New Delhi: Raj Kapoor’s 1955 classic Shree 420 is often remembered for the iconic moment when, under an umbrella, the Bollywood actor and Nargis sing Pyar Hua Ikraar Hua. Or maybe you remember the song Ramaiya Vastavaiya, which featured Sheila Vaz, a Hindi film dancer, known for Leke Pehla Pehla Pyar from CID.
Despite quitting Bollywood in 1961 and changing her name to Rama Lakhanpal, Sheila loved to reminisce about her time in the industry. Karan Bali, a filmmaker who interviewed the dancer in 2009, writes, “Her face lit up as she told us that even today when her songs are shown on TV, youngsters and neighbours come up to her and tell her how much they liked her dances!”
Vaz passed away last night in Mumbai.
Sheila was born in a Goan Catholic family from Dadar, Bombay on 18 October 1934. She came into Bollywood at the age of 17 after having trained in Indian classical dance, despite resistance from her family. She filled the ‘vacant’ seat left behind by noted dancer Mohana Cabral. Her foray into Bollywood coincided with the time when legendary dancers like Cuckoo, Roopmala, Helen, Minoo Mumtaz, and Kumkum were testing the waters.
Bollywood dancer who didn’t know Hindi
Because of Bollywood’s Hindi-centric filmmaking, Sheila Vaz was put in a position of disadvantage — she didn’t speak the language. Therefore, for her dances, she would be given lyrics transcribed in Roman script. She ended up featuring in nearly 70 movies — beginning with her stint as a background dancer in Shokhiyan (1951), followed by a full-fledged number in Maa (1952).
If one is to remember Sheila, Ramaiya Vastavaiya can’t be missed. Choreographed by the legendary Zohra Sehgal, the song was shot in Worli sea face, long before high-rises and commercial complexes dotted the location. The present Bombay-Worli Sea Link came up at the same spot. Despite her one-minute screen presence in the song, one cannot forget her expressions and performance. Even in Leke Pehla Pehla Pyar, despite sharing the screen with Dev Anand and Shakila, Sheila stands out. Even the comments section of the YouTube video has people appreciating her, and how the song by Mohammed Rafi, Shamshad Begum and Asha Bhosle was immortalised through her dance.
The song also featured the film’s assistant director Shyam Kapoor who plays the harmonium in tandem with her dance.
Requisite accreditation in Bollywood did not extend to dancers back in Sheila Vaz’s day. This is why a lot of song and dance credits are difficult to attribute to her. On top of that, there is also the case of two spellings of her name (the other being ‘Sheela’), making it difficult to compile her performances.
The lack of technology complicated it further. Today, you can find uploaded songs everywhere, from YouTube to Spotify or even Instagram, making it easy to find digital footprints.
But we do have some of Sheila’s songs, including Ghar Aaja Ghir Aaye Badra from Chhote Nawab(1961). Despite giving some powerful performances, and with Guru Dutt reportedly wanting to cast her in one of his movies, Sheila bid adieu to Bollywood in 1961.
She had lost all of the memorabilia of her days in Hindi cinema as her ground-floor flat flooded in the 2005 Mumbai floods. But the legacy she has left behind still resonates in the hearts of those who listen to old Bollywood classics.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)