“You’ve all seen her films – I mean who doesn’t know Shakeela here,” director Indrajit Lankesh said at Townhall in Bengaluru on Tuesday. The filmmaker was speaking at a publicity event organised for his Hindi biopic of Shakeela, the actress known for softcore and B-movies in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada.

The under-production biopic, starring Richa Chadha in the lead role, draws from Shakeela: Autobiography among other sources. Shakeela has been closely involved with the making of the film.

Pankaj Tripathi plays one of Shakeela’s co-stars in the movie. The cast includes Kannada actress Esther Noronha and Malayalam actor Rajeev Pillai. Nearly 65% of the biopic, which is being produced by the American company Magic Cinemas, has been completed.

Born Shakeela C Begum near Nellore in Andhra Pradesh, the actress shot to fame in the 1990s and 2000s through softcore productions, which were especially popular in Kerala and were called ‘Shakeela Films’. The 48-year-old actress made her debut at the age of 16 in RD Shekhar’s softcore film Play Girls (1994).

“Shakeela’s story is an incredible one,” Lankesh said. “If some of her small-budget films collected 50 million, others collected close to 80 million. She’d act in close to 180-190 films in a year. Her face on a poster was enough to sell a film. The only other actress who comes to my mind for her prolific work is Malashree in Kannada cinema. There were times when at one location, several films were being shot with Malashree. But even she wasn’t as popular as Shakeela.”

Warts and all

Shakeela is Lankesh’s first film in Hindi. His Kannada credits include Monalisa (2004), Aishwarya (2006) and Luv U Alia (2015). While Shakeela says in her memoir that she was inspired by Silk Smitha, whose tragic and short life was the basis of Milan Luthria’s The Dirty Picture in 2001, Lankesh asserted that his movie will be different.

The Dirty Picture is my favourite film but it wasn’t a biopic,” Lankesh said. “My film doesn’t omit anything. We’ve included her childhood, the choices she made in her personal life, how she came to the film industry and how she got the image that she has, all the struggles in her life – a complete story basically. She is someone who doesn’t have any filters when it comes to talking about her life. She is quite open about all that has happened to her.”

In the mid-2000s, Shakeela’s popularity waned, and she was cast in less significant roles. Among her recent films was Lankesh’s Luv U Alia in 2015, in which she plays a seductive nurse.

Earlier this year, Lankesh met Shakeela at her house in Chennai to seek permission for an official biopic. He made her sit in front of a camera and asked her to talk about “anything and everything that came to her mind”. The director added, “She has a written a book about her life but I felt she hasn’t spoken about herself and her life in its entirety. I recorded everything she said in front of my camera that day. And then wrote a script. This is her story.”

‘Shakeela is a survivor’

Lankesh’s script drew Richa Chadha to the role. “I saw so many dramatic moments in her life that it looked like a screenplay ready to be made into a film,” Chadha said at the Bengaluru event. “She’s a survivor. There are so many aspects of her personal life that we don’t know about, those that shaped her. The personal affects the professional – that interplay is the film.”

Chadha agreed to play the part after she got the assurance that the movie would not be exploitative or titillating. “We have a responsibility to the subject who is still alive and a functioning member of society,” said Chadha, whose credits include Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), Fukrey (2013), Masaan (2015) and the upcoming Love Sonia. “As a woman, I will empathise and do my job with responsibility. Yes, there is a certain image of her in her audience’s mind. We are not trying to circumvent that, but are taking it along with us without going overboard.”

Both Chadha and Lankesh asserted that the biopic would present a nuanced portrayal of Shakeela. “Life is not black or white,” Chadha said. “It is grey and we are happy to present that grey side to you.”

Pankaj Tripathi plays one of Shakeela’s co-stars in the biopic, but he would not reveal if his character is based on a particular actor. “Whatever he [Lankesh] tells me, I do,” Tripathi said. “I listened to the story he narrated and liked it. I’m having fun wearing a red blazer and walking in slow motion.”

Aiming for a pan-Indian audience

Chadha’s preparations for the role do not include physical transformation (for one thing, the Hindi film actress has a smaller frame than Shakeela). “Sometimes the work of an actor gets overshadowed by the physical transformation that he or she does,” Chadha explained. “I don’t want the study of the character or the graph to be overshadowed by, oh, she is working out so much or she is eating so much. Also, keeping in mind the pan-Indian audience – I’m a Hindi film actress and this is a Hindi film – we took that choice to not do a ditto matching to broaden the horizons of the film.”

When Chadha first read Shakeela’s life story, she admits that she found it “bizarre.” Chadha said, “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who fall apart when affected by a calamity or an adverse situation and those who survive. In her case, it takes a lot for a person to be happy living in a one-room apartment [after seeing so much fame]. I’m a spiritual person and I can see that Shakeela has her idea of life sorted.”

Chadha interviewed Shakeela about her life when they first met. By the second time, they were behaving more like friends, she said. “I just wanted to observe her and see where she is coming from,” Chadha said. “We are both middle-class girls. I was raised in Delhi in a joint family and brought up a certain way. When I met her, I realised that in some way, my conditioning holds me back, while she is more liberated. Her life is full of contradictions. On the one hand, she is very religious, proper and modest, and then there is this other facet to her which is quite liberated and worldly.”

What will audiences who are not familiar with Shakeela take away from the film?

“That in a way, this is every woman’s story and experience – of all that a woman has to face living in a male-dominated society, of working in a male-dominated industry,” Lankesh said.

Shakeela in Boss Engira Baskaran (2010).