Exclusive: 'Breaking my silence was a good decision,' says Shagufta Ali

·Columnist
·7-min read

It’s not easy to voice your crisis on a public platform. But actor Shagufta Ali had no choice. Silently bearing the brunt of ill-health, lack of work and the resultant monetary distress, it was only harming her further. In a bid to salvage the wellbeing of her ailing mother and her own equanimity, the 52-year-old actor appealed to the industry for help. And assistance did pour in generously … more so from unexpected quarters.

Shagufta is all gratitude for Saans co-star Neena Gupta, filmmaker Rohit Shetty, and actor Johny Lever and Shivin Narang among the others who rushed to her aid. Her predicament grabbed pan-India attention, when Madhuri Dixit handed over a Rs 5 lakh cheque to her on behalf of the Dance Deewane 3 team. Indeed, it’s payback time for the talented actor, who’s been entertaining for 36 years.

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Shagufta first made a debut with the Dilip Kumar-Nutan starrer, Kanoon Apna Apna, in 1989. The same year she made a splash on television with Dard. She rode along the television wave in the ’90s with hit shows including Parampara, Chattan, Junoon and Sanjivani: A Medical Boon (2002). Later, her memorable stints include in shows like Sasural Simar Ka, Punar Vivah and Sasural Simar Ka and Saath Nibhana Saathiya (all between 2011-2017). Bepannaah (2018) was her last outing.

Some of her early films include Amitabh Bachchan starrers Indrajeet and Ajooba, and Akshay Kumar’s International Khiladi in the ’90s. She last appeared in the 2018 film Laila Majnu. The versatile Shagufta also featured in the dance numbers Kurukku paadhayile in the Tamil film I Love India and Mynaa mynaa in Rajinikanth’s Uzhaippali in 1993.

In the past, the brave-heart has overcome several challenges, including her tryst with breast cancer along with looking after her family and aging parents, with quiet dignity. Like all the battles she’s won, Shagufta Ali hopes to emerge from the debilitating diabetes and the resultant numbness in her legs with the flair of a winner. We wish her the same too.

You must be feeling relieved after the help that’s come your way.

Definitely. I do feel relieved with the amount that has come my way. Madhuri Dixit gave five lakhs on behalf of the show Dance Deewane 3. Others like Rohit Shetty, filmmakers Aanand L and Ramesh Taurani and Anupam Kher too have come forward. A very big ‘thank you’ to all those who helped me. Once my treatment begins and I feel okay, I hope to start work.

You mentioned in an interview that you were expecting help from certain people, which didn’t happen. anyone in particular?

Let it be. It’s okay. I don’t want to mention any names.

It must have taken a lot of courage to speak about your financial dilemma…

Yes, I had to muster courage, gather myself and share my problems to seek help. The more silent I kept, the more I was suffering. It was affecting my health and the health of my mother (Shama Ali). I guess, breaking my silence was a good decision. Revealing your personal life is a brave effort. You need jigar for that.

You even fought cancer bravely in the past...

I developed ailments early in life. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was younger. I was also working, which helped me keep my mind off it. I underwent nine chemotherapies. It’s extremely tough to endure chemotherapy. I was in great pain. Each session left me mentally and physically exhausted. But by the grace of the Almighty, I got a new life.

I am accident prone too. Like I once met with a bike accident while shooting. On another occasion, while I was going to visit my dad (late actor Shahid Ali Bijnori from Amroha) in hospital, I met with a car accident. My hand broke into two. My diabetes may be or maybe not a side effect of cancer. I was diagnosed with it six years before, while I was treated for cancer in the early 2000s. I guess, my diabetes was more due to stress. My eyes have also been affected. Allah has tested me with so many exams. I hope I pass this one too. His grace is always on me. I am full of gratitude.

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Reportedly, you’ve been the breadwinner since a young age?

My father worked more on stage than in films. He was against my joining films. But there was no option. He suffered two massive heart attacks. Yusuf uncle (the late actor Dilip Kumar) took him to England for surgery. He spent lakhs on dad’s treatment. Two years after dad’s surgery, while still in college, I began acting.

Since then, I’ve been looking after my parents and other family members. My mother is suffering from diabetes, though hers is less severe, and osteoarthritis. She will be on medication for two months. Hopefully, it should help her. Or else, she will have to go for a right knee replacement.

Why did work become scarce for a prolific actor like you?

In general, I haven’t been getting work since the past four years. The lockdown happened one and a half year back. Even before that I was struggling for work. I’d go for auditions. The final look test would be complete, the money, the costumes, the dates… all would be confirmed. But at the last minute I’d be informed of a replacement or some delay in the project. It was shocking. I truly don’t know the reason. A clear no wouldn’t have hurt so much rather than the dilly dallying. Haan hokar na ho jaana makes you feel helpless.

Did all the responsibilities make it difficult to invest?

It’s not that I didn’t invest. I had to look after the expenses incurred on the treatment of my mother, my grandmother and myself. With my savings, I bought gold – some bangles, chains… That came of use in the past years. Television doesn’t bring in that much money. Especially, if you’re not doing lead roles. With character roles you can’t make that kind of money.

At the most, you can plan for a year or two. Also, I was confident about getting work. I never imagined that what I’d saved for a rainy day would be finished in the past few years. When times are bad, you lose it all. Naseeb mein joh likha hai, woh hona hai…

Barrister Bahu
Barrister Bahu

Did you give marriage a thought?

The person I wanted to marry sadly passed way. He had some health issues. He wasn’t from the industry. It’s not that we didn’t plan to get married. But I was busy working those days and couldn’t think of settling down. Sometimes the delay would be from my side, sometimes from his. After his demise, I gave up the thought of getting married. He’s still a part of me. God bless his soul. This was much before my cancer diagnosis.

Don’t you feel lonely?

No, I don’t. Till the time Allah is with me, I can’t feel lonely. I have my mother around. I have some lovely people as well. My niece visits me.

A lot has been said about the dark side of showbiz…

The so-called ‘dark side’ exists in every industry. No industry is all ‘goody goody’. Show me one industry, be it the corporate world, be it the political sphere… where there’s no corruption. Let’s see the brighter side. There are many good people in this industry. They have come forward like angels to help me. There was no compulsion to do that. 

Apart from those who helped me, there are other good human beings too. It has been wonderful working with fine directors and co-stars. I’ve had some lovely experiences. Jis industry ne mujhe rozi roti di hai, main kyon ussko bura boloon! Acche bure log sab jagah hai. Even a vegetable vendor can be good or bad. One will con you, the other will give you a fair deal.

Isn’t the uncertainty higher here?

All jobs are insecure. During the pandemic, people have lost their permanent jobs. Uncertainty is part of life. Nothing is forever.

Work in the television industry is said to be extremely taxing?

Yes, in a way. You work for 12-14 hours. The ‘button on and button off’ of emotions takes a toll. I’ve witnessed even some young actors faint or suffer from nausea and fatigue given the long hours.

What would be your advice to young actors?

Himmat and mehnat are most important. Be confident and work hard. Leave the rest to destiny. Be kind and courteous to people around you. The young sometimes find it hard to greet you. You should keep aside ego and remain humble. A laden tree always bends.

What do you look forward to?

I am looking forward to getting fit and start work again.

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