Stars and superstars are the main vehicle for the multi-million rupees film trade. In countries around the globe the public devotion towards movie actors and actresses has touched the level of worship and they have assumed the stature of quasi-deities for their ardent followers.
At the time of independence, Pakistani Cinema, having no established or rising stars in its fold, was plagued by major impediment. Except for Noor Jehan, all the other who came from Bombay and Calcutta were either veterans, good only for character roles, or those whose careers were on the decline. Still worse, their counterparts-the performers in Bombay such as Ashok Kumar, Motilal, Kamini Kashal, and Nalini Jaywant were at the zenith of their profession. The younger lot, consisting of Dilip Kumar, Nargis, Madhubala, Raj Kapoor, and Dev Anand were on the threshold of superstardom. They enjoyed immense popularity amongst the main group of film goers, viz. young Pakistani men and women. In such a situation local film makers found it difficult to sell products featuring actors and actresses who were newcomers to the profession and largely unknown. The young performers who strove hard during this difficult formative period were Sudhir, Santosh Kumar, Ilyas Kashmiri, Gulshan Ara, Shammi, Shola, Asif Jah, Allaudin, Nazar, Zareef and Sabiha Khanum.
Born to famous pre-partition Punjabi actress Balo, Sabiha reigned supreme in the hearts of the film-goers. Her innocence, her coy smiles and entrancing personality earned her the title of First Lady of Pakistani Cinema. Whereas most actors have one definitive forte, Sabiha won over audiences and critics with strikingly versatile characterizations
Sabiha Khanum made her debut as a dancer in Masud Pervaiz’s Beli (1950), based on Saadat Hasan Manto’s story about the perils of the 1947 exodus, with Shahina Ghaznavi and Santosh Kumar in the lead. The memories of partition were still too fresh for the general public, therefore, the film flopped. Fortunately, her next film Do Ansoo in which she played the role of Noori, was Pakistan’s first silver jubilee Urdu film. After that Sabiha never looked back.
Sabiha gained immense prominence after her challenging role of a mentally retarded girl in the film Gumnaam (1954), which she executed with rare pathos. She embarked on the road to fame and stardom in a big way with the release of Sassi (1954). Sassi was a big budget movie and was filmed around the most picturesque areas of the country. Sabiha was cast in the title role, as the daughter of the chief of the washerman’s clan of Sindh. The remaining cast included Sudhir who played Punhu, Shahnawaz, Ghulam Mohammed, Bibbo, Nazar, and Asha Posley. Sassi was a great commercial hit by J.C. Anand and created an all time record for being the first golden jubilee film of Pakistan.
1956 commenced with the great success for Sabiha, with the release of Agha G. Gul’s Dulla Bhatti, loosely based on the historical conflict between a Punjabi freedom fighter and the Mughal satrap of the area. Sudhir, playing the title role, proved his mettle as the macho man of cinema. Sabiha with her coquettish Madhubala-like charm won the hearts of film-goers and can be reckoned as the first leading lady of Pakistani cinema. G.A. Chishtis’ composition Wasta e Rab da, too javain de kabootra picturized on Sabiha remained on the top of the popularity list for months. It is said that the film netted so much profit that it enabled Agha Gul to build his own well-equipped New Evernew Studios at Multan Road, Lahore.
The film Dulla Bhatti was followed by successful string of hit movies, including Wadah, Shaikh Chilli, Aas Paas, Choti Begum, Daata, Ayaz, and Saath Lakh-a comedy of social comment. In Saath Lakh (1957), Sabiha played the role of a young, smart and spoilt girl who is to inherit her deceased father’s immense wealth (seven lakh rupees in cash, the bungalow where she lives which is also worth seven lakhs and seven lakhs in lands and real-estate) on condition that she settles down to a married life.
Another blockbuster from the same year, Wadah (1957), was the story of the poor and contented man who loves the daughter of a police officer in a rural town. The highlights of the film were its crisp direction by the seasoned film maker W.Z. Ahmed, and Rashid Attre’s melancholy compositions rendered in the voice of a new singer, Sharafat Ali. The song Teri ruswayon se derta hun, Jab tere sheher se guzerta hun, perfectly depicted the plight of an ordinary man.
Although she was cast opposite all famous heroes of her time including Yosuf Khan, Habib, Masud, and Aslam Pervaiz, her pairing with Santosh Kumar generated sparks both on and off screen. Sabiha-Santosh pair had many successful films to their credit including Saath Lakh, Wadah, Mauseeqar, Saltanat, Mukhra, Shaam Dhaley and Sarfarosh. It is said that during the making of the film Hasrat (1958), Sabiha and Santosh got married. Their screen pair remained popular for almost a decade.
In the late 60s, Sabiha switched to character roles and gave strong and commendable performances in films like Ek Gunah Aur Sahi, Devar Bhabhi, and Anjuman. Ek Gunah Aur Sahi was based on Sadat Hassan Manto’s well known short story Mummy. Sabiha played the main role of a middle-aged Christian woman caught in the prevailing hypocrisy of a male-dominated society. The veteran actress performed superbly, making her presence felt amongst the youthful and glamorous set of filmdom including Rani, Shahid, Mohammed Ali, etc. Ek Gunah Aur Sahi was a major commercial hit as well, a rare achievement for serious movies at that time. The film was sent to the Moscow Film Festival as Pakistan’s official entry and was reported to have been appreciated by the viewers.
Even today the very mention of the name Sabiha conjures up the image of those moon-lit eyes, that innocent smile… – Ummer Siddique & Mushtaq Gazdar