Sunil Dutt and his handwritten letter in Urdu to Mehrunissa Najma(Twitter)
Sunil Dutt and his handwritten letter in Urdu to Mehrunissa Najma(Twitter)

Personal letters, autographed photos: How Golden Era superstars connected

Back in the 50s and 60s a young starstruck Bollywood fan, Mehrunissa Najma wrote to her favourite celebrities including legends Sunil Dutt, Saira Bano, Sadhana among others in hopes of autographs. The late cinema lover's hobby has now turned into an invaluable collection of India's cinematic history.
UPDATED ON MAR 03, 2021 03:32 PM IST

Back in the day, celebrities were truly like stars, completely out of reach and fans had to take all kinds of efforts to reach out to their favourite actors, be it in the hopes of a correspondence or simply for an autograph. While it may be hard for us to put pen to paper and string along letters to express our feelings to even those close to us, one young starstruck girl in the 1950s and 1960s wrote pages and pages to her favourite celebrities, including the likes of Shammi Kapoor, Dharmendra Deol, Kamini Kaushal, Biswajeet Chatterjee, Sadhana Shivdasani, Asha Parekh, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar, and Raaj Kumar, much to her mother's disdain. In the 1950s, then teenager Mehrunnisa Najma would pore over paper, writing to her favourite celebrities hoping to get an autographed photo back from them, maybe even a handwritten letter, and her love for Bollywood resulted in her having a priceless collection of very personal letters written to her by her favourite stars. While Mehrunissa passed away in 2006, most of the celebrities she wrote to in the 50s and 60s have now either passed away or are in their seventies. And 15 years after her passing away, her collection of photographs and letters is making it to National Film Archive of India

Dharmendra's photograph and handwritten letter.
Dharmendra's photograph and handwritten letter.

The black-and-white photos and handwritten letters came to light when Mehrunnisa Najma's niece, Sam Jawed posted about the same on her Twitter feed, and the photos soon went viral. In the many tweets that Jawed, journalist and co-founder of Alt News, shared, "My aunt passed away many years ago. Among her belongings was an old album that she was very fond of. The album remained lost for many years, buried somewhere in a storeroom in the basement. It was found again recently during a clean-up."

Shammi Kapoor and his letter to Mehrunissa
Shammi Kapoor and his letter to Mehrunissa

Jawed went on to share how her aunt's mother disapproved of her celebrity struck daughter's habit, sharing, "As a young girl growing up in a small town in 1950s and 60s, she was completely enamoured by movies. Much to the disapproval of her mother, she spent her free time writing fan mail to movie stars and over a time, built up quite a collection of autographed pictures and letters."

The journalist went on to share that though most of the letters were in bad shape, she had managed to salvage a few, sharing about her aunt, "I’m sure she would have loved to show off her collection."

Yesteryear actor Tabassum, famed for being the host of India's first TV talk show, Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan, responded to Sam's tweet that had a photograph of the actor from her acting day, sharing "

In an interview with The Independent, Sam Jawed shared how her aunt did not have any children of her own and had left her prized collection of photos and handwritten letters of celebrities to her niece. She shared, “My aunt used to write to movie stars and collect their pictures and autographs in the 1950s and early 1960s. She must have been in her twenties at that time. I really wonder in those days before social media how she managed to get addresses and birthdays and write these letters.”

Yesteryear acting legend Saira Banu, now 77, also wrote to Najma, her letter said, “My dear Najma, many thanks for your very kind letter and I read the same with much interest. I am also grateful for the good wishes sent on the occasion of my birthday and I most sincerely reciprocate the same. Please find herewith a photo enclosed duly autographed by me, kindly send your acknowledgement as soon as you receive the photograph.”

Rajendra Kumar's typewritten letter read, "I am in receipt of your sweet not and thank you for the same. I am glad you have written to me sincerely thank you for the same. As desired I enclose herewith an autographed photo of mine which I hope you like. I trust this finds you in the best of health and spirits."

In times of social media accessibility, paparazzi culture and selfies having replaced autographs, celebrities are now equally accessible as we get to see their daily life, but inaccessible as now the celebrity attached to actors makes them larger than life and unrelatable, these personal letters offer a meaningful insight into how celebrities from Bollywood's golden era connected with their fans. Recognizing the value of the priceless memorabilia of India's cinematic history, Jawed is currently in talks with the National Film Archive of India, which has offered to acquire and preserve the invaluable collection.

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