Munawwar Sultana (not to be confused with Pakistani playback singer from the same time period) was a Bollywood actress who was popular in the late 40s. She started her career probably around early 40’s under the filmi name of Asha in films like Khazanchi (1941). She first gained some recognition in Pehli Nazar (1945), where she was seen in close-ups of the superhit song sung by Mukesh in Saigalesque style – Dil jalta hai to jalne de.
Mehboob Khan casted her in his controversial and most stylized Muslim social Elaan (1947). Elaan was the first and last film to look at Indian Muslims from the inside. It was melodramatic and rhetorical. But it did go into ‘forbidden’ areas and make statements which would be considered controversial even today. For instance, it legitimized marriage with a foreigner. It laughed at traditional Muslim reactions to women’s bare legs, it dealt in detail with Indian Muslims backwardness and lack of education. Elaan met with official disfavor because it showed Quranic reform as the way out and it was banned temporarily during 1947.
The same year, she acted in A.R. Kardar’s Dard – a love triangle between Munawwar Sultana, Nusrat Kardar and upcoming actress Suraiya. The film proved to be money maker at the box-office especially because of its songs sung by Suraiya and Uma Devi (Tun Tun) and music by Naushad. One of the songs Afsana likh rahi houn picturized on her was very popular in those days.
The highpoint of her career proved to be Babul (1950), where she was cast opposite Dilip Kumar and Nargis. Munawwar played the role of haughty daughter of zamindar, with whom Dilip Kumar falls in love. Munawwar’s role, though initially vain and shallow, proved to be the more complex as the plot progressed, and she rendered it effectively. Despite the presence of great stalwarts like Nargis and Dilip, it was Munawwar Sultana who stole the show.
Inexplicably, after Babul, Munawwar’s career went into sharp decline and she was reduced to B-Grade films Babooji (1950), Tarang (1952), Apni Izzat (1952), Watan (1954), Toofan (1954) and Ehsan (1954). After completing her last film Deewar (1955), she married a jewellery merchant named Sarafali Bhagat and settled down in Bombay.