SABIHA Khanum with another great performer Waheed Murad on a movie set.
SABIHA Khanum with another great performer Waheed Murad on a movie set.

LAHORE: Sabiha Khanum — the Golden Girl of Pakistani Cinema and the Prestige of Lollywood — breathed her last in the United States on Sunday after a protracted illness.

She was 85.

She is survived by two daughters, a son and grandchildren.

Khanum was one of the most popular actors of 1950s-60s. She not only performed in films, but also did theatre and sang national songs for some PTV programmes.

Her family told Dawn on Sunday that she had been hospitalised for the past few months. She had multiple complexities but was majorly suffering from kidney issues.

Khanum had been living with her daughter in the US for more than a decade. On her demise, her granddaughter, Sarish Khan, said: “It is with great sadness that we share the news of the demise of our beautiful and beloved Sabiha Raza (Sabiha Khanum) who passed away earlier today, June 13th, 2020. She returned to Allah (SWT) very peacefully and was surrounded by her loving immediate family in her last moments. We pray to Allah (SWT) to place her soul amongst the blessed who continuously receive mercy and grace of Allah (SWT) – Ameen. We know that she was loved by so many people and we have been receiving countless messages and calls. We ask that you be patient with us as we grieve her loss and respond to you all. We humbly request no in person visits to our home due to our safety and yours. In the meantime, a request for Sura-e-Fateha for my dearest Nani.”

One of her relatives and a noted actress and classical dancer Zarin Suleman Panna, who also did films with Khanum, told Dawn that she had been bedridden for last few months. “Bhabhi Sabiha was not only a great actress, but also a wonderful human being,” said Panna, adding that she was much into spiritualism and was a very loving person. A couple of years ago, Khanum came to Pakistan to see her friends and relatives back home, she said.

Panna said Khanum had a great wish to be buried next to her husband Santosh Kumar (whom she used to call Sahab Jee) in Lahore though her wish could not be fulfilled. Her funeral, according to her family, will be held on Monday (today) in Virginia, the US.

She said most of her co-actors such as Waheed Murad, Santosh Kumar, Agha Talish, Allaudin, Mina Shori, Mohammad Ali and several others had left this mundane world.

Recalling the days when she worked with Khanum in the film Zinda Laash, she said Khanum was an excellent actress. “Those were the golden times,” she said. She remembered that she had first met Sabiha Khanum at an award ceremony in Karachi’s Beach Luxury Hotel, where President Ayub Khan was the chief guest.

Qaiser Javed, a senior theatre director and producer, said Sabiha Khanum acted in a play Baywaqoof in 1985 at Lahore’s Alhamra and it went extremely well. “I was the assistant in that play and it was directed by Zubair Baloch and it earned enormous response.

Veteran actor Mustafa Qureshi, another colleague of Sabiha Khanum, said she was the most respected and senior artist of Pakistan’s film industry. The Pakistani cinema of 1950s-60s was mostly dominated by Sabiha Khanum and Santosh Kumar. The couple was not only the recognition and identity of cinema in Pakistan but also in the subcontinent. “She was my senior, I joined the industry quite late when Khanum was playing roles of a mother or a bhabhi,” Mr Qureshi recalled. “Her mannerism, dialogue delivery was extremely good,” he added.

Another senior artist Masood Akhtar who not only did films with Khanum but also theatre said: “We travelled to different cities to do theatre in the 1980s. The play was Paisa Bolta Hai, it was a theatrical tour under Punjab Council of Arts. Akhtar said Khanum was an extremely good actress who had a mannerism of her own when it came to some wonderful acting skills.”

Born on Oct 16, 1935 in Gujrat, Mukhtar Begum, now better known as Sabiha Khanum, was the daughter of Mohammad Ali (Maahia) from Delhi and Iqbal Begum (Baalo) from Amritsar, Punjab. She was raised in a conservative rural environment by her grandparents, but got her first acting opportunity on stage in Lahore after moving there to be with her father. When a cultural delegation visited a cinema house in Sialkot in 1948, the young Khanum, who was part of the delegation, sang the Punjabi song ‘Kithhay gae yoon pardesia way’ from the film Sassi Punnoon (which starred Baalu and Aslam). Her performance was praised, and soon Mohammad Ali introduced his daughter to a noted stage drama writer and poet, Nafees Khaleeli. Noting her determination, Khaleeli offered her a role in the drama Buut Shikan, which she accepted. Nafees Khaleeli gave her the screen name of Sabiha Khanum.

In 1950, film director Masood Pervaiz gave her a role in his film Baili. Same year she performed in a film Do Aansoo, directed by Anwar Kamal Pasha. After doing films such as Aghosh, Ghulam and Sarfarosh, Khanum emerged out as an eminent actress, these films were respectively directed by Murtaza Jillani and Anwar Kamal Pasha. Khanum was part of Pakistan’s first silver jubilee film Do Aansoo and first golden jubilee film Sassi. Among her landmark films are Sath Lakh, Mauseeqar, Chohti Begum, Naaji, Hasrat, Daman, Sawal, Wada, Hatim, Mehfil, Toofan, Ik Gunah aur Sahi and Ishq Laila.

In her Punjabi movies, her film Dullah Bhatti with Sudheer got extremely popular. Especially a song filmed on her Wasta ee Rab da tu jawaveen way kabootra got extremely popular. Another song Dila ther ja yar da nazara lain day from film Mukhra also earned immense popularity. Tu Lakh Chalay ray gori tham tham kay (Gumnam), Na chuhra sako gay daman (Daman) Lat uljhi suljha ja ray balam (Sawal), all these songs were just loved by Pakistani film audience and music lovers.

Khanum also sang national songs for some PTV programmes such as Jug jug jiye mera piyara watan and Sohni dharti.

Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2020