By Ishtiaq Ahmed:
For a legend to evolve, it needs people who for some emotional and psychological reasons need to associate themselves with an individual.
The beautiful Indian film industry actress of yesteryears, Shyama now lives a reclusive life in Mumbai, but in her heyday, she was a much sought after artiste. She played the lead role in many films, notably Aar Paar (1954), but her forte was as a supportive actress in which she excelled in many great films. Among them I include Shabnam (1949), Patanga (1949), Tarana (1951), Sazaa (1951), Chhoo Mantar (1956), Chhoti Bahen (1959), Barsaat ki Raat (1960), Bahu Rani (1963), Dil diya Dard liya (1966) and many more. In Sharada (1957), she won the Filmfare Best Supporting Actress Award. Personally for me, her role as Shipalee, who loves the rebel, Raj (Balraj Sahni) in Zia Sarhadi’s Marxist classic, Hum Log (1951), is unforgettable, especially the picturisation on her of the song Chhun, chhun, chhun baje payal mori, which Roshan had composed so sweetly.
Shyama was born as Khurshid Akhtar in Baghbanpura, Lahore on June 7, 1935. She hails from Lahore’s most populous biradari of Arains, who before the partition of India were the main Muslim landowning biradari in Lahore district besides the Sikh Jatts who were almost entirely in the rural tehsils of Lahore district. The pioneer of the Lahore film industry and later, a legendary filmmaker in Bombay, A R Kardar was also a Lahore Arain belonging to the Zaildar family of Bhaati Gate. Another Arain at Bombay film industry was the gorgeous Begum Para. Her father, Mian Ehsan-ul-Haq of Jullundur, was a judge who joined the princely state of Bikaner, now northern Rajasthan, where he became chief justice of its highest court.
For several reasons, the Arains were radicalised towards fundamentalist Islam and that created extremely conservative values among them. I know this because I myself was born in that group. I shall probe this and the overall trend of other Punjabi Muslim castes and biradaris towards ‘Arabisation’ in a forthcoming series.
Anyhow, among old-timers of Lahore, Shyama remained a legend. For a legend to evolve, it needs people who for some emotional and psychological reasons need to associate themselves with an individual. Each time I am in Lahore, I find some addition to the legend of Shyama. Yet, all this happens in gossip and whispers and not in media where there is a hush-up, even among those who write in films about Shyama.
This is because her fans, especially those from her biradari, cannot disown her because she attained fame and ruled hearts once upon a time. That in itself does not sit well with Islamism, but she violated some more taboos. She married the famous Bombay cinematographer, Fali Mistry, a Parsee. Her two sons have been raised as Parsees. One lives in New York and the other in London.
I talked to her in her Mumbai home on June 2, 2012 from Stockholm. The same day I had spoken to Kamini Kaushal who also lives in Mumbai. Shyama’s father Chaudhry Mehr Din was a fruit merchant who set up business in Bombay. Shyama’s family shifted to Bombay when she was only two. The megastar Dilip Kumar’s father was also a fruit merchant in Bombay, so those who are into novelty hunting can probe the connection between fruit and films. I would only stick to the facts.
Shyama was only a child when she left Lahore so she has no personal association or memories of Lahore. By the way, the same is true of the late Suraiya who died in Mumbai some years ago. In 2001, I was in Mumbai and knocked on her door, pleading for an interview but Suraiya refused it. On that occasion, Shyama was not in town.
And now, some gossip about Shyama’s Lahore connection. One is that she was at college in Lahore and then went to Bombay. Another, that she was engaged to Chaudhry Abdullah, popularly known as Chaudhry Thhailla of Mozang, Lahore. Another is that she visited Lahore in 1960 and was given a rousing reception.
According to Shyama, she visited Lahore only in the 1990s and stayed with Madam Noorjahan, whom she met in Bombay at the age of 10 when she visited the sets of Zeenat (1945). She was recruited to take part in the famous qawwali Aahein naa bhareen shikwa naa kiya by Noorjahan’s first husband, Syed Shaukat Hussain Rizvi. She had come to the sets to watch the shooting with a bunch of schoolgirls and was offered the job. That gradually paved the way for more roles.
Shyama told me she had an older sister and brother who were settled in Lahore, but when she came in the 1990s, they were not alive anymore. Therefore she did not meet any relatives in Lahore. I know, however, that her cousin, Naseer Maliki, who worked at the Lahore Television Station, used to talk about her. He was a good friend of my brother-in-law.
On March 26, 2004, I met Ripudamman Singh in his shop at Rambagh Bazaar, Amritsar. He gave me an eyewitness account of what happened in that town in the 1947 riots (The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed; Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2012). He told me that in the early 1960s, he met a Muslim woman and her daughter who wanted to see their old home in Amritsar They had come from Lahore and were going to take the train to Bombay next day. He brought them home. She told him that she was a relative of Shyama and was going there to meet her. Hence, until then at least, Shyama did have contact with her Lahore relatives. All this had faded from her memory when I talked to her.