Television actress Shama Sikander who's turned fashion designer shares with us her success story, the difficult times and what they taught her.
One night when she was 10, Shama Sikander woke up hearing sobs in the next room. As she struggled to find her way in the darkness, she realised that the voices were that of her parents.
Amidst the sobs, she overheard them speaking. There was no food in the house to feed the family.
Around this time, Sikander made up her mind. She would make it big and earn enough to feed her family.
About 20 years later, Shama Sikander can safely say she's managed to achieve her dream.
After a bit role in that disastrous movie, Prem Aggan (1998), the actress struck big around 2005 when she played the lead role in a television show called Yeh Meri Life Hai.
Sometime around last year, Sikander ventured into making garments and started her design label called Saisha. Sushmita Sen inaugurated her store in the plush suburb of Bandra.
Shama Sikander shares with us her success story, the difficult times and what they taught her.
'Fashion is second nature to me'
So how did you hit upon this idea of starting a fashion label?
Fashion is second nature to me. In my years as an actress, I learned to dress up well and I had the fortune of having people around me who groomed me and introduce me to brands.
When it comes to dressing and a sense of style, a lot of us usually look up to actors.
So I'd been keen on starting this store for a while now. As it happened (and this is normal in a television actor's life) I got terribly caught up with my television assignments.
Finally after (my last television show) Seven wrapped up and I managed to get some time on my hands, I took this up seriously.
Of course it took some prodding from friends who (as I discovered) were more eager that I do this than me!
Who designs clothes for Saisha? Is it you or do you have a team of designers?
There are two designers who work on the brand however the ideas are mine. I am not very good at drawing so I select the fabrics and convey the ideas and they execute them.
'I had no idea about the garment industry'
What kind of challenges did you face while setting up the business?
I don't have background in a designing. Although I wear good clothes, I didn't know how to make them.
To understand how things work in the business, I decided to explore how the market functions and visited places where I would get good raw material and labour.
My search led me to places I would have never thought of going otherwise. I went into small by lanes of Dadar, Pydhonie and Dharavi (among others).
The places I visited during the time made me see life in a completely new light. Some of these places were so inhabitable I couldn't believe how people lived and worked here!
I had no idea about the garment industry. That became another issue but had it not been for friends like Shahrukh Askari I wouldn't even have got an idea of where to start looking.
While I was doing all this, my mother took ill and had been hospitalised.
I had already started work on the shop so I couldn't back out. So I would be running between my house in (Mumbai's suburb of) Malad, my store (in Bandra) and wherever else I had to be to source the clothes.
The thing is I do not have the mindset of a businessperson. I can't say I am a go-getter. I'd like to see myself more as a creative person than anything else. I am more laidback and I would give anything to have my peace of mind.
These aren't qualities you can afford to have if you want to start a business. So initially it was a little difficult
Setting up a business (I was to learn) involves dealing with and managing a l-o-t of people. To complete my work, I had to depend on others.
I had to co-ordinate, talk to people, and ensure that they understood what I wanted, got it right and deliver on time.
This was very different from the life I had been leading. As an actress, I was used to having people doing things for me. Here tables had turned.
I had to approach people myself, dance to their tunes. It was a huge learning curve.
'I learnt the value of patience'
What would you say your learnings have been?
I had to learn to adapt to a different lifestyle altogether.
I started interacting with a strata of society I had never seen or spoken with -- the tailor masters, raw material suppliers, labourers I saw how they lived and worked. All of this also taught me to be humble.
But most of all, it taught me the value of patience because invariably you have people messing, delaying the job you've given them and basically taking you casually.
Through all this I had to keep my cool and maintain my composure. That was a huge learning.
Another thing that didn't hold me in good stead was my habit of micromanaging. With my mother unwell, the interiors of the store being made and the production of the clothes happening at the same time, I realised it was impossible to be in all the places all the time.
To be successful in a business, you have to have that burning desire to be on the top.
I am not that kind of a person. I'm not shrewd or driven (by profits) like a businessperson is supposed to be. But I had to change that aspect of my personality. I had to be everything I wasn't.
The challenge however was getting back to being the person I am. It was like being two different people.
Finally, I learnt to socialise! (Laughs) I hate going to parties but with the business being set up, I began attending parties to make sure that people knew what I was up to!
'Fashion week was a great experience'
Tell us something about yourself. How did you start out? have you always been from Mumbai?
I come from Makrana in Rajasthan. We moved to Mumbai in 1991. My sister (who is 19) is into animation and is already on her feet, freelancing.
My brother Rizwan (who won Fear Factor) is married to a Turkish girl and is living in London.
Khalid, my other brother, is also married and helps me manage this store. My father practices ayurveda and my mother's a housewife.
Then of course I have a few very close friends -- Vipul D Shah who produced Yeh Meri Life Hai, Hanif Hilal and Shahrukh Askari.
You've recently shown your collection at Hyderabad Fashion Week. How did that come about?
I was walking the ramp for Ramesh Dembla who is a very famous designer down south.
When he heard I had also started a line, he put me on to the organisers of the fashion week there. It was a great experience because it opened newer avenues for business. I am hoping Chennai Fashion Week (that happens in July) does the same!
'Hectic shooting schedules had taken a toll on my health'
What did your father have to say about your choice of career? Was he okay with you being an actress?
Oh he has been very encouraging of what I do! In fact he was the one who planted the idea (of taking up acting as a career) in my head.
Tell us about how you started out.
I was one of the girls (besides Preity Zinta) to be selected by Shekhar Kapur for his film. The film never got made.
Meanwhile I got my first acting job in Feroz Khan's Prem Aggan. During this time I got a few offers that I turned down because I was under contract (with Khan).
Then the film flopped. No offers came after that.
I was insistent on working in films so I turned down the television offers that came my way.
Also at the time television wasn't as it is now. It was a far smaller medium, the money was less and not a lot of people looked up to it.
Finally one day when Vipul D Shah offered me a South Indian language film, I told him I was keen on television. As it happened, they were looking for someone to play the lead role in a show they were producing.
That show was Yeh Meri Life Hai.
Things changed drastically after that.
People began to recognise me and mob me wherever I went. They'd tell me that they wanted to have a daughter like me. When I was overseas (performing in shows) I felt like I was Amitabh Bachchan (Laughs)!
Since most of the times I would be on the sets, shooting and would rarely get time to step out I never knew I was that popular!
Finally when the show was over, I took a six-month break. The hectic schedules had taken a toll on my health.
'People don't offer me stupid projects'
Is television always this demanding? Do you have to spend 12-14 hours on the sets every day? An actor couple told me that the only way they get to be together is because they're on the same show! Is that true?
Well mostly it is. But if you have a show like Seven, the shifts may not be as long because we used to shoot on real locations and time constraints.
On the flipside we didn't have the luxury of a studio and the comforts that it offers -- be it a loo or an air-conditioned room.
Seven was especially very challenging because of the outdoor locations. The shoot was grilling and it required mental strength. We had to do all these action scenes and pretend to be all cool whereas more often than not we would be sweltering under the heat!
I remember one particular occasion when we were shooting in the sea and a lot of us got seasick
Are you working on any television shows right now?
No but I am in talks with a couple right now and I am also working on a few subjects for a film I plan to co-produce.
Would you say television actors come with an early expiry date? What with a huge number of young actors jumping into the fray and reportedly cutting rates?
I don't think so.
People who approach me for a particular role in mind. I think the roles that can be played by anyone wouldn't come to me (because I've been selective).
I started when I was 14. I am 29 and I am still getting work. So I wouldn't say that television actors' careers are short.
Yes younger actors do cut rates but I don't think I would be offered roles that they play.
People don't offer me stupid projects because I've only done good shows.
'Once there was no food in the house'
You mention you started working when you were 14. Did you complete your graduation?
Well, I completed my SSC. But even then I'd managed to change some nine schools mostly because my father was not happy with the kind of education I was receiving in Makrana.
Even when we came to Mumbai my first school was in Malad, then in Mumbra and finally in Andheri.
Was your father always an ayurvedic doctor?
My father has shifted a lot of businesses. He started off supplying marble. Rajendra Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan and Sridevi were some of his clients.
We moved to Mumbai in 1991 and he had his business in Vile Parle.
In 1992, the (communal) riots happened. His store was burnt and he had to start all over again.
We went through a really bad phase after that. He tried his hand at a lot of businesses but things never really fell into place.
Yet never once did he make us feel the pinch. He would always joke around and make it look like it was no big deal. Dad was like Roberto Benigni's character in Life is Beautiful. There were times when things were really tough. He would walk for miles because he didn't have the money for a bus or go hungry and not tell us about it.
But one particular night I heard someone crying. I discovered it was my parents. I overheard them saying that there was no food for us in the house!
On another occasion my mother didn't have one rupee for my brother who wanted a toffee.
These things made me want to stand on my feet and support my family.
I remember asking my father if we'd ever see good times. He would always say that the time would come soon and sure enough it did (smiles).
'When success came, it never once went to my head'
What would you say this phase taught you?
I am glad I went through what I did because eventually when success came, it never once went to my head.
All the tough times I saw have made me a grounded person. They've taught me to be humble.
I've learnt that I can bloom only if I am myself and not pretend to be someone else.
Similarly, one cannot change other people and you need to give them space. Instead you can try and change the circumstances.