Surekha Sikri: A pillar of meaningful cinema

Winner of three National Awards, she will be remembered for her subtle and realistic performances

A strong pillar of meaningful cinema, actor Surekha Sikri (1945-2021) succumbed to cardiac arrest on Friday. The three-time National Award winner for best performance in a supporting role, Sikri will be remembered for her realistic performances in Tamas, Mammo and Badhai Ho. She excelled in characters that had vulnerability and strength in equal measure.

In Govind Nihalani’s Partition saga Tamas (1988), she played Rajo, the Muslim woman who is worried about giving shelter to a Sikh couple for she doesn’t know what her fanatic son would do to them but eventually, she gets over her fear and stands up for them. It won her the first of the three National Awards.

Never to make an overt attempt to make her presence felt, Sikri would take the shape of the character like water fills according to the utensil, often creating fertile ground for the main protagonist.

In Shyam Benegal’s Mammo (1994), she played the empathetic yet pragmatic Fayyazi who has to deal with an inquisitive grandson and a dominating sister who has arrived unannounced from Pakistan. The scene where a hysterical Fayyazi punishes Riyaaz and used the most colourful vocabulary to stop the intervening Mammo, is still etched on our memory. The character reminded many of stern elderly women at home who felt like butter beneath the Teflon coating. Her association with Benegal continued with Sardari Begum and Zubeidaa, in small but significant roles.

A product of composite culture, Sikri’s mother was a teacher in Aligarh Muslim University’s Abdullah Girls College and hence she spent her early days in a rich cultural atmosphere. It was in AMU that her love for theatre and Urdu bloomed. “Those were the days when Aligarh was one of the centres of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. Surkeha-ji performed extensively in plays staged in Abdullah College, and one of her co-actors used to be Naseeruddin Shah,” says Professor F.S. Sheerani, Coordinator, Cultural Education Centre, the hub of extra-curricular activity on the campus. Sikri’s step-sister Parveen Morad was Mr. Shah’s first wife.

“During that period, the National School Drama used to hold plays in Aligarh and in one such performance of Macbeth, Surekha-ji was cast. It was performed in the Aligarh numaish and the then newly constructed Kennedy Auditorium. It is said her performance was noticed by none other than Ebraham Alkazi and she was advised to joined the National School of Drama,” adds Prof. Sheerani.

She excelled on stage and went on to win the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1989. “Along with Uttara Baokar, Surekha was the top draw in the Delhi theatre circuit in the 1980s. The audience used to come to watch their plays from neighbouring towns,” remembers veteran theatre critic Diwan Singh Bajeli. “She particularly excelled in the plays of Alkazi and B.M. Shah and was known for her immersive performances where she became one with the character,” says Mr. Bajeli, adding that her performances in Looking Back in Anger and Surya Ki Antim Kiran Se Surya Ki Pehli Kiran Se (‘from dusk till dawn’) continue to be the benchmark for theatre students. “When she took a break from serious roles and played the role of a folk dancer in Jyoti Deshpande’s Bakri, she surprised many in a good way,” he recalls.

A new generation of audience discovered Sikri’s talent through Balika Vadhu where she played Dadi Sa, a matriarch whose social outlook was formed by centuries of entrenched patriarchy. Her natural performance came like a breath of fresh air in the midst of the artificial arrogance of mothers-in-law on the small screen. Her pauses, the wrinkles on her face, and the deep timbre of her voice sent shivers down the spine.

She again played a variant of her character in Badhai Ho (2018) that made her a darling of among millennials. As the stern mother-in-law who is the first to accept the late pregnancy of her daughter-in-law, she exposed the hypocrisy that exists in society about sex and gender rights.

Her character was a departure from the one-note mothers-in-law that Hindi cinema often offered. As Durga Devi, she may not be able to pronounce the word sex properly but she understood its value in a couple’s life. The character opened a window to many in the audience about the way they looked at their parents. Their words could be outdated but their thoughts still hold ground.

Describing Sikri as a “legend”, Gajraj Rao who played her son in Badhaai Ho, says, “The memories of her relentless dedication and childlike enthusiasm will always remain with me.”

A brain stroke limited her movement but not one to give up, Sikri was terrific in her last performance as an ailing, bed-ridden old woman in Zoya Akhtar’s segment of Netflix’s Ghost Stories.

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