Known by the title ‘Arbi Chehra’ (Arabian Princess), having starred in numerous mythological and fantasy films, Shakila’s real-life story is, however, marked by elements of tragedy. Originally named Badshah Begum, she was born on January 1, 1935, in the Middle East, into a family that traced its ancestry to the royal families of Afghanistan and Iran. She and her younger sisters, Noor Jehan and Nasreen lost their mother and paternal grandparents in family feuds, after which their father and his sister Feroza Begum brought the family over to Bombay. There was, however, more misfortune in store, as their father died soon after. The three girls were raised by their aunt, Feroza Begum who decided to remain unmarried. A film buff, she took her nieces along to watch films. The family was also friendly with Kardar and Mehboob Khan, and it was Kardar who offered the eldest sister a chance to act in films. Badshah Begum took on the name Shakila and made her debut as a child artiste in Dastaan (1949), which starred Suraiya. However, she was only finally noticed in Guru Dutt’s Aar-Paar (1954), which came after a handful of secondary roles in films such as Gumasta (1951), Sindbad the Sailor (1952), Rajrani Damyanti (1952), Aagosh (1953), Shahenshah (1953), Raj Mahal (1953), and Armaan (1953). Aar-Paar saw Shakila play a cabaret dancer, the other woman in Guru Dutt’s life. Her role as a bitter and complex person looked down upon by society, brought her attention from Dutt as well, who went on to sign her for Raj Khosla's C.I.D. (1956). However, it was debutante Waheeda Rehman who stole the show in C.I.D.
Shakila went on to make her mark in a different genre of films – the B-grade mythological and fantasy films. This led to her being dubbed ‘Arbi Chehra’, loosely translated as Arabian Princess. Ironically, it started when her aunt, who was managing her career, didn't want Shakila to be typecast in fantasy films. Hence, she quoted a considerable asking amount of Rs.10,000 for Alibaba and Forty Thieves (1954), presuming the producer would approach another actress. However, he agreed and thus started the chain of films that Shakila became a part of, including Lalpari (1954), Veer Rajputani (1955), Roop Kumari (1956), Hatim Tai (1956), Agra Road (1957), Al-Hilal (1958). While the colour film Hatim Tai, in which she played a fairy, went on to become a resounding hit, the same could not be said for Begunah, her film opposite Kishore Kumar, which was banned 10 days after its release, owing to being plagiarised from the Hollywood film Knock on Wood (1954). Other films that grabbed attention were the thriller Post Box 999 (1958) in which she starred opposite Sunil Dutt, as well as China Town (1962) opposite Shammi Kapoor, which was marked by hit songs.
After a career that lasted 14 years and included more than 50 films, Shakila chose to marry and move to Germany. The marriage, however, was not a success and she returned to Bombay where she remarried an Afghan man, the then Consul General in India, and moved abroad. Struck by tragedy when their daughter together, Meenaz committed suicide, Shakila returned to the city to live among her sisters and friends, including Waheeda Rehman, Nanda, Jabeen Jalil, Mala Sinha, Nimmi, Dilip Kumar, and Saira Banu. Her sister Noor Jehan was married to comedian Johnny Walker, while her sister Nasreen was a minor actress.
Declining all film and TV serial offers, she stayed away from the limelight, passing away at the age of 82, on September 20, 2017. Her last film was Ustadon Ke Ustad (1963).