The August 15 holiday isn’t one for Surekha Sikri. That morning, she’ll travel by car to a major production house in Santacruz for a look test. The role she’s hoping to get is one she describes as “complex and interesting”, one written by a major director for a streaming platform. Sikri isn’t nervous. She’s been rehearsing in front of the mirror at her Versova flat for days. The four-hour-long test is a tiring process, but her day isn’t done yet. She’ll then make the 30-minute drive to Andheri to attend an acting workshop by Atul Mongia. She’s been out from 12 pm to 9 pm. And at 74, she’s still raring to go.
Still, having a packed schedule is somewhat of an anomaly for the actress. She spends her mornings following a leisurely routine of prayer-breakfast-bath at her Versova flat. Evenings are for fulfilling ‘phone obligations.’ Sikri puts on some classical music (“some Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, some Mozart”) and figures out whose calls she has to return, who she has to text back. “I’m not tech-savvy and these new phones are so hard. It’s like a puzzle inside which I get lost,” she says. She watches films, but “with a critical sense, always” and declines to name any she’s enjoyed over the past year. She doesn’t go out often, preferring instead to read. On her bookshelf? Mostly autobiographies.
If Sikri’s been taking the past year slow, it’s because she’s been advised to. In November last year, she was shooting for a TV serial in Mahabaleshwar when she fell and hit her head in the bathroom, suffering a brain stroke. The months that followed were hard. “The key word was paralysis. As an actor, I felt like a musical instrument that was not being played. I can’t use my left hand the way I used to. There are so many things I want to do in terms of movement and speech that I can’t.” Harder still was losing out on roles. A script for a short film centered around the LGBTQ community was the first thing to pique Sikri’s interest six months after the accident. However, the part required her to perform certain hand and leg movements, something the makers were not convinced she was well enough for. “I felt quite bad about it,” she says. Now, she refuses to keep feeling sorry for herself. There’s a steely resolve that with physiotherapy and the right attitude, life will go back to the way it was within the next few weeks.
A month before the accident, Badhaai Ho in which Sikri plays the acerbic dadi, hit theatres. In one standout scene, she reacts to the news that her daughter-in-law, Priyamwada (Neena Gupta) is pregnant. There’s confusion, slow-dawning comprehension and then, rage. “That was a lengthy scene. We shot for five to six hours. (Director) Amit Sharma took around a 100 takes of the whole scene from different angles. Not once did she say: I will not do it or ho gaya na, kitna chahiye? Not a single frown,” says her co-star Gajraj Rao. There’s another tirade towards the end of the film, only this time it’s in defence of Priyamwada instead. Sikri found the transition from a combative mother-in-law to an accepting one difficult to crack. So how did she play it on that day? “Spontaneously, just as it should have been,” she says. The blessing she gives Priyamwada at the end of the scene was completely improvised.
Sikri won her third National Film Award for Best Supporting Actress last week and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. But Sharma said it took her three auditions to land the part. The “loudness” of Balika Vadhu, on which Sikri has had an eight-year-long stint as the steely dadisa, was the reason for his reluctance. It’s a feeling Sikri’s gotten from other directors over the course of her 41-year-long career, though no one has given her that feedback outright, she says. “Preconceived notions kabhi kabhi beech mein aa jata hai. People have this attitude of: oh woh toh TV actor hai.” Rao admits that he was expecting Sikri to be a religious ammaji much like her character until, on their first day on set, she stunned him by discussing Brexit.
As hard as it is to shake off these associations, Sikri’s grateful to the show. “I didn’t get any good scenes before Balika Vadhu happened. It had become 20-30 years since I moved to Bombay and I wasn’t getting good work,” she says. Dadisa gave her the opportunity to reshape ideas of what it meant to be a negative character on television. Sikri knew she didn’t want to drip sarcasm or waggle her eyebrows and so played her in a rooted and sympathetic way. Though it’s arguably the role she’s best known for, her filmography includes work with Shyam Benegal, Saeed Mirza and Rituparno Ghosh. Before her film debut with Kissa Kursi Ka in 1978, she spent 15 years at the National School of Drama repertory, travelling and doing plays. The stint instilled in her a sense of professionalism and a respect for the craft – Sikri’s never turned down a role.
“With her age and experience, usually two things happen – people become arrogant or they lose their focus in life. She’s neither. Her machinery is perfect. She would come on set with four-page dialogues memorized,” says Rao. While interest in Sikri’s work and career has picked up since Badhaai Ho and her National Award win, it hasn’t translated into good roles. The parts being offered to her are variations of the same dadi role. She’s waiting for more offers to come her way and keeping the actor in her alive by occasionally attending acting workshops and working on her craft in the meantime. “Workshops help you find your own limitations. I’m very critical about my work. Sometimes after doing a scene, I come home and discover that it could be done differently. Then I kick myself for not having done that. Then I come up with better alternative ways to play it,” she says. She also bristles at reports of Badhaai Ho being her big comeback. “I never went away. Maybe I had been forgotten. But I never went away.”