray god for her good health & get back her happy days with all her children she would at her old age
    thanks for all information you giving us
    Can you also let us know on actress SADHANJI & NANDAJI TOO

  34. i appreciate and thank u for taking so much interest in getting some information about the most beautiful actress of out time.I pray for her good health and wish to have a happy life with her family and friends

  35. I m very thankful to you for giving such a vital info about one time beautiful actress Shyama,I’ve seen her most of movies and I’m her good fan.I would like to know about Shikila and Libby Rana aka Navidita.

  36. Hello.Thank you for your intresting articles. Very glad to read about ‘Yesteryears’ stars. Could you please provide some info. Re : Shakila { from CID movie with Dev Anand}, Libi Rana [Navidita] and the lady who was in Mr. & Mrs. 55 — with Johnny Walker — i belive her name was Jasmine. Are they still with us or have they moved on to another world? Where do they live and please their address if possible. Love to meet them when I am next in ‘APNA DESH’. Thank you. I came across this by chance. Regards.

  37. Please msg the postal address of Shyama ji I want to write a letter to her…the beautiful actress of golden eras.. .

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