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October 25, 1997


Role model

V Gangadhar

Actress with character: Shammi Click for bigger pic!
In a small ante-room of Shammi's Bandra flat, pictures of various religious personalities -- Krishna, Sai Baba, Vivekananda, Jesus Christ and so on -- jostle for space with the television set.

When a young visitor commented on this, the 66-year-old character actress observed, "I have so many gods so that I can pray to each one of them for different favours!" Shammi's powers of conviction can be gauged by the fact that he later demanded the same kind of set-up from his parents.

Quintessential Shammi for you. Besides the powers of persuasion, she makes a few hours in her company diverting and refreshing, infusing one with a sense of even dangerous optimism.

"I am happy, satisfied and busy," she explains. "I have been lucky too. Always had enough work, am treated with the respect due to a senior artiste and have made many wonderful friends." But all this satisfaction is not a purely due to good fortune, whatever she might say. She makes people like her.

Shammi was always one to give back more than what she had received from the industry, and not just when it came to roles. For over 30 years, she had been the most remarkable do-gooder of Hindi cinema. With music director C Ramachandra, and later with Sunil Dutt, she had visited the border areas in remote regions to entertain the Indian troops. She participated in numerous shows to raise funds for all shades of charity. Today, she works closely with friend actress Asha Parekh for the Cine Artistes Association which aids the less fortunate senior artistes and their families.

Time passes swiftly in her company. There were frequent telephone calls from friends. And the same day she had a dinner engagement which she was willing to delay a bit. As she chatted animatedly over the telephone, I lingered over her books, ranging from thrillers to works on philosophy, from war to politics to memoirs and movies.

There was the Yes Minister series cowering from Toland's mammoth biography of Hitler. I spotted Paul Scott, Galbraith, Michener, Roses in December by the late M C Chagla, Sarvepalli Gopal's Nehru...

"I was introduced to reading by Nargis Dutt," says Shammi. The two were inseparable friends for several years.

"We were always in close contact. Hunted for books, ate bhel puri and did so many things together." Nargis's death in May 1981 clearly left a void in Shammi's life. But, optimist that she is, she accepted that fact too. But her marriage with producer Sultan Ahmed ended in seven years at the divorce courts. "There is no use crying over it," she says.

In a career spanning 46 years, she has lost count of the movies she has acted in. Often typecast in comic roles, she was a heroine in her earlier films. 'Thank god, I emerged as a character actress," she laughs, making a grab for the silver lining as usual. "If I had remained a heroine, I would have continued to play purely ornamental roles, with the hero chasing me around trees."

When good roles began drying up, she began a new career on the small screen. She was much appreciated inDekh Bhai Dekh, Shriman Shrimati and Kabhi Yeh Kabhi Woh on Indian television channels. She was also the executive producer of serials produced by Asha Parekh on Indian music directors.

Shammi, with Meena Kumari
Shammi began life as Nargis in a family of Parsi priests. Her father died when she was only three and her mother made a living by cooking at religious functions. Both Shammi and her elder sister Mani Rabadi, the wellknown Bollywood fashion designer, worked in toy factories after school to pay their tuition fees. Past school, they worked at offices, ran a magazine and did odd jobs. Mani also worked with the Indian People Theatre Association and did some Gujarati films.

Shammi joined films at the behest of a family friend. Her family protested, but she chose to challenge convention and went ahead.

"I had not watched many movies," she says, adding, "In fact, whenever I and my sister sneaked out for a film, we were invariably caught because our clothes stank of cigarette smoke. In those days, everybody smoked inside the theatres," she explains.

Shammi was not nervous in front of the camera. Tara Harish, who directed her in Ustad Pedro was himself an actor and coached her. The Begum Para-Sheikh Mukhtar starrer was a hit, but Shammi's first release as a heroine was Malhar, produced by playback singer Mukesh. It flopped, despite some immortal music by Roshan.

The films were released in 1951-52, and the producers kept shy of her. She was out of work for several months. Things improved with Sangdil, a Dilip Kumar-Madhubala starrer based on Jane Eyre. Though the film didn't do too well -- they were too morbid for Indian audiences, says Shammi -- but she began getting roles again, opposite Mahipal, Manhar Desai and Karan Dewan. When her role with comedian Johny Walker in K Asif's Musafirkhana was a hit, she was flooded with similar roles. But she refused them, seeking variety instead. And intensity.

Some years ago, on the sets of Mahesh Bhatt's Lahu ke Do Rang, her portrayal of a drug addict stunned everyone. "Shammi aunty, are you all right?" inquired co-star Shabana Azmi after Shammi lay silent on the floor, emotionally drained.

During her career, Shammi also tried her hand at dubbing. Gemini boss S.S Vasan was so impressed with her dubbing in his Samaj ko Badal Dalo and Teen Bahuraniyan that he frequently had her flown to Madras, to dub even for minor artistes. She was sent back to Bombay in the evenings. She was closely involved in the work for two films produced by Sultan Ahmed, Heera and Ganga ki Saugandh when they were married.

Despite a busy schedule, she was aware of events beyond the make-believe world of studio sets. She was the only woman member of music director C Ramachandra's troupe which visited the border areas to entertain troops.

"The defence ministry would not permit me to go," says Shammi. Till Ramachandra argued that she could rough it out like any other man. She was also a permanent fixture with Sunil and Nargis Dutt's Ajanta Arts Troupe. But though they collected a lot of money, they did not know how to invest it and so gave it away to needy artistes. Today, her CAA has invested its money in fixed deposits and other saving schemes.

Roles never stopped coming Shammi's way. In the 1990s, as good character roles finally began drying up, Shammi found new opportunities on the small screen. She has a huge friends circle, including Nimmi, Waheeda Rehman, Nanda, Saira Banu, Shyama and Begum Para. And they have a whale of a time, gossiping on the phone and catching up together. It's a great way to get old.

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