Patience Cooper, who played the lead in various Madan Theatres pictures – Nala Damayanti (1920), Dhruva Charitra (1921), Pati Bhakti (1922), Ratnavali (1922) and Noorjehan (1923) to name some, is regarded the first ever Indian film star well before Sulochana. An Anglo-Indian from Calcutta, she appeared in many silent films before switching to talkies with comparative ease.
Said to be born around 1905, she started as a dancer in Bandmann’s Musical Comedy, a Eurasian troupe before being employed by Madan’s Corinithian Stage Company. Cooper was often cast as the sexually troubled but innocent woman at the center of moral dilemmas, a forerunner to the type of roles played later by Nargis. Cooper first made an impact with Nala Damayanti (1920). The film starred Keki Adajania as Nala and Cooper as Damayanti . The film was a big budget Madan Theatre production and was directed by Italian Eugenio De Liguoro, known in Italy for his Orientalist spectacles like Fascino d’Oro (1919). Nala Damayanti was famous for its special effects at the time – Narada’s ascent of Mount Meru to heaven, the transformations of four gods into impersonations of Nala, the transformation of Kali into a serpant among others.
De Liguoro also directed Dhruva Chartitra (1921), a mythological based on the legend of Dhruva whose quest for eternal knowledge and salvation was rewarded when he became the brightest star in the heavens, the pole star also known as Dhruvatara. The film was made as a bid for an international breakthrough for Madan Theatres and featured many Europeans in the cast along with Cooper who played the female lead, Suniti.
One of Cooper’s biggest successes was Pati Bhakti (1922). Cooper played Leelavati in the film, which advocated that women should be devoted to their husband. The film is regarded as her greatest film and was also involved in a small controversy as in Madras, the censor demanded that a dance number be removed on the grounds of obscenity!
A major aspect of Cooper’s star image was the successful achievement of the ‘Hollywood look’ in spite of different light and technical conditions. Her dark, sharp eyes and skin tone allowed technicians to experiment with the imported convention of eye-level lighting.
Cooper also played perhaps the first ever double roles in Hindi films – Patni Pratap (1923), where she played two sisters and Kashmiri Sundari (1925), where she played mother and daughter.
Cooper did films right through to the mid 1930s as a leading lady. One of her last major films was Zehari Saap (1933). The film was a typical Cooper vehicle about a medieval chieftain’s revolt against the good Nawab Bakar Malik. The nawab’s outlaw son vows revenge and finally all’s well that ends well. The dramatic conflict in the film sees the chieftain wanting to marry the princess, whom he had raised as his own daughter! (The theme of incestious agression is pravalent in many Parsi historicals).
Cooper’s last films were Iraada (1944) and Khan Saheb (1946).
Patience Cooper migrated to Pakistan with MAH Isaphani, a tea-estate owner, in 1947. Actually, she was married to him years earlier and divorced soon after but they remained close to each other right throughout. She had also married fellow actor Gul Hamid earlier, who acted opposite her and directed her in Khyber Pass (1936), an early film on Pakhtun culture. The marriage lasted till Hamid tragically died of Hodgkin’s Disease the same year.
Cooper changed her name to Sabra Begum in Pakistan. Here, she adopted several children and took care of them. She died in 1993 in Karachi, where she lived with two of her adopted daughters, Zeenat and Haleema.