Conversing with yesteryear superstar Shabnam, who remained at the top of her game for four decades, is like travelling back in time to an era that not only treasured and celebrated true art but also the brains behind it.
I caught up with her over a phone call to her Dhaka residence where she had settled down — after retirement from Pakistani films in 1999 — with her late husband and acclaimed musician, Robin Ghosh. Our conversation took place before she landed in Karachi recently to attend the 18th Lux Style Awards where Atif Aslam, Maya Ali and Saba Qamar paid homage to her life and times. She also received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the show, and joining her on stage was her co-star from their heyday, Nadeem Baig, whom she considers family.
Shabnam has stories to tell, some of which she remembers quite vividly. From racing the legendary actor Muhammad Ali to a film set to see which of the two reach there first, to the daunting moments of seeing her peers getting unceremoniously kicked out from their offices at Evernew Studios after a series of flops.
“Quite honestly, I don’t understand politics,” she recalls of the time when Bangladesh came into being and Pakistan’s two cinematic headquarters on both sides were torn apart. Shabnam didn’t move back East like some of the other Bengali artists. “I could’ve gone to Dhaka, but I had so many films I had committed to that I couldn’t have given up 20 years of hard work and ruined my reputation by walking away. Of course, I knew I would go back to my family, but only after I had completed my work. My parents kept visiting me but when, in 1988, my father fell seriously ill, I had to fly out to Dhaka from Karachi. I found him and my mum all alone, which upset me terribly. But then again, to avoid complications, I didn’t pull back from my work, and eventually only decided to move back to Dhaka for good in 1999.”
Despite having achieved super-stardom in the film industry decades ago, Shabnam has never let it go to her head. Her attitude — or lack of one, if you will — still holds her in good stead
Shabnam begun her showbiz career as the young Jharna from her hometown as a teenager. When offers from West Pakistan came pouring in, she initially felt intimidated as she was not well-versed in the Urdu language, she remembers, taking a trip down memory lane. Her Urdu dialogues for the first few scripts used to be written in Bengali and she would memorise them. It all worked out in the end though.
“Initially, I was scared of going to a new place and working there without knowing the language. I didn’t want to be the butt of all jokes,” says Shabnam. “And so, for about eight years, I kept declining offers from West Pakistan. But then I worked in a black-and-white movie called Aakhri Station (1965), which, incidentally, I was advised not to do since there was also only one piece of dialogue and no make-up. The character of Pagli in it really spoke to me when I’d first heard it. It was beautiful. I started learning Urdu from a teacher who was originally from Lucknow and then there was no looking back.”
Whilst it was all good in the ‘hood for her, it wasn’t until she signed Waheed Murad’s production Samandar (1968) that she entered the big league and realised how stardom came with its own baggage, and a mindset she didn’t approve of.
“On the first day of set, I arrived at 8am sharp to get started with my make-up. I kept asking the director when we’d start filming and he kept telling me that we would start when Waheed sahib would show up, which he didn’t till late afternoon,” she narrates. “Nonetheless, at 6pm, I told them it was time for me to leave. I was always very particular about timings and Waheed sahib started laughing. He told me this is how the industry functioned, yet I still fought with him again when he arrived late the next day.
“That’s when Waheed sahib sat me down and told me I could show up on set whenever I wanted to since I was a star. But to me, there was and never is any excuse for unprofessionalism.”
What is also essential to Shabnam, and is reflected in our tête-à-tête, is this sense of professionalism and punctuality.
“I think how I conducted myself was purely upon me. I could’ve stayed out late nights or cracked jokes with co-stars, and it’s not that I was uptight. I did have a good time, but I always knew where to draw the line with my colleagues,” she notes, taking into account the recent upsurge of complaints about harassment in the industry.
“When I started doing films, I’d told everyone from the very beginning that I’d never do anything vulgar. I wouldn’t wear clothes that exposed too much skin, I wouldn’t dance in a way I found provocative, and so nobody ever expected that from me. I built my image very carefully and consciously. After I got married, all my in-laws asked of me was to respect the Ghosh family name.”
And she certainly lived by those principles. Shabnam’s wardrobe credits were given to her for the costumes she would design herself after reading her characters, compiling her ensembles from across Bangladesh, India and even the UK. After winding up the indoor spell for Dosti (1971), where she played a naive villager, the outdoor leg of shooting began in Abbottabad with filming of Noor Jehan’s hit number, 'Chitthi zara saiyyan ji ke naam likh de', which she initially refused to shoot. “The thumkas that the dance choreographer wanted me to do were nothing like the character, and so the director eventually let me dance however I wanted to,” she reminisces.
“I was never quite interested in gossip either, I never inquired about my colleagues’ personal lives, I felt as if it were an invasion of their privacy,” she expresses, always having her head in the right place.
Today, one can only wonder how stardom didn’t go to her head. “I think it came from God,” she responds. “I always kept myself very low-profile. I never thought producers were after me, or that I could throw tantrums. I always knew I had to speak to everyone on the set respectfully. I never got into a petty spat with a journalist or a rival. In fact, I felt as if there were always the burden of success on my shoulders. When all eyes are on you, not only do you have to perform well but conduct yourself a certain way, too. I see that lacking today.”
Shabnam tells me she had decided to retire long before the release of the blockbuster film, Aina (1977). For years, the thought of not remaining relevant was like a dark cloud hanging over her head. But then Aina changed everything.
She says she belonged to the “golden times” when the film industry progressed in harmony and quality was focused on. The upsurge of low-quality Punjabi cinema led to the deterioration of content and brought about the ruin of the film industry, she feels.
After bidding the fraternity adieu for almost two decades, she recently signed on to Ali Tahir’s serial Mohini Mansion Ki Cinderellayein (MMKC) on Bol TV, playing a character that is Shabnam’s die-hard admirer and, in the process, breaking the fourth-wall.
“In 2016, the writer Fasih [Bari Khan] and producer Ali Tahir called me and offered me the role of a woman who is actress Shabnam’s biggest fan, and I really liked the idea. It was something very different and unlike what I’d seen on TV before. After watching MMKC, I feel it’s hilarious! It’s such a beautiful serial shot in the inner city of Lahore and I really enjoyed going to Lahore for it,” she says as a parting note.
“I was worried the first few days because I’d never done a serial before, but the treatment was very filmi, so I never felt as if I was shooting for a new medium. I was, however, a newcomer myself and I’m very lucky I got to work with the MMKC team.” Even now, Shabnam remains the ultimate humble professional.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, August 18th, 2019