A queen is no more

June 21, 2020

Sabiha Khanum will be remembered for the character roles she played in films — of the true self-sacrificing beloved, the dutiful wife meant to only make way for her children and husband

Sabiha Khanum was one of the earliest heroines of the Pakistani film industry. She paired up with the first Pakistani hero, Santosh Kumar, and both were responsible for a number of box office successes before she married him and retired from the films for some time. She made a comeback to her favourite medium with Daman.

Lahore was a provincial centre of filmmaking, while Calcutta and Bombay were the early centres. By the 1940s Bombay had become the undisputed capital of filmmaking in the sub-continent. The early Pakistani films struggled with stiff competition from an established rival particularly in the light of the film-making facilities being totally destroyed with partition rioting. Most producers and directors, too, had migrated at that time and a kind of a new start had to be made.

Helped by the ban on Indian film imports in the mid-fifties, the industry took off and much effort went into the grounding of a cinema that may have been different from that of Bombay.

Obviously, the focus then shifted to what was known then as the Muslim social genre, and with the passage of time, more Punjabi and Bengali input could be felt making inroads into the content of the films being made.

Sabiha Khanum, born in 1935, was not new to the cinema or show business. Her father and mother, too, were associated with it. Her mother, Iqbal Begum, known as Baloo was a stage actress and was very popular in the plays staged back then. Sabiha Khanum grew up in that environment with few options to choose from. She, too, learnt to sing as was mandatory in theatre. She was soon noticed and found herself to be the pick of the Pakistani directors as they struggled to find new talent in an atmosphere where rebuilding had become the primary concern.

Sabiha and Santosh were the most sustainable pair in the Pakistani cinema and soon displaced in popularity Sawarantala-Nazir and Musarrat Nazir-Sudhir. Mussarat Nazir quit after her marriage and shifted to Canada, leaving the field wide open for those willing to dig their heels in for a longer stint.

The first heroine of Pakistan was Noor Jehan. With her immense singing ability, she dominated the industry. However, the acting space was left open for others as she concentrated more on her singing. The first ones to replace her were Sabiha Khanum and Musarrat Nazir.

Sabiha and Santosh were the most sustainable pair in the Pakistani cinema and soon displaced in popularity Sawarantala-Nazir and Musarrat Nazir-Sudhir.

The main problem in Pakistani cinema was the creation of an authentic environment of the Muslim social genre. The genre was associated with the Ganga-Jamni culture. The character prototypes and the stock situations all came from that set up.

The creation of a Punjabi locale was reduced to the rural environment. It took decades for the directors to create an authentic prototype of situations and characters who were part of the urban middle classes and yet were Punjabi and not replicas of the characters from Delhi and Lucknow.

Sabiha Khanum lent her hand towards this new direction even though her husband’s family was linked to the Ganga-Jamni culture.

The basic issue was that of the language. Urdu was too tied up with the culture that was basically non-Punjabi even though in theatre, the likes of Agha Hashr had been successful like no other. The colouration of the culture was quite Delhi/ UP. The Punjabis were seen as aspiring to that norm and not really capable of their own distinct cultural expression.

And when it came to Punjabi, it was always the rural locale with its strict division between the rapacious feudal elite and the rebellious young males, taking on the system with village lasses in tow, preferably from the same feudal elite themselves.

In her later years, Sabiha Khanum continued to act, but in character roles. However, she rarely accepted roles based on sex appeal and panache. It was left to Musarrat Nazir to fill that slot. Sabiha Khanum, on the other hand, was the true self-sacrificing beloved, the sawitri, the dutiful wife meant to only make way for her children and husband.

She performed those roles well to fit into the stereotype and won many laurels for that. Her achievements are despite the fact that most of our recent films did not challenge the status quo, and rather pandered to popular perceptions about roles and characters.

Her first film was But Shikan. However, she became popular with Gumnaam and became the leading star with Wada, followed by Sheikh Chilli, Aas Paas, Sassi, Sohni, Choti Begum, Daata, Hatim, Saat Lakh, Dil Main Tu, Ayaz, Mehfil, Parvaaz, Toofan, Ishqe Laila, Mukhra, Rishta, Hasrat, Ishrat, Shikwa, Teray Baghair, Mauseeqar, Kaneez, Dewar Bhabi, Paak Daman, Anjuman, Sarfarosh, Inteqaam, Qatil, Sawaal, Commander, Mohabbat, Anjuman, Tehzeeb, Ik Gunah Aur Sahi, Rah Guzar, Dewana and Aik Raat.

She also appeared in many TV series. Acting for television then meant a comedown and it was as if the film world had already seen her best. Television did not have the same status as it enjoys now.

She passed away at the age of 84 in Virginia, US, on June 13.

A tribute to Sabiha Khanum