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The starlets of yesteryear

Veejay Sai takes readers into the lives of leading actresses of the subcontinent

The starlets of yesteryear

So little is known about the actual lives of public figures and if they are in show business even less is revealed as the actual truth. If they happen to be women, the information is only in bits and pieces strung together and blown out of proportion against the backdrop of glamour.

Veejay Sai has done a good job by bringing out and writing about the actual lives of ten of the most popular women actresses of theatre and cinema in the first part of the 20th century.

Acting or appearing in a production was considered to be a taboo in nearly all societies in the world and it was left to men to impersonate the roles of women on stage. This practice continued all over the world, and after the first appearances of women were accepted in Europe, in parts of Asia this was emulated much later. The ten women selected to be the core of his book were those who made successful breakthroughs on stage and screen in this region.

The lives of these women were not easy. Though glamourised beyond recognition, in truth they were discriminated against and had to face social barriers; and once they faded out, they were totally forgotten by the rich patrons and the same millions who rushed to adore them. The life span of an actress today is just as short as it was then. As long as they were young and successful, they were sought after and as soon as they started to lose popularity they were dropped like hot potatoes.

There may be a great deal of similarity in the life histories of these women — it could be that we want to hear only what we want to hear and what fits into the stereotypical narrative of women in show business — their background, their training and then accidental rise to the pinnacle of fame. It is shocking to know that some of the most glamourised women died very young. Perhaps, they were lucky because others just faded into oblivion — no one knows what happened to them and how they survived the years away from the limelight. The most famous of them, Jahanara Kajjan was only thirty when she died.

Little is known to us about women who either belonged to the southern part of the subcontinent or appeared in productions that were made there. The two big centres were Calcutta and Bombay but it should never be forgotten that southern India was and is mad about films, theatre and music and even now has a turnover that is larger than that of the north. Little is thus known about Kumbakonam Balamani, Rushyendramani, Malavalli Sundaramma and Thambalangoubi Devi than about Tara Sundari Devi, Munni Bai, Mukhtar Begum, Hirabai Barodekar, Jahanara Kajjan and Moti Bai.

The life span of an actress today is just as short as it was then. As long as they were young and successful, they were sought after and as soon as they started to lose popularity they were dropped like hot potatoes.

Most of these early actresses had to transition from the theatre to films, and those too silent films. The theatre thrived mostly on music — the song being sung, and to a lesser degree, on dance; and these heroines were hugely popular because they could sing or were properly trained in singing rather than acting. With the silent films this requirement for popularity came to an end, and then with the emergence of the talkie, theatre came to an end. These former stars just could not survive the transition. They were undone by the developing technological innovations and a few survived as singer-actresses but these had made their appearance a little later like Noor Jehan and Suraiya.

Noor Jehan’s ideal had been Mukhtar Begum; actually it was Mukhtar Begum who was the reason behind Noor Jehan and her sisters making a debut in the glittering world of Calcutta where Mukhtar Begum was the leading star. Properly initiated into music by the Patiala Gharana, Mukhtar Begum sang with great control and improvised to resonate with audiences who had come to hear music and songs more than any other thing. Her style and mannerism too was emulated by Noor Jehan.


One knows a little more about Mukhtar Begum because she was the only one among the ten who lived long enough to spend the thirty odd years in Pakistan. One has also heard her sing — it was rare though — because she had given up on singing or her professional career came to an end with the death of the most popular playwright of the Parsi era. Agha Hashr, in the mid-1930s. Some of her popular numbers were and are still sung by Farida Khanum to great pubic acclaim.

Actually, the entire history of show business and theatre and films has been wrapped in a golden maze and very little authentic information is available. We also know a little more about Harabai Barodkar but that too because of her being a vocalist and daughter of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan.

Perhaps, it was the larger than life mystique of these personalities and the nature of the medium that decried down to earth factualism — it was also shrouded in mystery and attention has only been paid in an objective manner to the medium, its forms and its personages only in the recent past. The information about the actors in particular was also in bits and pieces — gossipy snatches at best. It was thus an honest attempt at getting to the actual lives and contributions. The author obviously had to rely on scant and scattered information and it must have taxed him to sift fact from gossip. But it is a valuable contribution because the lives of these actresses who brought so much joy to the people, especially the common man should be recorded, and this can be the best way to also acknowledge their contribution to the vibrant performing arts of the subcontinent.

There may be various oral versions to the lives of these divas and sirens but then it must have been difficult to tell which one was truer than the others. Veejay Sai included what he thought was more plausible — he could have also included all the versions with oodles of gossip in the volume as well but he preferred to choose the more sanitised option.

Drama Queens
Author: Veejay Sai
Publisher: Roli Books

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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