She was the impish girl in dungarees in Aar Paar (1954) and the qawwali singer in Barsaat ki Raat (1960). She had no problems playing the parallel heroine and more than held up her end with actresses like Meena Kumari and Madhubala. With her winning smile, Shyama was one of the best known faces of the 1950s and with her passing on Tuesday at the age of 82, another link with the golden era of Hindi cinema has ended.
Born Khurshid Akhtar in Lahore in 1935, Shyama began her film journey when she faced the camera as a pre-teen as part of the qawwali back up players in the Noor Jehan starrer Zeenat (1945). She then went on to play younger sister/sister-in-law roles in various films before getting more important roles by 1949-50 and breaking through in the early ’50s.
Though she never really got her due, at her peak, Shyama was perhaps the busiest actress of the decade playing different roles ranging from the heroine in mostly B films to second leads and even negative characters in the A-list ones, working with every actor or actress worth their salt.
With her gorgeous looks and talent, she was in great demand. It was Aar Paar, where she played the garage owner’s daughter who falls in love with the taxi driver Guru Dutt, that made her a bankable star.
Some of her well known films of the time are Zia Sarhady’s Hum Log (1951), Bimal Roy’s Maa (1952), Guru Dutt’s Aar Paar, M.V. Raman’s Bhai Bhai (1956), L.V. Prasad’s Sharada (1957) – for which she won the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress – Bhabhi (1957), Chhoti Bahen (1959) also directed by Prasad, Do Behnen (1959) playing the double role of the good and bad sister, P.L. Santoshi’s Barsaat Ki Raat (1960), Zabak (1961) and Bahurani (1963). She teamed up with Johnny Walker in many comedy films centred around the actor.
In the mid 1960s, she shifted to doing character roles, ending her acting career of well over 200 films with J.P. Dutta’s Hathyar (1989).
I was lucky to meet Shyama thrice, nine years ago, as part of researching a project on Guru Dutt. Straight off, Shyama recalled her admiration for Noor Jehan and how happy she was being part of the qawwali in Zeenat, starring the singing star. She recalled the highlight of her trip to Pakistan in the 1960s where she met the ‘Mallika-e-Tarannum’ (as Noor Jehan was called), showing off the photograph of her and the melody queen together at a function.
She was all praise for Guru Dutt’s handling of actors in Aar Paar and among other things, she spoke about her deep friendship with fellow actress Nirupa Roy. But she also admitted that after the death of her husband, the well known cinematographer-director Fali Mistry, whom she married in 1953, and with whom she has three children – one of whom, Faroukh, is also a cinematographer – she did feel lonely at times with all of them leading their own lives. She spoke about the fun she had accompanying Mistry, who passed away in 1979, to Nepal when he was filming Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971) for Dev Anand. And talking of Dev Saab, she naughtily added that when she got a copy of his autobiography, she first went to the pages to read what he had written about his love story with Suraiya and then immediately thereafter to what he had to say about Zeenat Aman. That sense of humour that reflected in her face was very visible till her final years.
Shyama has been filmed in some wonderful songs. An early song where Shyama first made an impact is the second version of the main love duet, ‘Tu Mera Chand Main Teri Chandni’, from A.R. Kardar’s Dillagi (1949) starring Suraiya and Shyam. The original version was filmed on the stars, but this version on Shyama voiced by Geeta Dutt is less known.
Dillagi – ‘Tu Mera Chand’
By the early 1950s, in both Sazaa (1951) and Tarana (1951), Shyama found herself in strong supporting roles but as the one who loses heroes Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar to Nimmi and Madhubala respectively. Sazaa was directed by Shyama’s future husband, Fali Mistry, while Tarana, directed by Ram Darayani, is an out and out Madhubala show. Nevertheless, Shyama makes an understated but strong impact as the third point of the triangle as the woman who loves Dilip Kumar selflessly and is willing to marry him even though he tells he can never love her. The film, with music by Anil Biswas, has a lovely all female duet sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Sandhya Mukherjee (on Shyama) as both women declare their love for Dilip Kumar.
Tarana – ‘Bol Papihe Bol Re’
Talk of Shyama, and the first image of her that would probably come to mind to most old-timers, is her being dressed in dungarees and plaits, being wooed by Guru Dutt in the crime-thriller Aar Paar. In the film, Shyama plays Nikki, a Punjabi garage owner’s daughter romanced by ex-convict and taxi driver Kalu, enacted by Dutt. Her character is said to based on a girl that Guru Dutt had loved in his Calcutta days. Shyama recalled that she was extremely busy when the offer came from Guru Dutt but relented and made time or the film when Geeta Dutt met her personally and requested her to take on the role. With his flair for song-picturisations and inherent talent as a choreographer picked up from Uday Shankar’s dance school in Almora, ‘Sun Sun Sun Zalima’ is beautifully filmed by Guru Dutt inside an actual garage as the two lovers play out their romance. It is one of the most charming performances of Shyama’s career.
Aar Paar – ‘Sun Sun Sun Sun Zalima’
There was magic whenever Geeta Dutt lent her voice for Shyama. This vibrant singer and exuberant actress complemented each other perfectly through several films be it Shrimatiji, Aar Paar, Musafir Khana (1955) or Chhoo Mantar (1956). But if one song truly stood out in their collaboration, it has to be the beautiful ditty from Bhai Bhai composed by Madan Mohan, Ae Dil Mujhe Bata De. Even though Shyama played a negative character, the wife of conman Om Prakash who is after the already married Ashok Kumar for his money, few could blame Kumar from being led astray when Shyama turned on the charm fully with this song.
Bhai Bhai – ‘Ae Dil Mujhe Bata De’
Shyama also made a popular team with filmmaker M. Sadiq, comedian Johnny Walker and composer O.P. Nayyar in several films – Musafir Khana, Chhoo Mantar, Mai Baap (1957), Duniya Rang Rangeeli (1957) and Johnny Walker (1957). In the last, Walker played an alcoholic who pretends to abstain from alcohol making Shyama fall in love with him. The film had two lovely duets by Asha Bhosle and Geeta Dutt, filmed on Sheila Vaz and Shyama including the fabulous Thandi Thandi Hawa. Asha Bhosle, by now becoming Nayyar’s main singer, lends her voice for heroine Shyama, while Geeta Dutt sings for Vaz.
Johnny Walker – ‘Thandi Thandi Hawa’
One of the big successes of Shyama’s career was Barsaat Ki Raat, directed by P.L. Santoshi. From being just another face in the qawwali in Zeenat, Shyama gives a great peformance as a full fledged qawwali artiste in this love triangle where she ultimately loses the hero, Bharat Bhushan, to the leading lady of the film, Madhubala. Barsaat Ki Raat is deservedly known for some of the best qawwalis ever composed on the Indian screen by music director Roshan.
Barsaat Ki Raat – ‘Nigahe Naaz Ke’
Besides her Hindi films, Shyama also played the lead in some Punjabi films including two of the early hits of Punjabi cinema in post-Independent India, Posti (1951) and Koday Shah (1953). Posti, directed by K.D. Mehra, saw Amarnath, Manorama, Randhir and Majnu co-starring with Shyama, while Koday Shah, helmed by S.P. Bakshi, saw Daljit being introduced opposite her in the film. Both films had extremely popular soundtracks composed by Sardul Kwatra, who also composed music for the Shammi Kapoor-Shyama starrer Mirza Sahiban (1957) where Shyama reprised her idol, Noor Jehan’s role of the tragic Sahiban. Interestingly, in a role reversal, Noor Jehan, herself, would play Shyama’s role in the Pakistani remake of Chhoo Mantar.
Koday Shah – ‘Chad De Tu Mera Dupatta’
Karan Bali is a filmmaker based in Mumbai who is also the co-founder of Upperstall.com, a website on cinema of the sub-continent.