Surekha Sikri, an actor who won three national film awards, passes away

Published : July 16, 2021 20:18 IST

Surekha Sikri as Dadi in the teleserial Balika Vadhu. Photo: The Hindu Archives

In her own way, Surekha Sikri, who passed away this morning aged 75, was a class act. Often her roles were little more than cameos. Yet she did them with such gusto that they became unforgettable. With her scorching screen presence, she often overshadowed the film's lead actors. Indeed, the screen was her playground, her co-actors often playing second fiddle. She used her wonderful powers of voice modulation, but spoke with her eyes too. Not averse to being considered old when quite young, Surekha was a consummate artist who made sure people remembered her art even if they forgot the artiste. That is why people fell in love with Dadi Sa of the teleserial Balika Vadhu. Indeed, when she won over millions of hearts with a fetching portrayal of a stern granny, many were forced to do an Internet search to find out more about her. She, they were informed, had been practising her craft since Kissa Kursi Ka in 1978.

Balika Vadhu was merely a comeback of sorts for her. Back in the 1990s, she had starred in the humorous Banegi Apni Baat. Those with an eye for detail would remember her in Shyam Benegal's Hari-Bhari. Benegal like her. In film after film he cast Surekha, among them Zubeidaa, the Karisma Kapoor starrer, and Sardari Begum with Kiron Kher and Rajeshwari Sachdev. Unfortunately, he never cast her as the lead actor. Not even in Mammo where Farida Jalal got the role of a lifetime. Not one to crib, Surekha played the perfect foil to Farida in the film and walked away with the national award for best supporting actor. It was her second national award, the first was for her searing Muslim character in Govind Nihalani’s Tamas. She won her third national award recently for Badhai Ho, a film where most critics concentrated their energies on Neena Gupta.

Govind Nihalani, too, liked her craft. He used her skills with great results in Tamas, and much later with mixed results in Deham. Saeed Mirza recognised her talent with smallish but significant roles in Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and, a few years later, Naseem, both films that talked of social tension and frayed nerves. Surekha, with a natural talent for powerful roles, was the perfect pick.

Surekha, without ever getting a role to die for, left her imprint in every film. For instance, Aparna Sen’s Mr and Mrs Iyer, where the focus was on the lead pair of Rahul Bose and Konkona Sen. Or Rituparno Ghosh’s Raincoat that came drenched in Aishwarya Rai’s star power. Last year, she worked with Shabana Azmi again in Faraz Ansari’s Sheer Qorma, a take on same sex love. Again, the posters were all about Shabana Azmi, Swara Bhaskar and Divya Dutta. Surekha stayed in the background, did her job to perfection and moved on.

A little later, she had a brain stroke. The doctors predicted a gradual recovery. The predictions did not account for a cardiac arrest this morning. And Surekha Sikri departed surrounded with the love of her near and dear ones. Born in a Sikh family, she wanted to be a writer to express social angst, politics of marginalisation and deprivation. Her elder sister wanted to be in theatre and brought application forms of the National School of Drama. Surekha, a graduate from Aligarh Muslim University, filled the form just like that, and ended up writing her destiny. From writing to acting, to theatre, to cinema and television. Indeed, stage or screen belonged to her. Just as she belonged to her fans.

A few years ago, she surprised everybody with a tuneful rendition of Faiz Ahmed Faiz's Mujhse pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na maang. As for Surekha, the love of her fans never dimmed.

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