Shamim Ara: Lakhoon Mein Ek
By Dr Asif Javed
Shamim Ara (SA) died in obscurity, a few weeks ago, in UK, thousands of miles away from Pakistan. She had been in coma for years and this news was not unexpected. Still, her death has severed yet another cord with our past.
A few years back, she was being interviewed. When asked to give a message for her countrymen, she broke down and asked them to remember the expatriates’ love for Pakistan. Back in the 70’s, Rajinder Singh Bedi was being interviewed on Amratsar TV. He started sobbing when asked about Lahore. The celebrated short story writer of Urdu, had spent his youth in Lahore before 1947. Such is nostalgia for one’s youth.
My first memory of SA is from the mid-60’s. Late Agha GA Gul, the owner of Evernew Studio, had produced Naila. The movie, the first in color in Pakistan, was based on Razia Butt’s novel of the same name. The director was Sharif Nayyar. (Mohammad Ali once described him as the best in Pakistan.) The story revolved around the heroine who is loved by two brothers simultaneously. The role was played to perfection by SA. Now, unlike, Madhubala and Zeba, SA was no raving beauty. But she was a talented actress, well suited to play the type of role that required a shy, delicate, Eastern woman who sacrificed her life for a doomed love. Naila was a huge success.
I distinctly remember my elder sisters heatedly discussing the plot of Naila with their friends. Naila was a trend-setter too: It ushered in the era of movies based on novels. Decades later, SA was asked to pick her favorite song; she chose tarapnabheehamainata hey, sung by Mala and immortalized by music director Master Inayat Hussain who was born in Lahore’s Bhatti Gate (Hakim Ahmad Shujah called it Lahore’s Chelsea but that is a story for another time.) SA followed Naila’s success by producing Saiqa, based on another popular RB novel.
Times have changed. But in those days, going to movies was a fairly popular and safe type of entertainment for middle class families. Many cinema halls would reserve, and often partition off, a part of the gallery for families with women and children. The culture of vulgarity, crudeness and violence had not permeated our films. Urdu movies typically had social, romantic themes. I remember seeing late Justice Aslam Riaz Hussain, along with his family, in a cinema hall in Lahore.
The other day, I glanced through a book by late YaseenGoreega who can safely be described as the encyclopedia of Pakistani Film industry. YG had created a list of top one hundred movies made in Pakistan between 1947 and 2000. SA was the heroine in ten of them: Sahelee, Farenge, Naila, Aagkadarya, Lakhoonmeinek, Hamraz, Dilmeradrarkantere, Saiqa, Meragharmereejanatand Salgira. If one considers the fact that her acting career lasted from late 50’s through early 70’s, it looks like a remarkably successful career.
In early 70’s, SA made a smooth transition from acting to direction. It was a well-timed decision. She was fairly successful at that too although I had left Pakistan by then and did not witness that phase of her career. SA’s retirement from movies brought an unexpected, premature and tragic end to the singing career of Mala. Mala’s voice was very suitable for SA. Many of Naila’s songs filmed on SA were sung by Mala. With SA’s retirement from acting, Mala had hardly any work. Having gone through severe financial difficulties, a depressed and abandoned Mala died; she was only fifty.
Like most actresses of that era, SA too came from a blue-collar background. It is unclear if she had any formal education. Apparently, she had migrated to Pakistan from India and the family had settled in Karachi. One never heard of her mother or father. But there was that ever present maternal grand-mother who may have played a role in SA’s marital disasters. And then there were professional difficulties: QateelShifai, who was producing a movie, Eklarkee mere gaoonke, notes in his biography that his movie’s distributor would often make crude sexual remarks in SA’s presence. When rebuffed, he would become visibly hostile towards her and would use derogatory remarks like calling her a prostitute. SA must have dealt with this type of adversity many times in her career. After all, this was and, to a degree, still is a man’s world. Roger Ailes (the recently fired Fox TV chief) was not the first, or the last man, accused of sexual harassment. His kind have always existed.
SA reigned supreme when there were quite a few decent actresses around: Sabiha, Zeba, Neelo, Deeba, Shabnam, Nayyar Sultana and Rani among others. Despite her success in movies, her personal life remained a fiasco. There were rumors of impending marriage to Mohammad Ali until he got married to her competitor, Zeba. For years, there was a statement attributed to SA that she intended to marry the army officer who would capture Kashmir. Later, she denied having ever said that. And then came a sudden marriage to Sardar Rind, a landlord from the South, who died in a car accident. Her marriage with director Farid Ahmad, the talented son of WZ Ahmad, did not survive long either. After yet another failed marriage with Majeed Karim, she finally settled down with Dabir Hasan, a writer, who predeceased her by a few years. She has a son, who lives in London.
Another memory of SA etched in my mind is her very emotional speech from Radio Pakistan in late December 1971. Many artists had been asked to do this to raisethe morale of the armed forces. Unaware that East Pakistan was sinking fast and that the Romeo General Yahya Khan and his coterie were enjoying their alcohol, SA presented herself at the Lahore Radio Station and like a dutiful, patriotic citizen, did what was asked of her.
The last years were difficult. Everything had been drifting downhill. Her health had broken down. A stroke had left her visibly weak. In a TV program with Bushra Ansari, she appeared depressed and emotionally labile. Ironically, a successful actress, producer and director of her time, was also going through financial problems. Having been dispossessed of her house in Gulberg, facing litigation and having no other place of her own, she was forced to stay with actress Bahar, an old friend. The catastrophic brain hemorrhage came a few years ago. She was flown to London, and spent the rest of her life probably in a nursing home.
Two days after her death, I found myself travelling on the London underground train. The third station, going from London Heathrow Airport towards Central London, is Hounslow. That is where the heroine of Lakhonmeinek and Nailahas found her last abode. As my mind wandered back and forth, it suddenly dawned on me that my favorite heroine has finally come to rest a stone’s throw from Heathrow from where PIA, Pakistan’s flag carrier, flies back to the homeland that SA sorely missed.
(The writer is a physician in Williamsport, PA and may be reached at email@example.com )