It may not ring a bell with young Pakistanis, but Prechehra Naseem Bano’s name will revive septuagenarian’s nostalgic memories of subcontinental cinema’s early magical days.
Few film celebrities of the Indian cinema could win popularity and fame of such unprecedented scale in the relatively short period of time that the captivatingly beautiful actress Naseem Bano managed. It was thanks to Sohrab Modi’s historic movie Pukar (released in 1940) in which she played Empress Nur Jehan, the wife of the philandering Mughal Emperor Jehangir. Naseem Bano’s name reached millions in the subcontinent through her photographs which adorned the living rooms of film buffs. She ruled over the hearts of millions. She was well-liked more for her ravishing looks than her histrionic talent. In comparison with her contemporaries, Naseem Bano’s tenure in filmdom was more eventful than any other heroine of Bombay’s film industry. She was among the first to move away from the overtly theatrical style of acting a la Sohrab Modi’s earlier films and adopted a more natural style.
The heartthrob of millions; mother of actress Saira Bano and mother-in-law of thespian Dilip Kumar, Naseem Bano died at her Pali Hill residence in Mumbai on June 18-2002 at the ripe age of 83. Ironically, only the actresses Waheeda Rehman and Farah Jalal and the composer Naushad Ali were amongst the handful of known celebrities from the veterans of Bombay’s film industry at the last rites of the late beauty queen.
The daughter of classical singer/actress Shamshad Bai, better known as Chhameeaan, Naseem began her film career in 1936 as Ophelia against Sohrab Modi in his film Khoon ka Khoon, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In 1937, she also played the lead in the film Khan Bahadur.
However, it was Sohrab Modi’s epic Pukar (1939), in which she played Empress Nur Jehan that earned her wide public acclaim as a competent actress. The song, Zindgi ka saaz be kya saaz hai, composed by the musician Mir Sahib was recorded in Naseem Bano’s voice for that movie. Later, she acted the title role in Taj Mahal with Prithviraj Kapur. When the producer/actor Ashok Kumar launched his own Production Company and announced the film Chal Chal Re Naujawan, it was Naseem Bano, who was selected to play the lead opposite the veteran actor. Other members of the cast in that film included Rafiq Ghaznavi and Jagdish Sethi. Veteran director Gyan Mukerjee of Bombay Talkies fame, then known for directing several blockbusters, directed the movie. Ashok Kumar and Naseem Bano then went on to do the films Begum and Betaab.
Naseem Bano appeared in other films such as Meetha Zaher, Ujala, Begum, Talaq, Chandni Raat, Anokhi Ada, Sheesh Mahal and Nausherwan-e-Adil in which she played the leading roles against Sohrab Modi. Not very fastitidious, she always wore saris to social events outside her home, but within her house she wore a gherara .
A ravishing beauty, Naseem Bano earned Prechehra’s approbation after her graceful appearance as Empress Nur Jahan in Sohrab Modi’s first mega-budget epic, characteristic of Modi and his Minerva Movietone. He later on produced two more epics, Sikandar and Jhansi Ki Raani. Other prominent members of the film Pukar’s cast were Chander Mohan, Sohrab Modi, Sadiq Ali, Sheela and Sardar Akhter (formerly Daari of Lahore), who later became legendary producer-director Mehboob Khan’s life partner.
The story of Pukar was based on two separate phantasmagorias, set the harsh Mughal Emperor Jehangir’s court (played by Chander Mohan). The first involved Mangal Singh (Sadiq Ali) and Kanwar (Sheela) in which a violent feud raged between their families, and the second related to Emperor Jehangir and the Empress Nur Jehan (Naseem Bano). History also tells us that as Prince Saleem, Jehangir manoeuvred the murder of Sher Afghan, the Governor of Bengal in Mughal India to allow him to marry his beautiful widow . History also reveals that the Emperor Akbar, after coming to know of his son’s deep interest in Nur Jehan had her hastily married her to Sher Afghan to keep her away from Prince Saleem. This aspect of history was totally ignored by the producer/director Sohrab Modi and his scriptwriter Kamal Amrohi.
As the story develops in the film, Mangal kills the brother and father of his lover. Mangal’s father, the loyal Rajput chieftain Sangram Singh (played by Modi) captures his son, presenting him before Emperor Jehangir, who condemns him to death. Jehangir’s claim that the law knew no distinction of class is put to test when a washerwoman (Sardar Akhter) accuses Queen Nur Jehan of having inadvertently killed her husband during a hunt. Emperor Jehangir offers his own life but the washerwoman magnanimously forgives him. The Empress and the Emperor in turn pardon Mangal Singh, thus unwittingly proving that class position did count after all. Their acts also obliquely suggest that the death penalty should never have been applied. The film became known mainly for its spectacular scenes of palace grandeur and the bewitching beauty of Naseem Bano.
Saadat Hassan Manto in his book Ganjay Farishtey has nostalgically written lovingly about Naseem Bano and how Prince Moazam Jah, the heir apparent of the largest princely state of Hyderabad in British India had wooed her. Before her marriage to Mian Ehsan of Taj Mahal Pictures, Naseem Bano was, according to Manto, taken to Hyderabad with the consent of her mother Shamshad Bai. However, she realised after a couple of years later that her daughter would be choked to death if left in Hyderabad. Through a shrewd move, she deceived the Prince and took Naseem Bano back to the freedom of Bombay City, where she rejoined the film industry. Manto also refers to a “poster war” that later ensued between Naseem Bano and Prince Moazam Jah. During the shooting of producer Mian Ehsan’s first movie Ujala Cupid’s arrow struck both Naseem Bano and Mian Ehsan culminating in their marriage, which was solemnized in New Delhi away from the hustle and bustle of Bombay.
Prechehra Naseem Bano was born in Delhi, where her mother of Punjabi descent (from Amritsar) brought her up. In her childhood Naseem learned to speak Punjabi from her maternal grandmother from Amritsar. The once heartthrob of millions in the Sub-continent, Naseem Bano died on June 18, 2002 in Mumbai almost unsung and unnoticed by the film industry which she had served with distinction – Saeed Malik