Sabiha Khanum and Santosh Kumar in Hasrat (1956)|Guddu Film Archive
Sabiha Khanum and Santosh Kumar in Hasrat (1956)|Guddu Film Archive

The last few weeks have seen the passing away of three prominent showbiz personalities of Pakistan, all who reached the pinnacle of their celebrity in the second half of the preceding century. First there was the funster Athar Shah Khan aka Uncle Jaidi, the third was the renowned quiz maestro of PTV, Tariq Aziz. In between we heard about the death of the inimitable Sabiha Khanum on June 3, in the US. The lady whose career had been studded with successes, died just three months short of her 85th birthday.

Born on October 16, 1935 in what was then a small town — Gujrat in Punjab — she was the daughter of Mohammad Ali aka Maahia and Iqbal Begum alias Baalo, who were both stage performers. In 1948, Mukhtar Begum, as she had been named at birth, appeared on stage for the first time, in a play directed by Nafees Khaleeli in Lahore. She won deafening applause from the audience. This inspired Khaleeli to recommend her to Masood Pervaiz, who signed her for his maiden movie venture, Beli (released in 1950).

It was Khaleeli who also suggested that she should adopt the name Sabiha Khanum to avoid confusion with a well-known ghazal singer Mukhtar Begum — Fareeda Khanum’s elder sister. In those days there were quite a few female actors — Ragni, Asha Posley, Swaranlata and Shimmi (who later married film star Sudhir and led an unhappy life). Noor Jehan was then a singer-cum-heroine, so there was no clash of interest between the two.

Beli featured Sabiha’s husband-to-be, a handsome young actor known as Santosh Kumar (in reality Syed Musa Abbas Raza). But it was with Sudhir that she shared the marquee in Eveready Pictures’ Sassi (1954), which turned out to be the country’s first silver jubilee film. In those days a movie had to run continuously in one cinema for 25 weeks to qualify for the title.

The daughter of stage actors, Sabiha Khanum is rightly remembered by her peers and audiences as a superb actress who got into the skin of the characters she enacted

Sabiha was neither a vamp nor an ingénue but had a girl-next-door charm about her that seemed to resonate with audiences.

Sabiha shared stellar honours with both actors and emerged as a better performer until 1958, when she tied the nuptial knot with the already-married Santosh Kumar. His first wife, Jameela, and Sabiha had a cordial relationship till early 2020, when Jameela passed away. Their husband, Santosh had passed away way back in 1982, awarding widowhood to the two wives for many years — 38 to be precise.

Years ago, when this writer asked the superstar of yesteryear Waheed Murad, who had acted with both Sabiha and Santosh in Daman and Devar Bhabhi, what he thought of Sabiha and Santosh Kumar as performers, his answer was straightforward. “He is an adequate actor,” he had replied, “but she is a superb actress.” In those days, the term ‘actor’ was reserved only for the gender to which Murad belonged. By the way, Sabiha went on to win the government’s Pride of Performance Award in 1984, on top of several other awards, including six coveted Nigar awards.

All in all, Sabiha acted in about 130 movies and emerged successfully in each one of them, whether they were in Urdu or Punjabi. In an obituary of this length it would be impossible to enlist her remarkable performances in the movies that she did as the leading lady, be it in Sassi (1954), Saat Lakh (1956), Ishq-i-Laila (1957), her own production Naaji (1959), and Mauseeqaar (1962), or when she played, what are called, character roles in films such as Kaneez (1965) and Anjuman (1970), to name a few.

In this context, one cannot agree more with the veteran actor Qavi, who told this writer on the phone from Lahore that Sabiha got into the skin of every character she enacted. “Sometime in the 1980s, I produced and directed a movie called Roshni,” recalls Qavi Khan. “Sabiha played the central character of the first lady of the mohalla [neighbourhood] with aplomb. Popular among young and old, [in the film] she is surrounded by kids who sing ‘Barri khala ko salaam’, much to the amusement of the audience both on and off the screen.”

This writer, who edited Pakistan’s most widely circulated English language film monthly Eastern Film, seldom went to Lahore. It was only much later into their careers, when Sabiha and Santosh came down to Karachi for the shooting of Saeed Haroon’s Ladla that I met them for the first time. This too was not on the sets but at the hotel they were staying at.

Santosh monopolised the conversation, while Sabiha, who looked graceful in a pink dress, acted as the consummate hostess, making sure I filled my plate with a wide variety of sandwiches that she had ordered. She didn’t have to make any effort to prove that she was a charmer.

Thanks to Satish Anand, I also got in touch with Panna, who was married to Syed Suleman, the younger brother of Santosh Kumar and Darpan. She was also all praise for her ‘Sabiha bhabhi’ for the roles that she played both on and off the screen. “She appeared as a cigarette-smoking, Anglo-Pakistani, middle aged ‘madam’ and played the character to the hilt in Eik Gunah Aur Sahi,” enthused Panna, “which was difficult considering that she was a typical, bashful Pakistani middle-class woman in her real life.” She adds that Sabiha never spoke ill of anybody in her day-to-day life.

In the twilight years of her screen career, when the quality of movies had degenerated, Sabiha switched over to television and won laurels there as well. She also recorded a couple of songs for the mini screen. When her children moved to the US and settled down there, however, she said ‘goodbye’ to her country. She did appear on stage once when Moin Akhtar convinced her to give him company in her adopted country.

Sabiha pined for Pakistan but visited here only once. She regretted that the journey from the US was much too long and inconvenient for a repeat performance. And now she’s gone on her longest journey.

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 28th, 2020