Few could vamp it up as deliciously as Shashikala when in her element. Her wicked women roles in films like Nau Do Gyarah (1957), 12 O’Clock (1958), Aarti (1962), Gumrah (1963), Apne Hue Paraye (1964), Neel Kamal (1968) and many others ensure she was perhaps the greatest vamp that Hindi cinema has ever seen. That said, she did quite a few positive supporting roles such as Anupama (1966) and even played the goody-goody heroine in films like Abe-Hayat (1955) and Bhagam Bhag (1956) but audiences liked her best when she was being bad. She could be loud, she could be screechy, she could be mean but she was effective!
Shashikala was born on August 4, 1932 in Solapur in Maharashtra in Western India, where her father, Anantrao Jawalkar, was a cloth merchant and ran a shop selling his wares. However, his business took a beating and the fact that he spent a lot of the family’s financial reserves on his younger brother, educating him in London, left his own family impoverished and practically bankrupt. In an interview given a few years to DNA, Shashikala recalled, “We often went without food for 8-10 days. We’d wait to be invited to someone’s home for lunch as there wasn’t enough food to even light the chullah at home.”
To help bring in the money, the child Shashikala joined a dance drama troupe, which travelled all over Solapur district and staged mythological plays. She often played Lord Krishna in their productions. Many people advised her father that since she was good looking and a talented artist as well, they should try finding work for her in films. And so, little Shashikala found herself in the film capital, Bombay. She remembered how tough it was. “We lived with distant friends and family, often helping with menial chores and making do with leftovers. We’d go from studio to studio looking for work. Since I was 11, I was too old for child roles and too young for adult ones.”
The early break on the silver screen came with Zeenat (1945) starring the great singing star, Noor Jehan. Shashikala was among the girls used in the all-female qawwali song, Aahen Ne Bhari, Shikwen Na Kiye, along with other newcomers like Shyama. The song was a smash hit and not only did Shashikala acquit herself quite well in it, but she also won the Rs 25 gift offered by the film’s director and Noor Jehan’s husband, Shaukat Hussain Rizvi, for the best performer in the song. That money was invaluable as according to Shashikala, Diwali was celebrated at her house for the first time in years. She would reunite with Rizvi and Noor Jehan in Jugnu (1947), playing a supporting role in the film and would be always grateful to them for giving her roles in these films. Incidentally, Jugnu proved to be the big breakthrough film for both its hero, Dilip Kumar, and playback singer, Mohammed Rafi. Noor Jehan and Rizvi helped her get work as they were extremely fond of her but once they left for Pakistan post the partition of the sub-continent, the struggle began again. Still, she did do films like Girls’ School (1949) and Pugree (1949) in this period with important roles in them. Sunehre Qadam, where she was cast as leading lady to Rehman, was launched in 1948 only to limp to a much belated release in 1966.
Shashikala slowly started breaking through with better though mostly supporting roles and second leads in the first half of the 1950s. She also got married during this period to Om Prakash Saiga, who was related to the famous singing star of the 1930s and ‘40s, Kundan Lal Saigal, hoping to live a life of domesticity but due to the failure of his business, she had no options but to keep the home fires burning through working double shifts. The couple had two daughters, who were sent to boarding school. Some important films she did in this period include V Shantaram’s Teen Batti Char Rasta (1953) and Surang (1953), a film highlighting the plight of quarry workers where her performance as a crazed girl drew much appreciation.
Shashikala also ‘graduated’ to heroine in some B-films like Daku (1955), Abe-Hayat, Taj Aur Talwar (1956) and Captain Kishore (1957), while continuing to play supporting roles or second leads in A-films like Bahu (1955) and Patrani (1956). Her husband launched a film with her, Krorepati (1961), as a heroine opposite Kishore Kumar with top composers Shankar-Jaikishan handling the music department but by the time, the film, more than 6 six years in the making, released in 1961, her career as a leading lady had gone nowhere. Fortunately for her, two films, Nau Do Gyarah and 12 O’Clock, showed Shashikala could be quite the vamp if she wanted. In fact, one film where she proved earlier itself that she could portray a really effective negative character was Mahesh Kaul’s Jeewan Jyoti (1953). In the film, rejected by Shammi Kapoor, she proceeds to make life difficult for the girl he marries instead, Chand Usmani. Nau Do Gyarah sees Vijay Anand expertly blend the road film with the urban crime thriller, a rather popular genre in Hindi cinema of the 1950s. Shashikala not only adds to the film with her vampish act but also makes the climactic song, See Le Zubaan, her own as she dances and instructs all around her to keep quiet and not speak to the police, else all will be lost!
One role that Shashikala made a major impact with and also received her first Filmfare Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress was Bimal Roy’s sensitive take on untouchability, Sujata (1959), that sees an absolutely brilliant performance by Nutan in the titular role. While Nutan enacts the role of the untouchable girl who is brought up by a Brahmin family, Shashikala plays the perfect foil to her as her ‘step sister’ and the biological daughter of the family. It is to her credit that she more than held her own with Nutan in their scenes together.
Aarti (1962) starring Ashok Kumar, Pradeep Kumar and Meena Kumari, was the big game changer for Shashikala. Playing Pradeep Kumar’s sister-in-law, she proceeds to make life miserable for heroine Meena Kumari. The film saw Shashikala win, both, the Bengal Film Journalists’ Association (BFJA) and the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting. She would repeat the ‘double’ the following year with her fine performance as a vicious blackmailer, who pretends to be Sunil Dutt’s wife and hassles Mala Sinha, who though married to Ashok Kumar has resumed her affair with her ex-lover, Dutt, in BR Chopra‘s Gumrah. Coming towards the end of the film, Shashikala makes the role her own and all but steals the film from her more esteemed co-stars. Among other accolades, she would also win a third BFJA Best Supporting Actress Award for Rahgir (1969) and would also be bestowed with the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 2007.
Following Aarti, Shashikala was in demand as an actress, mostly as a vamp. And while she acquitted herself perfectly in a series of negative roles through the 1960s, she also occasionally surprised audiences with the beautifully played odd positive role such as the spoilt, bubbly, extroverted and over-talkative young girl, who is the total anti-thesis of the silent, shy heroine, played sensitively by Sharmila Tagore, in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anupama. As her career peaked. she would go on to receive Filmfare Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress in a series of films in the ’60s – Ayee Milan Ki Bela (1964), Himalay Ki God Mein (1965), Phool Aur Pathar (1966) and Neel Kamal. She particularly made a strong impact as the loud, blonde-haired vamp in Phool Aur Patthar and is quite in her element in her two songs – doing a mean twist in the club song Zindagi Mein Pyar Karna Seekh Le and trying to seduce the film’s hero, Dharmendra, in Seeshe Se Pee. Finally, of course, she redeems herself and takes the bullet meant for Dharmendra, dying in his arms.
Just when all was going smoothly, Shashikala walked out of her troubled marriage and left to elope with a man abroad. It was to be the biggest mistake of her life. Touching upon that horrific time in her life in her DNA interview, she says, “I was humiliated and tortured for days till I returned crazy and broken. For days, I roamed the streets like a mad woman, sleeping on pavements, eating what I could lay my hands on, touring ashrams and temples in search of peace.” She finally found solace when filmmaker Mahesh Desai, who had directed her in the Gujarati film, Satyavan Savitri (1963), recommended her Satyanarayan Goenka’s medication course. And in order to sustain herself, she returned to films in character roles, often making the nasty elder sister-in-law or the mother-in-law from hell. While she largely returned to negative roles, by now her proven forte, Hrishikesh Mukherjee again cast her against type as the elder, good sister-in-law in Khubsoorat (1980) for which she underwent training under maestro Gopi Kishen, who had choreographed for her earlier in some of her earlier films, to match steps with her more seasoned co-star, Rekha.
Shashikala’s second innings was going well as she had a steady lot of films like Sargam (1979), Ahista Ahista (1981), Anokha Bandhan (1982) and Souten (1983) that kept her busy through the ’80s. But by the end of the decade, she was restless yet again. Being the sole breadwinner for her family, she had ensured everyone was well-settled and now there seemed to be no further goals for her to pursue in life. She quit films again and shifted to Pune but things did not work out. It was around this time that she discovered Mother Teresa. quoting her, “I flew down to Calcutta asking my daughter Shailaja to arrange a meeting with Mother but I could only meet Sister Agnes, Mother’s right hand. I wept and asked to be allowed to stay and work with them. Seeing how adamant I was, she sent me to the ashram in Pune where I was allowed to work… …The nuns who had thought I’ll leave in two-three days saw me devotedly doing whatever was assigned and became fond of me. Once at a chance meeting with Mother (Teresa), I hugged her and howled like a baby saying I don’t have inner peace. That’s when she assigned me to Nirmal Hriday, a home for the dying. From there to leprosy patients in Surat to the elderly in Goa, I felt like an incredible lightness for the first time in my life.”
Leaving Mother Teresa, Shashikala had a final stint as an actress in Films and Television in films like Maharaja (1998), Baadshaah (1999), Chori Chori (2003) and Mujhse Shaadi Karogi (2004) and TV serials like Saahil (1996) and Son Pari (2001). She also had to deal with the death of her elder daughter to cancer, before passing away herself in Bombay, now Mumbai, on April 4, 2021. With her death, Hindi cinema has lost yet another stalwart from its golden age.