‘Thari Bhali Hove( may good come to you)’ – these words, seemingly taken to be a term of endearment, became like thunderclaps in the hands of the legendary on-screen matriarch Dadisa. The anticipation of a dressing down from her given that line of dialogue and her inimitable delivery made Surekha Sikri a name to reckon with on BALIKA VADHU. Not only was the show a game changer in terms of its affecting storyline, execution and social consciousness rarely seen on Indian television for over a decade when it premiered in 2008, it gave the veteran a chance to become an overnight superstar. Every household tuned into the show at 8 O’ clock and Dadisa was a total fixture, leading an ensemble of finest talents, old and new. In her innate strength, conservatism, snarling display of aristocratic anger, tenderness and old-world cast of stubborn patriarchal values, she reflected all the polarities we found in our own elderly prefects at home.
As a young widow who was able to financially secure her household’s fortunes and raise her two sons as a single mother in a rural town rife with male dominance, she showed us the flipside of her own social conditioning when opposing progress in terms of gender equality. Sikri was so nuanced and complex within sometimes a single scene that those contradictions of modernity and progress informed us of our own universal ethos. So good was she that initially I used to think that she herself belonged to a rural Rajasthani background. So entrenched was the milieu and its attendant mindsets in her collective personality.
Even when we could have seen her conventionally as just a slender lady with medium height, a typical grandmother figure, her stance and unwavering pride amplified her screen presence. She was the queen of primetime and for atleast six years of the show’s strong run as a bonafide hit, she paved the way for personal transformation in characterisation by way of changing mindsets for the better. It was a welcome reintroduction to the great performing artist for a whole generation that further fell in love with her class act, as a similarly pegged matriarch in BADHAAI HO(2018)
She was sweet and sour, a taunting mass and storehouse of wit but ready to stand up for her middle-aged daughter in law( Neena Gupta) as an unexpected pregnancy made her the target of unkind words. Her love and concern for Priyamvada is evident and she doesn’t play favourites and hence spares not even her own daughter. It is pitched as a dramedy and its ultimate emotional appeal is earned. Like Daadisa, she is in control and refuses to be caught in the flux of ageism, even cutting down her distant granddaughter on her marital day when she promises to call her regularly, “you could not make a simple call from Meerut to Delhi, now who expects you to do so all the way from USA?” Her droll and decidedly practical sense of humour is on point.
Sikri Ma’am was just like that, an absolute natural and as a person in my twenties, I am happy to say that I grew up with her prowess over the years even before or after Dadisa became a mainstay and pop culture icon.
She particularly blended her typical action of shaking of the head, an earthy body language and recognisable voice in Shyam Benegal’s trilogy of movies based on the women in renowned writer Khalid Mohammed’s life. In MAMMO(1994), she was unforgettable as Khalid’s grandmother, raising the young teenager in Bombay where cultural clashes are ripe and his age-appropriate tendencies exasperate her. Cue that one scene where the thanklessness of her station in life makes her say, “oh, I am sick and tired of your day to day bickering”, in a manner only she could, never losing that shred of authority. But this is a primary showcase for her bonding with the eternally delightful Farida Jalal as her older sister, the titular Mammo. This tale and its post-independence ethos wouldn’t be the same, if not for this sisterly bonding where the innate love and years of separation between them make them inseparable and yet the reality of life enroaches at pivotal junctures, like when she bickers about how Mammo never had to work owing to her privileged life back in Lahore while she has toiled all her life, not to be spared even at her age. That practicality in terms of body language, dialogue delivery and temperament makes sure it is in the mould of everyday conversation, never constructed for effect. Of course, the pairing of these ladies as sisters over two years on BALIKA VADHU later on was a treat to watch.
2001’s celebrated Zubeidaa further tapped into her middle age, in the years where she lived a life of elegant material comforts but was overshadowed by her husband’s dominance, the majority of its share ensuring doom for daughter Zubeidaa. Here too, her confrontation with Amrish Puri at the breakfast table after burying her daughter is rife with suppressed anger and helplessness coming to the surface. She has no moral role to offer her daughter throughout her short life except remember her as a fairy princess who yearned to be truly free, mirroring somehow her own trajectory. It’s such a heartbreaking performance. Equally unforgettable is her turn in SARDARI BEGUM (1996), the middle spoke of the trilogy, especially on the classical song SAAWARIYA where her sense of nazaakat and elegance as a thumri singer is to behold. Apparently, her humility and self-assessment, without the power of ego guiding her, was such that in a documentary on Shyam Benegal directed by Khalid Mohammed, she confessed that she could not justify her arc or be convincing enough as a classical practitioner of the arts. Such is the hallmark of great artists.
In fact, the length of the role never mattered when it came to registering her presence. Be it a one minute bit in SARFAROSH or her supporting arc on Mr. and Mrs. Iyer as one half of a Muslim couple aboard a contentious bus journey in a riot-torn location. I can never forget how she is unable to catch the drift of what awaits them as they are made to disembark from the bus by an enraged mob and we don’t see them again. The power of suggestion is derived from as much the screenplay as Sikri’s hapless cries, a victim of communal violence. In 1995’s exemplary NASEEM, she was again put in a similar predicament as the mother of a bright and outspoken teenager who sees the world change around her in a post 1992 Bombay. Her care and concern, anticipation of the worst even for peace-loving Muslims like them under such circumstances and observations on fundamentalism rising with political safrronisation hit me hard.
Having been a product of the distinguished National School of Drama( a beautiful documentary short on the institution from Films Division’s YouTube channel titled NSD actually features her rare footage on stage along with the likes of Pankaj Kapoor), her heart was always with such sensitive scripts which held a mirror to our social churning through the eras. Which is what makes her National Award winning turn on the epic TAMAS (1988) so memorable. She begins as a benevolent Muslim woman harbouring a Punjabi couple in her home after the post Partition riots have broken. She is apprehensive about her decision yet doesn’t waver in her belief or kindness and later comes down staunchly on her son who wishes to kill the elderly couple, finally ensuring their safe flight from the confines of her home. In those thirty minutes, her expressions convey a whole gamut of experiences that all those on either sides of the border continue to feel to this day. Humanity is their binding force and she manages to seal that emotional connect with us. Or take her work on GULZAR’s KIRDAAR(1993), a miniseries. She is hopeful and tragic on the episode she features in titled Rehman ke Joote, with the formidable Om Puri playing her husband. Take the instance of the historic television series BHARAT EK KHOJ by Shyam Benegal where her performance as Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahan Ara was sought out by me. Here, she implores her brother Dara Shikoh to not be weak and rise up against their cruel sibling Aurangzeb while tending to her ailing father, imprisoned in the tiny room with him by her own younger brother. Her dignity and forbearance make it memorable in this two episode arc based on the life choices of the notorious Mughal ruler.
Another example of her sustained artistry is on the underrated DEHAM(2001) by Govind Nihalani, a film exploring futuristic technological advancements and sexual repression from the prism of the new millennium, with probing depth. Here, her exasperated and dominating mother in law can easily pass off into realms of caricature but Sikri Ma’am embodies her middle class concerns so well, with such tact that it isn’t the case. We understand hence where her behavioural tics come from. This grounding in the ethos elevates the overall material.
If you ask me about her final role which I watched then it will be her stellar part on the first installment of the Netflix anthology film GHOST STORIES (2020); directed by Zoya Akhtar, she played an elderly lady confined to bed and looked after by a young nurse within her elegant but crumbling home. The atmospherics, cinematography and rainy foregrounding made it effective but Sikri Ma’am, with her frail physicality and faraway looks, stood out as usual. Here she was, a woman of great style of yore who is bitter and pliant and is a metaphorical ghost reduced to a gaunt appearance owing to neglect in old age. Here as also in her appearance to receive her National Award win for Badhai Ho, I felt a pang for her advancing age, her worryingly gaunt appearance and immobile movements. I mourned for the reality of time catching up with the best among us.
Which is why I haven’t written this essay as an obituary but as a celebration of her body of work that bears her distinctive stamp. I had planned to watch her 1989 feature film PARINATI for few weeks, having downloaded it on YouTube. I watched it after I received the news of her passing away. It was like opening up the passageway for her immortal talent, to watch her first proper lead performance in a film when she was past 40 years of age. But then she was no ordinary individual. In this hauntingly effective adaptation of a Vijaydan Detha short story, the folkloric and morally reflexive tradition of Rajasthan comes alive.
I cannot forget her expressive transparency as she charts the descending moral fortunes of an honest to God couple which gets lured by the power of riches and overturns personal natures, informing us of how we are essentially beasts. In a subtle, ethically pricking treatment, she is every bit a part of her ethos, be it in terms of costumes, body language or the inevitable building up of heartlessness when greed gets the better of her.
As I let the lingering effect of her performance and realism impress me for the umpteenth time, I said a little prayer for her peaceful heavenly journey and mourned her loss. I finally hope that my generation continues to strive to watch and hence preserve her legacy and of others of her ilk. For me, Sikri Ma’am will always continue to be an artistic trendsetter with her unique contributions in the fields of theatre, film and television. God bless her.