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“Rani was a true superstar and had she been in Bollywood, she would have made it big, more so than any of her contemporaries!” says director Saqib Malik, talking about the uncrowned queen of Pakistani cinema.

This Tuesday, it will be exactly 21 years since Lollywood’s one-of-a-kind leading lady passed away on May 27, 1993. Though gone, she is not forgotten. A woman known for her expressive eyes, sensuous curves and superb dancing skills which landed her the title of ‘a face that launched a thousand mujras’ from the catty English press, Rani proved herself to be the ultimate superstar during the golden era of Pakistani cinema, a time when it wasn’t known with the tacky moniker of Lollywood nor was it in the doldrums.

“To me, my mother is the perfect representation of a woman with her femininity as a mother and her strength as a celebrated icon,” says Rabia Hasan
“To me, my mother is the perfect representation of a woman with her femininity as a mother and her strength as a celebrated icon,” says Rabia Hasan

Though Lollywood’s golden age remains a distant memory and its revival a far-fetched fantasy, Rani continues to shine through as a performer par excellence.

Malik had interviewed Rani for Herald magazine a few months before her sudden death due to leukemia. Recalling the meeting that took place over two decades ago, he says: “I remember that interview well. It was really quite something. By then she had left her movie career and was separated from cricketer-turned-politician Sarfaraz Nawaz.”

At the time she was riding high on the success of Nusrat Thakur’s critically acclaimed serial on PTV, Khwahish. “She had started doing TV and made a big splash in Khwahish. She was one of the first film stars to work on television and not as a side character. It was a big thing in those days and the first time a major film star had crossed over from the silver screen to television. Naturally, there was a lot of excitement.”

Malik recalls her as a “charming and erudite lady”, someone who was very comfortable in her skin.

“She was of that world. That was the whole era where you were a little coquettish and knew how to flirt with the camera, and yet you were measured. You never revealed all but rather left something to the imagination. She had that mystique. This is the reason Rani remains larger than life. She had that something special and if she was in Bollywood, she would have been equally successful,” he adds.

To illustrate his point, he highlights Pakistan’s Umrao Jan Ada, a gem produced by Hasan Tariq, which came much before the Indian version starring Rekha. “It was very much watched in India and was highly appreciated, Rani’s performance in particular was praised.”

For a woman who famously said “my glamour is my identity”, Rani rose to fame from humble beginnings. Born on December 8, 1946 in Mzang, Lahore, she was named Nasira by her parents Malik Muhammad Shafi and Iqbal Begum. Her father was the driver of writer Agha Hashr Kashmiri and singer Mukhtar Begum.

Mukhtar asked Malik to let her raise this girl with eyes as big as saucers. And thus began the grooming of Rani, as she was affectionately called by Begum. Incidentally, it was also Begum who years earlier suggested that Allah Wasai, a young girl with a beautiful voice, be called Noor Jehan.

Not talented when it came to singing, Rani was an excellent performer when it came to dancing. She began her career in Anwar Kamal Pasha’s Mehboob in 1962. Though people noticed her beauty, she failed to make her mark as a performer. After a string of flops and forgettable performances including Aakhri Station, a film made on a story penned by Hajra Masroor and showcasing the best performance of Shabnam’s career, Rani was labelled as bud-kismet by film-makers.

Meanwhile, she fell hard for Kamal, a Raj Kapoor lookalike who was making waves in the local film industry. The affair remained “a one-sided infatuation from her side” in Kamal’s own words, and Rani was left heartbroken. It is often said that suffering brings out the best in a person, and this is certainly what happened with her. While she was marked as a failure, director and producer Hassan Tariq brushed aside the jinxed label and gave her some of the meatiest roles ever written for a female actor in Pakistani cinema. From being the virginal girl next door to a sultry siren, stock characters were developed, given strong story lines and the results were remarkable.

The young starlet went on to marry Hasan and rule the silver screen with Anjuman, Tehzeeb, Umrao Jan Ada, Surraiya Bhopali, delivering box office hits in quick succession. She also went on to become a Lux girl, a true movie star moment.

“Even today, Rani remains a legend in her own right with her dances, her ada and her raised eyebrows. Once a heroine becomes a mum, her career slumps but in her case it was the exact opposite,” says Lollywood archiver Guddu, seen here with Rani during the shooting of the film, Thug Badshah (1985), at Bari Studios, Lahore
“Even today, Rani remains a legend in her own right with her dances, her ada and her raised eyebrows. Once a heroine becomes a mum, her career slumps but in her case it was the exact opposite,” says Lollywood archiver Guddu, seen here with Rani during the shooting of the film, Thug Badshah (1985), at Bari Studios, Lahore

Guddu, a much sought-after Lollywood archiver and Rani’s biggest fan to date reminisces of those days and was lucky enough to see her dance live on the film sets. “To this day, she remains a legend in her own right. Her dances, her ada, her raised eyebrows, all her moves were so calculated, classic and elegant. On top of it all, she was famously married and a mother as well. Usually, the trend is that once a heroine becomes a mum, her career slumps. In Rani’s case, it was the exact opposite!” he says.

Guddu is not alone. Over the years many actresses came and went in Lollywood but none left a mark like Rani.

In two separate backstage conversations at the Lux Style Awards with this writer, Runa Laila and Naheed Akhtar who often did playback singing for the actress, said that had it not been her dance performances, their songs would not be the same. Dil dharkay mein tum se yeh kaise kahoon, Aap dil ki anjuman mein, Jis taraf aankh uthaoon, the list of gems is endless.

“She breathed life into the songs,” said Akhtar, an accomplished singer while Laila paid the ultimate compliment and said, “Rani stole my thunder!”

Though Rani’s marriage to Tariq was short lived, the resulting creativity survived the test of time and even today makes one sit up and take notice. “For Rani, true love meant a lot. She had it all — looks, talent and success — but she also wanted to be acknowledged as someone who could be loved unconditionally,” late director Javed Fazil once said.

Years later, she married producer Mian Javed Qamar who was said to be in awe of her beauty and would literally worship the ground she walked on. Or so it was thought, until she was diagnosed with leukemia.

Rich and powerful men have always gone for trophy wives and that is what Rani was to Qamar. The concept of ‘in sickness and in health’ eluded him and at the time when Rani needed him the most, he abandoned her.

She then married cricketer Sarfaraz Nawaz but once again things started to go downhill. Though they separated and his loutish behavior earned him the ire of cricket and Rani fans alike, she maintained a dignified silence and never said anything against him.

While her tumultuous love life was at par with Madhubala and Meena Kumari, Rani had the better luck or rather better sense and did not let her personal life affect her professionalism.

Rather than end up as a depressed alcoholic, a misfortune that befell Meena Kumari, or die in penury like Madhubala, Rani remained firmly grounded, succeeding where many leading ladies failed in keeping their sanity and dignity.

“She just wasn’t a movie star. She was a feminist icon,” says Rabia Hasan, Rani and Hasan Tariq’s daughter. A visual artist who graduated from the prestigious National College of Arts, Rabia’s work questions patriarchal values and the place of a woman in this context. Not surprising, given that her parents often questioned society’s ‘madonna-whore’ complex in their movies.

“Her image, as a movie star and a mother, is important to me. From a female perspective, she was a feminist icon. My work revolves around the patriarchal structure and how a woman is represented within the structure. She was a mother and a celebrated icon, the perfect representation of a woman, her femininity and her strength,” she says.

“Back then, people weren’t that accepting of women in films and usually those who rebelled joined the industry. She was a very courageous woman. Now, people tell me so many things, the struggle she put up with, the way she survived as a woman in this society. I am amazed at the strength she displayed without compromising on who she was,” says Rani’s daughter.

This ‘I am who I am’ bit attitude set Rani apart from others.

In her own words: “When I was campaigning for Sarfaraz, people told me to wear a chaddor. But I refused. I wore the flashiest of clothes, all my jewellery, jhumka shumkas, everything!” aptly summing up that glamour has everything to do with politics.

“Rani never came across as a two-faced person. When she was campaigning for the 1985 non-party election on behalf of Sarfaraz Nawaz, it was Rani who held court,” says Malik. “She knew people were coming to see her and she played her role perfectly. Reaching out to the people but at the same time maintaining her movie star status. She was a showstopper and this was all during the martial law days.”

This was something very different from the usual star-turned-politician cases, as the case was in India where prominent movie stars toned down their public personas and in the case of women, went out in white saris and de-glammed themselves

Out of sight but never out of mind, film star Rani’s legacy lives on through her films and her gifted progeny

“Rani was very conscious of the fact that she was playing a role and people were coming to see her and not some covered up woman,” adds Malik.

While Sarfaraz was always the hot-headed sportsman, she made sure he struck the right notes with the masses. Her hard work paid off and he landed a seat as an MPA. Had cancer not claimed her life, Rani had her eyes on a senate seat as she wanted to bring about social change and uplift the status of women in the society.

Waise to sabhi maut kay muntazir rehte hain, achanak teri judaai ne sub ko rula diya, tum kya gaye kay rooth gaye din bahar kay.

Thus reads the inscription on Begum Nasira aka Rani’s last resting place, symbolising the abyss that Lollywood has plummeted into in her wake. The only thing that now endures the test of time is the irresistible allure of Mozang de Rani.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 25th, 2014