From bar dancer to Bollywood scriptwriter

Shagufta Rafique faced abuse and poverty, including a brush with prostitution, before she could carve out her own niche.

Rafique's first taste of success came when she wrote the script for her first film, Woh Lamhe, in 2006

Shagufta Rafique, one of the most successful script writers working in India’s Hindi film industry today, made her “debut performance” as an 11-year-old at a private party in the Indian city of Mumbai.

“We had come to the house through a family connection. The gathering was all men, mostly drunk. I tied my dupatta [scarf] around my waist and danced with a lot of energy. People applauded and threw money,” Rafique recalls.

The whole thing made me see very early how vulnerable women are, and how money decides what is respectable and what is not

by Shagufta Rafique, Bollywood script writer

“Later I realised that the applause was linked to how much money I made. Even at that age, that was the kind of mathematics I was into, the kind of stuff I figured out really early.”

From facing abuse and poverty to dancing in bars and a brush with prostitution, it has been a long and difficult journey for Rafique.

But the feisty 48-year-old has managed to re-script her life and emerge as one of the top screenwriters in Bollywood, with some of the industry’s recent hits to her credits.

Much of her success, say her contemporaries, is because she herself went through the rough and tumble of life.

“She is a natural,” says Mahesh Bhatt, a veteran Bollywood filmmaker whose production banner Vishesh Films Rafique writes for.

“Her work is a reflection of her personality and her life, which makes her stories so interesting. She is proof of the fact that you don’t need grooming or academic training to be a story teller, but you do need to stand up and live first.”

Rafique grew up in a family that was touched by the glamour of Hindi cinema and was also battered by its violent undercurrents.

Quintessential Bollywood story

In many ways, Rafique’s life is similar to a quintessential Bollywood story. Her elder sister, the breadwinner of the family, was what she calls a “jinxed star”, unable to find success.

Rafique’s sister was eventually killed by her husband as part of a drunken shooting spree, which culminated with him shooting himself.

Rafique’s mother was the “invisible wife” or unacknowledged partner of a Kolkata-based businessman, who left his second family unsupported after his death.

The sudden poverty, recalls Rafique, was harder to take since they were used to a good life.

Rafique was an adopted child, and decided to provide for the woman who had taken her in.

“The whole thing made me see very early how vulnerable women are, and how money decides what is respectable and what is not.”

Her focus, she says, fixed on providing financial security to her mother. “If I hadn’t danced, I would have stolen. I was committed to that idea,” she says.

Rafique had already trained as a classical dancer – preparation for the acting career her mother hoped she would have. Through dancing at private parties, she made up to Rs 700 [about $12] a night.

“That was a lot since we sometimes lived on Rs 500 [about $8] a month,” she recalls.

Listening post: Truth alone prevails

She was made to stop by her mother when a man misbehaved with her.

A few years later, at the age of 17, Rafique became the mistress of a wealthy man.

“It was the most humiliating time of my life,” she says, “because for a small amount of money, he tried to take away my freedom.”

After years of living with the unhappiness in exchange for “stability”, she finally broke up and turned to prostitution, before going on to work as a bar dancer to make a living.

“It was a vicious cycle. To get away from my frustration at being trapped I got into prostitution, to get away from that I started working as a bar dancer, to get away from Mumbai I went to Dubai and so on.”

It was during these tumultuous years that she discovered her love for writing, and her desire to be a storyteller.

Naturally, her first instinct was to turn to cinema, a world she felt familiar with, but was still an outsider to.

“I would go to production houses, even to TV shows and ask for work as a writer, but nobody was interested, as I had no experience,” she says.

But she kept writing – at bars and in seedy hostels while she travelled – jotting down the stories of people she met, all the while still working as a bar dancer to pay the bills.

Modern, strong woman

Somewhere here, Rafique honed the skills that would stand in good stead in later life.

“Most screenwriters tend to think more from the head, and focus on structure and plot-points, which can get pedantic,” says Amit Masurkar, a screenwriter who has also worked with Vishesh Films.

“Shagufta’s work has a lot of truth and tenderness. It’s easy to see why her work is successful-because she is able to create that connect with the audience,” Masurkar said.

In 2000, after several failed attempts, Rafique wrangled a meeting with Mahesh Bhatt. And after another long hiatus, the meeting led to an opportunity to write a few scenes for a film made by his production house.

Despite success, Rafique still faces undercurrents of censure and stigma from different quarters

The success of this work finally paid off when Rafique wrote her first film, Woh Lamhe (2006), at the age of 37, after a lifetime in different places.

Since then she has worked on 11 films, collaborating with some of the top talents in the Mumbai film industry.

And in a business where success is the final reckoner of worth, she has carved out her own niche.

As a writer, she almost always finds a way to thread some “real” experiences with her material – her own or from what she witnessed in the lives of others.

She candidly admits that most of the films she has worked on are “hero-oriented”.

Her script for her own directorial debut, however, is centred around a “modern, strong woman” that she is hoping to start shooting soon.

Her mother’s death from cancer in 1999 left her bruised but also put her ambitions in perspective.

“My mother was my age when her husband died and her life ended. It doesn’t have to be that way any more,” she says.

But despite her success, Rafique still faces undercurrents of censure and stigma from different quarters.

“Sometimes people call me for meetings just to see what I look like. I think they are disappointed as I don’t fit in their image of a bar dancer,” she says.

Her decision to talk about her past openly may have something to do with her showbiz background, but there can be no doubt that it also reflects her courage and self-belief.

“I decided long ago not to give anyone else the pleasure of discussing my morals and behaviour,” she says, her dancer’s eyes large and expressive.

“It’s my life. I’ll talk about it myself.”

This feature is a part of our ongoing special India coverage. To read more stories click here.