It is a hot noon in Kodambakkam, a neighbourhood in Chennai, and Shakeela has left the apartment door open. She has no security or bodyguards, just an assistant, Thangaraj, and a distant cousin, Mahalakshmi, for company at home. When Thangaraj brings me a cup of coffee, I notice his mascara-thickened lashes, bead earrings and man-breasts. He’s a cross-dresser who handles Shakeela’s minute-to-minute existence: he answers all her calls, looks after shoots and schedules, cooks and feeds her and even makes her favourite Bloody Mary the way she likes it. From where I’m sitting, Shakeela appears to be a housewife relaxing after the day’s chores. She is wearing a slate-gray nightie, gold earrings, and her hair is pulled back into a plain ponytail. A towel is draped carefully across the nightie, over her breasts, which I have already seen naked in a porn clip two days ago, while researching this story. “I always wanted to be a housewife — cooking, cleaning, feeding my kids and waiting for my husband to be back from work. But, fate interfered,” she says when I tell her she’s homely. Her speech is hurried — a habitual anxiety that traces its way back to growing up with six siblings. She had to speak fast if she wanted to be heard.

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The sacred red thread around her wrist dangles as she hurls instructions to someone on the other side of the door. “Thankyou, bhaiya,” she calls out to the men, who exit her kitchen with huge utensils perched on their heads. “Yesterday was my birthday. We had a party and some biryani,” she explains. Her English is impeccable for someone who has failed every examination since the eighth standard. “I failed in the eighth and again in the ninth. When I failed my tenth standard exams, my dad lost his cool and hit me, right here on this balcony.” She points to the parapet beside me and continues gesturing at the locations of events as she reminisces. “He created a ruckus. I was crying out loud and people gathered. A couple of men from the opposite building, which was then a production company, came running to stop my father. One of them was a make-up man named Umashankar, who asked me right then whether I’d like to act in films. He later talked my father into it, and that’s how I quit school and did my first role, in Nakshatra Nayakan in 1992. I was the villain’s bride. Nobody even noticed me during the screenings. I had to stand up in the theatre and yell, ‘Paaru, ithunaanthaan (Look, this is me)’.”

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Poverty rarely bothered Shakeela as a kid. She would often hide under a mahogany desk in the production company, from where she eyed the routines of people in the movies. Though she despised school, she has vivid memories of staying back to watch Tamil actors Sathyaraj and Suhasini during a film shoot in her school. Plus, her seniors were a part of India’s first 3D movie, Chhota Chetan. The attention they received always overwhelmed her. “Back then, I didn’t feel I was pretty enough to be on screen. I was always overweight and never proud of my shape. I just didn’t know there would be seekers for that as well. In the initial years, I used to frequent the gym, just to wear spandex. I thought it made me look great. But, that was for a few months, and then I stopped. For whom should I reduce? Those who watch me come to see flesh — the more, the better.”

It is a lesser-known fact that Shakeela’s career in B-grade films began with Play Girls, in which she played Silk Smitha’s younger sister. “Wear a padded bra so your nipples are not shown” was Smitha’s first piece of advice to the young Shakeela, who sat in a corner as the make-up man shaved her armpits for the first time in her life. “When I first saw Smitha, she sat with her head hung backwards, her feet extended onto another chair. Two air coolers on either side. She was wearing a miniskirt, and her face was covered with huge sunglasses,” she says. In the movie, there is a scene in which Smitha has to slap Shakeela. Shakeela stood there, wearing only a towel, and Smitha hit her hard across her face. “It hurt me bad, but I think I was more hurt because I had a crush on the director. I kept looking into his eyes as tears rolled down. All I wanted was for him to say something, but he stood there unaffected. I felt humiliated and didn’t go back to the set for a week, until Smitha came home with a basket of chocolates and apologised.”

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Shakeela made several attempts to quit her line of work, but each time her mother persuaded her with clichés — “What will we eat? Do you want us to starve?” Shakeela’s second attempt at staying away from the industry went haywire when seven months after her father’s death, soft-core porn director RJ Prasad approached her with Kinnarathumbikal (2000). “I asked him to get lost after hearing the story, but my mother called out from the other room and asked me to take up the offer.” Completed on a shoestring budget of Rs 12 lakh, the film grossed Rs 4 crore. Soon after, soft-core porn director AT Joy approached her for a film, and that was the first time she saw Rs 1 lakh in cash. “Before I realised, I started getting paid Rs 3 lakh per day. The figures kept rising, and my films got dubbed into a dozen languages, and I started being addressed as chechi (sister).”

Shakeela has lived in the same dilapidated apartment for 32 years, on rent that began at Rs 650 per month. “The rent is now in five digits, but I like it here. Besides, I have no savings after all these years of work. My mistake was that I trusted my mother and sister with the money. It is there in my autobiography. The book is indirectly meant for parents on how not to raise their children.”. Though a Tamilian, Shakeela’s autobiography was first published in Malayalam, by Olive Publications, and is titled Shakeela: Autobiography. ‘I am not guilty but I am sad’ reads the blurb. Shakeela says, “My mother auctioned my virginity when I was 18, but there was no way I could do it. I kept kicking the guy away. I had to go to a doctor and get a gel for it to happen. Till then, I had no idea what sex or orgasm meant.” During the orgasm scenes in her movies, Shakeela would close her eyes and bite her lips while someone gently tickled her feet to make her thunder thighs tremble. Predictably, she has never been aroused during a performance.

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Sadness spills over as she talks about her abortion and her love for kids. “For now, there’s my assistant, who calls me mummy and doesn’t take a penny’s worth of salary from me. He is whatever little family I have left.” And, marriage? She longs to be married, but there’s no hurry. For now, she dons a burkha and goes to a coffee shop nearby to meet her boyfriend. “My New Year’s resolution is to stop referring to my guy as my boyfriend. I’m too old for that shit. The media takes pity on my relationship status and is forever trying to marry me off, but the truth is that the maximum time I get to be with a guy is three years. Maybe this one will turn out to be different. Inshallah.” When asked whether she is religious, she says, “I am a believer, but the last time I spoke about religion, I read an online comment that said, ‘How dare a half-naked porn star talk about Allah?’ So, I stopped saying I am a Muslim, since that bothers my people.”

In Google searches, Shakeela’s name is synonymous with ‘Mallu aunty’. Her fans have named houses after her in Kerala. But, in reality, Shakeela has a love-hate relationship with the state. “I never liked Kerala. The language is a tongue-twister, the food is too coconut-y and the people are unreliable. The hill stations are the only good thing about that state. I was once stranded in a hotel in Chalakudy, in Thrissur, after a Malayalam film shoot. I woke up to find the whole crew missing, and all that was left for me at the reception was a cheque, which later bounced.”

While Sunny Leone’s Bigg Boss stay bagged her Jism 2, a minor stint in the Kannada equivalent got Shakeela a handful of cameo offers. “Sunny Leone is beautiful. She deserves all the attention. It is nice that mainstream directors have the confidence to cast actresses with a past,” she says. Milan Luthria, who directed The Dirty Picture, says, “These women from humble backgrounds carved a niche. They were aggressively ambitious — enough to make a career in something that was not looked upon with respect. The least we can do is be considerate and not judge.” Now in her forties, Shakeela no longer intends to lure men. Countless videos scattered across the virtual world have done their job, but for her, the body game has ended. She has repackaged herself into doing comic roles and wants to direct a film soon. “I want to be a leader,” she says.