Her debut was in 'Bhagyajathakam' in 1962. It's been 60 years. And rightfully Sheela remains incomparable to this day. Over 500 films in various South Indian languages. She has touched 300 films in Malayalam alone. A heroine who was paid more than the hero back then. The first woman from South India who wrote and directed a film. She has directed two Malayalam films ('Yakshagaanam', 1976 & 'Shikarangal', 1979). Wrote the story for three films. Over 30 of her short stories and 2 novels have been published. She is also a painter. During her comeback after 22 years, she won the State and National awards for Best supporting actress for 'Akale' (2005). She lives at Sheela Castle, a huge bungalow in Chennai with her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren.
For the Malayalam film industry, she is their Sheelamma. That reminds us to rethink what Kerala gave back to Sheela? A late JC Daniel Award in 2018. She also has the distinction of appearing with a hero (Prem Nazir) in a record number of films. Prem Nazir was awarded the Padma Bhushan 40 years ago. But Sheela hasn't even won a Padmashri to date. Not that it has lessened people's love for her. She continues to be loved and admired. When we met her for this interview, her younger brother, George was bedridden. Two days later he died. "His death was a big shock for me. I didn't expect that at all. Anyway, I have already prepared a will. My body should be cremated in an electric crematorium and my ashes should be immersed in the Ganges."
Excerpts from a conversation with Sheela…
Memories of your first studio experience...
My first film 'Paasam' was filmed at Vahini studio in Madras. It was about 5 or 6 acres and that was the only thing that registered on my mind. But now when I think about it, I am amazed. Maintaining a 15-floor studio can be no small feat. There would be shoots for various language films at the same time. Back then the concept of caravan meant trees. We would all sit under the trees. Now neither Vahini studio nor Udaya studio is there. Every time I look at these places, I feel a sense of loss. My lucky studio was Gemini. 'Chemmeen's indoor portions were shot there. Remember that last scene where I am hugging Madhu, that was shot on the terrace of our rented house. There are many jackfruit trees behind that house. Its branches were stretched on the terrace. That's where we shot that scene.
Your father died when you were living in Ooty. Your mother and 7 siblings struggled to make ends meet. Finally, the second daughter debuted on stage at the age of 13 to take care of her family. That was how you started…
During that time S S Rajendran and his wife Vijayakumari were reputed actors. Their drama was being staged in Ooty. We went to watch it. Rajendran's first wife, Pankajam was a Malayalee. When my mother spoke about our dwindling financial condition, it was Pankajam who was keen to know if I was interested in acting. When my mother said yes, Pankajam promised to write a letter when she reached Chennai. I was furious to hear that and expressed my displeasure to my mother. "Amma, why did you say that I knew acting. I don't know acting and I am not interested as well."
"Ok, then tell me how we are going to run this family," my mother asked me. A week later Pankajam's letter, tickets, and money came. Along with my mother, we went to Chennai and joined SSR's drama company.
Memories of your first drama…
My first drama was called 'Raja Annamalai Mandram'. I play a sculptor's daughter. There weren't many dialogues. A King while examining the sculptors finds me and remarks that this sculptor is good. Then the sculptor will tell him that it is no sculptor but his daughter. The show was near Paris in Chennai. MGR and Director T R Ramanna had come to watch the show. They liked me. I was signed for Ramanna's film at that stage itself. I was only 13 years. So my drama life ended on the day it began.
And your experiences in cinema…
'Paasam' was being shot simultaneously in Tamil and Telugu. The first shot will have a scene enacted by MGR and Sharada in Telugu while the same scene will be enacted by MGR and me in Tamil in the next shot. I was told to learn from Sharada. MGR would only talk to my mother. "Sheela is an unsuitable name. It is too short. I have a cousin sister called Subhadra Devi. That will be ideal." But my mother told him — "We had to face a lot of opposition from home to be here. If we change her name, no one will know it is Sheela."
Then he suggested Sheela Devi and the title card had that name. My original name was Sheela Celine, and Celine is my grandmother's name. I am the second child of my parents. There was a 10-year difference between me and my elder sister, Sharanya. I have two brothers and eight sisters. Three of them died at a very young age. My sisters are Anita, Shobha and Latha and my brothers are George and Peter.
Your experience with MGR, NTR, and Jayalalitha who later become Chief Ministers of a State...
Then I didn't know who they (MTR and NTR) were as I hadn't watched their films. And I hadn't read about them as well. So I had no fear when I acted with them. After 'Paasam' I did 'Puthiya Bhoomi' and 'Panathottam' with MGR. I just had a few scenes with him. And I was also doing a lot of films in Malayalam at that time. The shooting was scheduled according to MGR's call sheet. I was told by the Producers not to shoot for any other film till that call sheet came. But since Sathyan master and other artists were waiting for me to shoot outdoors at the location, I had to leave for Kerala. MGR was furious with me and since I had only two scenes, those were removed from the film. Having said that once MGR came home when he was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. At that time Jayalalithaa was at home. He spent a few moments there and left. Before leaving my driver had told him that it was his daughter's wedding. MGR made sure the bride's ornaments were funded by him.
Though 'Paasam' was the first film you acted in, yout first release was 'Bhagyajathakam.' How do you remember your first hero?
It was Sathyan master who gave me the confidence to act. If you ask me my most memorable moment was a meeting I attended with Sathyan master soon after 'Chemmeen.' It was near a beach in Trissur and a huge crowd was there. A man suddenly came and hugged me. He had held me tightly. Sathyan pushed him away and stomped on his chest. That was the first time I saw Inspector Sathyan. Till then I hadn't even heard him raise his voice.
Why did you decide to quit acting?
I was fed up with cinema and acting. I wanted to see a world beyond cinema. Barely a month after giving birth to my son, I acted in a film called 'Chukku.' I was 8 months pregnant when I did 'Kanyaka.' The day I decided to quit acting, I went and brought half a kilo of Mysore Pak. I never ate sweets when I acted because I was scared of weight gain. Even now I cannot live without sweets.
Where are your sisters now?
It was my sister Sharanya who used to look after my schedules and everything. She was married to someone in Salem. She was undergoing treatment for infertility. One day she had sudden stomach pain but even before we could take her to the doctor, she died. It was tubular pregnancy. Her dead body was brought to this home. Then I had to take care of everything. Jayalalithaa used to ask me how I was going to manage everything. Much later in life, I have asked her the same question. The person who asked me that question was taking care of a state.
I have seen it all—being a mother, wife, sister, and daughter. I have never spoken about my son's father. Ravichandran was part of several superhit films. His films used to run for 250 days. But alcohol addiction destroyed his career. When he wasn't getting films in Tamil, he shifted to Malayalam. He got divorced and has three children from his first marriage. We acted together in 'Omana' directed by JD Thottan. I casually mentioned during a conversation that my sisters have all gotten married. My mother was bedridden then. JD Thottan and Ravichandran were good friends. It was Thottan who suggested our alliance. Later Sethumadhavan and M O Joseph also insisted. That's how that marriage happened. Since the birth of our son, we have been living apart. He had another home and preferred to stay there. He wouldn't let me stay there. I would tell him to live with me. But he would leave after staying for a day or two. His mother and sister lived at T Nagar. It was much later that I came to know that he had another family. Then I told him it was not possible to live with him. We separated after two and a half years. I have conducted the marriages of so many people. Ironically my own marriage didn't work out. Leave that chapter aside and I have only happy memories!