Shefali to Paoli

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By Miss Shefali, the golden girl of Calcutta cabaret, opens up to Paoli Dam and t2 Kushali Nag What would you like to ask Miss Shefali? Tell
  • Published 28.08.12

Come November and Gulbahar Singh, a National Award-winning documentary filmmaker, goes to the floors with a sensational character of ’70s Calcutta — Miss Shefali, who floored even Uttam Kumar with her belly dance and Hula moves. Tolly’s ‘I-have-no-inhibitions’ girl Paoli Dam is the chosen one to play Shefali. Hear it from the two ladies...

Miss Shefali, did you ever think that one day a film (Cabaret Queen, produced by T. Sarkar Productions) would be made on your life?

Shefali: Yes. From the time I left performing at The Oberoi Grand in the ’80s, a lot of people approached me for a film. But nobody wanted to do a film on my life, they were only interested in the glitz and glamour of my profession. They wanted to spice it up with a lot of skin show. See, I struggled so much and I made a place of my own. If that doesn’t come through in the film, then what’s the point?

Paoli: Cabaret Queen focuses on her life, her dance and the fact that she was a Bengali girl who made it so big. She had a huge fan following!

Yes, tell us about your journey. How did you become Miss Shefali?

Shefali: During Partition, my parents left Bangladesh and came to Calcutta. We were three sisters and one brother. In Calcutta, we had a few relatives but they were not in a position to give us shelter. My real name is Arati Das. Ma took up the job of a cook at a Bengali household in Ahiritola. They gave us a room to stay. Baba was ill and would stay at home. We would wait for Ma to come back with food. I was the youngest and I wanted to give my parents a good life. There was a nurse who lived next door and I would go to her often and beg her to give me a job. I was only 11 then. One day she told Ma that there’s a job for me as a domestic help with an Anglo- Indian family in Chandni Chowk. Ma agreed and I landed there.

They lived like Sahibs. They would throw parties everyday and there would be music and all of them would dance. I would watch them from behind the curtains and practise the moves later on. A guy called Vivian Hansen would frequent their house. He was a singer at Mocambo then. One day I asked Vivian if he could get me a better job and he asked me if I could dance. I said yes! He took me to Oberoi Grand but things didn’t work out there and then he took me to Firpo’s.

At that time Firpo’s was one of the most expensive and fancy hotels in Calcutta. Only the rich and sophisticated could afford to wine and dine there. The manager was an Australian guy and he asked me to show him some dance moves, and I was hired! I told them they would have to give me a place to live and also give me food. They put me up at a bungalow behind Great Eastern Hotel. My salary was Rs 700 a month, 10 times more than what I got as a domestic help! Then I had foreigners like Gloria coming to the bungalow to teach me dance, from Hawaiian to belly dancing to Blues, Charleston, Can-can, twist.... I had to learn all forms of western dance. I also had a Hindi teacher.

Paoli: And I have to learn all these dance forms now! I will have extensive workshops where Didi will be present.

What happened on the first day of your performance at Firpo’s?

Shefali: I still don’t know what I did. I was in a daze. But people clapped non-stop after my performance. I was taken into a huge hall called the Lido Room. I have never seen such grandeur in any hotel in Calcutta, even now it’s unmatchable. I was given the costume before my performance. I cried when I wore it. Every part of my body was exposed, from my legs to arms. It was a bikini blouse, something that belly dancers wear. Then I thought, okay, this is my profession and I must not feel bad.

After that a lot of people came to me and urged me to work with them. But I realised that they wanted to lure me to a dirty profession. I hope you understand what I mean by dirty. I understood that and then I made up my mind that I would become one of the top dancers in Calcutta. I could understand the way people stared at me. There were men who would tell me, ‘Come with me, I will give you everything’. I decided to pick up dance properly. Because as a cabaret dancer, I just had to wear revealing clothes and dance, nobody could touch me.

Paoli: To do what she did then was outstanding.

Shefali: I was only 13 then, too young to understand what was happening. But I knew that I would get good money and get a house for Ma-Baba. That thought was so overpowering that whatever the manager asked me to do I did. At the same time, I was enjoying the male attention, the accolades, men falling for me, drooling over me! Every girl likes it initially. I wanted to rise in my profession. I wanted name, fame, money.

As I grew older, I realised that all the men had only one thing in mind. I went out with a few but it was like a routine, everyone said the same things. They would say you are nice, and then they would say, I love you. Not that I didn’t date or have affairs. But I couldn’t choose anyone. Because I never had the feeling that any one of them was Mr Right. At certain points, I did feel someone was special and he could be my husband but the moment I would talk about marriage, they would disappear.

Have you shared everything about your life with Paoli for the film?

Shefali: Yes, to an extent, but there is a lot more that I would like to share with her. I want to help her so that she can play me better on screen. I really like Paoli…

Paoli: Thank you, Didi. You see, when a film is based on someone’s life it mostly happens when the person is not alive. Or maybe the person is too old to help. Here she is alive and kicking and that’s a great help. But it’s also difficult because we are answerable to her.

Did you get inspired by Helen who was the cabaret queen on screen at that time?

Shefali: Helenji is my guru! I got the offer to perform with her on stage many times but I said no. Because I had put her on a pedestal. She inspired me to carry on with my life and my profession. She wanted to meet me once but I was too nervous.... You do such foolish things when you are so young, you know.

What songs would you dance to?

Shefali: Kono gaaney na, baba! (Puts her hand on her forehead and looks exasperated) They would throw me out if I performed to Hindi film songs. (Laughs) Around 20 musicians would play live music, wearing bow-ties and shoes. All the high-society people would be there. They would even take their wives along and sometimes they too would dance. Kichhu kichhu aashto jara saamner table book kore shudhu haan kore amay dekhto (some men would book the front tables and just gape at me)!

How did your family react to all this?

Shefali: I would keep in touch with my family through Vivian. I would send them money. My parents accepted my profession and perhaps that’s why I became so famous. I told Ma and Baba that I was not doing anything dirty.

Paoli: Of course, I look at it as an art form.

Miss Shefali burns the floor in the 1970s

But in those days wearing revealing outfits and dancing in hotels wasn’t considered an art form...

Paoli: Helenji did it and she was respected. But when a Bengali girl did that, she was scorned and scoffed at!

Shefali: Yes, Paoli is absolutely right! Bangali bolei eto dosh!

Who were the other performers at Firpo’s?

Shefali: When I joined, nobody was there. Foreigners were leaving. They didn’t get the licence to perform anymore.

How did your neighbours react?

Shefali: Well, nobody peeped or asked me why I would return so late in the night. Everyone was cordial. That time was much better than what it is now. I lived with my head held high. Nobody ever disrespected me. From the bungalow, I had shifted to a flat in Circus Avenue by then. Firpo’s was slowly shutting down, so I moved to the Grand. I was a cabaret dancer at the Grand for 17 long years.

What was a day like in the life of Miss Shefali?

Shefali: Busy. Very busy. Rehearsals, functions, theatre, films... I would get into bed at 3am.

From posh hotel rooms to stage. How did theatre happen?

Shefali: I met Buroda (actor Tarun Kumar) at a shooting and from then on we shared a deep relationship. I would give him Bhai Phonta. He introduced me to the stage. I did famous plays like Chowringhee, Rangini, Ashlil, Samrat Sundari, Shaheb Bibi Golam.... I was the heroine in all of them. But people looked down upon me on stage. They would pass comments and yet come to see me! But I felt satisfied. After all, so many people saw me on stage. Not everybody could afford Firpo’s or the Grand.

And then you got an offer from Satyajit Ray!

Shefali: Yes, he offered me Pratidwandi and Seemabaddha.... Manikda (Ray) had seen me perform at Grand, perhaps. He sent a person called Anil one day. Anil told me Dada wants to meet me. I went with him to his residence. Manikda looked at me and said, ‘There’s a role, would you like to do it?’ I said, ‘Yes’. Then he asked, ‘Shefali do you smoke?’ I lied, and said ‘No, I don’t’. I was scared to admit that I did! He told me I had to smoke for the character. And he said, ‘For this role, you have to open your blouse’. I said ‘Okay, not a problem’. My only request was that he give me the script beforehand. So he sent me the script and I learnt my lines like a parrot.

On the day of the shoot, Manikda came to pick me up. He sat in the front, Anil and I at the back. The shoot was to take place at Indrapuri studio. We were driving down Lansdowne when Manikda turned back and asked, ‘Shefali tumi kon cigarette khao?’ I immediately said ‘555’ and bit my tongue! He stopped the car and got a packet. I was so ashamed that I had lied to him about not smoking! He was such a good director, he just got the truth out of me.

On the sets, when he said ‘Action’, I almost vomited my dialogues. He came up and said, ‘Na, hobe na’. He tore the script and said, ‘Do what I tell you’. Later, we became very good friends. He would send his car to pick me up and we would have lunch together!

You were also close to Uttam Kumar. You made friends with most of the stars, is it?

Shefali: Ooribabare, everyone! I knew everyone and they all loved me, from Supriyadi (Chowdhury) to Sabitridi (Chatterjee). They never looked at me differently.

And Uttam Kumar?

Shefali: Abar shei Uttam Kumar (laughs out loud). He would go crazy seeing me dance! He used to come to the Grand. I used to perform the Hula mostly and then we had this little fun routine that whoever I put a garland on had to come and dance with me on stage. I put it on Uttam Kumar one day! And then I made him do the Hula with me! He said he could only do Cha-cha-cha and twist but not Hula. So we did the twist.... I have been to so many lunches and dinners at his Moira Street place where he lived with Supriyadi.

You have always believed that whatever you did was right...

Shefali: Yes, 101 per cent right! Had I continued working as a domestic help how would I have earned all the money?

Paoli: And this film wouldn’t have happened then (both laugh)!

Do you feel lonely now?

Shefali: Yes, of course, I feel lonely.

Paoli: I think all creative people are lonely.

What’s your source of income now?

Shefali: I run a dance school in Dum Dum where I live. I teach hip-hop and salsa.

If you are given a second chance to live your life all over again, would you live it differently?

Shefali: (Laughs) Maybe I would have seen to it that someone fell in love with me and married me.