When the history of Pakistan’s film industry is compiled, the 1960s would be considered the most productive decade for films. The ’50s were the teething years for the industry while the ’70s were marred by the VCR invasion and action-based meaningless films.
The swinging ’60s saw many stars-in-the-waiting begin their career, who went on to rule filmdom for over two decades. Muhammad Ali, Waheed Murad, Nadeem, Zeba, Shabnam, Rani and many others all started out in the ‘sixties. However, the decade really belonged to one actress who could act and dance, had a captivating smile, could be termed a sex symbol and also had multiple hits to her credit. It was none other than Neelo.
Born Cynthia Alexander Fernandes to a Catholic family of Sargodha on June 30, 1940, Neelo started her career from a minor role in a Hollywood production, the Ava Gardener-Stewart Granger starrer Bhowani Junction (1956). The film was partially shot in Lahore in order to depict the undivided India of 1947.
In those days, Santosh Kumar and Sudhir were already established film stars and churning out hits. Aslam Pervaiz, who would go on to become the archetypal villain of Pakistani cinema, was still portraying the good guy. And Darpan was reeling from a failed stint as a supporting actor in Bollywood.
In her heyday, film star Neelo had the sass, the moves and the charisma to make it big in movies. But, above all, what she had was the respect of her colleagues and her fans alike
So, a school-going girl entering and sustaining in the industry required a big break. Saifuddin Saif’s Saath Lakh (1957) did the trick. The Santosh-Sabiha starrer had playback singer Zubeida Khanum singing Aaye mausam rangeelay suhanay for Neelo’s character, and the cute girl soon caught the attention of filmmakers as well as cine-goers.
Although her first leading man was comedian Nazar in the Musarrat Nazir-Sudhir starrer Aakhri Nishaan (1958), Neelo went on to share the screen with every new actor. Playing supporting roles against Santosh Kumar in Ghoonghat (1962), Daman (1963), and Sudhir in Dachi (1964) and Jeedar (1965), Neelo became an integral part of the careers of Ratan Kumar, Waheed Murad and Darpan.
The year 1959 brought further success for Neelo. Noor Jehan was set to retire from acting after her marriage to actor Ejaz Durrani. Madam’s last two films, Neend (directed by Hasan Tariq) and Koel (directed by Masud Pervaiz) had Allauddin, Aslam Pervez and Neelo in the cast.
Between Neend and Koel, Ratan Kumar’s debut film as hero, Nagin, was released and Neelo got the required recognition. She was an exceptional dancer and, in the role of a snake taking on human form, her expressions complimented the role perfectly. The direction of debutant Khalil Qaiser, who later formed a team with musician Rasheed Attre and writer Riaz Shahid, and gave hits such as Shaheed (1962) and Firangi (1964), brought an unusual concept to the big screen.
In Daaman (1963), Neelo was paired with Waheed Murad, which was also the latter’s first big role, and the ‘twist’ sequence featuring the chocolate hero became the highlight of Daaman.
Then, Musarrat Nazir got married and settled abroad while Sabiha Khanum restricted herself to character roles. There was a vacuum for a girl who could dance, which was readily filled by the ravishing Neelo. Though she acted with Darpan, Habib and Yusuf Khan, her pairing with actor/producer Syed Kamal proved to be comparatively long-lasting.
After Insaaf (1961), Banjaran (1962), Qatl Ke Baad (1963) and Nehlay Pe Dehla (1964), Kamal and Neelo joined forces in Punjabi films Ajj Dian Kurriyan (1976) and its sequel Kal De Munday (1978). Neelo also starred with Muhammad Ali in the Punjabi film Sher Di Bachi (1964), Paristan, Lala Rukh and Karishma (all from 1968), while with Ejaz she starred in Dosheeza (1962), Azra (1962), Beti (1964), Gehra Daagh (1964) and Badnaam (1966).
But the film which tops this list is, of course, Zarqa (1969), which enjoys its own folklore.
The story goes something like this:
It was April 1965, during Gen Ayub Khan’s reign as dictator, when Neelo was summoned by the Governor of West Pakistan, the Nawab of Kalabagh, for a dance performance in front of the visiting Shah of Iran. Neelo refused and was harassed by some officers, so she attempted suicide by taking sleeping pills. Impressed by her brave act of resistance, writer/director Riaz Shahid proposed marriage to her. She converted to Islam and adopted the name Abida. The leftist poet Habib Jalib then came up with a poem, Neelo, which immortalised the whole episode. A line from the poem reads thus:
Tu ke nawaaqif-i-aadaab-i-shahenshahi thee
Raqs zanjeer pehen kar bhi kiya jaata hai
[You were unaware of the etiquette extended to kings
Dance can also be performed in your chains]
Riaz used Habib Jalib’s poem in his next film, Zarqa, where Neelo in the title role is forced to dance against her wishes. Filmed on her and Ejaz, the song (whose lyrics made some minor modifications to the poem: the song references ‘the etiquettes of slavery’ instead of the reference to kings) sung by Mehdi Hassan, became an immediate classic. Made on the issue of Israel’s forced occupation of Palestinian lands, the song was obviously a dig at Pakistan’s military government, but apparently went over the heads of the military censors.
Zarqa became the country’s first Urdu film which celebrated a Diamond Jubilee at cinemas.
Sadly, tragedy struck in 1972 when Riaz Shahid died of cancer. Neelo, with director Hasan Tariq, finished the Nadeem-Nisho starrer Bahisht (1974), left incomplete by her late husband, and later made a comeback in movies. At 34, she could still set the screen on fire and her comeback film, Khatarnaak, became the first-ever Punjabi film to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee.
In all, Neelo acted in 140 films in a career spanning 42 years. She got various Nigar Awards, including one for Zarqa. Shaan, the son of Riaz Shahid and Neelo, is now himself an accomplished actor, director and producer, who made his acting debut in Javaid Fazil’s Bulandi (1990) opposite another newcomer Reema, with Neelo in a supporting role.
As a mother and a film star, Neelo’s longstanding wish was that Shaan’s reign as a leading man in films would outlast all others before him. At the time of her death on January 30, 2021, Shaan’s star still continues to shine as bright as ever.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, February 7th, 2021