Dear Shammi: Asha Parekh and Waheeda Rehman remember late actress

Mar 11, 2018, 08:45 IST | Dinesh Raheja

Friends Asha Parekh and Waheeda Rehman share memories of their friend Nargis Rabadi, known best to India as Shammiji

Shammiji (left) with Meena Kumari in Azad (1955). Pic/Kamat Foto Flash
Shammiji (left) with Meena Kumari in Azad (1955). Pic/Kamat Foto Flash

Most people remember Nargis Rabadi, better known as Shammi, who passed away on March 5, as a talented comedienne whose open face and maternal mannerisms instantly endeared her to the audience. But few would recall her as a romantic lead - Dilip Kumar serenaded the then-elfin Shammi with the Talat Mahmood number Yeh Hawa Yeh Raat Yeh Chaandni in Sangdil (1952) and she traipsed nimbly through the popular song Bade Armanon Se Rakha Hai Balam in Malhar (1951).

Shammi with friends Salim Khan and Asha Parekh
Shammi with friends Salim Khan and Asha Parekh

Shammi's career straddled six decades and her cache of cameos is impressive: She was rich girl Nanda's chirpy chaperone in Jab Jab Phool Khile, the nosy neighbour in Ittefaq and Saira Banu's westernised mother in Purab Aur Paschim. She was also recognised as an actor of mettle for her award-winning performance in Samaj Ko Badal Dalo. But there was more to Shammi than what was seen on screen. Two of her closest friends, actors Asha Parekh and Waheeda Rehman, give us an intimate glimpse into her life.

Asha Parekh: 'She was gutsy and independent'
I was close friends with Shammiji for more than 50 years; she was like family to me. We struck an instant friendship from the time we first met... on a plane! In 1961, I was flying to Chennai to shoot for Gharana, and Shammiji was headed to the same city to dub for a film. My leading man Rajendra Kumar knew Shammi very well, and he introduced us on the flight. She was a happy-go-lucky person, always ready to share a good laugh; and we hit it off. Our friendship endured through the decades and, later in life, we also became business partners and made a couple of TV serials together. She was my fellow traveller - together we have extensively toured the US, England, Singapore etc.

As an actor, I worked with her only sporadically - in Manoj Kumar's Upkar (1967) and Mohan Segal's Saajan (1970). We also shared screen space in the Gujarati film, Akhand Saubhagyavati (1963). But since we had a common friend in Nargis Dutt, we would meet often in the early days of our friendship too. Shammiji was friends with many actresses; she was also very close to Jayaji. During Amitabh Bachchan's stay at Breach Candy hospital, Shammiji practically lived with Jayaji at the hospital.

After her marriage to Sultan Ahmed, Shammi requested me to play the leading lady in her husband's first venture as a director, Heera (1973). I agreed and the film, co-starring Sunil Dutt, went on to become a hit. When she divorced Ahmed, she left his home in a single sari. She lived by herself in her mother's house in Bandra. Her friends stood by her side but she was a gutsy and independent woman who could take challenges in her stride. If I were to describe her in one word, it would be 'noble.'

Her life was like an open book, and I too confided in her a lot. She was an emotional support and also great fun to be with. Not too long back, I recall Shammiji and I went to see a film with some friends on Independence Day. Unfortunately, it was a bad film and since we were in a crazy mood that day, we ended up giggling continuously at what was unfolding onscreen. At first, we were a group of six friends who met regularly - Waheeda Rehman, Sadhana, Nanda, Helen, Shammiji and I. Today, Sadhana, Nanda and Shammiji are no more; and now we are only three. I guess this is life.

Waheeda Rehman: 'She was a voracious reader'
Shammiji was known as a comedienne, and she was drawn to comic roles in films and TV serials like Dekh Bhai Dekh, because her real-life personality was so funny... She was full of life. I knew Shammiji well for 55 years. I can't recall our first meeting after all these years; but what I do remember is that she was very friendly with Johnny Walker, and those days I would shoot a lot with Johnny for Guru Dutt's films and for other films too. Later, when I was shooting in Rajasthan for Reshma Aur Shera (1971), my leading man, Sunil Dutt's wife Nargis had come to visit the sets... Shammiji had accompanied her as she was very friendly to Nargisji.

Shammiji got along with most people, and was always there for everyone on sad and happy occasions. She was very close to Asha (Parekh) too, and was like a mother to Asha after the latter's mother passed away. Over the years, Shammiji became a regular visitor to my house too. We shared a common love for books; we're both voracious readers. And she loved my children. Not that I ever had reason to contact her in an emergency, but I knew that I could call her at midnight if I were in distress and she would rush to my aid.

I didn't know Shammiji so well as a fellow actor because we rarely worked together. She was signed for Aadmi, in which I acted alongside Dilip Kumar and Manoj Kumar, but for reasons best known to her, she dropped out after doing two days' work. When I was in Iran, shooting for an Indo-Irani production, Subha-o-Sham (1972), she sent me a telegram stating that she had married Sultan Ahmed. When I came back, I threw a party for her.

My last two meetings with Shammiji were at her residence and at a Juhu hospital; and both were not in very happy circumstances. When my daughter Kaashvi and I dropped in at her home recently, her eyes were not open and she was murmuring something inaudible. I tried to catch her attention and said, 'Shammi, I am Waheeda.' My daughter added, 'Aunty, I am Kaashvi.' I don't know whether she was able to place us but she suddenly uttered, 'Khaana khake jaana, khaana khake jaana.' Imagine, even in that state she was concerned about others! Believe it or not, whatever her financial situation may have been, she never came empty-handed to my house. She would either bring a book or some sweets.

I wanted her to accompany me to Bhutan for my son Sohail's marriage. I told her, 'Aapke favourite bachche ki shaadi ho rahee hai' but she couldn't comprehend that I was trying to invite her. I realised with a heavy heart that it was futile to insist with her. She was a lively and noble soul. I am so happy, unki kadar ho rahee hai.

Dinesh Raheja is an author and film historian

Also view: Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Asha Parekh, Dimple Kapadia at Shammi Aunty's chautha

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