Swaranlata, known to the world as the ‘tragedy queen’ of her time, was born into a Sikh Syal family in Rawalpindi as the youngest of many siblings. She lost her mother at the time of birth and was brought up by her eldest brother, who subsequently also gave her permission to start her acting career. She was described as a ‘tragedy queen’ because of her intense presence on screen and her apt dialogue delivery.
Swaranlata’s first film was Awaaz which was released in 1942 and directed by Rafiq Rizvi. Although Swaranlata was cast in a secondary role, she did her role with great confidence opposite such seasoned actors like Maya Banerji and Wasti. Seeing her enthusiasm for films, she was offered the lead role in Najam Naqvi’s Tasveer (1943) opposite superstar hero of his time Motilal. Tasveer, a romantic comedy about a philandering doctor did great business at box-office and there was no looking back for Swaranlata. She was showered with offers and was cast as the leading lady in lots of movies including Rattan (1944) which is still considered as one of the greatest hits of Indian Cinema and still remembered for it soulful songs scored by Naushad. In 1945, director-cum-producer-cum-actor Nazir started Laila Majnu (1945) under the banner of Hind Pictures, and Swaranlata was cast as Laila. Indian playback singer, Mohd Rafi also appeared in this film, alongside lead pair Swaranlata and Nazir to sing the chorus in tera jalwa jisne dekha. This film, an Arabian love legend, gave rise to a real life romance off the screen as well. Swaranlata converted to Islam and changed her name to Saeeda Bano. Swaranlata and Nazir got married and were inseparable till Nazir’s death in 1983.
The Swaran-Nazir pair was a very creative ensemble, churning out many movies together both before and after Partition. Theirs was a love marriage and although they had a difference of 20 years between them, their relationship was a stable and loving one. Swaran would often mention of the tough times they had at the time of Partition when they left everything they had behind in Bombay and shifted to Lahore. It was Bari Malik, who gave them refuge when they arrived in Lahore. The duo had to start from scratch and in the process became one of the pioneers of the Pakistan film industry.
In1949, Nazir and Swaranlata made their first Pakistani venture, Sachchai, at their dilapidated studios, with equipment that would have been more valuable as museum artifacts. The film lacking in quality, got poor response at the box office. This did not deter Nazir. He embarked on the second project, Pheray, the first Punjabi Film of Pakistan, made with a meagre 65,000 rupees. It was completed within a record time of 6 weeks. Swaranlata and Nazir played the lead roles, and Pheray proved to be a big money maker even in competition with the films produced in Bombay. It found its place in the archives of our national film industry as the first Pakistani movie to have celebrated its silver jubilee.
Swaranlata acted with most actors of her era including Santosh, Darpan, Dilip Kumar and Karan Dewan, and came to be known as one of the greatest actresses of Pakistan. Some of her notable films in Pakistan include Shehri Babu (1953), Naukar (1955), and Noor-e- Islam (1957). Naukar was Golden-Jubilee hit film about poor maid (Swaranlata) and her husband (Nazir) who had to give in their newly born baby to their rich Begum Sahiba (Raagini). When Begum has her own child, the poor boy must suffer along with the poor maid. This was a soap opera in the real sense of the term, which provided sentiments for tears to both women and men folks. Ironically, Naukar was based on a plagiarized script from an Indian film Aulad (1954). Noor-e-Islam, a story based on religious sentiments, attracted a great number of family viewers with its na’ats. One of these – Shah-e-Madina Yasrab ke waali, sare nabi tere dark e sawali – gained tremendous popularity amongst public.
In the later part of her career, Swaranlata switched to character roles and appeared in some of her last films including Sawal (1966), and Duniya Na Mane (1971). Notable among them was Sawal, one of the finest films directed by Hassan Tariq. It was a story about upper-middle-class girl (Saloni), who had gone much too far in imitation of Western manners and disowns her own son for worldy pleasures. Swaranlata gave moving performance as Saloni’s mother.
Swaranlata gradually moved away from films as she became more engrossed on the home front. Being a reserved person by nature, she avoided public gatherings and mingled just with her good friends who had stood by her through the good and bad times. Whenever she was forced into the limelight, in the shape of interviews or the recipient of an award, she always appeared dignified and straightforward, not being afraid to voice her opinions about anything. She was also a good Samaritan and helped many families with their children’s education. She enjoyed good music, both Western and South Asian.
She survived the death of her husband, youngest daughter and her son-in-law with the same grit that she displayed throughout her life. She did shed tears, but she would always get right back up again and immerse herself in her daily routine. After her husband’s death she faced a lot of hardships which she countered with dignity, displaying the mettle that she was made of.
Swaranlata, passed away at the age of 83 in her family home in Lahore on February 8, 2008, in the early hours of the day – Fariha Rashed, Ummer Siddique, Sambreen Rashed and Mushtaq Gazdar