Sheila Ramani was undoubtedly the ‘it’ girl or the oomph girl of Hindi Cinema of the 1950s. She will always be remembered for her sizzling club dancer act in Chetan Anand’s Taxi Driver (1954) co-starring Dev Anand. She sets the screen on fire, making one forget the actual tepid heroine of the film, Kalpana Kartik. However, her good looks, natural sensuality and sex appeal came at a price and was possibly the biggest handicap in the way of her becoming a big star. A trendsetter for the bold, modern Hindi heroine, Ramani, who was at her best when she played the sexy, mod miss, just didn’t fit into the image of the typically pure, virginal and suffering leading lady. And when she did attempt playing the relatively more conventional Hindi film heroine in films like Bimal Roy’s Naukri (1954), one has to say that she couldn’t quite carry it off. It just wasn’t her.
She was born Sheila Kewalramani, in 1932, in Karachi, Sindh, in undivided India but which is a part of Pakistan now. A former Miss Simla winner in 1951, she made her film debut with Filmistan’s adaptation of the Bankim Chandra Chatterjee novel, Anand Math (1952), wherein she was billed as simply Sheila. She did another film with Filmistan that year, Badnam co-starring Shyama and Balraj Sahni. She had a bigger role in this one but did not make much of an impact on critics and audiences. A reviewer of the film noted, “Sheila Kewalramani is slightly disappointing, but the fault lies in the casting. A new artiste like her should not have been given so difficult a role.” In spite of the harsh reviews, she did, however, come to filmmaker V Shantaram’s notice and he cast her in two of his films, both of which released in 1953. One was Surang, where she is billed as Sheila Ramani, second to heroine Shashikala. In the film, Ramani played a cruel, heartless woman, who is blind to the pathetic plight of the quarry workers. When she was told by her nephew’s school buddy (journalist Khalid Mohamed) that his mother, Zubeida, was initially approached for her role, apparently she retorted, “Just as well. The film wasn’t Shantaram’s best! I was quite a nasty chick in that one.” It’s easy to understand Ramani’s attitude towards the film. Not only was the film panned, but a reviewer noted, “Sheila Ramani, who is poorly photographed, is stiff in a role which is unsympathetic to the point of being grotesque.” Fortunately, the other film she did with Shantaram was better received – Teen Batti Char Raaste, where she plays the Sindhi daughter-in-law of the house, which is a mini India of sorts with its occupants from different parts of the country. The big breakthrough, however, was still to come.
And come it did the following year and how! Ramani hit her peak with the Navketan produced urban, crime drama, Taxi Driver. She is the brightest spot of this film as the seductive Anglo-Indian club dancer, Sylvie, in love with taxi driver, Mangal (Dev Anand), who doesn’t reciprocate her love. He, meanwhile, is in love with the simpler and more ‘suitable’ girl that he believes he can take home, Mala (Kalpana Kartik), who has come to Bombay to become a singer. Finally, at the cost of being previously injured, it is the so called dubious Sylvie, who saves the day for Mangal and Mala in the film’s climax. Ramani owns the film, easily outshining her mores esteemed co-actors and makes the most of her meaty role. Of course, it helped that four wonderful solos in the film, composed by SD Burman, were filmed on her – Dil Se Milake Dil Pyar Keejiye, Jeene Do Aur Jiyo, Dil Jale To Jale and the climactic song, Ae Meri Zindagi Aaj Raat Jhoomle, during which she gives Dev Anand (and us) a great view of her bare shoulder!
Sadly though, Ramani’s career failed to take off as it should have considering the major impact she made in Taxi Driver. While, no doubt, she gave a sincere performance while being cast against type in Bimal Roy’s Naukri, it has to be said that she was miscast as the simple next door girl in love with Kishore Kumar. Thereafter, while she did a slew of films in the 1954-56 period, barring Railway Platform (1955), where she played a princess vying with simple village girl Nalini Jaywant for Sunil Dutt’s affections, and Funtoosh, reuniting her at Navketan with director, Chetan Anand, and actor, Dev Anand, as a solo heroine this time, none of her films were A-1 productions.
Funtoosh‘s main plot centres around KN Singh and Dev Anand with Ramani part of a secondary romantic sub-plot. Singh, deep in debt, gets into an agreement with a man, who is out of a mental asylum called Funtoosh (Dev Anand), whom he gets insured for a heavy sum and who will subsequently commit suicide within a stipulated date for Singh to then collect the money. Events take an unexpected turn when Anand falls for Singh’s daughter, Neelu (Ramani), and her for him. The film, though a comedy, also has a serious back story as to how Funtoosh landed up in the mental asylum. Actually named Ram, he had gone crazy with shock when his mother and sister died in a blazing fire. Ramani, of course, playing a rich, modern young woman, doesn’t have much to do in the film besides providing a little glamour and to be a part of the film’s expected happy ending. These duties she fulfils efficiently enough. But with the film being an out and out Dev Anand vehicle, even the two most popular songs of the film are filmed on him with her being nowhere on the scene – the Kishore Kumar solos, Ae Meri Topi Palat Ke Aa (said to be composed by RD Burman when he was just ten and used by his father, SD Burman for this film) and Dukhi Man Mere Sun Mera Kehna.
Some time in 1955, Ramani went across the border to Pakistan to act in a film there. She was invited by the film’s producer, who was also an uncle of hers, Sheikh Latif. The film was called Anokhi (1956) and it was a remake of the Hollywood film, The Fabulous Señorita (1952), starring the effervescent Cuban actress, Estelita Rodriguez. In The Fabulous Señorita, Rodriguez impersonates her sister while covering for her and then has to continue playing both the sisters, herself and ‘an identical twin’, till everything gets sorted out in the end much to everyone’s satisfaction. The film had already been remade in India as Albeli (1955) with the inimitable Geeta Bali taking on the Rodriguez role. However, Anokhi, which released in Pakistan on January 21, 1956, proved to be a disappointment both critically and financially. It’s only saving grace was that a couple of songs, Gaadi Ko Chalana Babu and Deep Bhuje did become popular in their time. With the lukewarm response to the film, this ‘Lollywood’ attempt remained a one-off outing for Ramani in Pakistani cinema.
One actor with whom Ramani co-starred frequently was P Jairaj. Their films include Sultana Daku (1956), Mumtaz Mahal (1957), and two films by B-filmmaker Manmohan Sabir – Bhagwan Aur Shaitan (1959) and Return of Mr. Superman (1960). The last is a tacky, tacky telling of the tale of how the ‘man of steel’ came to be and his exploits. The film, with woeful production values, sees Ramani play ‘Lois Lane’ to Jairaj’s ‘Superman’ and if nothing else, at least treats us to shots of Ramani in shorts on the beach in the Dekh O Babu Dekh picnic song.
Meanwhile, after Railway Platform, Ramani played a princess again, who falls for a monk and devotee of Buddha, Bhikshu Anand (Chetan Anand) and takes solace in the teachings of the Buddha through him. The film was Arpan/Anjali (1957), labelled by Anand as ‘an ancient Buddhist tale’ in the film’s credits. There seems to be some confusion of the film’s title as it has always been referred to as Anjali even by Anand himself in an article he wrote on the making of the film. But the title in the print of the film says Arpan. It was her fourth and final film with Chetan Anand following Taxi Driver, Joru Ka Bhai (1955) – which introduced Vijay Anand in a lead role and Jaidev as an independent composer – and Funtoosh. She is okay enough in the film but the attention yet again goes to how eye-catching and alluring she looks in the period costumes, designed by MS Sathyu, rather than her performance.
Ramani then returned to her roots, playing the female lead in post-Independent India’s first ever film in the Sindhi language, Abana (1958). Today, the film, with some fine music composed by Bulo C Rani, is remembered more for ’60s star Sadhana’s first appearance on the silver screen, playing Ramani younger sister.
Ramani’s last few films were undistinguished and were largely B-films like Jungle King (1959) and the much, much delayed Awara Ladki (1967), where she starred opposite Sudesh Kumar, besides the already mentioned Bhagwan Aur Shaitan and Return of Mr. Superman. She also played a supporting role in the Lekhraj Bhakri directed Manoj Kumar-Ameeta starrer, Ma Beta (1962).
Ramani got married to industrialist Jal Cowasji in 1963 and gave up working in the film industry. The couple had two sons, Rahul and Zal. Among the few people she kept in touch with from the film industry thereafter was her Taxi Driver co-star, Kalpana Kartik. After her husband’s death in 1981, Ramani migrated to Australia sometime later in the decade. Health issues saw her returning to India in the new millennium and she spent the last few years of her life in the hill station of Mhow in Madhya Pradesh, bed ridden and wheelchair bound, and was even said to be battling Alzheimer’s disease.
Sheila Ramani died in Mhow on July 15, 2015. Even today, the mere mention of her name immediately brings to mind Taxi Driver and Sylvie singing “Ae Meri Zindagi, Aaj Raat Jhoomle, Asmaan Ko Choom Le…”
A beautiful piece rich with unknown facets of a long forgotten actor who almost became a star. Loved it.
Wonderful to read the first detailed piece I’ve come across on my grandmother’s career. Very grateful!
Thanks for your feedback and kind words.
She set the “Screen on Fire” in Taxi Driver.. a film I saw numerous times solely because of her screen presence. She was much ahead of her time.
Sheila visited my family in Denmark as I was a boy. She was mensioned in Danish newspapers. I remember her as a kind and very beautyfull lady. My father had indian friends through his work in flight industry.
Oh wow! This is fantastic. Thanks for the information.