RIP Shammi, The Most Lovable Old Auntie

This was a thing to wake up to!  And I had just mentioned her in a Sridevi post as someone who was still hale and healthy and going strong.  Now I am worried about accidentally cursing her!  Although she would probably forgive me, she seemed like someone who would just laugh off any problem or insult and keep going her own way.

Shammi was a fascinating actress, and a fascinating woman, because she always succeeded when she took the slightly off the straight and narrow path.  Even when the regular path was offered to her.  Her life never quite went the way it was “supposed” to, and yet it made her happy for 88 years.  I don’t know about you, but I struggle with those “supposed to” decisions a lot, especially as a woman since we have a little extra pressure of “supposed to”, and it’s inspiring for me to look at Shammi and see how she just went where the wind took her and enjoyed herself where ever it was.

Shammi’s life was “supposed” to move forward in a respectable manner with no film involvement.  Her father was a Parsi priest, the family lived in a nice Parsi apartment block, she could have/would have married a nice Parsi man.  But then her father died.  And the family needed money.  So instead, Shammi went to work, at first at a medicine factory, and then a friend of a friend from there introduced her to a director who suggested she might be able to find work in film.

Shammi wasn’t the kind of woman who should have been an actress.  She wasn’t from a performing family, she wasn’t living in poverty, she didn’t have low origins, she had other “respectable” options, but the pay from film was a lot better than the pay from the respectable job, so she went with it.

Shammi also wasn’t supposed to work in Hindi film, because she was a Parsi.  She talked about how in her first meeting with the director, he was nervous she wouldn’t be fluent enough in Hindi, so she conducted the rest of the conversation in Hindi to prove her abilities.  This is the era when Dilip Kumar and Prem Chopra got their start, largely because they could recite gorgeous Urdu poetry.  A main qualification for acting in Hindi cinema was advanced language skills, of the kind a Bombaiker Parsi girl wasn’t “supposed” to have.

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So Shammi went to work.  At first as the second lead, soon as the heroine.  And she made enough money to move her mother and sisters into a nice house in the recently developed area of Bandra.  The left the Parsi housing complex for the (unofficial) filmi housing complex, Bandra back then wasn’t an fancy exclusive suburb, it was just the most practical and pleasant place to live it your job was at the movie studios, it was filled with filmi types like Shammi, new money who wanted to build a nice house for their family.

Shammi’s career took a turn with the film Sangdil when she was 23.  She had been playing heroine or second heroine roles, and conventional wisdom would say that she “should” have held out for another chance at a lead role.  All actors go through these lean periods, even the biggest stars have stories of times when they suffered and waited for that next script.  But Shammi didn’t do that, she didn’t wait.  Instead, she just changed plans and went with the flow and cheerfully became a character actress, a comic actress, whatever was offered her.

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At age 40, she started being offered mother roles.  Most actresses accept that, move with the times.  But not Shammi.  She didn’t want to be a mother, not on film at least, so 20 years after it was “supposed” to happen, Shammi got married.  To an up and coming director.  When an actress marries a director, he is “supposed” to be the more powerful one in the marriage, even Meena Kumari who was much more successful than her husband, bowed to his wisdom and connections after marriage.  But not Shammi.  She bought them a house, and she arranged for her old friends to give her husband work, she coordinated his career and he just followed along.

It was late in life, and had an odd start, but it looked like Shammi was finally doing what she “should” be doing.  Married to a nice man, staying home and supporting his career.  Only the “supposed to” life had never worked for Shammi, and it didn’t work this time either.  After 8 years, she left her husband and moved back into her family home in Bandra with her mother and sisters.  And she didn’t take anything out of the marriage, she left him with the house and the car and everything else and cheerfully started fresh.  Within 8 days of leaving her husband, she was back at work on a film set, playing a small part in a very large movie, The Burning Train and happy to be working again.

Shammi had never lost touch with her film friends, and she was friends with everyone.  Even Rajesh Khanna, famously difficult, loved Shammi.  Nargis Dutt considered her one of her closest friends.  Asha Parekh, Waheeda Rahman, Helen, and Shammi were a tight tight quartet until, well, now!  I think she must have been that friend you went to when everything seemed horrible, and she made you laugh at your problems and made them seem small again.  That’s a great friend to have.

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Shammi returned to acting after 8 years away at age 51, and picked up like she never left.  She worked constantly.  And even decided to try producing, because why not?  Her first film was a disaster (Rajesh Khanna had a hissy fit and walked out, Shashi Kapoor stepped in last minute the second she asked because Shashi was The Best Kapoor), so she washed her hands of that and went back to acting.

Shammi acted in films, in TV serials, in anything that was offered her.  She kept working regularly until she was 73 years old and the offers dried up.  She was just there, on set, smiling, all the time.  And there onscreen too.  She was one of those actresses you might not even be able to name, but she would show up, and you would start smiling.  She felt like your grandmother’s best friend, the old lady who always joked with you and patted you with her soft old lady hands.

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(Look, even Amitabh is smiling when he sees her!  And Nargis is laughing out loud.  That’s the best kind of friend to have)

And I think that’s what she was for the film industry too.  She felt like someone who would just always be there, with us, smiling.  Sridevi’s death was a strange experience for the film industry of mourning both as a fan and as a friend.  I think, in this case, it is going to be experiencing the death of a woman who was your friend, who was always the same onscreen or off, who was, above all, herself.

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7 thoughts on “RIP Shammi, The Most Lovable Old Auntie

    • Oh, that’s a lovely detail! And yes, Shammi seems like the perfect friend to understand it had to be done, to not shrink from the task, and to do it in the nicest kindest happiest way possible. I understand she was also very protective and kind towards Nanda, they all were, Nanda was apparently a very fragile and naive kind of soul and Shammi and Waheedaji and Asha took her in hand and protected her from teenage years until she died a few years back.

      On Tue, Mar 6, 2018 at 6:51 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  1. The real story in terms of how the industry worked back then is how consistently these smaller character actors got work. Even if it were small 5 minute screentime roles, there was recognition and respect for them and of course steady pay which made the profession respectable.

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    • Which goes back to a whole thing about the fewer films being made in Hindi cinema now, the turn towards “professionals” (meaning young very upper class types who have certificates or degrees), and the lack of hardworking people who look at working in film as a job, not a fantasy fun artistic fulfillment.

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