I was 10 years old when I went to see the shooting of a film starring Noor Jehan. That very day, on the sets, I was offered a role In Zeenat. They needed a new girl for a qawwali, ‘Aahen na bhari, shikwe na kiye…’ and I had to play the dholak. I accepted because I came from a very poor family. I had four sisters and three brothers and my father was a fruit merchant who had a shop in Byculla market. We still have it. So I started working, just to support the family.

Studies never interested me, so I left school and took up films as a full time career. Director Vijay Bhatt changed my name from Khursheed to Shyama, because there were already two Khursheeds in the industry. I began acting as a child artiste in Nayi Maa and continued to do so till I turned 16. That’s when I got a lovely role in Tarana starring Dilip Kumar and Madhubala. Soon, I signed a three-year contract with Filmistan Studios.

My first film as a leading lady was Shrimatiji, with Nasir Khan as my hero. Then I did Shart, Badnaam, Aar Paar… I was doing at least 15 films per year. L.V. Prasadji came to me with a very interesting offer. He wanted me to do a parallel role in Sharada starring Raj Kapoor and Meena Kumari. Even though I was playing the leading lady in other films, I took it up because it was a challenge to the artiste in me. Moreover, I was thrilled to be pitted against such big stars. I won an award for my performance in this film. After this, I started getting meatier roles. I liked the change from being a mere song and dance heroine, who had only about four love scenes besides that. Even though I played a vamp in many films, I never got typed. Each role was different and a new challenge to me.

I never felt that I’d come a step downwards, when I started doing parallel roles or played a vamp. Maybe because by then, I was genuinely fond of acting and was being exploited so well. Fresh scenes were specially written, keeping me in mind. Today, the films are so full of stars with nothing much to do. Top stars are accepting films in which they don’t have more than Iwo or three scenes. I never did that. If I was signed, I was utilized well.

Even though I was the earning member of the family, this never gave me a swollen head. My sister who was always with me, saw to it that my feet remained firmly on the ground. Maybe because I started from scratch and gradually got the money, I’ve always been very careful with it. I used to travel by trains and buses along with Dilip Kumar and Kamini Kaushal. And then came a time when each of my family members had their own car. Our building compound used to look like a showroom!

Those were the days when all of us worked so amicably together. There were no jealous bouts, no fusses. We shared make-up rooms without throwing tantrums. Today, one sees the name of the star prominently displayed on the door. Suraiya was the only star who demanded a special make-up room. I remember while working in Milan, I used to share Nutan’s room. There was such informality, she’d be sitting in a corner tightening her blouse which was loose, and I’d be getting my hair done. There was so much of adjustment and I got along fine with everyone.

During the making of Sazaa, which was being directed by Fali Mistry, I fell in love with him. Even though Nimmi was the heroine of the film, he had my photograph put up in his office. A fact that thrilled me no end - Shyama

Nirupa Roy and I have always been the best of friends. Often the two of us would attend parties and functions escorted by her husband. We even went to Bangkok and Singapore for a month long holiday. She was one friend who really understood me and has always guided me well. I’ve always listened to her advice. We’ve seen each other through thick and thin. Even now, whenever we meet, we sit and chatter away. Recently, at Bindu’s wedding anniversary I met Suraiya, Nimmi, Tanuja… and it was great fun. We sat around a table and talked away. It was a pleasure meeting Suraiya because I believe she doesn’t see many people and has become a recluse.

I used to be a real tomboy, very mischievous and full of pranks. But in spite of that, I never smoked, drank or abused in front of others. Whatever fun we had was very healthy. I enjoyed my work tremendously. Even though I had a perfect 36-24-36 figure, I refused to wear a swimming costume. I made do with tight pedal-pushers. In those times, the censors were also very strict. There was no nudity but today you find the heroine herself doing a cabaret. We had Helen, Cuckoo and Madhumati for that. There were heavy love affairs even in our times, but we were very secretive about our private lives. Today, everything is done for publicity. They’re even ready to shed their clothes and pose naked.

My father has been for Haj twice, even my mother prays namaaz five times a day. I come from a staunch Muslim family, but I wanted easy money. I was not fond of acting. Why lie? Gradually, I enjoyed it of course. Like any young girl even I wanted to do hungama, indulge in a little romance… but my sister was very strict with me. She was a terror. She’d even beat me up, if I talked too much on the sets or cracked jokes in fun. At that time, I hated her for being that way but now I understand. At that age, I could have easily made a blunder and regretted it all my life.

I never had an affair as such. But once, Suresh, who was my co-star in a few films approached me. My family liked him because he was a Muslim and they felt he’d make a good husband. But we broke off our relationship because he was very insistent that I leave films for him and I refused to do that.

During the making of Sazaa, which was being directed by Fali Mistry, I fell in love with him. Even though Nimmi was the heroine of the film, he had my photograph put up in his office. A fact that thrilled me no end! I told my secretary that I’d personally handle the dates for this particular film and thus began our romance. On every little pretext, I would escape my sister’s eagle eye and phone him. But we were very secretive about our affair and even got married on the quiet. Only my mother, secretary and two witnesses were present. My family opposed my marriage and my father didn’t talk to me for years after that. Till I went to see him with my first born son. We made our peace.

Even after marriage, I continued to act, as that was one of my conditions before accepting the proposal. Fali was a wonderful man. He could have easily misunderstood my late-comings, etc., but I was lucky that I had such an understanding husband. I’ve had 25 years of a blissful marriage and three wonderful kids.

Today, I have no regrets. Whatever I achieved even professionally, has been enough for me. Recently, I received an award for my contribution to Indian cinema, in Delhi. I’ve had my share of glory, I’ve had my fun. Even today, I do accept films. Like lately, I did Hathyar and enjoyed working in this film. I don’t mind if I’m not offered a chair, etc. I pull one for myself. I have no nakhras, am still bindaas and enjoy life. (Interviewed by Santosh Sud in 1990)