When Ismat Chughtai came to Lahore from Mumbai (then Bombay), she was invited to Shahbaz Studio, where one of Roohi Bano’s films was under production. Chughtai was shown some screens of her acting, and it left her awestruck.
Veteran actor Mohammad Shakeel remembers when this happened, and what the famous author had said then: “Saari Hindustan ki adakaarain aik taraf, aur Roohi Bano aik taraf hain.” (All the contemporary Indian actresses on one side, and Roohi Bano on the other).
“She was one the best leading women performers whom I have worked with,” he says. “And I have worked with some of the best names in the industry, but Roohi was exceptional — and as Ismat Chughtai said — exceptional not just in Pakistan but internationally as well.”
What was it that made Roohi stand out?
“She could easily slip into the skin of every character that she played,” claims Shakeel.
Actors reminisce the light and dark side of Roohi Bano
Truly, from a bumbling secretary in PTV Karachi centre’s early ’70s drama serial Kiran Kahani penned by Haseena Moin — where she is seen opposite Shakeel — to Gharonday written by Asghar Nadeem Syed, where Roohi plays a feisty and volatile brick kiln worker from South Punjab, she could change not just her appearance and accent, but also her personality. But behind the on screen presence was an extremely troubled soul.
Shakeel also worked with Roohi in Zair Zabar Paish and Gardish, among several others. “It was a wonderful experience working with someone so talented,” he says. “But sometimes she would get moody and decide not to work.
“Sometimes she would say ‘I don’t want to do a take now’, and the crew would listen to her,” says Shakeel. “In those times, actors were respected. Their words were taken seriously, unlike today. Today, there is no actors’ network here, nobody cares what happens to us — especially the ones belonging to our generation.”
He means that when the lives of performing artists such as Roohi Bano break down, not many people are around to actually help out, but they instantly begin to talk once the artist passes on.
“Roohi’s breakdown became more pronounced due to personal issues,” he says. “She developed ulcers and became easily upset.” He remembers, asking her one day if she had eaten lunch and she looked at him blankly and said: ‘Mujhe nahin yaad keh main ne khaya hai ya nahin’. (I don’t remember if I have eaten or not).
Whatever she went through, she was a complex person, says Shakeel.
“So soft was her voice that I recall someone saying about her, ‘jab woh bolti hain unn kay galay main bhanwar partay hain’ (her voice ripples when she talks),” he says.
She withstood two failed marriages, but it was the murder of her son that was the “last nail in the coffin,” he says. “Not just for her — but even we lost a great actor who can never be replaced.”
Roohi’s memory fails were recalled also by Mustansar Hussain Tarar, who says she would often forget her lines and there would be endless takes of the scene.
“Often, she would forget her lines and the result was a very tired co-actor,” remembers Firdous Jamal, who worked with her in Kaanch Ka Pul and Saahil, and whose name Roohi often took when remembering old times. “Technically, Roohi played herself,” says Firdous. It bordered on the absurd, because method acting was not really about playing oneself, but that is how it was.
“She was a very sweet and mellow soul, but there was another side to her, that often her co-actors saw,” he says. “She could be a very difficult person. She was a very complicated personality and at the same time, she was so lost within herself she could not find ways out.” Considering that Roohi suffered from schizophrenia, which probably became severe later in life, this kind of behavior was expected but then friends from the industry who tried to help her did not always succeed.
“I myself helped her many times, both financially and emotionally, as did several others, but it was not easy,” says Jamal. “I feel bad about her mental illness and the terrible circumstances she endured. I always wonder ‘why does it happen that someone so fragile lives in a stone-cold, heartless society’.”
Jamal wishes he and Roohi could have had some sort of academic discussion on acting. “Maybe it would have gone in our archive at PTV, or been somewhere in our memories, but it would have been an interesting session with Roohi Bano — something we missed out on.”
“It’s extremely painful to rethink what Roohi went through,” says Shakeel. “All I can say is towards the end of her life, her pain, especially the loss of her son, had turned her into a living corpse, and finally now she has been released from the agony of living like that. But for us, she will never be forgotten.”
Published in Dawn, ICON, February 3rd, 2019