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Verve People
August 24, 2014

The Ultimate Matriarch

Text by Jayashree Menon

Prolific actor Surekha Sikri became a household name with her iconic role of Dadisa in the primetime serial Balika Vadhu – Kachchi Umar Ke Pakke Rishte. The shy and retiring actor who straddles films, television and theatre speaks to Verve about her creative journey

Her stern, unbending Kalyanidevi aka Dadisa was in complete contrast to the young, naive and vulnerable Anandi of Balika Vadhu – Kachchi Umar Ke Pakke Rishte on Colors.  And, it was this unequal battle between two black and white characters that first hooked viewers to the soap in 2008. But, over six long years, it has been Dadisa’s metamorphosis into a loving matriarch that has fascinated and kept viewers riveted to the serial.

“This has been quite a journey,” agrees Surekha Sikri, the actor who essays the iconic role. “The process of acting is a continuous learning experience. What I could do five years earlier, I can do better now. My growth as an actor reflects in my work. I have tried to give the character many shades; she is not a cardboard character. She proves that it is not necessary for a negative person to remain that way forever. That if she examines herself, does some soul-searching; she too can overcome her rigid mindset. Her character proves that it is possible to change.” She continues, “Influenced by Anandi, my alter ego has become more compassionate and sensitive towards others; she’s not so adamant about getting her own way.”

With two lead actors Smita Bansal and Anoop Soni quitting the show, has the fatigue factor set in for her too, after playing the same role for 1,600 plus episodes? “Not at all,” she asserts emphatically. “Dadisa is very interesting, she is not boring; she’s very real…I’m sure you’ll find someone like her in a traditional household. She’s not a bad person, but she’s the product of a certain social milieu and has a point of view that she feels is justified. She’s a strong woman who has overcome her vulnerability as a young widow, brought up two sons, and created a comfortable environment for them. Yes, she imposes certain rules and expects everyone to follow them, because, after all, she’s the ultimate matriarch.”

Is Sikri anything like Kalyanidevi in real life? “Not at all,” she chuckles. “I’m very shy and retiring. I keep a low profile, read books and listen to Hindustani classical music.” So how did an introvert like her choose to be in showbiz? “I wanted to be a writer, a journalist or even a classical singer,” she shares.  “It was my sister Phulmani who wanted to become an actor and got the National School of Drama (NSD) form. Then she lost interest. But seeing the form lying around my mother said to me, ‘Tum hi bhar do’. I submitted the form and got selected!”

She recollects her NSD days with fondness. “It was rare for girls to apply to NSD those days. Maybe that’s why I got easily selected. Ibrahim Alkazi was the director. What a brilliant man!” she enthuses. “We were just seven girls and six guys in class. The girls were much smarter,” she chuckles. Perhaps that’s why she finds it easier to remember them than the male classmates. “Uttara Baokar, Srilekha Swaminathan, Shyma Jain…I do remember a rather sweet chap called Raghavan. I heard he’d become a superstar in Malyalam films!”

Sikri graduated from NSD in 1968, and worked with the NSD Repertory Company for over a decade, acting in plays like Sandhya Chaya, Jasma Odhan and Adhe Adhure, before shifting base to Mumbai, where her television and film career took off. Her TV serials include Godan, Saat Phere, Just Mohabbat and Banegi Apni Baat. The latter had her sharing screen space with a young Irrfan Khan, and when I tell her I’d have loved to see romantic sparks fly between two brilliant actors, she laughs out aloud. “I never thought about it, but now that you’ve mentioned it, yes, it would have been an interesting track.”

Her personal romantic track began with Hemant Rege in 1985 during the making of Tamas. Post a long courtship, they married in ’94. “Such a nice, gentle person…” she reminisces about the beloved husband she lost in 2009.  “I never watch my serials, but Hemant loved to watch, so we’d see episodes of Balika Vadhu together and he’d tease me about it. We’d go for plays to Prithvi, attend classical music concerts. He taught me to eat fish. He was a great cook and I learnt to eat bombil, surmai, teesrya, thanks to him.”

Her only son Rahul is a self-taught artist who’s had a couple of solo shows in New Delhi and at present is with her in Mumbai. “I’m not very maternal, you know the mother-hen clucking type,” she admits. “But I’m comfortable with children. I got close to the three girls who played my daughters in the serial Banegi Apni Baat, and during Balika Vadhu, I became very fond of the young Anandi (Avika Gor) and Jagdish (Avinash Mukherjee).”

Who is she closest to on the sets of Balika Vadhu? “My script,” she replies. “I’m not into all this dosti and bhaichara when I’m working. I try to keep myself neutral so my personal feelings do not creep into my work.”

Neutral she may be at work, but she does feel strongly about the TV industry. “There’s nothing like human resources management.  And whether you’re an actor or part of the crew, you’re treated and expected to perform like a machine.  There’s nothing wrong in working hard, but not to the extent where you feel overwhelmed,” she stresses.

Gone are the days where she enjoyed her fishy meals with her late husband. She’s turned vegetarian now and spends her free time reading spiritual books and listening to classical music, her favourites being Bhimsen Joshi and Pandit Jasraj.

Her spiritual journey started with Osho, but then she says on a visit to Mumbai to dub for a Prakash Jha film, she accompanied friends to Shirdi and found her guru in Sai Baba. “There was an instant connection,” she says, “and since then, I try and visit Shirdi whenever I can.”

She has done films like Sardari Begum, Deham, Sarfarosh, Zubeida, Raincoat, and Little Buddha and won the National Film Award for Best Supporting Actress twice – for Tamas in 1988 and Mammo in 1995.  She has also won the Sangeet Nataak Akaademi Award in 1989 and the ASSOCHAM Ladies League’s Mumbai Women of the Decade Achievers Award, earlier this year.

“I’ve enjoyed all my roles,” she replies when asked about her favourite: “Sarfarosh was a small role but quite nice. I also enjoyed doing Mammo, Zubeida and Hari Bhari.”

If she had the time now, what would be on her wish list? “Well, theatre of course.  I miss the magic and energy of theatre,” she says. “I’d also like to take up classical singing.  I have the voice and the ear for music. But when you’re part of a daily soap, where’s the time for anything else?” she sighs.

We are so used to seeing her in the lehenga odhni and long blouse on the serial, that I’m curious to know what she wears off the set. “I’m most comfortable in trousers/jeans.” And even as I try to conjure up the impossible image of Dadisa in jeans, we wind up our conversation.

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