'Dance queen' Shyama battled illness & loneliness with stoic grace

·9-min read
'Dance queen' Shyama battled illness & loneliness with stoic grace

Ae dil mujhe bata de (Bhai Bhai) … waves in her hair, waves in her heart, waves in her steps…

O chand jahan woh jaaye (Sharda)… swathed in the moonbeam of love…

Dekho, woh chand chhup ke karta hai kya ishare (Shart)… the modern lass swaying to an old-world elegy…

Sun sun sun sun zalima (Aar-Paar) … playing the hard-to-get senorita…

Yeh lo main haari piya (Aar-Paar) … aboard love’s joy ride

Yeh ishq ishq ishq hai (Barsaat Ki Raat) … the chorus of unrequited sentiments

… Shyama was all fizz and feeling. With an instinct for dance, she took to the studio floor, matching her flowing rhythm with equally fluid expressions. Her effervescent persona profited much from Geeta Dutt’s frothy voice, both spooling winners all the way.

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Offscreen too, it was a self-charted life for Shyama. Hailing from a conservative Muslim family, she chose to act and then opt for an inter-caste marriage to renowned cinematographer Fali Mistry. Refusing to give up her career after motherhood, she remained money savvy.

It was her choice to live by herself in the upscale Napean Sea Road neighbourhood. Her home, however, was peopled by memories with portraits of Shyama, a hark back to her halcyon days.

There was a black diary she always kept at hand. Turned sepia with time, the pages held souvenirs of the past – jottings about her films. Holy threads abundant around her wrist were perhaps to safeguard her slipping health. Her fractured legs had kept her home bound. But not her mind. It jogged back and forth as she kept rewinding her films and reliving past glory...

But the rites of passage, the loss of loved ones and the apathy of age had seeped into her joyful spirit. Apart from that, Shyama was perhaps battling a rare pain - the silence that lurks after the cheerleaders have left and the arc-lights dimmed. That moment when the artiste no longer needs the pancake and has to live with the unadorned reflection, is a role by far the most-challenging…


Born Khurshid Akhtar in Lahore in 1935, nine-year-old Shyama began her career as a qawwali singer in the Noor Jehan starrer Zeenat (1945). “I’d gone with my friends to watch Noorjehan shoot for a film in Dadar. The director, Shaukat Hussain (Noorjehan’s husband), asked us, ‘Does anyone of you want to work?’ I put up my hand and said, ‘Main karoongi!’” she recalled how it all began. Her conservative father didn’t approve of her acting. ‘What’s the harm?’ the young girl had retorted.

“I was always interested in acting. During the lunch break in school, I’d stand on the table and dance. I watched every film,” recalled the actress, who went on to play lead, second lead and vamp in around 250 films. 

Incidentally, the name Shyama was given to her by director Vijay Bhatt.

A song where Shyama first made an impact is the version of the love duet, Tu mera chand main teri chandni, from A.R. Kardar’s Dillagi (1949). Shyama’s part was sung by Geeta Dutt. The 1951 love triangles, Fali Mistry’s (her would-be-husband) Sazaa and Ram Darayani’s Tarana had Shyama lose heroes Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar to Nimmi and Madhubala respectively.

Guru Dutt’s thriller Aar Paar (1954) won her recognition. Shyama played the pert Nikki, the garage owner’s daughter, courted by ex-criminal-turned-taxi driver Kalu (Guru Dutt). Apparently, her character was based on a girl that Guru Dutt once loved. Geeta Dutt personally requested Shyama to take up the role. Sun sun sun zalima, filmed in a garage, became a chartbuster.

Geeta Dutt’s vivacious vocals suited Shyama’s vibrant personality. Another memorable song by Geeta for Shyama is Ae dil mujhe bata de from M.V. Raman’s Bhai-Bhai (1956). Shyama played the wife of conman Om Prakash, who tries to seduce the much-married Ashok Kumar for wealth.

Shyama made a hit team with filmmaker M. Sadiq, comedian Johnny Walker and composer O.P. Nayyar in several films like Musafir Khana, Chhoo Mantar, Mai Baap, Duniya Rang Rangeeli and Johnny Walker (between 1955-1957).

Her other notable films include Zia Sarhady’s Hum Log (1951), Bimal Roy’s Maa (1952) and L.V. Prasad’s Sharada (1957) – for which she won the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress. Here, she plays Raj Kapoor’s character’s wife. Disturbed by the fact that her husband was once in love with a woman, who’s now his stepmother (Meena Kumari), she turns rabble rouser.

“I was lucky to get good roles. I enjoyed doing family dramas like Do Behnein, Chhoti Behen, Bhai Bhai, Bhabhi and Do Bhai (in the late ’50s),” she said in a throwback interview. “I never needed to be taught acting... I was confident... Stars are born not made,” she claimed in an interview (scroll.in).

A highlight of Shyama’s career was P.L. Santoshi’s Barsaat Ki Raat (1960). Shyama plays a qawwali artiste in this love triangle where the hero, Bharat Bhushan, is besotted by Madhubala’s character. The popular Nigahe naaz ke and Mujhe mil gaya bahaana teri deed ka were filmed on Shyama. 

I had a photogenic face. Whatever direction the light fell from, I photographed well. I maintained my figure. I was particular about my diet. For days I’d just be sipping glucose water to remain slim. I used to wear all kinds of clothes — ghararas, salwars, saris and pants,” the cheery actor said reminiscing her glory (Filmfare).

In the later years, she was seen in Rajesh Khanna’s Ajanabee (1974) and Masterji (1985). Her last film was JP Dutta’s Hathyar (1989).


The attractive Shyama had many suitors. “I received many proposals from my peers. I don’t want to take their names. Some of them are no more while the others have their families. Sometimes we call each other up and ask kya haal hai?” she shared bashfully (Filmfare).

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During the shooting of Sazaa (1951), 16-year-old Shyama fell in love with director/ cinematographer Fali Mistry. “You’re photogenic. I don’t need special lighting for you,” Mistry had complimented Shyama during a photoshoot.

“We were fond of each other. But I was shy. I couldn’t express myself,” she said looking back at their romance. The two got married in 1953. But kept the marriage a secret, fearing it would affect Shyama’s career. It was revealed before the birth of their first child, Faroukh. Son Rohinton and daughter Shirin were born later.

“My husband asked me not to work after marriage. But I said that wasn’t possible. I had worked very hard to reach where I was,” said Shyama who preserved her self-identity.

She credits Fali’s ‘understanding’ for their balanced equation. 

“I was content in my married life. Even after my first child, I didn’t give up acting. Fali had confidence in me. When it would get late, I’d call to say, ‘Fali hum late hogaye hain. Magar khana hum saath khayenge’,” she said (Filmfare).

Fali Mistry passed away in 1979. Shyama missed him acutely through the years. “My greatest weakness was always Fali!” the veteran remarked in an interview on the TV show Guftagoo.


With time, her children carved a life of their own. Shyama’s older son, Faroukh Mistry, is a well-known cinematographer and documentary maker. The younger, Rohinton Mistry, is a London-based businessman, while daughter Shirin got married.

Shyama insisted on staying independently in her own house, even as her daughter visited her often. With age came health problems. She fractured both her legs and needed a walker to move. She had to use an oxygen cylinder to ease her respiration and was periodically in and out of hospital.

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This compounded with a sense of loneliness, losing her husband, her peers as also the blurring memories of stardom somewhere affected her. She once mentioned how she missed her dear friends Nirupa Roy, Shakila and Nadira. “We used to hide each other’s secrets, today they let them out,” she’d shared.

Filmmaker and co-founder of upperstall.com, Karan Bali, who’d met Shyama in her later years wrote, “Meeting Shyama was joyful yet heart-breaking. It was sad to see the actress leading a relatively isolated and lonely life. Especially when you consider that at her peak, she was the busiest of all actresses in the 1950s (upperstall.com).”

“Shyama began the interview with gusto… as she recalled her awe for Noor Jehan… masters like Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt... But it was a mask she failed to keep up for long. Pretty soon she gave way to tears as she wept talking about her loneliness... It was sad, poignant and… heart-breaking. She did recompose herself... but the exuberance was missing," wrote Karan Bali for upperstall.com

Shyama, as daughter Shirin reportedly said, was ‘a strong-willed lady’ and ‘nobody could tell her what to do’. She was a sum of her choices. And living by herself was one of them. “She loved life and the industry… But when she decided, she didn’t want to do it any more, she quit. She lived life on her own terms,” daughter Shirin told PTI. 

Unlike most of her peers, Shyama remained financially independent. “She had secured her life… A lot of times industry people… are left penniless but she was sensible,” added Shirin.

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But perhaps nothing could fill the emotional vacuum. “I miss my family... My parents had nine children. Today I’m the only survivor… Log aaye our chale gaye, yaadein chhod gaye,” she gave a glimpse of her yearning to Filmfare.

Shyama was diagnosed with lung infection in 2017. This time the brave-heart couldn’t fight back. 

She passed away on 14 November 2017 at 82… to find her place among the stars.

More from Yahoo Tragic Tales series:

Unravelling the world of classic Bollywood cinema - here’s more from Farhana Farook.

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