Swaranlata – Her Last Interview
When one speaks of legends, the mind instantly paints a picture of grandeur. Consider an actress who was labelled ‘tragedy queen’ for her moving performances, and a thespian who took the world of Indian cinema by storm with her dark eastern looks. Swaran Lata, of the Nazir-Swaran Lata duo, began her journey with her husband, in the pre-Partition hit, Laila-Majnoo. They continued as a husband and wife team across the border in the then newly formed, independent Pakistan film industry.
The fledgling industry owed much to this remarkably talented couple who showed commitment and determination in spite of the initial problems they had to face while commencing their careers in Pakistan. “We had no money when we first came here; we left everything behind in India. Our good friend, Bari, gave us food and a place to stay. I then returned to India and brought back some of my things and Nazir Sahib and I subsequently began working,” says Swaran. However, having stood her ground, to this day, she maintains the reputation of being a star whose dialogue delivery and haunting voice has been the hallmark of her success.
Swaran Lata, now almost 80, a great-grandmother and in great shape for her age, cannot recall exactly how many movies she has acted in, but when asked to name a few she says: “Before Partition, I starred in Laila Majnoo, Vamikh Azra, Ratan, Maa Baap Ki Laaj, Pratigya and Tasveer”. Afterwards, she remembers acting in Phairai, Larai, Shehri Baboo, Heer, Khatoon and Sachayee. Of course, unforgettable is the famous song from Swaran’s film, Heer, Asaan jaan ke meet laye ankh we, which has recently, in a very contemporary style, been sung and remixed by singer Annie in her debut album.
The original song was an instant hit and to this day, is a hot favourite among music lovers. Furthermore, according to Swaran, her late husband produced and directed quite a few films in Pakistan such as Noor-i-Islam, Azmat-i-Islam, Naukar, Sawaal and Heer and she states very confidently that “all his movies were a success.” In her lifetime, Swaran has worked with great names like Prithvi Raj Kapoor, Moti Lal and Dilip Kumar in India and with Santosh Kumar, Darpan, Inayat Hussein Bhatti and Habib in Pakistan. This portfolio can stand to impress anyone who has the slightest idea about old cinema and its top actors.
An exceptional and wondrous story about how she entered the realm of acting trails Swaran. Sadly, her parents passed away when she was very young and she lived most of her adolescent life with her elder brother, whom she recalls “was very strict.” However, it is the story of how she got discovered that Swaran tells with great passion: “I was a student at college in Lucknow, India. When I was travelling from Delhi to Lucknow, a few directors saw me. They approached me to act in films but I was not interested at first. One of them then went to my elder brother with the offer, and to my utmost surprise he agreed. I then started my career as an actress in Poona where after my first movie, the studio closed down. I went to Bombay where I got good work. From 1944 onwards I became very popular and was known as one of the top artistes around.
“After Partition, my husband and I came to Lahore and I stopped working in movies after Nazir Sahib’s first heart attack.” She is adamant about never taking up acting again, “I have retired. I’ve given interviews on TV programmes like Aap Ka Zameer by Zameer Sahib. That was an excellent interview and I enjoyed it. However, now I take pleasure in being at home with my children, grand children and great grand children.” She is not a social person by nature and happily reveals that she does not mingle with people from the film industry anymore. “I like to keep to myself,” she says.
Having witnessed a huge change in the workings of cinema since she first started out as an actress, Swaran is not very happy with the state of affairs at present. “Our films had no vulgarity. They could be watched sitting with families and the story line was powerful yet simple. Everything has changed now in both the Pakistani and Indian film industries. New people have come in and everything is glamorized. The elements of nudity and heavy make-up have crept in whereas at my time, our films were successful without all of this. I don’t want to comment too much on what I think because I refuse to watch any of the latest films as it is.”
Swaran believes that the production style and quality of movies has also shifted to a great extent and that a new trend is being followed. Although technology has aided production immensely, the vision and calibre of producers from her time is unmatchable. Commenting upon the type of audiences that watch films nowadays, Swaran says, “At our time, movie watching was enjoyed by the gentry. Now it is the masses who watch films and they prefer watching Punjabi movies, which I don’t like at all.”
She is also disappointed because she feels that “movie-makers are too commercial now. There is less attention on the story and more stress on love scenes and dances.” The Pakistani censor board, in her view, is a joke. “I was on the censor board but I quickly left because whatever we, as the board members, recommended was never followed. Strange films were passed as fit for showing and a lot of people on the board were bought off.”
Being a staunch believer in hard work and dedication, Swaran stresses on continuous practice and self-training for anyone who is striving to be a great actress. “I used to spend hours perfecting my role for each film. My dialogue delivery was known to be incredibly controlled and in sync with my facial expressions. I used to become one with my character. Being an actress requires great discipline,” she says. Swaran shrewdly advises: “An actress needs to know how to speak well and carry herself. I used to dress very simply in a white sari and blouse. I did not like being over dressed in public and my make-up was light at all times. Actresses in my time possessed a natural beauty which, I feel, has now been overshadowed with the application of heavy and unnecessary make-up and styling. Every actress looks the same and their individuality is being lost.”
What does Swaran translate this passion for sheer discipline into now? For one, even at her age, she still does cardiovascular exercises every morning and a yoga routine every evening. She keeps herself fit and active and still cooks for her children and grand children who live with her. “I think a person should maintain their health throughout their life, otherwise at my age I could have been bed-ridden,” she says.
Having been blessed with an exciting and fulfilling life, she looks back contently at everything she has achieved. “Sometimes I feel sorry that I left India and came to Pakistan because a lot of sacrifice was involved. However, I have settled in very well and the best thing is that I am respected by everyone. I am proud of all my children, grand children and in turn great grand children. My life is now very simple and I just look forward to spending time with my family in Lahore.”
Getting a little teary eyed at the end, Swaran goes on to say: “I must mention my dear friend Najma who I miss very much since she passed away and I must thank my friends Bari and his wife Saloni with whom I now spend a lot of time at their home.”
One thing is for certain, Swaran Lata’s story of fame and success will be told by every successive generation of her family. The government should honour such artistes who have rendered significant services to the film industry with their hard work and dedication, creating an infrastructure for future generations – This interview was conducted by Fariha Arshed in 2006 for Dawn Newspaper. Swaranlata died in 2008