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The Original ‘Modern Girl’: the undervalued Sheila Ramani remembered by Khalid Mohamed

She had just about managed a paragraph or two of an obituary in a few newspapers. The point is Sheila Ramani (1932-2015), passed away uncrooned and unmissed at the age of 83 in the hill town of Mhow. Over time, the unconventional actress has continued to be criminally ignored.

In fact, this little piece had been nixed by a Mumbai entertainment supplement with the query, “But who’s she?” Never mind if she had featured in films directed by V, Shantaram, Bimal Roy, Chetan Anand and Ramesh Saigal, besides toplining Abana (1958), lored to be the first film in the Sindhi language. It had co-starred an adolescent Sadhana Shivdasani (later just to be called Sadhana).

Sheila Ramani had been introduced in the supporting ensemble of the Hemen Gupta-helmed Anand Math (1952), an adaptation of a historical novel by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, on the 18th century Sannyasi Rebellion in Bengal.

Few of those born post the 1950s can recall her. As for the ‘now’ generation, forget it. Neither can they be blamed since she was never extolled by her contemporaries. It just wasn’t the done thing, explaining why there’s precious little data on even the super popular Naseem Bano or her Pukar co-star Chandramohan, incidentally the first choice to play Prince Salim in K.Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam. It is said that Chandramohan died prematurely, penniless at the age of 42, because of alcoholism.

Perhaps I have a special regard for Sheila Ramani – she of a face as sharp as a dagger, smoky voice of the Marlene Dietrich kind, hair a fluffy crown and lips painted ebony black during the black-and-white era – because she was my school buddy’s aunt. She would sashay in and out of Gulu Waney’s Churchgate home, leaving behind a cloud of Craven A cigarette smoke and a whiff of extra-strong musk perfume.

“She has always been like that, she does her own number,” Gulu’s staid mother would say enviously, “ever since she was crowned Miss Shimla. She’s so independent, she listens to no one but herself.”

Gulu and I, both being movie nuts, would gape at Sheila Ramani with saucer eyes. Hey, she had acted opposite Dev Anand (‘Taxi Driver’, 1954, ‘Funtoosh’, 1956), Sunil Dutt (‘Railway Platform’, 1955), and believe this Karan Dewan (‘Teen Batti Char Raasta’, 1953). Karan Dewan, the most unhero-like of heroes of wispy moustache fame on an uncle-like face, happened to be our grannies’ favourite. They adored him; after all, he was immaculately suited-booted and as gallant as Sir Walter Raleigh. The classic gentleman.

Grannies didn’t have much to say about Sheila Ramani though, since she wasn’t the Dresden-doll type and could be footloose, a character who could have been described in the argot of those days as a ‘brazen hussy.’ Indeed, she was Sylvie the slithering club dancer of Taxi Driver who was detested by the prissy heroine. Or Sheila Ramani could be as cruel as Marie Antoinette in Shantaram’s ‘Surang’, turning a blind eye before reforming, towards the plight of quarry workers.

Incidentally, there’s a personal backstory here: my mother Zubeida had been signed up for ‘Surang’ (1953). I have preserved the contract for no explicable reason. Zubeida’s orthodox father leapt out of his skin, threatened to shoot Shantaram (with a buckshot rifle!). That ended Zubeida’s dreams of stardom. My granny and I, therefore, could never bring ourselves to see ‘Surang’. When I mentioned this to Sheila Ramani, she laughed cryptically, “Just as well. The film wasn’t Shantaram’s best! I was quite a nasty chick in that one.”

Not that she didn’t essay the goody-goody sort occasionally, standing solidly by the side of a graduate in desperate search of employment. The jobless one was portrayed by Kishore Kumar in Bimal Roy’s ‘Naukri’ (1953), which surely merits re-assessment.

Also, the many self-proclaimed film preservationists could do something out-of-the-box: Sheila Ramani’s obscure works, like her last films – ‘Jungle King’ (1959) and ‘The Return of Superman’ (1970) could be restored if they survive in any format. Yes, Superman! And my wild guess is that she was playing the B-town version of Lois Lane. Her last appearance was in the barely known ‘Awara Ladki’ (1957), which did have a worth-tracking music score by Dhaniram.

Back in time, some Sindhi families would abbreviate their surnames. Sheila Kewalramani became Sheila Ramani for the screen. She could have played a longer innings if she hadn’t chucked it all up to marry industrialist Jal Cowasji, a courteous Karan Dewan-sort who would fawn over her, fetching her refills of gin and tonic.

There’s scant information about the prominent industrialist Jal Cowasji, except that he passed away decades ago. Their two sons, Rahul and Zal, have chosen to keep a distance from Bollywood. In the autumn of her life, all I’ve gleaned is that she was confined to a wheelchair.

During the late 1960s and ‘70s, her trips to Bombay were brief but she did miss those flashes of the limelight. “Hey, you,” she had husked at me, “You’re a journalist now. Recommend me to your friends in Bollywood. I would love to play a wicked mother-in-law. Such fun! But mind you, I don’t want to be paid a pittance.”

She chose not to speak about her hero Dev Anand except to say, “He would live in his own world. I do meet up with Kalpana (Kartik) but we girls just have a beer or two and cackle away. No point in wallowing in the past. Right,” said Sheila Ramani.

Still if she had at least talked at some point about her stardom, today her work-file wouldn’t have been so abbreviated. At most, it has been generalised that she revelled in enacting the ‘modern girl’ (read vampish). Subsequently, she acted in a Pakistani film but returned to Mumbai, to be ghettoized in B-graders.

After her marriage and a flagging career, she had migrated to the U.S. Eventually, she returned to lead a quiet life in the hill town of Mhow close to Indore in Madhya Pradesh.

So why am I rewinding to Sheila Rahmani today? Simply because she deserves to be.

Khalid Mohamed is a well known film critic, screenwriter and film director.

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वीना रमानी बेहतरीन अदाकार थीं


May 29

खालिद मोमोहम्मद ने बेहतरीन लिखा है. शीला रमानी जी का मूल्यांकन होना चाहिए.

डॉक्टर सुनील विक्रम सिंह


Dilip Apte
Dilip Apte
Sep 14, 2021

Superb Write up Khalid Mohamed . I was a great admirer of your Toi , Film Reviews


Khalid Mohamed, Absolutely loved your article on Sheila Ramani. So happy to see that at last somebody acknowledged her contribution to Indian cinema and the remarkable body of work and that too with the top heroes of the time. I happened to have met her a few times as her brother was a colleague of my father in Philips India, sadly, someone not too flaunting of her career choice!!. A queen of oomph, as much as a 'proper' heroine, she was awesome, though I happened to see just a few films of hers!

Thanks a ton Khalid. Suman Bajaj Kalra

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