[Content warning: suicide.]
While flipping through the new options on an Indian streaming service I subscribe to*, I discovered Shakeela, a film that actually managed to release in cinemas in December 2020. Almost all of the Indian films that I heard discussed with any vigor in 2020 were available only on streaming platforms, both on big international players like Netflix and Amazon Prime and also Indian companies like Hotstar (a subsidiary of Disney) and Zee5. Streaming services are not subject to the increasingly right-wing national censor board and offer creative possibilities that theatrical releases cannot. Even without cinemas being forced to close, it’s easy to imagine that these films would have emerged as the favorites of the year.
But as much as limited interest in braving a cinema hall during the pandemic may be a factor in the relative quiet around this film, its subject matter is probably the main issue. Shakeela is an eponymous, somewhat fact-based biopic of a major woman star in South Indian softcore, B-grade adult films. I’m somewhat surprised such a topic could get a theatrical release in the current political climate in India, but maybe just as significantly, to most viewers, it will seem like a re-tread of the popular and well-reviewed 2011 film The Dirty Picture, a biopic of Silk Smitha, an even more famous South Indian star and sex symbol. I was further confused that the two biggest roles in Shakeela are played by actors known for their work in indie and mainstream Hindi films, not in the languages that the subject of the film worked in : Richa Chadda is vulnerable and eager as Shakeela, and Pankaj Tripathi gets the best comedy as the pathetic and hypocritical mainstream hero Salim, Shakeela’s film industry nemesis. These linguistically curious casting choices might be explained by a wish to attract the wider audience of The Dirty Picture. (Shakeela has been released in the four major South Indian languages as well—the languages of the film industries in which Shakeela has worked.)
When Shakeela’s career took off in the late 1990s, the landscape of access to cinema of any kind was very different than it is now. Viewers accustomed to pornography from other parts of the world may find little titillation in her films—see for yourself in infinite clips on Youtube and Dailymotion. But even with a repetitive grope-and-moan formula, they’re showing more, and with much less gloss, than most mainstream films of the time. Shakeela herself calls them “glamour films.” (For any readers not familiar with how this word operates in Indian Englishes, after years of studying Indian cinema I equate this term to “suggestive” or “erotic,” rather than the connotations of “expensive” or “slightly showy but still in good tatse” in the American English I speak.) According to a cultural studies scholar from the University of Kerala (the home state of the Malayalam-language films in which Shakeela worked significantly), “The camera would never ride higher up than the thigh in her films…. But in a repressive society, the onscreen Shakeela, being a woman of desire, became a figurehead for soft porn. And even ‘soft porn’ was considered hardcore.”
In real life, Shakeela’s mother forced her into sex work as a teenager. She soon began working in films to support her family (not an uncommon arc among women stars in India) and made over 250 movies from the mid-90s to mid-2010s. At the height of her popularity, an anti-pornography mob set off a bomb in a theater showing one of her films, and when obscenity cases were filed against her, gender-equality groups did not come to her aid. Now in her mid-40s, she is estranged from most of her relatives (including a sister who stole her money), still works in films and television (including sex education shows), and has long ties in local transgender communities. She has also published an autobiography (Atmakatha).
In the film, Shakeela’s life is punctuated with dramatic events that we recognize from many other projects, including stories of exploited women. As a child, reel-life Shakeela boldly volunteers for a big role in a school play based on the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Significantly for the film’s narrative, this character, Draupadi, is threatened with disrobement by a villain, but protected by the god Krishna with a never-ending sari that covers her no matter how much fabric the villain pulls away.
Her mother tries to get her bit parts in films and happily shoos her into sex scenes in order to earn for the family. When Salim, the reigning superstar hero, plucks her from the sidelines for a bigger role, he expects to be repaid on the casting couch as he is accustomed.
She refuses to play along and later berates him in front of a film crew, and he spends years trying to ruin her career. Scandal-mongering journalists ask whether her films are to blame for a string of violent rapes, whipping up angry mobs who attack her in the streets. In a major act of self-determination as an artist, she and a long-time director partner create an autobiographical film, but a pretentious screenwriter only agrees to work on it if she will undergo sedation while he probes her for her life story. Initial reviews are bad, but word of mouth spreads and the film is a smash hit. Only then does Shakeela watch the released version, and she’s surprised to see that her director inserted soft-core scenes starring her body double (Suhana, played by Ester Noronh). (According to an interview, this did actually happen to some of her films as a workaround for the censor board’s restrictions.) A childhood friend who becomes a love interest and financially supports her dream project slaps her across the face for creating a film that he’s ashamed to show his family.
“Poor men! They lack imagination. Their only motivating factor is sex,” Shakeela says in her autobiography, and that certainly seems to be a uniform trait of the men in this film. This opinion has so much potential for the core of a film: use it as a reason to show women’s creative acts, women’s responsibilities, women’s collegiality and complexity. But maybe that’s too hard a sell for audiences, and the film manages to show the idea plainly while simultaneously doing little of interest with it. I’m disappointed that a film based on a living famous person who has published an autobiography and gives lots of interviews—so, there’s lot of relevant raw material—still feels so flat at times. From the interviews and book excerpts I can find in English, like the example opening this paragraph, Shakeela is clearly a very interesting and thoughtful person with a specific but important view on the film industries she worked in. I saw a review that suggests the inconsistently stripped-down aesthetics of the film are supposed to be a nod to the low-budget projects Shakeela worked in, but I’m not quite convinced, mostly because the sequences about Shakeela and Salim at work are lively colorful, and funny. The song “Taaza” includes many clips of the film-world scenes, and you don’t need to know anything about Indian cinema to get a sense of the way journalists and fans treat her and the shooting and marketing of her films.
The relationships with other women are the film’s most moving moments. She forms a tight friendship with Suhana, finding in her a true colleague as well as a sister figure. (Her real- life body double, Surayya Banu, has also written an autobiography, and I bet both of these books must be fascinating, giving perspectives on filmmaking and pop culture that most of us cannot imagine.) She showers her family with the profits from her hard work, but then her mother, decked in jewelry that Shakeela’s earnings bought, shames her for mismanaging her income. She pays for her sister’s wedding, but her mother refuses to let her attend, warning that her shameful line of work will ruin her sister’s reputation.
Shakeela has a doozy of a scene showing Shakeela’s first meeting with reigning star Silk Smitha. The younger actress expresses respect and idolization of the established star, who is clearly threatened by this new arrival. When Shakeela accidentally spills a drink, Silk slaps her across the face. Certain her career is ruined, Shakeela cries alone in her room at night, only to be confronted with a sensational news blast that Silk has been found dead, apparently by her own hand. Watch a confrontation scene from Silk (in green) and Shakeela’s (in a towel) actual film, Play Girls (which released the same years Silk died) here. I actually expected to see more moments of jealousy-fueled spite by women characters against Shakeela, and I think the makers are right to include this one because of the actual similarities of the two stars’ careers. Silk is too famous and has had too lasting an impact to be ignored in a story about someone doing very similar work. (Shakeela describes their actual work together in her book, and the movie’s depiction is not factual in some dramatic ways.)
At least Shakeela is clearly on its subject’s side. After two hours of her being mistreated by absolutely everyone in her life, the film ends with a furious Shakeela preaching at a crowd of mostly men journalists about the role of her audiences and the media in sustaining rape culture and regressive attitudes about sex—and quite rightly so, I must add. Shakeela’s autobiography carries the subtitle “I am not guilty, but I am sad,” and I am happy to see that, since it was making changes from history anyway, at least the film version of her story switched from “sad” to “fed up and pissed off.”
In the article “The Rise of Soft Porn in Malayalam Cinema,” Darshana Sreedhar Mini talks about the informal networks of production, distribution, and marketing of soft-core films, and I think those would all make great sub-themes to bring up in a project like Shakeela. She points out, as do many other writers, that such films were sometimes even called “Shakeela films,” a clear indication that Shakeela and her work are culturally significant and worth more investigation than the standard beats that the biopic mostly dwells in. I know it’s not fair to ask a film to be totally different than what it is, but I can’t help it: Shakeela the person and Shakeela the genre are both so rich. This could have been so much more. And for all I know, maybe it was initially intended to be but was whittled into its current mild shape by factors outside the makers’ control. In 2020, there were many films that we all wished could have had a theatrical release to find wider audiences and flaunt their visual splendor on a huge screen, but Shakeela may have benefited from the creative freedoms of a streaming release. Indian films and series on Netflix and Prime can be more nuanced in their portrayal of sex, politics, and religion than theatrical releases can, and I think a miniseries treatment would have served this subject so much better. I can imagine six or so episodes, each with Shakeela at its core and examining her relationship with other people as a way to investigate actual cultural complexities: she and Suhana illustrate attitudes about consent and bodies, producers and cinema owners comment on the financial pressures on film industries, she argues with the media about its role in mob behavior, an aging Salim bellows about the importance of proper heroes and family-friendly movies.
In her book, Shakeela says “I decided to write this book on myself because people should know how a Shakeela is formed and shaped,” and the film could have shown more depth around that principle, creating a story that was just as emotionally compelling as the one full of familiar tropes, as well as showing us something unique about the particular filmmaking world she was so important in. Reviewer Saibal Chatterjee describes the audiences in the film as “a morally ambivalent society that laps up her titillating films but does not have the courage to own up to its obsession with her,” and I wish the makers had had more faith in the audiences of the film.
Shakeela is available to rent on Youtube with English subtitles. Watch the trailer here (without subtitles). This interview and this translated excerpt from her autobiography are fascinating. “The Rise of Soft Porn in Malayalam Cinema and the Precarious Stardom of Shakeela” by Darshana Sreedhar Mini, University of Wisconsin-Madison, is available at Academia.edu. This article includes more information on the softcore industry in Kerala, the heroine type Shakeela personified, and methods for getting Shakeela films past the censor board.
* #Notsponsored: in the interest of making Indian films more accessible around the world, I truly do recommend Einthusan.tv, which as far as I know is available everywhere outside of India. I bought a subscription a few years ago for a one-time fee that was less than three months of Netflix or Prime, and it has films from many different Indian industries, including Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam. Many (though not all) films have English subtitles.
Beth Watkins enjoys her Einthusan.tv subscription immensely.