MUMBAI — She was always a terrific performer. In a fairly limited oeuvre in cinema, especially mainstream, Surekha Sikri, who passed away of cardiac arrest at 75 July 16, was a powerhouse of talent that spanned theater, films and television.
I met her for a brief interview for a portal in late 2019, when she had already suffered a stroke, was on a wheelchair, but with her spirit unaltered after over 40 years of work. The portal had certain preconditions to sharing the video material on another platform, but Sikri was a charismatic human being, and so whatever is in my memory from our meeting is what I can share here.
But before everything else, Sikri ma’am was the eternal charmer who, after our only meeting, would keep calling me. The first time I saw her missed call, I called her back, thinking that she was going to give her feedback on our interview.
Very cutely, she apologized and stated that she had dialed my number by mistake, as someone she wanted to call was on her contacts list just before or after my name! And in the next six or more months, she called me no less than 10 more times. After an interval, I picked up one more call, asked about our health, and got the same answer: she had called up by mistake.
And then I remembered her revealing in my interview that she was amazed at how the young generation was tech-savvy as she really did not know how to handle the “various buttons” on her mobilephone!
Surekha Sikri, born Apr. 19, 1945 made her debut in the 1978 political film, “Kissa Kursi Ka,” which never got released amidst a mountainous controversy. She went on to play supporting roles in numerous Hindi and Malayalam films, as well as in TV serials.
Sikri won the National Film Award for Best Supporting Actress thrice, for her roles in “Tamas” (1988), “Mammo” (1995) and “Badhaai Ho” (2018). She was awarded the Indian Telly Award for Best Actress in a Negative Role in 2008 for her work in the primetime soap, “Balika Vadhu,” and the Indian Telly Award again, this time for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, for the same show in 2011!
A recipient of the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1989 for her contribution to Hindi theater, her last feature release, “Badhaai Ho,” won her also the Filmfare and Screen Best Supporting Actress awards.
Sikri spent her childhood in Almora and Nainital in Uttar Pradesh. She graduated from the National School of Drama (NSD) in 1971and worked with the NSD Repertory Company for over a decade before shifting base to Mumbai.
She married Hemant Rege and she is survived by their only son, Rahul, who is an artist. Naseeruddin Shah is her former brother-in-law, as his first marriage was with her stepsister Manara Sikri. Sikri thus is their daughter Heeba Shah’s maternal aunt—Heeba had acted as the younger version of her character, Dadisa, in “Balika Vadhu.”
“Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro” (1989), “Naseem” (1995), “Sardari Begum” (1996), “Sarfarosh” (1999), “Cotton Mary” (1999), “Hari-Bhari” (2000), “Zubeidaa” (2001), “Mr. and Mrs. Iyer” (2003) and “Dev. D” (2009) are among her better-known films, albeit most are non-mainstream.
Her last work was in the anthology, “Ghost Stories” (2020), in which she played a bedridden woman. “Zoya Akhtar signed me and adjusted to my health situation,” she quipped, as this was when she was on the wheelchair and she confessed that after the stroke (which was the result of an injury while shooting), though she wanted to work as long as possible, she was pretty lazy about the exercises and other instructions given by the medico.
Her well-known TV work includes “Ek Tha Raja Ek Thi Rani” (2015–2017), “Pardes Mein Hai Mera Dil” (2016-2017), “Maha Kumbh: Ek Rahasaya, Ek Kahani,” (2014-2015), “Saat Phere - Saloni Ka Safar” (2006-2009), “Just Mohabbat” (1996-2000) and “Banegi Apni Baat.”
“I began to act in college, putting on a false moustache for male characters,” she smiled gently. However, there was no intention to become an actor, as she wanted to be a journalist (“Because I liked writing, reading, words…”). “But I was studying in college when I watched the National School of Drama’s “King Lear,” and immediately wanted to join them!” she said.
In cinema, she actually wrote a letter to Satyajit Ray and got a reply stating that he only worked with Bengali actors! “Cinema was such a strong medium!” she told me. “I was left wondering if he could not have offered me a silent role!”
Happily, Govind Nihalani approached her with a role in “Tamas,” that won her the first National Award. “When I joined films, I did not even know what was ‘continuity,’ she had said. “How I should resume after the director says ‘Cut!’ was something I had to learn!”
Talking about her multiple awards and what they meant to her, she admitted that they gave her satisfaction. “I like it when I win!” she said simply. “And professionally, it does make a difference.”
She smiled again as she told me that her “Badhaai Ho” director Amit Sharma was hesitant about casting her in “Badhaai Ho.” “I was a TV artiste for him, and though I had enjoyed the script and thought it was a dream role, I cannot blame him entirely, as on television there is not a hint of subtlety!”
Ayushmann Khurrana, her co-star in “Badhaai Ho,” wrote this moving tribute on his Instagram:
“In every film we have a family and we end up spending more time with the film family than our own families. One such beautiful family was in Badhaai Ho. Out of all my films, it was the perfect family with a perfect cast. Surekha Sikri was the head of our family, who was more progressive than the entire family tree. You know what, that was her in real life too. A complete boho. A chiller. Young at heart.
“I remember when she was boarding an auto rickshaw after the screening of our film, Tahira and I gave her a lift back home and we said 'ma’am you are the real star of our film' and she replied ‘wish I get more work.’ Tahira and I were speechless. We watched her frail demeanor walking towards her building. That’s my last memory of her.
“I would request you to watch her recite Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s nazm “Mujh-se pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na maang.” Aapko unse aur mohabbat ho jaayegi (You will fall deeper in love with her). An impeccable performer. A consummate artiste. A legend. You’ll be missed Surekha ma’am. Thank you for the beautiful memories. #RIPSurekhaSikri.”
Sanya Malhotra, Gajraj Rao, Neena Gupta and director Amit Sharma from the film also paid tributes to her.