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Spotlight: Shabnam

No one word can even begin to describe the Lollywood diva that was Shabnam. Talented and extremely down-to-earth, there was and still is an overpowering aura about her that takes a firm hold on anyone meeting her, or speaking to her for that matter, for the very first time.

Blame her screen image and the fact that Shabnam ruled the Pakistan film industry for over three decades — or simply the fact that like all great personalities she is humility personified.

It was very painful when the majestic star who ruled people’s hearts across Pakistan suddenly disappeared from the silver screen. And there has hardly been any news of her ever since. One assumed that she probably wanted it that way. The fact is that Shabnam left Pakistan for Bangladesh not for greener pastures, as contrary to expectations, but to be with her family.

In this exclusive interview to, Shabnam says she does not miss the greasepaint or the studio lights, as she was ready to call it quits when she did. She now spends her days in Dhaka, cooking and cleaning, and generally looking after her long-time husband and renowned music composer Robin Ghosh. She is the dutiful housewife that is to be the ultimate character she plays in this lifetime.

She also has fond memories of Pakistan and its people, calling it her “second mother” who took care of her. Hardly a day goes by when she does not cherish the wonderful memories, her films and moments spent in the loving company of co-stars particularly Nadeem Baig who she says is “not just a good actor but a great human being, too.”

Shabnam has the distinction of being the only actress who has worked in the maximum number of films and done a wide variety of roles — be it of a club dancer in Zanjeer (1975), a nautch girl in Sharafat (1974), a suffering wife in Bandish (1980) or a well-meaning older woman whose affections are misinterpreted by a younger man (played by film actor Faisal Rehman) in Nahin Abhi Nahin (1980). Her personal favourite, however, was her character in Dooriyan (1984) for which she won many accolades, including the National Film Award. Another memorable role which she found difficult to play was that of Zeenat in the self-titled film (1975), wherein she plays the double role of the mother and daughter.

It was known to all at the time that Shabnam chose her roles with great care. She also had a reputation for being punctual, something unheard of these days (rumour has it that film technicians used to sneak in from the studios’ back doors to avoid running into the leading lady).

As a professional, she worked hard on both her roles and wardrobe, and is on record for being one of the most well-dressed heroines of her time. But in spite of being a successful commercial artiste, Shabnam also did many off-beat films — such as Javed Fazil’s Aahat (1982). She recalls how Robin Ghosh predicted its failure as he thought it was ahead of its time.

Shabnam’s last movie in Bagladesh was Amma Jaan which, according to her, did good business but failed to revive her career in films in that part of the world. She attributes the cold response to the lack of quality roles, hence resulting in a self-induced retirement. But that does not mean she is not open to offers if the role is good and her health allows her to take up any such offers.

Shabnam says that she keeps in touch with the goings on in Pakistan by watching the FilmAzia channel regularly and even today, whenever any of her films run on it, she closely watches her performance and still feels that she could have done much better.

Why did you leave Pakistan so abruptly and without goodbyes. Why the mad rush?
I did not leave in a huff. My parents were not well … in fact, I couldn’t be by their side at the time of their death. There eventually came a time when I realised that in old age one wants to be close to his/her family.

Besides, good roles were no longer coming my way and all my assignments were complete. I decided that it was better that I make a graceful exit rather than hang around and be forced to take up insignificant roles.

But why vanish. I mean there has been no news of you at all?
Because I am no more a part of the Pakistan film industry.

Did you not miss Pakistan and all your fans you left behind?
How could I not? I have spent so many years of my life in Pakistan. I have friends over there, people whom I have worked with. I still believe I have two mothers — one gave birth to me (Bangladesh) and the other brought me up (Pakistan). I owe my name, fame and success to Pakistan but I had no options. My parents were old and needed me. Though I wanted them to come live with me in Pakistan, they had a language problem and when they died, the only family I was left with was my elder sister. Now, I live close to where she lives and my in-laws are also close by so I am enjoying my old age. I had spent all my life working and away from my family, so it was high time I was with them.

Don’t you miss the studio life?
: Honestly speaking, I don’t. After Aaina (1977) I was expecting my downfall but God has been very kind to me. I enjoyed a long innings in the Pakistan film industry but I knew at some point there would come a time when I would have to say adieu to my film career. I like my new role of a housewife who cooks, cleans and looks after Robin as there only the two of us at home now.

There were rumours that you were suffering from a serious ailment. Is it true?
I had a stroke when I was in Pakistan but then I went through extensive treatment for it. Then later in Bangladesh I developed complications but thank God I am fine now. I had gained a lot of weight but I am shedding it off.

You have played a wide variety of roles in countless movies. Which film is the closest to your heart?
Oh, there have been so many of them. Let’s see, there was Anmol (1973), Bandish, Aaina, Lazawal (1984), … but I loved doing Dooriyan as mine was a beautiful role and it won many awards, too. But the most difficult was Zeenat’s wherein I played a double role of mother and daughter. I was completely without make-up in the mother’s role so that the audience could see the difference.

What about 1982’s Aahat. It was a beautiful Javed Fazil film?
It was a good film but was made much ahead of its time. In fact, Robin was giving the music for the film and when he heard the subject, he told Javed that the film would not run. The audience at the time was not prepared to see a wife having an affair outside the marriage.

You have done the maximum number of film with Nadeem. How was it like working with him, considering you were working with other leading men, too?
Nadeem and I were of the same age so working with him was a lot of fun. We would rehearse and improvise in each shot — if I liked something he did in a particular scene I would tell him and vice versa. With (Mohammed) Ali bhai it was different as he was older and so there was a level of respect. I could never open up in front of him. Shahid was another actor whom I enjoyed working with.

I believe you never called Zeba when Mohammed Ali died?
I was very sad when I heard about Ali bhai’s death. In fact, I tried to call Zeba but the phone number had changed so I couldn’t reach her. Working with Ali bhai was a wonderful experience as he was a great man and a wonderful actor.

You and Nadeem shared a special on-screen chemistry. Some say that if he signed a film then you would not even look at the script. How true is that?
It’s not true. I always took a good look at my role and who my co-star was always secondary. I agree working with Nadeem was a good experience, taking into account that he was not just a good actor and a super human being but also a family friend. Ehtesham saheb was like a father-figure to me. When he was leaving for Bangladesh, he told me he was leaving his daughter Farzana (Nadeem’s wife) in my hands.

How was it working with Nazar-ul-Islam. He gave you the biggest hit of your career — Aaina?
Dada was absolutely great. He was spontaneous and very creative. In fact, so involved was he with his work that he wanted to shoot one of Aaina’s songs, Haseen Wadiyoon Se Poocho, in snow in Muree. The entire unit reached Muree only to find no snow there. He was heartbroken and disappointed. Nevertheless, we went to settle down in our rooms and suddenly Nadeem came running inside, shouting and asking us to come out. What we saw outside amazed us as it had started snowing. I reminded Dada that God helps those whose intentions are good.

Why did you always prefer to do solo heroine films? Was it because you lacked the confidence to star along with the other talented heroines of your time?
It was not because I was not confident but due to a bad experience I had with the late film-maker Hasan Tariq. He had signed me on for a film with his then wife and film actress Rani. Later, I found out that what was told to me in the script was completely different from what was being shot on location. I decided then that I would not do any such movies.

How do you rate yourself as an actress?
I think I was pretty good. I was hardworking. I went through my role in the script, was always punctual, rehearsed with my co-stars and would even design my own costumes. In fact, some my saris came all the way from India. My mother and sister used to send them to me.

Do you see any of your old films?
I watch my movies on FilmAzia every now and then. I look my performance and still feel I could have done better.

Are you in touch with people and happenings in Pakistan?
Shabnam: Yes, whenever anyone from Pakistan comes to Dhaka, I go and meet them to find out about what is happening back in Pakistan. Let me tell your readers that I still love Pakistan the way I loved it before I left. I hope you will convey my feelings to the people of Pakistan the way I have passed them on to you.

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