After The Dirty Picture, Milan Luthria’s 2001 biopic of Silk Smitha, comes another biopic of another sensational figure from the southern film world.

Richa Chadha will play Shakeela, who is best-known for her softcore and B-movies in Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu. The biopic will be directed by Kannada filmmaker Indrajit Lankesh, whose credits include Monalisa (2004), Aishwarya (2006) and Luv U Alia (2015).

There is a deeper connection between Shakeela and Silk Smitha. Shakeela claimed to have been inspired by Smitha, and began her career in Smitha’s shadow.

Shakeela made her debut at the age of 16 in RD Shekhar’s softcore film Play Girls (1994), in which she plays Linda, the younger sister of Mary (Smitha). Linda gets encouraged to explore her sexuality after witnessing Mary and her husband, Charles, in the bedroom. Linda seduces a boy who runs errands for the family before Mary decides to send her to a hostel.

Like Smitha, Shakeela scorched the screen through numerous softcore films towards the end of the 1990s and early 2000s. Her filmography spans the four industries in the South, but she proved to be most popular in the Malayalam film industry. The productions in which she starred began to be called ‘Shakeela Films’, and it is said that their popularity forced mainstream directors to avoid releasing their films on the same date.

The 48-year-old actress has had a tumultuous career, from incredible popularity in the early 2000s to being relegated to cameos in more recent years. She continues to act – her last role was in the 2015 Tamil language comedy Sakalakala Vallavan – but is mostly seen as part of the ensemble cast.

Even as the news of the Lankesh biopic broke, Shakeela announced her 250th film Seelavathi what the ***k!, in which she will play the lead role.

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Seelavathi what the ***k! (2018).

Born Shakeela C Begum near Nellore in Andhra Pradesh, the actor is one of six siblings. In interviews, she has said that she was compelled to become a breadwinner at an early age.

In her memoir, titled Shakeela: Autobiography, and published in Malayalam, she wrote about being raped as a teenager by a man whom her mother said would financially help the family and being cheated out of her money by her sister, Noorjehan. In a translated excerpt published in the magazine Open, Shakeela says. “I have no good memories of my mother. I never experienced love and care from her. It was my mother who spoiled my life.”

She also said that she preferred the company of women to men while drinking alcohol. “Men would make sexual advances after a few drinks,” she writes. “They think that I give them company because I want to sleep with them. Poor men! They lack imagination. Their only motivating factor is sex.”

She would fall asleep during bedroom scenes, she reveals. “For everyone, I was nothing more than an erotic body. Nobody cared about exploring the actress in me.”

What did Shakeela think of her films, such as Play Girls, which set the ball rolling?

Play Girls itself was a glamour film [the colloquial term for softcore films],” Shakeela said in an interview to Telugu news channel TV9. “But I didn’t know what a glamour film was at that age...What we today call B-grade films, those days it was called sex-education films. Silk’s character was trying to protect my character in the film – a young girl must get the right influence – that was the point of the film...I liked the charm and glamour of the film industry. The costumes, the short skirts, I liked it all.”

Filmmakers lost no opportunity to project male sexual fantasies onto Shakeela’s voluptuous frame. In 1994, she appeared in a small role in Manivasagam’s Tamil drama Jallikattu Kaalai as Pushpavanam, the child bride of Arusamy (Goundamani). In her entry scene, Arusamy tests if Pushpavanam ticks all the boxes in his check-list. He asks her to walk in front of him. As she turns, the camera pans down to her exposed hip.

After their wedding, Arusamy discovers that Pushpavanam hasn’t menstruated yet. For the rest of the film, Arusamy tries different strategies to make his wife get her period so that they may consummate the relationship.

Several such small, forgettable and exploitation-laced roles followed for Shakeela. In Gokula Krishnan’s Udhavikkuu Varalama (1998), she performs the item number Neethan Neethan. Manivannan, who plays the father to Devayani’s character, sings and romances Shakeela in the poorly sung and imagined song.

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Udhavikku Varalama (1998).

Shakeela’s breakout film came two years later with RJ Prasad’s Kinnarathumbikal. She plays Dakshayani, who seduces a young boy who is banished from his home after he falls in love with his cousin. The same year as Kinnarathumbikal, which went on to be dubbed in six languages, Prasad cast Shakeela in a similar seductress role in Manjukalapakshi (2000). Gloria (Shakeela) seduces two men in the film, one of whom murders her. She continues to haunt the murderer’s thoughts, but even when she does so, he wants to sleep with her.

Kinnarathumbikal set the template for the kind of films Shakeela would appear in for the next few years. One of the elements of the template was a bathing scene, in which Shakeela would appear in a strategically worn towel. All these scenes are similarly lensed – from a long shot, the filmmaker cuts to a close-up of her cleavage as Shakeela methodically lathers herself with soap. The camera objectifies every aspect of her body, finding strange angles from which to look at her.

In PN Srinivasa Rao’s Paruvam, Shakeela sits in a bathtub as she lathers herself. She hums the tune of the Madhuri Dixit song Dhak Dhak Karne Laga from the Hindi film Beta (1991). There is nobody watching her, except, of course, the audience.

Another highlight of these films is the elaborate and repetitive scenes of foreplay, again designed to titillate viewers.

Kinnarathumbikal made the older woman-younger man dynamic popular, but the men in Shakeela’s films were not always young boys. Some filmmakers also gave the typical Shakeela film an evil twist. In Kinnaram Cholli Cholli (2001), she plays Kavitha, a murderer on the prowl. She lets her victim Vijay think that he took advantage of her up until she robs him and attempts to kill him.

The outright seductress got a break in EVV Satyanarayana’s Telugu comedy Thotti Gang. Shakeela was ironically cast as Matashri, the head of an all-women ashram. Throughout the film, Matashri advises Venkata Lakshmi (Anita Hassnandani) on giving up worldly pleasures and embracing sanyasam. To the women who are forever trying to lay their hands on men who visit the ashram. Matashri says, “Don’t get tempted and don’t tempt me.” Her resolve doesn’t last for too long, however.

Thotti Gang saw Shakeela playing the woman who coaches other women in the art of seduction. In A Venkatesh’s action film Vathiyar (2006), Shakeela introduces a young dancer in the song Pappala Paapa. She also throws in a few steps of her own as the focus shifts to the barely clad dancer showing off her pelvic thrusts.

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Vathiyar (2006).

A film before Vathiyar created another kind of role, one that played right into the male fantasy of the heavy-breathing teacher. In M Raja’s 2003 romantic drama Jayam, Shakeela is cast as a college professor. Along with teaching accountancy and commerce, she also teaches sports and exercise, paving the way for scenes that feature the bulky actress running across corridors and leading a pack of young men entranced by her. In Thaka Dhimi Tha (2005), she plays the warden of a girls’ hostel whose mere touch sends boys into raptures.

Shakeela is a teacher again in M Rajesh’s Tamil comedy Boss Engira Baskaran (2010). Baskaran (Arya) and Nallathambi (Santhanam) are unsuccessfully trying to get a coaching class up and running. As a last resort, Nallathambi brings Shakeela, a mathematics professor, to the class. As she enters the classroom, all the teenage boys stand up with their mouths open. They stare at her as she explains a theorem. When Nallathambi asks the class later what they thought of her, a student says, “Wait, she taught maths?”

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Boss Engira Bhaskaran (2010).

In Deepu Karunakaran’s Malayalam romantic comedy Teja Bhai and Family, Shakeela is a health department representative. But even in this role, her reputation precedes her. As Rajaguru Maha Rishi Vashyaa Vajasu (Suraj Venjaramod), a man pretending to be a monk, tries to tease her by twisting her questions, she sticks to her job. “Do you have a family?” she asks him. “If you’ll allow it, I could,” the Rajaguru replies. She finally calls for help and gets rid of the man.

Shakeela plays Parimala, the president of the All India Men’s Association in Vasuvum Saravananum Onna Padichavanga (2015) directed once again by M Rajesh. She expresses her solidarity with a strike called by Vasu (Santhanam) and Saravanan (Arya) in support of men who have been cheated by their wives and girlfriends. When reporters ask Parimala why she has decided to support this club of women-haters, she says, “If I am not there for the men, who will be?”

Today, Shakeela lives alone in a small rented accommodation. A small house is all she needs, she told the TV9 reporter in her interview. Work has become scarce, and she cannot understand why.

However, when asked if she ever regretted anything in her career, she simply said, “No.”

She added, “It is because of those films that you remember me today. Why should I regret anything?”