Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu: A match made in heaven
‘Pari Chehra’ (fairy-faced) actress, Naseem Banu (real name Roshan Ara Begum) was an extremely beautiful lady endowed with an innate and graceful charm. Daughter of classical singer Shamshad Begum and Nawab Abdul Waheed Khan, she was introduced in films by the legendary Sohrab Modi in his home production Khoon Ka Khoon in 1935. Her debut was followed by films like Khan Bahadur (1937), Meetha Zahar (1938) and Talaaq (1938). She won tremendous adulation for playing Empress Noor Jehan in Sohrab Modi’s magnificent hit Pukar (1939). She soon married Mohammad Ehsan-ul-Haq, the son of Khan Bahadur Mohammad Suleman.
The couple started their own home banner, Taj Mahal Pictures, and produced a handful of films including Ujala (1942) and Begum (1945). Many of these did not succeed at the box office despite filmmaker S. Mukerji’s all-out support in scripting and making these movies. Mukerji, who had just branched off from Bombay Talkies Studios, then cast her in his film Chal Chal Re Naujawan (1944) opposite Ashok Kumar. She then went on to star in many more successful films such as Door Chalen (1946), Anokhi Ada (1948), Chandni Raat (1949), Sheesh Mahal (1950), etc. The couple had two children Saira Banu (the later day famous star in her own right) and Sultan Ahmad. Naseem Banuji (whom the first author addressed as Roshan Aapa in my childhood during my couple of visits to her house) and Ehsan Saheb later separated. Roshan Aapa took great care of her children, Saira and Sultan, who later received their education in London.
At 16, Saira Banu made her sensational Bollywood debut with Subodh Mukerji’s super-duper hit Junglee (1961), opposite the rebel star Shammi Kapoor, and never looked back. Among the big films she starred in thereafter included – Manmohan Desai’s Bluff Master (1963, with Shammi Kapoor); Mohan Kumar’s Ayee Milan Ki Bela (1964, opposite Rajendra Kumar) and Aman (1967, with Rajendra Kumar); Devendra Goel’s Door Ki Awaaz (1964, with Joy Mukerji); Subodh Mukerji’s April Fool (1964, opposite Biswajeet), Saaz Aur Awaaz (1966, opposite Joy Mukerji), and Shagird (1967, with Joy Mukerji); Shankar Mukherji’s Pyar Mohabbat (1966, co-starring Dev Anand); Mahesh Kaul’s Diwana (1967, opposite Raj Kapoor); Manoj Kumar’s Poorab Aur Pachhim (1970, opposite the actor- director himself); Lekh Tandon’s Jhuk Gaya Asmaan (1968, with Rajendra Kumar); Yash Chopra’s Aadmi Aur Insaan (1969, with Dharmendra); Mehmood’s Padosan (1968, with Sunil Dutt); Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Chaitali (1975, with Dharmendra); Brij Sadanah’s Victoria No. 203 (1972, opposite Navin Nishchol); Aatmaram’s Resham Ki Dori (1974, opposite Dharmendra); B.R. Chopra’s Zameer (1975, Amitabh Bachchan); Raj Khosla’s Nehle Pe Dehla (1976, opposite Sunil Dutt); and Prakash Mehra’s Hera Pheri (1976, with Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna). Saira Banu was given the title of ‘Beauty Queen’ at the time of release of her first film Junglee and, quite deservingly, it stayed with her forever.
Dilip Kumar greatly admired Naseemji for her dignity and self-reliance. Being close to the doyen S. Mukerji, Dilip Saheb was also close to the family of Naseemji. Reportedly, Saira Banu had a crush on Dilip Kumar from her growing up years when she met the thespian on the sets of Mughal-E-Azam. While in London, Saira watched Mehboob Khan’s Aan at the Scala Theatre and was mesmerised by Dilip Saheb’s performance and personality. After completing her studies in England and upon her return to India, she engaged a scholarly Maulvi to make her proficient in Urdu and Farsi ostensibly to get closer to Dilip. There was some talk of Dilip Saheb accepting to cast Saira Banu as early as when Gunga Jumna was launched and later in Leader and thereafter for the second lead role of Shanta in Ram Aur Shyam (it eventually went to Mumtaz).
At a party hosted by Mehboob Khan in those days, S. Mukerji had hinted to Dilip Kumar that the young girl Saira was crazy to work with him. Dilip Kumar reportedly told some scribes at that time that Saira Banu was too young to be cast opposite him. He also jokingly pointed to his greying mop of hair to dissuade Saira from pursuing ideas of starring opposite him. But, as Saira Banu’s debut film Junglee became a stupendous hit, she became a much sought after actress. Sairaji was signed for films opposite virtually all the top heroes of that era including Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar, Sunil Dutt, Joy Mukerji, Manoj Kumar, etc., but a choosy Dilip Kumar eluded her.
Saira Banu got so busy that she missed a few important films like S.U. Sunny’s Palki (1967). Mehboob Khan, however, got her to commit bulk dates for his ambitious ‘Habba Khatoon’ for which he had announced Dilip Kumar as the leading man way back in 1957 itself. But Dilip Saheb could not get himself to play Yousuf Shah Chak (husband of the poetess Habba Khatoon) which had negative shades. He differed with Mehboob Khan on some aspects of the script, and eventually withdrew from the film. Soon after, Mehboob Saheb passed away and the jinxed ‘Habba Khatoon’ got shelved. But, Saira Banu kept sending frequent requests to Dilip Kumar via some popular producers for doing a film with her. On the other hand, Dilip Saheb kept sounding clapper boards at the mahurats of Saira Banu films. Dilip Kumar kept on working with heroines matching his age and maturity. Nevertheless, at that juncture Dilip Kumar did confide in S. Mukerji that he wanted to cast Saira in a subject specially written for her in a film titled ‘Song of the Valley’, which was set in the backdrop of the picturesque Kashmir Valley. But, the movie never took off.
Excerpted with permission from Bloomsbury.