SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 22 JULY, 2021
There are actors who are extremely talented, very successful and also the winner of top awards with acting assignments from across the map. But they really do not know how to “sell” themselves through public relations people or through the media. Without which, it is not easy to even survive in a fragile and narcissistic field like the film industry. One among them is Surekha Sikri, an actress par excellence, who passed away of a cardiac arrest in Mumbai a few days ago.
The Dadisa of Balika Vadhu is no more. She played this very popular role of the grandmother from beginning to end for eight long years. But her tryst with acting began neither with the large screen nor with the small one. It began with the stage many years ago when, as a young woman, she filled up the form distributed by the National School of Drama that brought King Lear for a performance in Aligarh where she was doing college.
A career on stage or in films or television did not hold interest for her. She wanted to become a writer. It was her sister who wished to become an actor and the form was for her to fill. But she changed her mind and Surekha-ji was persuaded by her mother to fill the form and try her luck at the NSD. She appeared for the test, cleared it and left for Delhi.
Her father was in the Air Force and her mother was a teacher. So, the family, even in those days, were progressive enough not to get in the way of their daughters’ choice of career. Some of her childhood she had spent in Almora and Nainital but did her college from Aligarh. In 1968, she joined NSD in Delhi under the directorship of Ibrahim Alkazi who was a strict disciplinarian and a very hard taskmaster.
But, according to Sikri herself, he was also a fine human being who imparted the right values to his students like remaining committed to whatever they were doing, to do it with honesty, hard work and discipline. “These are values that would stand the test of time in our lives later on,” she once said in an interview.
“My first play was a Greek tragedy, The Trojan Women, and I played the ‘Helen of Troy.' We had distinguished names in the same batch, like Manohar Singh, Om Puri, Raghubir Yadav,” she had said. “That is how my career was decided but I am very happy with what happened by chance. Acting helped me open up because I was an extremely shy person. You need to have the courage to expose yourself,” she said in an interview.
She took up the job of an actor in the NSD Repertory Theatre and remained there for more than a decade. Then, in 1978, she did her first feature film Kissa Kursi Kaa which turned out to be a very controversial film and not a single print of the film remains today. She then moved on to Bombay.
Her first film in Mumbai was Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s Saleem Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989) in which she portrayed the mother of the protagonist Saleem played by Pavan Malhotra. The film won two National Awards the following year. The offshoot of this film was that since she portrayed the mother of a young man when she was only 36, she was slotted mainly into senior roles. Though they did justice to her talent, the limiting opportunities did not explore her tremendous talent and versatility as an actress. And she was too self-respecting and dignified to go looking for roles.
Among the films that followed were Shyam Benegal’s Mammo, Sardari Begum, Zubeida and Hari Bhari, all characters of middle-aged women. She also worked in Sarfarosh starring Amir Khan, Rituparno Ghosh’s Hindi film Raincoat produced by Ajay Devgun and Aparna Sen’s Mr.& Mrs. Iyer. “But my work on the big screen has been sporadic. It was in bits and pieces, a small role here, and a small role there. I haven’t done many movies. I could have done something much better but it didn’t happen due to certain misunderstandings. Also, I am very bad at networking, and kind of stay away from people,” she said.
Mammo fetched her the second of the three National Awards for Best Supporting Actress in which she plays the older of two sisters who cannot get over the grief of losing her only daughter to an air crash when the girl was only nineteen. The first National Award came with Govind Nihalani’s Tamas, (1988) and her final National Award for Best Supporting Actress came with her performance of the old mother-in-law of Neena Gupta in Badhai Ho.
She went to receive the award on a wheelchair because she had just had a brain stroke and with one side of her body paralysed, she was in bad shape but did not lament about her health. Her other accolades include a Filmfare award, a Screen award and six Indian Television Academy awards besides the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1989.
Blogger Fatema Kagalwalla writes: “Powerhouse is the word for her. Inimitable, incomparable. I am glad you brought in Meryl Streep, Surekha Sikri had everything to become ours, but we don't want a Streep or Sikri. We want only dabanngs. 56-inches, on and off screen, both. I hope she is teaching a thing or two about performance art to the powers that be up there.”
When asked why she never stepped on stage after she came to Bombay, she said that she had a strong feeling that the theatre circle in Bombay was kind of a closed world and they probably did not want “outsiders” like herself and she did not have the wish to persuade them. She was too proud to do that. So, the theatre audience never saw her perform on stage.
On television, she did Banegi Apni Baat (1994-98), followed by Just Mohabbat (1996-2000), and both were successful shows. But many years later, it was Dadisa in Balika Vadhu (2008-16) that made her a household name for almost eight years.
Filmmaker Rakesh Sharma says, “During my college years in Delhi, in the early 1980s, I saw her on stage, in productions by NSD repertory, that had senior actors who had graduated years ago and recent alumni. She was mesmerising, literally a force on stage that you couldn’t take your eyes away from. It is tragic that Indian cinema couldn’t find the space to showcase her matchless talent and skills.”
Her last screen appearance was in the first story from Ghost Stories for an OTT platform directed by Zoya Akhtar in which she acted wit Jhanvi Kapoor and praised both director and actress for their work. She was quite sick then and had to play an old woman very sick and bedridden while Jhanvi plays her professional caregiver.
She married quite late in life to the Maharashtrian academic Hemant Rege who taught her the beauties of Maharashtrian food specially fish. But Rege passed away in 2009. The couple have a son who is a self-taught artist.