BOMBAY TIMES EXCLUSIVE
Actress Richa Chadha will portray the role of the popular 90s South adult actor Shakeela, in her upcoming Bollywood biopic, to be directed by Indrajit Lankesh. The film hopes to showcase the tumultuous life of the 41-year-old siren, who was among the highest paid actresses in the South film industry, at one point. Known for her work in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada films, her biopic intends to explore her world beyond her stardom and erotic image. BT caught up with Richa and Shakeela in Bengaluru to capture their first interaction, as Richa gears up to take on this challenging role. Well-versed in several languages, including Urdu and English, Shakeela exudes childlike innocence and candour while sharing her controversial past and what lies ahead for her. In a heartfelt conversation, the two actresses share their views on topics like exploitation of women, politics in cinema and the film industry’s tendency of taming biopics. Excerpts…
Shakeela, you come across as shy and reserved. It’s generally hard for people to believe that someone who has had a bold image on screen, can be an introvert.
I am very shy. What I did (adult films) was my job. I don’t even like to step out without my dupatta or wear cleavage-revealing dresses. Shooting ke time, when the camera rolled, I would drop my pallu and right after the scene was shot, I would pin it up.
Richa, have you seen Shakeela’s films? Were you taken aback by the contrast between her reel persona and real self?
That’s the persona. Michael Jackson was also a shy person. Sridevi was also a tad reserved and soft-spoken in person, but she transformed on screen. Even I am socially awkward, but I am comfortable on camera, which is why people feel
that I am bold. That’s our alternate personality I guess.
Tell us a bit about your family, Shakeela.
We belonged to a lower middle-class family. I was born in Chennai and had seven siblings. At 23, my father passed away. He cared for me and was a simple guy, who didn’t know what I did in films. Today, I am on talking terms only with my brother Salim. I don’t talk to my elder sister (Noorjahan) anymore. The rest of them are no more.
In your autobiography, you have written about your tragic past. The sexual exploitation that you faced and how your mother allowed all of it to happen. You didn’t choose the life you led and yet you don’t have any regrets. That’s rare.
Shakeela: What else could I have done? I didn’t have a choice so I wasn’t bothered about people judging me. I took life as it came. Jo kaam mila, main karti gayi. My mom lived with me till the time she died. Why did she make me do the things I did? She said that she had many kids. ‘Sabko paal posna hai. Maine socha tu kardegi’. When you say (mummy ne) push kiya, push kiya…, ek hi cheez mein toh push kiya (her book reveals that her mother pushed her into prostitution before entering films for the sake of money). At 17 I did what you mentioned without my knowledge, but getting into films was my own interest. Mummy didn’t push me into doing adult films. She just told me, ‘You can’t reject every movie coming your way’. So, I accepted movies. I was 18, when I worked with Silk Smitha in Play Girls (1995) and then did Kinnara Thumbikal (2000) that turned out to be a huge hit.
Speaking of adult films, were there huge discrepancies in what was shot and what was eventually shown on screen?
Shakeela: That was the problem. They used to narrate the story to me, jisme ek fantasy scene (one love scene) hota hai. Rest of the film was like a normal shoot jahan pe glycerine aur rona dhona hota tha. What happens eventually is yeh rone dhone ka scene nikal jata hai, sirf fantasy scene rakhte hai, because that scene eventually becomes popular. Mujhe maloom bhi nahi tha ki body double (actors who filled in for stars unwilling to go completely nude) use ho raha hai. After six months, I got to know that another woman has been used as my body double. I spent most of my time in Chennai and the movie theaters were so crowded there that I couldn’t go and watch my movies. I didn’t even know what was being shown in the theaters. All I knew was that filmmakers wanted my facial expressions. I didn’t have a say in what they eventually showed or to what extent they showed it.
Didn’t you feel exploited at that point?
Richa (cuts in): But then everything is exploitation. If I am doing a big Hindi film and somebody zooms in the camera on my chest or butt, even that is exploitation.
People feel no shame in watching adult films, but adult film actors are often slut-shamed or labelled by society at large. That clearly shows hypocrisy.
Shakeela: Agar log humari films nahi dekhte, toh hum star kaise bantey? But yes, stereotyping happens. I played a nun in a film and it’s been stuck for 15 years as people won’t let it release. How can Shakeela be a nun? My image was an issue. Initially, I told the producer not to take the risk of casting me, but he went ahead with it. The film has still not released.
Richa: That is the hypocrisy of our society. You take something that’s beautiful and innocent, use it, objectify it, exploit it and then judge it. What does that say about you?
Shakeela, you’ve written in your book that for most people you were nothing more than an object of desire. Nobody cared to explore the actress in you or understand you as a person. Given your image, were filmmakers apprehensive to cast you in roles that catered to a family audience?
Shakeela: There was a time when I didn’t get work for two-three years. I was told if we cast you in our films, then it will become a blue film. I heard this for a while, and then finally Teja sir (filmmaker) called me for Jayam, (a mainstream Telugu film in 2002) which opened doors for me in the Kannada film industry once again. I played supporting roles in many mainstream films.
Richa Chadha will be playing your role in your biopic. Did you have any reservations about how you will be portrayed?
Shakeela: Humari soch kaafi similar hai. I am not talking about physical similarities, but our way of thinking. Richa is equally courageous and a free-thinking person. She has the ability to understand the layers in the script. Also, maine koi restrictions nahi daala hai. In fact, I have shared everything that has happened in my life with them. Whatever needs to be told should be told. Reality ko chupake, biopic banaane ka kya matlab hai?
Richa: I am not going to put on weight to play Shakeela, as I feel that aspect is quite superficial. The film is about one woman standing up for herself in a male-dominated society and being targeted for being successful. It doesn’t really dwell upon her films per se but the ups and downs in her life. I wanted to meet her because I wanted her to trust me. When an actor plays a real person, there’s a huge responsibility, as we represent that person. Also, Shakeela never did porn films. She did adult films which were censored and passed with an ‘A’ certificate. She didn’t indulge in nudity, there was always a body double. People were so crazy about her, that inke close-ups pe hi films chal jaati thi.
Shakeela, has the thought of marriage crossed your mind?
There was a time when I wanted to get married and have children, but my mother didn’t want that for me. I was busy working and she feared that the source of income would stop, so she rejected every guy that I brought home. The men I dated trusted me and believed in me. I don’t want to get married now. I have always been in a relationship since I was 14 or 15, so now I want to enjoy my single life.
Your mother dissuaded you from settling down. Didn’t you hold that against her?
Richa: Shakeela is an angel, especially for her family. She supported her parents, siblings. Who does all this today? People disown their parents. Sadak pe chodd dete hai. She took care of her siblings’ education in whatever capacity that she could. It’s a very selfless thing to do. Her perspective in life has always been… ke let me sacrifice my happiness for them. That’s the kind of compassion I want to bring across on screen, and also show the viewers that somewhere, she is very spiritual. She knows ke maine kuch galat nahi kiya hai, so God is with me.
Shakeela, there was a time when your films were unofficially banned in theaters as they were labelled as indecent and inappropriate. At one point, you were also one of the highest paid actors in the South film industry.
On record, I was told that my films were not getting censor clearance, so they were stuck. However, I knew the real reason. Big projects which released along with my films were not doing well, so they banned my films, citing these censor excuses. Every Friday it was getting tough for (mainstream) filmmakers to get a theater for their movies, while my films did well. I knew this. Banning my films was more of a business decision, than a moral one.
Looking back, do you feel that you could have done more mainstream films, if you had the opportunity?
Shakeela: Sabko yeh bedroom fantasy scenes karna nahi aata. You have to think about how you will climax and show it on camera, without feeling inhibited. Not everybody can do it or come up with the right expressions. Doing fantasy scenes differently in over 100 movies is not easy for an actor.
What has been your life’s biggest learning and what is that one dream that you hope to fulfil?
Shakeela: My whole life has been a challenge but I have learnt one thing — not to trust anyone, even your family. What’s my dream as an actor? I hope I get to work with Kamal Haasan sir someday. I look up to him as he’s my favourite actor.
Did you ever try to make a foray into Hindi cinema?
I didn’t but I was offered Chennai Express (2013). I never met Rohit Shetty or Shah Rukh Khan but I was told that I will be paid `20,000 a day. They wanted me to play one of the Tamil characters alongside Sathyaraj (who played Deepika Padukone’s dad in the film). They even asked me to come for an audition, saying that even Sathyaraj will be there. They came home to offer me the role, but itna bada film banaate hai aur bees hazaar din ka dete hai? Mujhe bura laga so I
didn’t do it.
Having worked in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada films for over two decades, do you consciously stay away from the limelight now?
Shakeela: I am an open book. I speak from my heart. I stay away from the limelight because I need to do something to talk about myself. Why would people want to know about how I woke up, what I had for breakfast and all that sh**? I prefer to spend my time on gaming consoles or playing games on my mobile. I also like watching Hollywood creature films.