Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

In conversation with Nargish Rabadi a.k.a Shammi

From Screen India

All of eighty years, Shammi Aunty as she is lovingly called, has lost count of the films in which she has acted. Starting off playing heroine in her earlier films, Shammi switched on to comic and later character roles. Even today, her conversation is interspersed by frequent giggles, bringing out the naughty trait within. A lowdown…

shammi Born in 1929, Shammi began life as Nargis Rabadi in a family of Parsi priests. Her father died when she was just three and her mother made a living by cooking at religious functions. Both Shammi and her elder sister Mani Rabadi, the well-known Hindi film fashion designer, worked in toy factories after school to source their tuition fees. After schooltime, they worked at offices, ran a magazine and did odd jobs. Mani also worked with the Indian People’s Theatre Association and did some Gujarati films.

“It was in January 1949 that I entered the film industry when I signed a 3-film contract with Sheikh Mukhtar for his film Ustad Pedro that had Begum Para besides me and Sheikh Mukhtar himself. The film was directed by Tara Harsh,” says Shammi.

Simultaneously she was signed for crooner Mukesh’s film Malhar. “The film had an all-new cast, of which Kanhaiyal and I had faced the arc lights earlier. The film directed by Tara Harsh again marked the breakthroughs of music director Roshan and lyricist Indeevar,” recalls Shammi. “I was allowed to do the film because Tara Harsh was directing this film too,” sighs Shammi.

For the three-year contract Sheikh Mukhtar’s production house paid Shammi Rs. 500 per month (quite a big sum in the ‘40s). “My friends expressed their surprise when they heard that I was being paid that kind of an amount.” Two or three more films were announced by Sheikh Mukhtar, “but since the roles weren’t to my liking, I refused them,” avers Shammi aunty. “So in short Ustad Pedro was the only film I did for Sheikh Mukhtar. In-between, there were umpteen offers, some of which were to be directed by the likes of Bimal Roy and Nitin Bose, but since I was tied by the contract, I had to flatly refuse them,” adds Shammi.

Once out of the contract, Shammi was signed for Sangdil that starred Dilip Kumar and Madhubala. “You see, those were not the days when there was something like having a ‘Godfather’ or someone to back you. Since those days there was a practice of featuring a hero and two heroines, I was lucky to share screen space as Mohini with the likes of Dilipsaab (Shankar) and Madhubala (Kamal) .”

Soon after, she began getting varied roles opposite Mahipal, Manhar Desai and Karan Dewan. When her role with comedian Johnny Walker in K Asif’s Musafirkhana became a hit, she was flooded with similar roles. “Offers started coming my way and I, as an artiste, went on accepting them. Among them I did some films in which I had a couple of vampish and also mythological, action and comic roles. People used to ask me to cautiously choose the roles I wanted to play and not just accept anything, to which my reply would be “For an artiste it doesn’t matter whether it is a leading, vampish or comic role”. I know it amply well because I did all types of roles and met several artistes, and today people respect and love me.”

Dubbing
During her career, Shammi also tried her hand at dubbing. Gemini’s boss S.S. Vasan was so impressed with her dubbing in his Samaj Ko Badal Dalo and Teen Bahuraniyan that he frequently had her flown to Chennai to dub even for minor artistes. She would be sent back to Mumbai in the evenings.

Marriage
Johnny Walker and Shammi were good friends and she used to go often to his office. “It is there that I met Sultan Ahmed. We got friendly and slowly the friendship blossomed into marriage in 1970. But as luck would have it, we were together for only seven years. I assisted him in Heera and Ganga Ki Saugandh as a production assistant. In the meantime, Sultan started having an affair with another woman and paid less attention towards me. Soon I started realising that he married me just to get access to the film people with whom I was friendly. I can still proudly cry from the rooftop that Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) signed Ganga Ki Saugandh just because he had a good rapport with me. On that fateful day, at a friends party at Carter Road, we had a big quarrel. All I did was pick up my purse and barge out. That was the end of it. Thankfully, I had my old rented house in my custody. ”

Remembrance
* Shammi was playing a lead role in Ayub Khan’s film in which she was paired with Anwar Hussain (brother of Nargis). The other hero was Ranjan. “In that particular film, I had to do a stunt. For that I was trained in horse-riding. I remember we were shooting at Ghodbunder Road from as early as 7 am. Initially when I got on the horse’s back, it was behaving well, but after a while the horse got out of control and started galloping at an uncontrolled pace. I wanted to jump into a stretch of water that was fast approaching, but as the spot neared I couldn’t dare jump because the horse was regularly increasing its speed and I couldn’t dare jump as I knew I would break my bones. This spot was on a hill; soon I saw crew members coming in my direction from the opposite side and there was a railway line in-between. As I was nearing the railway tracks I saw a green patch and slowly took off my leg from the stirrup and jumped. From the ground I saw the horse speed away and as it was about to cross the railway track, its leg got entangled in the tracks and it fell with a thud and started moaning in pain,” recalls Shammi.

*One more incident I will never forget is the day when Dilipsahab was paid rupees one lakh as a signing amount by a South-based production house, the first by anyone in the film industry.” There was a big hungama in the industry and we all were very happy.”

Television
Roles never stopped coming Shammi’s way. Somewhere in the 1990s, as good character roles finally began drying up, Shammi found new opportunities on the small screen. She was much appreciated in Dekh Bhai Dekh, Shriman Shrimati and Kabhi Yeh Kabhi Woh. She was also the executive producer of serials produced by Asha Parekh on Indian music directors. Currently she is seen in Ajai Sinha’s Ghar Ek Sapna.

Shammi was always one to give back more than what she had received from the industry, and for over 30 years, she had been the most remarkable do-gooder of Hindi cinema. With music director C Ramachandra and later with Sunil Dutt, she had visited the border areas in remote regions to entertain Indian troops. She participated in numerous shows to raise funds for all shades of charity. “The Defence Ministry would not permit me to go,” says Shammi. “Till C.Ramachandra argued that she could rough it out like any other man. “

Shammi was also a permanent fixture with Sunil and Nargis Dutt’s Ajanta Arts troupe. But though they collected a lot of money, they did not know how to invest it and so gave it away to needy artistes. Today, her CAA has invested its money in fixed deposits and other saving schemes.

Take on life
“God has given us life. It’s up to us to treat it the way we want. We should not do anything that makes our life meaningless. I for one am highly satisfied and have no complains whatsover. I celebrate all the festivals and get a lot of satisfaction by doing so.”