What does one expect when one is to visit a heroine of yesteryear? A room full of faded pictorial memories, an aged, grey-haired forgotten lady, wistfully thinking about the days that were. But things at Munawwar Sultana’s (now Mrs. Munawwar Sharaf Ali) were different. The room where we sat had a framed tapestry, a modern painting and other evidence of a good life. And the lady bounced in looking still young and fresh and content at playing mother and grandmother to her large and happy family.
We asked her to talk about her days in films. “My career ?” she said. “It’s been such a long time – I left films 22 years ago and I’ve forgotten a lot.” Born in Lahore to a family which was strict in its upbringing, Munawwar Sultana was educated at home. Her love for acting made her want to join films. “I wonder if today, girls are still attracted to films as I was,” she said.
So when she was asked by Maheshwari to play the heroine in his she didn’t know how she’d do it, as she was very shy. But yet she signed. Her co-stars in that film were Kishore (a cousin of Maheshwari’s) and Aruna “an actress from Bengal, I don’t remember her full name, it’s been such a long time.” The picture was a success.
Munawwar now wanted to come to Bombay to work. Her wish was almost fulfilled when A. R. Kardar signed her to play Mumtaz Mahal in his Shah Jahan. But then came the great explosion in the Bombay docks and her mother said no. She thought her career ended there. But no, along came Mazhar Khan to Lahore with a contract for two years at Rs. 4000 – 5000 per month and house rent. She came to Bombay in 1945 and made her maiden appearance under M. K. in his Pehli Nazar. She did two more films with him co-starring with Motilal, Veena, Minoo and Baburao Pendharkar. One was left incomplete. Kardar had not forgotten her and signed her for his Dard with Suraiya and it was a jubilee hit.
She worked with Mehboob in Elan, Shantaram in Andhon Ki Duniya, co-starring with Manmohan Krishna, Leela Chitnis and Mahipal (his first film). She did Udhar with Dev Anand, Majboor, a great hit, with Shyam, Sheikh Muktar’s Dada with Shyam and Begum Para, Kaneez again with Shyam, Babul, in which she starred with Nargis and Dilip Kumar, Sartaj with Motilal, Laxman Lulla’s Watan, and Raat Ki Rani and so on.
It was in her work that she meet her husband Sharaf Ali, who used to supply the furniture on the sets. He also produced two movies of hers — Meri Kahani with Surendra and Pyar Ke Manzil with Rehman. And that’s where they got to know each other. She had no intention of giving up her career yet and so they waited. After completing almost a decade on the screen, she bowed out to play wife and mother.
What roles did she play ? “I was a suffering heroine,” she said with a laugh. “Movies those days were like that — sober and tragic.” The artistes respected their producers and directors, ” aaj tho artistes ke din hain.”
What about her co-stars who are still in the business? Glad that Dilip Kumar is still continuing and doing character roles. “He’s such a fine actor, it would be a shame to see such a fine actor wasting his talent. Age,” she says, “is a natural thing and nothing to be shy about. With age, one matures and so our acting gets better. All artistes should realize this. If there is love for acting, the work continues.”
On films today—”The off-beat films are good.” As for commercials, “you see one movie, you’ve seen all. It’s the same characters, roles, story. They work in a rush — naturally, when money is concerned. So how can they concentrate on playing different roles each shift? So they sign on the same types of films and roles…”
“We also did three-four shifts at a time, but we didn’t rush from shift to shift; we gave our dates, so that we would be on one set for a week.” They studied their scripts and scenes beforehand, because they had the time, before going on the sets; rehearsed each scene before it was shot. And so they immersed themselves into the characters they were playing and gave memorable performances.
“It’s not that our actors are not as good as those abroad. Look at Sanjeev Kumar. I think he’s a good artiste. But the foreign stars take one shooting at a time and are therefore able to concentrate and are exceptionally good.”
Today, away from the glamour of filmland, Mrs. Sharaf Ali leads a contented retired life amidst her vast family, the even tenor only occasionally broken by the brood of grandchildren clamouring for her attention. And sometimes, when she looks back, she can happily remember the years when Munawwar Sultana was the reigning queen of the Indian screen. (Munawwar Sultana interviewed by Piroj Wadia in 1978).