Sheila Ramani:Forgotten Ava Gardner of Bollywood
By Siraj Khan

DJ Sindh Government Science College in Karachi, Pakistan was founded in 1887 chiefly through the far–sightedness of the Sindhi philanthropist Dayaram Jethmal, whose name it still bears. F.M. Kewalramani was the Principal of this prestigious institution, even after the 1947 partition, who lived with his family in a posh flat in Hotu Khemchand’s Rock Court on Victoria Road, Karachi. Sheila was still in college when the family decided to migrate to India.

The Kewalramanis arrived in Mussoorie in May 1952, searching for a place to stay. That was when people started to notice the spark that Sheila carried around with her. People would stop and unashamedly stare at her. Sheila, who was 20 then, was soon a sought after model in ads. Hardly surprising, Miss Sheila was crowned Miss Shimla next and was being spoken of as one of the most attractive women around, despite her relatively darker complexion.

Some sort of cinematic history was created then with Taxi Driver, as the film was shot mainly on the streets of Mumbai with a movie camera tied to the back of a taxi. Such became the popularity of Dev Anand’s taxi in that superhit film that the British-made black Hillman Minx bearing registration number 1111, became a vehicle of choice as a taxi in Mumbai for at least the next fifteen years or so.

The city of Mumbai may have formed a major character of the film, but then along came Sylvie, who blew everyone off their feet. The character of Sylvie, an Anglo-Indian club dancer was played by Sheila Ramani, who was introduced by director Chetan Anand, brother of Dev Anand, in this film. Few women in the industry have become household names overnight, that too without even being cast as the leading lady. She was now being compared with Hollywood’s Ava Gardner, many years her older Those who saw the glamorous Sheila in Taxi Driver, found her much more attractive than the heroine of the film, Kalpana Kartik, who was to become Mrs Dev Anand’s later on. Dil se mila ke dil pyar kijiye, composed by SD Burman and picturized on her, is still as much popular today as it was 60 years ago. and who can forget Dil jale to jale .   Following that film, she starred in numerous others like Meenar, Mangu, Naukri, Railway Platform, Funtoosh, Joru ka bhai (which had Subah ka intezar kaun kare) among others. She was usually the first choice for the upper–class modern girl, a role she executed to perfection all through her relatively short cinema career. She also went on to play the female lead in India’s first Sindhi film Abana (1960). Her last film released was Maa Beta in 1962. In between, on invitation of her uncle Sheikh Latif, who was a renowned film producer in Pakistan, she visited Karachi to play the female lead in the film Anokhi, which was a runaway hit. Few actresses have made their mark on both sides of the border, as she had. Here is a link of three songs from that film.              

Sheila Ramani, married a Parsi gentleman, Jall Cowasji, with whom she lived in Mumbai, New York, Colombo and Australia. Returning to India, she remained elusive for many years and made concerted efforts to keep her family away from the film industry.

Now in her 80s, Sheila lives in her husband’s ancestral home in the small cantonment town of Mhow (MP), leading a quiet life in her twilight years. Her skin may have developed some wrinkles over time, but not the heart. And the eyes of Taxi Driver’s Sylvie have not lost their sparkle either. (This article was written in December 2014. The author learned from a friend in Bombay that Sheila Ramani had passed away quietly in July 2015)



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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