" I used to be mocked by people for dressing like this and I guess many people found it odd that I was doing jobs that were predominantly taken up by the men in our society but I turned a blind eye to all those remarks because that's what my father would have done."
For Tahira, a resident of Kodungallur, a town in Kerala, depending on people for help or sitting at home was never an option.
She was only 14 when her father passed away. Seeing no other way out, she discontinued her education and became the sole breadwinner of her family, taking up multiple daily wage jobs to sustain her family of seven members. From selling fish, rearing cows, to even starting a driving school—Tahira soldiered on and fought all the odds that came her way.
But never in her wildest dreams did the 41-year old think that one day, she would star in her own biopic, ‘Tahira’ and that it would receive widespread appreciation from film critics.
The Struggle For Survival
After her father passed away, sustenance became a huge question mark for Tahira and her family. She was the middle child—there were three elder sisters and two younger ones—but decided to take it upon herself to bring her family back to the shore and began tagging along with her mother for daily wage work.
“At that point in time, it was odd to see a girl in her teens doing multiple jobs. But I never really got to choose the work I do because I was in a race for money,” Tahira recalls.
Clad in a men’s shirt and a long skirt with a towel around her head, she would go about her work and was never seen resting at any point in time.
“I used to be mocked by several people for dressing as I did, and I guess many of them found it odd that I was doing jobs that were predominantly taken up by the men in our society. But, I turned a blind eye to all those remarks because that’s what my father would have done. He started fishing at a very young age and was the eldest of 10 siblings. He spent his entire life taking care of his siblings just like me. You could actually say I’m following in his footsteps,” she explains.
She always had an eye on the future. While working at a shrimp factory, she used her savings to purchase a few cows and started selling their milk.
“I would wake up at 4 AM every day, milk the cows and then distribute it from door to door. Soon, I got myself a second-hand scooter so that the delivery could be faster and I could save time. But even then the people around couldn’t digest the fact that a woman was driving a scooter,” she mentions.
This small business took off, and a few years back, Tahira purchased a car, learnt how to drive, and now offers lessons to other people as well.
“Tahira’s perseverance and grit is the sole reason we can live with dignity today. Although she was not able to finish her studies, she made sure that her two younger sisters were sent to school. Both of them are now teachers. I couldn’t be more proud to have a daughter like her,” says Tahira’s mother, Beepathu.
Into The Limelight
For Tahira, life was always about survival. She was always flitting from one job to another and had no time to spare for anyone—
or any other activity.
But when Siddique Paravoor, a renowned director in the Malayalam film industry heard Tahira’s story, there was no turning back.
“I was visiting my folks in Kodungallur when I happened to see Tahira going from house to house delivering milk in her scooter. It was definitely something that caught my attention so I enquired about her and that’s when I heard her story, and was immediately intrigued” explains Siddique.
After a few weeks of discussions with producers and his colleagues, Siddique decided to go ahead and direct a movie on Tahira’s life. But there was a huge challenge to overcome.
“I had the enormous task of casting someone who could do everything that Tahira did, that is from fishing, rearing cows to even driving a car. I realised that she was an irreplaceable protagonist and only she could take up the role,” he explains.
Tahira was extremely hesitant, but Siddique had patience on his side, and eventually, she came around and agreed to give acting a try.
Lights, Camera, Tahira
“This was the first time in front of a camera for me. I was obviously frightened by all the chaos that was happening at the set, a completely new experience. I fumbled, I cried, and I couldn’t comprehend the directions given by the cameraman,” mentions Tahira.
“But Tahira didn’t give up. She asked me if she could try out a few shots without instructions from the cameramen. I agreed, and that’s when we saw the film truly come to life. Her mannerisms and language brought a taste of her own life’s struggle into the movie, making it as genuine as it could be,” Siddique explains.
Besides facing the cameras for the first time in her life, Tahira who had never travelled outside Kerala was thrilled about the experience of flying to Delhi and Chennai for the premiere of the movie.
“This movie has changed my life. I was lucky enough to see people from across India appreciating my work and determination. That’s somewhat of a miracle, isn’t it?” she asks with a smile.
Since the film’s release, Tahira has received help and donations from all corners of the world. An anonymous benefactor even provided her with 5 cent plot of land, where she has now built her own home.
When asked if she would continue to act in movies, Tahira jokingly replies, “ If someone’s willing to make another movie about my story, then sure! But till then I’ll be busy with all the other work I have.”
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(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)