A whole new generation of cinema-goers have grown up without knowing who Naseem Banu is or was. Some of them know that she is Saira Banu’s mother and that is all. Which is a pity in a way because in her day there was no one quite like Naseem. She was the reigning beauty queen of her time. And her beauty was legendary—a beauty all the more splendid because of its regal hauteur. She is probably best remembered for her role as Queen Nur Jehan in Sohrab Modi’s PUKAR.
Where is Naseem now? Does she still have that legendary beauty? What does she do with her time? To answer these questions this reporter made the trek to her beautiful home (a stone’s throw away from Dilip Kumar’s) on Pali Hill.
Strangely enough her daughter, Saira Banu, does not live with Dilip Kumar but with her. The house—set in a lovely, lush-green garden—seems to have come straight out of a movie set. It has the usual special effects. Potted plants in the foyer, chandeliers—winding staircase—quaint furniture from the dim, dim past—they are all there. Even the elaborate bedroom—with its decorative double bed—seems to come out of a fantasy world. It seemed too luxurious, glossy, expensive to be real. I did not think anybody would actually dare sleep in it.
Naseem, herself, still looks very lovely. She is a very feminine, soft-spoken person and seemed to have none of the hardness and deadly aggressiveness that movie stars are reputed to have to “make” it.
Naseem and I talked about her early movie career. One of the reasons people put Naseem into the limbo of the past is because she started her movie career early. She is not that old. Once a producer even offered her a role co-starring Dilip Kumar! I suppose Naseem could have said, like Maureen O’Sullivan did, when her daughter, Mia Farrow was to marry Frank Sinatra, ‘If Dilip Kumar ought to marry anybody it ought to be me’. She was barely eighteen when she was offered her first role by Sohrab Modi—the plum role of Desdemona in his HAMLET. Naseem was still in school at the time and by the time she returned to school, after the holidays, the picture was released. The headmistress of the school was horrified to learn that “one of her girls” had actually consented to stand in front of the camera and allow her image to be exposed to the vulgar public gaze. She was dismissed and Naseem who had no thought to continue her screen career was forced to reconsider.
Her mother—at the time—was THE singing star of the age and was earning a considerable salary from concerts and recordings. Sohrab Modi put Naseem under contract and soon she was earning about Rs. 3,500/- a month, a large amount in those days. “Still, my mother was earning more than I was”, says Naseem today.
“When I was making PUKAR I went riding every morning before the daily shooting stint … it was my way of keeping slim and beautiful … people came from all over India to see the PUKAR sets … they had never seen anything like it!” When PUKAR was completed it was publicized as “a picture that took one year to make”! It was a smash hit and Naseem went on to make several pictures for Minerva Movietone. Her relations with Sohrab Modi cooled when he would not release her from her contract. For, by now, Naseem had become a household word and was being offered more money by other companies. She remembers wistfully that she was offered the CLEOPATRA role. She could not accept it.
Over the years, Naseem’s co-stars have been Sohrab Modi, Chandra Mohan, Navin Yagnik, Prem Adib, Prithviraj, Ashok Kumar, Shyam, Surendra and Rehman.
After her release from Minerva Movietone, Naseem signed with Circo Films. But because of internal dissension, the company was dissolved.
Later, she formed the company, Taj Mahal Films, in collaboration with her husband. The first film she made for this company was UJALA with Prithviraj. Then she went on to make films like BEGUM, MULAQAT, and AJEEB LADKI.
During the India-Pakistan split Naseem received a severe blow. Her husband opted for Pakistan (Naseem wanted to stay on in India) and he left the country taking all the negatives of the films she had made with Taj Mahal Films. Naseem’s husband settled down in Pakistan and became rich overnight because Indian films were at a premium in Pakistan and Naseem’s films were released and re-released. That is the reason why Naseem became famous in that country and was all but forgotten here.
After the end of her marriage and her career, a new phase of her life began—that of mother. The two children of her early marriage—Sultan Ahmed and Saira Banu—were bonny, intelligent children. Naseem was determined that they get the best of everything including an excellent education. She decided to put them in an English school. At first she thought she would put them into boarding school and then return to India (she was still getting film offers). But when she got to England she found it a cold, aloof, unfriendly country. The children would find it difficult to adjust completely to such an alien culture. She took a flat and decided to send them to day school. She even met her ex-husband once or twice in England but by then he was married to a beautiful Viennese actress who has borne him two children.
“I did not have the slightest inkling that Saira would one day become a film star” Naseem told me. “As a child she was very shy and introverted.”
When Saira returned to India for the holidays—there was a startling change in her. She was only fifteen years old—but she was a beauty.
Friends and acquaintances of Naseem began to notice and offers began to pour in. Naseem was adamant. Her answer was “No”. Saira was just as adamant. She had become enchanted with the film world—and wanted to join it.. “If my father was a film producer and you were an actress what is the harm in my joining films?” she asked. Naseem had no answer and eventually gave in— though not without a battle.
The romance of Dilip and Saira is almost another story in itself. “No,” says Naseem Banu, “it was not an arranged match —it was a love match . . . ” Saira had always admired Dilip from afar but he had always felt that she was too young for him. He had known Naseem for many, many years and had kept a friendly eye on her daughter.
When Saira became a film star, Dilip would pop in onto the sets once in a while. Once, Saira told him saucily, “You come to my muhurats and you come as Clapper Boy for my films—but you never come as my hero!”
“Get along with you,” replied Dilip. “Tu to bilkul bachhi hai!”
Eventually, Dilip and Saira began to see a lot of each other at parties. Then, Naseem noticed that Saira was getting long phone calls from him. “When Saira told me that he had proposed I was surprised” says Naseem today. “I thought he was a confirmed bachelor and would never marry … ”
Today, Dilip and Saira are the hottest star-combination in the business and Naseem Banu can sit back and bask in the reflected glow of their success. (This Interview was conducted in 1971).