Don't All Actors Feel They Can Better Their Performances?: Surekha Sikri

Surekha Sikri, who passed away on Friday, won huge appreciation for her roles in Mammo, Zubeidaa.

5 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Surekha Sikri and Farida Jalal in Mammo.&nbsp;</p></div>

Uncannily, Surekha Sikri partly resembled my grandmother, Fayazi Begum, whom she portrayed in Mammo (1994). She had captured her mannerisms like chewing the fold of her dupatta, her contradictory nature of erupting in anger and cooling down in a nano second, pottering around in the kitchen endlessly, besides effectively conveying an ageing woman’s grief of losing her only daughter in an airplane crash. The daughter, my mother, was 19 years old then.

A month before the NFDC shoestring-budget film was being shot at a Jogeshwari building, Shyam Benegal (its director) had met both Fayazi Begum and her sister Mehmooda (nicknamed Mammo). Benegal sir had come over to our place, a small apartment off Napean Sea Road, briefly to meet them and take in the home’s ambience.

Originally designed with Waheeda Rehman in mind as the eponymous Mammo, Benegal had to juggle the cast at the last minute. The actor, who was living in a Bengaluru farmhouse then, wasn’t comfortable playing a Pakistani woman who comes across the border. Enter Farida Jalal, then, bulwarked by the NSD-trained and formidably-reputed stage actor Surekha Sikri from New Delhi.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Surekha Sikri and Fayazi Begum, whom she portrayed in Mammo.&nbsp;</p></div>

Surekha Sikri and Fayazi Begum, whom she portrayed in Mammo. 

A true-life story, here was a small film with big-hearted performances. Farida Jalal interpreted Mammo as an extroverted chatterbox expertly. Fayazi was depicted as retentive, carrying the weight of her daughter’s tragedy, as a diametric contrast - and was justly awarded one of her three Best Actress National Awards (the others were for Tamas and Badhaai Ho). Her scream when Mammo is being shoved into a police vehicle was so lacerating that the award was hers for the asking.

Unknown to most of the Bollywood movie moghuls, then, Surekha Sikri was instantly noticed by Yash Chopra and his son Aditya. They approached her for the part of the benign grandmother in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, an offer which could not be refused ordinarily.

When Surekha Sikri felt that the fee being given to her was absurdly paltry compared to the Bollywood standards, she refused the role which was eventually essayed by Achala Sachdev. Perhaps that stand proved to be costly for her, but as she reasoned, “If a producer can afford to pay me what he does to another actor, why should I demean myself?”

Not surprisingly, she would be seen more in indie cinema than in the lavish productions, but for occasional appearances in Sarfarosh and Dillagi. Fortuitously, she agreed to take on the role in Sardari Begum (1996) of Iddan Bai, a thumri singer of a kotha – a woman who despite her singing abilities would be ghettoised as a kothewalli, or a courtesan. This was the second film in a triptych directed by Benegal with my story and script, culled from the lives of my extended family. The concluding film of the triptych, Zubeidaa (2001), featured her in a younger version of Fayazi Begum.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Karisma Kapoor with Surekha Sikri and Amrish Puri on the sets of Zubeidaa.</p></div>

Karisma Kapoor with Surekha Sikri and Amrish Puri on the sets of Zubeidaa.

Clearly, Benegal sir had lucked out. As for as the writer, at the risk of being cloyingly sentimental, tears well over whenever I see the three films, especially Mammo and Zubeidaa, in which my grandmother seems to come back to life.


The two of the dearest women, who raised me, were alive at the time of Mammo’s release, but refused to see it, with the excuse, “We don’t want to feel embarrassed.” Both being die-hard mainstream Bollywood fans, Mammo had even piped up, “But why couldn’t you get Rekha and Raakhee to play us? At least we would have looked glamorous!”

In the course of doing an interview with Surekha Sikri for my feature-length documentary The Master: Shyam Benegal (2015), Farida Jalal had shied away in allocating time, besides asking for a hair-stylist and make-up person whom we couldn’t afford.

Surekha Sikri had no such demands, and showed up on the dot of 10am, for the video-shoot at a friend’s Andheri apartment. Her hair still wet after a bath, dressed in white kurta and dupatta, she told us that she wasn’t keeping too well. She looked at a coloured dupatta worn by an assistant on the shoot and asked, “If I can borrow that, maybe you’ll get more colour in the frame.”

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Surekha Sikri in Mammo.&nbsp;</p></div>

Surekha Sikri in Mammo. 

About portraying Fayazi Begum, she had remarked, “ I didn’t meet her in real-life because I wasn’t asked to. It would have also meant impersonating her which could have become a caricature. So, I used my own emotional memory of women who have had to lead their lives by trying to come to terms with the loss of their children at a young age. I could relate to Fayazi. Imagine what she must have gone through, and added to that the responsibility of bringing up her grandson somehow on her savings.”

How could she have known about her traits, mannerisms and her way of dressing? To that her response was, “What I wore was already worked out by Shyam babu’s team. And if you say, I conveyed her personality accurately, it was perhaps by getting into the skin of the story. And yes, also the fact that she finds a support in her sister who has returned from Pakistan after many years. The scenes between Farida Jalal and me had some light-hearted moments counterpointed with my impatience at times and a deep sorrow within at times.”

By contrast, Surekha Sikri wasn’t at ease while enacting the kothewalli Iddan Bai in Sardari Begum and said so.

“Shyam babu gives his actors plenty of room to improvise and construct the character. I am no one to say that he could have guided me some more on how to do my scenes. Neither was there any possibility of studying my character in some measure of detail. Kothas have long vanished from Lucknow, Mumbai’s Kennedy Bridge and Delhi’s G.B.Road. I didn’t have any reference point. Frankly, I was disappointed that I couldn’t invest enough conviction in Iddan Bai. I feel I could have bettered my performance but then all actors feel that way, don’t they?”

Ending the interview, she laughed lightly, while returning the colourful dupatta. Her parting line was, “Sorry, I was dressed up in all-white. Believe me, it wasn’t my intention to once again look like your grandmother. You were blessed to have her in your life.”

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