Today, top actresses post photos on themselves in bikinis on social media. But there was a time when an actress who showed skin was a vamp or a sex symbol. These tags could get her a lot of money and a dubious kind of fame, but no respect, and, as a character in the newly released film Shakeela says, nobody would want a woman like that as a daughter-in-law.
A woman with a shred of self respect or an iota of impudence, would argue that the notion of respect is highly debatable and that there is no great achievement in being a submissive daughter-in-law, but Shakeela just took the abuse silently and decided to throw up her thriving career to look for that elusive respect.
Many cinema audiences outside of Kerala would not know of Shakeela, but she was once the reigning queen of the box-office in the state, whose success threatened the male stars of her time so much that they connived to get her films banned.
A few years ago, Milan Luthria directed The Dirty Picture on the life of another sex symbol of South India cinema—Silk Smitha (played by Vidya Balan). Now Indrajit Lankesh has made a film on Shakeela (played by Richa Chadda)—a tacky piece of work– whose subject is far more interesting than the writers and director of the film are able to portray.
But for her resilience, Shakeela’s life could have mirrored Silk’s. Both came from underprivileged backgrounds and used the only currency they had—their voluptuous bodies and sex appeal– to navigate their way through an industry much more exploitative and male dominated than it is today.
Even though Silk Smitha was brazen enough to walk around a set in a stage in a state of partial undress and showed a marked lack of inhibition in her films, her life ended with suicide when she was just 36. It’s as if the industry that profited from her screen appearances callously discarded her; Silk’s downfall had all the ingredients of a tragedy–disappointment in love, collapse of career, financial losses—typical of the time when a woman in the Tamil industry could not break the boundaries laid down for her.
Shakeela, already a supporting actress in B-grade films, stepped into the void left by Silk Smitha’s death and became the new sex symbol, without having any discernible talent or even conventional beauty—she was overweight and her fans reportedly liked their fantasy woman to be busty. An actress who came to represent a profitable genre of soft porn films, ironically, used a body double for the sex scenes, most of which required heavy breathing, heaving breasts and swaying hips. Many of the producers spliced in nudity and ‘hot’ scenes from foreign movies after the films had been censored, but Shakeela’s male audiences did not mind—they were not looking for plot or emotions, just for the titillation her films offered. Dubbed versions of her films made their way to seedy cinema halls across the country and even abroad.
She was enough of a socio-cultural phenomenon to merit media debates and protest marches with her effigies being burnt by outraged mobs; even a western website, salon.com carried a piece by Jason Overdorf on India’s softcore industry; there was a thesis or two on her. The introduction to In a piece titled The Rise of Soft Porn in Malayalam Cinema and the Precarious Stardom of Shakeela by Darshana Sreedhar Mini states, “It interrogates how Shakeela’s outsider status and her heavyset body type foregrounded her as the locus of Malayali society’s conflicted relationship with sex and desire while also creating a set of parallel film practices that challenged the hierarchies of the mainstream film industry. By 2001 more than 70 percent of the total films produced in Malayalam were soft porn, and a good number of them featured Shakeela. The mainstay of soft-porn productions was the strategic positioning of the female lead as a cultural outsider—a transient figure who is both a threat and a source of exoticized desire. Shakeela’s emergence as a “liberated” woman who flaunts her sexuality despite social norms was so strong that it destabilized Kerala’s hero-centric mainstream industry for a time, leading to what was popularly called Shakeela tharangam, the “wave of Shakeela”.”
There was a short film, About A Girl Named Shakeela, in which a young woman faces embarrassment and ridicule because of her name. However, when Shakeela’s career was at its peak, there were temples built for her, and people gave their bungalows names like Shakeela Mahal or Shakeela Manzil.
Lankesh’s film wants to portray Shakeela as apologetic about her softcore films, which makes her chuck her career in a fruitless quest for respect, just because a vicious male superstar (whose advances she had turned down) mocks her. Her childhood sweetheart rejects her, she is cheated of her wealth by her mother and sisters, the film industry refuses to acknowledge her talent and her fans just want her to strip.
According to Lankesh’s film, a contrite Shakeela was reduced to playing bit roles and lives in a one-bedroom apartment from where she began her career. His film ends with her facing a violent horde blaming her for the rise in rapes in Kerala, with the specious argument about Draupadi being disrobed and Sita abducted without her films being around then. “Men make these films and men watch them, but I am to blame?” she asks.
More than her career, a better film was needed to examine our society’s hypocrisy towards women’s sexuality. Things have changed a bit now, when a former adult film star Sunny Leone projects a happy family picture with husband and kids and refuses to express regret for her past. But it is as if a sense of shame is expected of her, and she has ‘former porn star’ affixed to her name forever.
In real life, Shakeela does not seen in the least remorseful for her films or their supposed ill effect on society. Now an activist or sorts for the transgender community, she has produced a film titled Ladies Not Allowed, which is a hilariously cheesy and vulgar horror flick of the kind she might have acted in back in the day. She talks candidly of boyfriends in her interviews and is blasé about sex. Her autobiography—translated excerpts of which are on the net—is remarkably self-aware.
Women choose to, or are forced to, pander to a sexually repressed male audience, who watch those films and lust after the actresses, but then also believe they are not deserving of respect. Which means a man is only capable of respecting a woman about whom he does not have lustful thoughts—never mind if the woman invites such thoughts or not. So then, what is the value of such respect?
It is an interesting contrast between Indian sex symbols and, say, the immortal Mae West, who not just revelled in her scandalous image, but wrote a delightfully candid autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It, and a plethora of quotably witty lines, of which the prize goes to: “When choosing between two evils, I always like to try the one I’ve never tried before.”
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal dated December 20, 2020)