Paromita Vohra: The girl who always had fun
I watched a lot of old Hindi films as a child thanks to Doordarshan's Sunday movies
Illustration/ Ravi Jadhav
I watched a lot of old Hindi films as a child thanks to Doordarshan's Sunday movies. While these always had a hero and a heroine, their true entertainment came from the songs and a rambunctious cast played by what were called character actors.
Many performed variations of the same character type in movie after movie. Ifthikar was frequently a police inspector (the film Jewel Thief played cleverly with this audience expectation). Keshtho Mukherjee came on for an obligatory drunk scene. Leela Misra as traditional, rural mother, mother-in-law or mausi, was sometimes funny, sometimes mean. Om Prakash was often a hen-pecked and ineffectual but sweet dad. And there was Shammi, who passed away at the age of 89 last week.
Shammi confused me for many reasons. There was her name. The only Shammi I knew of was Shammi Kapoor. How could a woman have the same name as a man, I would wonder, not yet exposed to the world of the unisex name - Iqbal, Shashi, Vineet, Vipin, Constance - I encountered later. Then there was her age, which was different in different movies. Since her career spanned several decades, she would appear sometimes as a perky young woman, in short kameezes or pedal pushers, sometimes as an older lady in sleeveless blouses and comfortably soft upper arms.
As if living up to her gender-fluid name Shammi embodied a gloriously uncategorisable energy. Unlike the traditional femininity of the main leads, she was funny but, also, often seen having fun. See her in the song Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh, where she sings in the chorus with such sincere merriness it makes you laugh out loud; see her dance with nimble abandon, after having apparently molested Kishore Kumar's backside (no lie) in Half-Ticket. She was a goofball with frequent expressions of comic confusion or surprise, but most of all she had an air of enjoyment which was infectious and comradely; a feeling put into words for me much later by Cyndi Lauper's song, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. Shammi often played a friend or sister of the heroine, maybe an aunt or mom. She didn't always have a romantic track, so her presence in the movie was not primarily in relation to a man. She seemed angst-free and liberated.
Her off-screen life too seemed to reveal this spirit. Reading an interview of hers once, I was fascinated by how the two strongest relationships in her life were work and friendship. She spoke of being a family breadwinner, taking whatever work came to her, and outings, travels and conversations with friends from Nargis to Asha Parekh and Waheeda Rahman.
How wonderful it seems now to think that such a figure existed on screen, providing us an optional way of being. Not only in her light-hearted androgyny, but the fact that she aged before us — as if telling a non-morality tale. Unconventional girls don't come to a bad and bitter end, but grow old quite cheerfully. Such a life is indeed possible.
Though older films had their formulae and terrible stereotypes, they did also have a capaciousness from different kinds of bodies and body language, accents, contexts and trajectories, represented in the character actor. Yes they were not the centre, but thankfully, no law prevented our eyes from straying to those margins, and letting our hearts and lives follow.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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