The National Award for her role in Badhaai Ho (2018) came as a silver lining to what has been a difficult year for veteran actor Surekha Sikri. In the past 10 months, after suffering an aneurysm, her left side has been partially paralysed, and she has been confined to her home in Mumbai. I fell on my head and had a brain stroke. The blood clot moved up my brain, says Sikri, when we meet her at her home in Yari Road. She is lying on a hospital bed, wearing pants and a blue T-shirt, with the word strong emblazoned on it.
But what irks her more is being cloistered at home . I understand it s necessary, but I miss the action, the noise, the bustle of a shoot. I thrive on it, I love being on the set, says Sikri, 74. After the award was announced, she received a handwritten note from Mr Amitabh Bachchan appreciating my work in the film, she says, slowly. Quickly adding, as an afterthought, It s nice to be appreciated, isn t it?
The quirks she brings to the character of Amma/Dadi (in Badhaai Ho) is completely her own. After all, she has played a grandmother as Fayyazi in Mammo (1994) to Dadisa in the TV show Balika Vadhu.
Not one to resign to her fate, Sikri hopes directors will appreciate her zeal to continue acting. Zoya Akhtar has. Sikri, who s just started working again, for Akhtar s short film Ghost Stories for Netflix, says, They worked around me and my wheelchair. I think it s vital to have a director and a team that trust you, and well, being a professional. Come what may, I shall deliver, she says. She points at her wheelchair and says, This is something that I have to work with.
Sikri has spent the majority of last year confined to her room. The digital retro music player, propped between boxes and bottles of medicines, stores all the songs I know, from my time, she says. A small shrine, in a corner, houses a motley collection of gods and goddesses, and also her award trophies which include a Filmfare and a Screen Award for Badhaai Ho. I sound more sick on the phone than I actually am. I have been up and about. I think people don t know that I am back to work, says Sikri.
Sikri, who we see lip-sync the thumri Sanwariya dekh zara in the Shyam Benegal-directed Sardari Begum (1996), and, whose recital of Faiz Ahmad Faiz s poem Mujhse pehli si mohabbat is up on YouTube, is, today, worried that her voice will never regain its timbre. I used to sing quite well. With this stroke, I don t think I ll get that back. There are some exercises prescribed to practise with a harmonium, she says.
Sikri was slated to play a pivotal role in director Faraz Arif Ansari s LGBTQ short film Sheer Khurma, but the role went to Shabana Azmi. I wish Faraz would have trusted me. I would have delivered. But well , Sikri s voice tapers off.
Sikri s career, after graduating from the National School of Drama in the mid- 60s, has spanned more than four decades, and across platforms. Inspired and enchanted by Ebrahim Alkazi s NSD production of King Lear (the titular role essayed by Om Shivpuri), in the early or mid- 60s, when she was in college, at Abdullah College, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Sikri helped put together a production of a George Bernard Shaw play at her college. The world of theatre held a deep appeal for her. She recalls being enchanted by theatre. My sister, too, was enamoured by the stage; she even got a form to apply to NSD. I applied, she helped put together. Her mother, a teacher at Abdullah College in AMU, was the force behind her applying to NSD. I think mothers enable daughters much more, says Sikri, who, at one point, wanted to be a journalist. She adds, We had grown up all over, as my father was in the Air Force. My mother made sure we read books and were exposed to the literary world. She admits to not having watched films as such, except Laurel and Hardy films, she says with a chuckle.
At NSD, Alkazi ensured the education and exposure was on a par with the drama schools of the West. We went to concerts, talks and art shows. He opened our mind, says Sikri, who later joined the NSD repertory and became a regular face on the Delhi theatre circuit. She recalls Alkazi s fight, in the early 70s, to keep NSD autonomous, and hold together the repertory that was falling apart as actors were turning to television for work. The government then was interfering and controlling everything, like today. It was my first taste of babudom and red-tapism. How can creativity thrive in such a repressive atmosphere? she says.
The repertory, which suffered owing to actors missing meetings and rehearsals, eventually broke up. But we did many public shows, recalls Sikri. It was with an English show, Staying On (1980), produced by Granada TV, that Sikri made her TV debut. She played Susy Williams in the show, which focused on the Britishers who had stayed back in India after Independence. I was also simultaneously shooting for Amrit Nahata s Kissa Kursi Ka (1977), my maiden film. We, NSD people, would often be roped in by directors like Prakash Jha, who needed actors and didn t have money to pay, says Sikri.
The actor moved to Mumbai in the early 80s, to write a film about a woman balancing work and personal life for which Sikri wanted to cast Sridevi. The script was ahead of its time. But it all remained in my head, I never got around to finishing it, says the actor, who has won the National Award for Best Supporting Actress twice before, for her roles as Rajo in the Om Puri-starrer Tamas (1988) and Fayyazi in Farida Jalal-starrer Mammo. From Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989) to Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002), Sikri has played a whole spectrum of roles, and became a household name as Balika Vadhu s Dadisa. Dadisa is all me. I am like her. The writers had written a typical evil, sarcastic mother-in-law, which was in vogue in the early 2000s. I changed it completely. I gave her a human grounding and made her real, says Sikri.
But her popularity as Dadisa almost made director Amit Raghavendra Sharma to not cast her in Badhaai Ho. He was wary of TV actors. I am glad he gave me this opportunity. It was a dream role for someone my age. Also, Amma was a pathbreaking character, she was not saccharine sweet. She had an arc, which is so rare for the otherwise secondary characters. And Neena (Gupta)-ji s character as well, what a well-written part, she beams. As an industry, we don t write parts for older women. We still have a long way to go. Glamour will always drive the choices. People like looking at beautiful things and persons. Look at Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren. I look at them and their careers and feel wowed. Senior actors like me are not extended the same izzat (respect), or the same trust that we will deliver. Why? Just because we are of a certain age? she asks.
But Sikri has learnt to adapt, to remain relevant. I am an ostrich, with my head buried in the NSD sand. But we need to adapt. I can t work on these smartphones. But I see what technology has done to help advance filmmaking, says Sikri, who wants to take sanyaas (renunciate) at some point and retreat to the hills of Almora and Nainital, where she came from.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘One day at a time’.